Summary of Rudolf Vaughan
Brigadier Rudolph Vaughan was in a prison camp at Vincigliato north east of Florence when the Italian Armistice was announced on 8th September 1943. Prisoners were moved to a monastery at Camoldi by an Italian General.
This is an excellent account of how PoWs were passed around from family to family in the remote mountain Italian villages all the while trying to avoid contact with German forces.
Expecting a rapid Allied advance northwards they did not walk south to the Allied Lines, but when this did not happen they walked to Porto San Giorgio. From here they were able to acquire boats (leaky & in poor condition) and were able to sail down the coast to Ortana which was Allied held territory and freedom.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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Brigadier Rudolph Vaughan.
Was with the ‘Generals and others’ in Vincigliato when Armistice was announced. Italian General in Florence immediately got them out and in trucks up towards the Monastery at Camoldi. O’Connor, Neame and some others were soon with difficulty and great help from Italians got away by sea.
This is an excellent account how Vaughan and others were passed around from family to family in remote mountain villages. (Somehow money often appeared from somewhere or loans were made. At one stage contact was made with the Rome Network but only one man set off for there.) At one stage there was a big German ‘rastrattamento’. V. hid in a wood and was given advice all day by an Italian ‘cutting wood’. Weather gets worse and worse. There are a variety of partisans, mostly ineffective or worse, Nanni (murdered by fascists just before the end of war) and his son Torquati and his university friend Spazzoli, who being from Alexandria speaks English. January good weather February worse than ever. 4th March set off in snow to go south to coast. Have to hold up for week because of weather. Split into two parties as one was thought able to travel faster. Dan Ranfurly becomes the mainstay of second group in which is Vaughan who is lame through a 1st World War wound! Ranfurly with his fluent and dialectal Italian gets on with all Italians and his stamina to make detours etc. is highly praised by V. They aim for Porto San Giorgio and arrive before the ‘fast’ party. They dodge backwards and forwards around the Tenne mouth trying to make rendezvous 13 times with boats meant to come up from the South for them. Meet and stay with Salvadori. The American Consul meets up with them (see II Console’ – in English and Italian). Finally 30.000 lire is paid for a boat and the same again for equipment. 9pm on 9th May 1944 they get away but boat leaks badly and very much bailing out is necessary and the mast nearly breaks but the current and wind takes them out and then south to arrive around the fighting at mouth of Sangro. With the help of the oars they get near to fishing boats which take them into Ortona and well received and equipped down to HQ [Head Quarters] at Caserta to be guest of General Alexander.
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“THE WANDERINGS OF A FUGITIVE”
i.e. General Rudolph Vaughan
On same boat as Ranfurly and the American Consul
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“THE WANDERINGS OF A FUGITIVE”
Of the many trials of life In a Prison Camp, the absence of touch with the outside world and lack of accurate news are possibly among the most difficult to endure. Nevertheless, we in our Camp, managed to maintain a fairly reasonable service of information by means both fair and fairly foul. It came as no great surprise to us, therefore, when the Italian Commandant of the Camp announced to us, late on the evening of 8th September, 1943, that an Armistice had been signed between England and Italy. We had been expecting it. The event was, however, considered of sufficient importance to necessitate immediate celebration, which was duly carried out with such means as were at our disposal.
Our bridge four disintegrated on hearing this news, and the remainder of the evening was spent in speculating as to the next move, and by the wisdom, in extracting money, maps and other useful things from out their hiding places – caches which had withstood the frequent searches by the Italians. I will not enter into details regarding the nature of these hiding places because, who knows, there may be men who will want, in the future, to hide similar things and who will exercise their ingenuity in the same way as we did – but the details are not for the world at large. Suffice to say, that if you want to hide anything, put it in the most obvious place, and then it will not be obvious.
For many months past, we had discussed the situation that was likely to arise when the Armistice came, and in the past few weeks had formulated various plans which might be put into effect when occasion arose. We had always felt that the Italians would be disposed to help us, but to what extent they would be able to do so was, of necessity, a matter of speculation. German control of the country was pretty well complete, and It was hardly to be expected that they would let slip so rich a prize as some 70,000 British prisoners. In any event, two things were essential to us – money, and plain clothes. We had a certain amount of money hidden away, but what we wanted was to be given cash in lieu of the very considerable balances which stood to our credit with the Italians, and to obtain a return of our civilian clothes and other belongings which had been confiscated at periodical, searches, on the score of being of escaping value. Accordingly, on the morning of September 9th, our Senior Officer had an interview with the Commandant of the Camp. Our money never materialised, but by dint of constant reminders, we got back most of our clothes by the evening. Incidentally, the Italians told us that they had been ordered to protect us from the Germans, but this, to anyone who knows Italians, was so manifestly impossible of execution that no importance was attached to it. We decided. therefore, to hang on for the moment, and when the necessity arose, to scatter in small parties to various farms we knew in the neighbourhood.
I do not propose to enter into a detailed description of our Camp. It was a small one, consisting of nine senior officers, two A.D.Cs [Aide de Camp], and fourteen men, in a castle over-looking Florence, It was a formidable looking prison, and
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to the casual observer, one from which escape was, to all intents and purposes, absolutely impossible. The apparently impossible had, however, been achieved some five months before, when six officers escaped through a tunnel, which had taken six months and a great deal of labour, to construct. That story, however, has been written by another. Suffice it to say that it was a very fine performance. But I am digressing.
After dinner on the evening of the 9th an interpreter came into the Camp in a state of considerable excitement, to say that the local “Difesa” (our equivalent of a District), had rung up to say that a large column of lorries, probably Germans, was approaching Florence from the south. One would have thought that a formation of that size would have had information of the approach of a large column of their Allies, and in any case it seemed a peculiar direction from which to expect Germans in large numbers. However, we, in our innocence and apprehension, clustered on the battlements to have a look, put a watch on the top of the tower, prepared to put our plan into execution, and generally speaking – got busy. A few lights flickered on the far side of Florence, but nothing further happened, and then we realised we were dealing with Italians, and went to bed.
About breakfast time on the morning of the 10th, a Staff Officer from Difesa H.Q. [Head Quarters] arrived, with transport, to say that the local General had decided to take us down to the Difesa buildings, for our greater safety, and we were to come immediately. This necessitated some very rapid rearrangement, for we had been prepared to go out as civilians, and now the move was to be made in uniform. However, about an hour saw us and our kit stowed away in lorries, ready to move. The chickens and the rabbits which had been responsible for so many welcome additions to our diet, were hastily disposed of to the “Contadino” at the gate. We had had in mind a cold chicken apiece to take away with us, but there was no time for that. Arrived at Difesa H.Q. [Head Quarters] we were ushered into the General’s office. It appeared that the situation had changed. Germans were approaching from the North (this sounded much more likely). It would be unwise for us to stay in Florence. The best he could do for us was to send us in a special train to Arezzo, and warn the authorities there to do their best for us. Did we want any money or plain clothes? Solemnly we said we had money. (The Italians had been searching us for that commodity for about two years, with only moderate success.) We also had some plain clothes, though the men were not too well off in this respect. Still we considered it better, in view of the apparent urgency of the situation, to get moving as soon as possible and chance being able to supplement our civilian wardrobes later.
Arrived at the station, we changed from uniform to plain clothes on the platform, much to the amusement of the damsels of Florence. We also did some bartering. A packet of chocolate (Red X) bought a pair of trousers. Fifty Players cigarettes purchased a coat. Hat and shirts were cheaper, while shoes were acquired in some cases, to the great advantage of the Italian, for Army boots. We packed up our kits and sent them away with the Interpreter, whom we implored to put them in a safe place, though how safe any place would be when the Germans came, was problematical, and I, for one, said goodbye to mine. After a surprisingly short
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time the train arrived and we set off for Arezzo, with no very definite plans, but with a feeling of some elation engendered by the thought that we were free of restraint for the first time, in some cases for nearly two and a half years. How long we would remain at liberty must henceforth depend on our own wits and that fickle lady, Fortune.
At Arezzo we were met by an Italian Staff Officer who conducted us to the Local School, which was used as a training establishment for young Officers. We got hold of the Commandant, and with him discussed possible plans. After a great deal of talk we had practically decided to split into parties of four or five, each containing some of the men, and make our way South, on foot. We had extracted some local maps from the School resources, and practically decided on details of rendezvous etc., when a spanner was hurled into the works by a newly arrived Italian who condemned the whole project as highly dangerous, on the score that Arezzo was a hot-bed of Fascists and the inhabitants of the surrounding country unreliable. We were certain to be given away, he said. Better, in his opinion, to go to the Monastery-Inn of Camaldoli, some 40 kilometres to the North, where we would be in the hills, well off the beaten track, and would be housed and fed. They would provide motor transport for us and warn the Brothers to expect us, but meanwhile we must get out of Arezzo.
After a considerable amount of thought and discussion we decided to adopt this plan. It would, at any rate, give us time to think. I may say now that our information regarding the strength of the Germans in Southern Italy was most inaccurate, as we discovered later, and we expected a much more rapid advance by the British. This appreciation, or rather misappreciation, influenced our whole policy. However, guided by Italian officers in plain clothes we moved out in our small parties, at intervals, by inconspicuous routes, and hid ourselves adjacent to a rendezvous which had been arranged some three miles North of Arezzo on the Bibbiena road, where the buses were to pick us up at 7 p.m., by which time it would be approaching dusk. Much to our surprise, punctually at 7 p.m. two conveyances, rather like station buses, drew up at the rendezvous and we set off for Camaldoli. At Poppi we turned into the hills along a narrow and tortuous road, which was too much for the engine of the second bus, which boiled at frequent intervals and delayed our progress. Eventually, however, we reached the Monastery at about 10 p.m. We were received by the Brothers with the most courteous hospitality, and after being shown our rooms, were treated to an excellent dinner, to which we did full justice, for we had not had much to eat that day. And so to bed, about midnight, on our first day of freedom. I think we all slept pretty soundly.
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Next morning we organised a system of watches along the approaches and made plans for hiding places in case of alarm. Camaldoli is a picturesque spot, the surrounding country being hilly and thickly wooded, and therefore well suited to concealment. It reminded me forcibly of parts of the Himalayas, though very much in miniature. We were excellently fed and very comfortable, but it soon became obvious that a party of 25 British officers and men, very thinly disguised, could not remain there long in any safety. Having spoken to the Brothers, we made certain contacts, one of whom was a Dutch Baron with an English wife, and it transpired that she and our senior member had played together as children in England! It Is a small world. There was a certain individual, staying in our Inn, who was reputed to be an ardent Fascist. However, he was “fixed” by the Brothers and eventually declared to have become “safe”. Rumours were rife, and I expect most of them false. There were, in fact, very few Germans in the neighbourhood, but a move was clearly indicated.
There is, about 40 minutes walk up the hills from Camaldoli, the Monastery of Eremo, which is one of the controlling centres of the Order of White Domenicans. Through the Brothers of Camaldoli, we were introduced to the Head of Eremo, the Prior General, who from then on became a firm friend of ours, and who helped us in every possible way which lay in his power. We can never hope to repay the debt we owe to those good men of Eremo. With them the plot for our next move was hatched, and worked out. Accordingly, on the 14th September, we moved out into the wild mountainous country of the Casa Nova ridge, to the north of Camaldoli, and lived on the farms. For the moment, however, our three senior members, and Ted, who was an expert at Italian, stayed at Eremo. Ted remained to pick up the wireless news at the Monastery. We were guided out to our areas by one of the Brothers, Don Leoni, a jovial, sturdy, red bearded individual who was apparently quite indefatigable. He was the third type of guide, that is to say the type who did know the way once but had forgotten it. The four hour march therefore took six hours.
We eventually arrived, however, and were accommodated in three places, John with his three men at Romisceto, Dan, Guy and I at the School at Casa Nova, and Michael, Baas and Pip at Fiurli, close to us. Here we had our first insight into Italian peasant life, and we marvelled how they manage to scratch a living out of such poor soil. These were among the poorest farms we struck during our wanderings. We had brought a certain amount of food with us – rice, pasta, and cheese, and it was as well we did, for there was not a great deal to spare locally. Here we met Mauritzio, who did some very good things, and also some very bad ones. He came from the Mill at Strabatenza, a valley about an hour’s walk to the East, with which we were subsequently to become very familiar. Mauritzio brought us bread, and honey, and did journeys into Eremo to replenish supplies. The blackberry season was on, and one afternoon Dan and I did a very profitable hour or two on the bushes. We had arranged a half-way rendezvous with our links at Eremo, where one of us used to go periodically and get the news. Some of us had beds, of doubtful cleanliness, and others slept on straw.
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While we were in this area, several British other rank prisoners drifted in. Some attached themselves temporarily to us, others passed on.
After about a week of this, on the 21st September, to be exact, we made another move, which had been worked out at Eremo, partly for reasons of security, and partly because the farms where we were could not support us, and supplies from Eremo were limited. Eight of us, Neame, O’Connor, Boyd, John, Ted, Pip, Dan and myself went to the Seghittina area, at the head of the Ridracoli valley, about an hour and a half to the West of Casa Nova, and the remainder to the Strabatenza valley which I have already mentioned. I will leave the Strabatenza valley for the moment, where Michael, Baas and Guy lived in considerable comfort and comparative peace at Mauritzio’s Mill for quite a long time, and deal with our party at Seghittina, for it was there that things happened and plots were hatched.
Seghittina is a small village adjoining the forest, containing some half dozen houses, about a thousand yards from the terminus of a timber road which runs along the northern slopes of the Appenines from the small town of Badia, on the main Mandrioli Pass road. The road can be seen for a considerable length from the village, and this fact, combined with the proximity of thick forest, gave it considerable value from a security point of view. The leading spirit of the village was one Laurenzo Rossi, who lived with his father, mother, brother and wife and some sisters in an indescribably dirty house in the middle of the village. Laurenzo was a cheery scoundrel with a very stout heart – a man of some property and a great friend, of the Eremo Brothers, There was only room for six in the village, so Ted and I were billeted at a farm called Campo Minnaci, some 50 minutes walk across the glen, but we only stayed there about ten days, for the family developed a bad attack of “paura” (fear), and refused to keep us longer. When we were turned out, Laurenzo made adjustments in his house, and we were squeezed in there. I was sorry to leave Campo Minacci, for they were a nice family and it was comparatively quiet. Julia, the fifteen year old daughter, was a most attractive child. In the Rossi house, on the other hand, pandemonium reigned from morning till night. There were eleven “dining members” of the house and we brought the numbers up to fifteen. Life centred round the kitchen, the only living room, and the only method of making oneself heard was to shout at the top of one’s voice. But they were a hospitable family, and were prepared to do anything for us.
Towards the end of September we had a visit from Bruno, who said he was an Italian officer belonging to an organisation whose headquarters were in Forli, with members at Santa Sofia, of which the object was help of all kinds for British Prisoners. He asked us if we wanted anything in the way of clothes, boots, etc. At first we regarded him with some suspicion, until he was verified by Eremo. However, we gave him a list of some of our requirements, which, much to our surprise, he provided a few days later. He then said that the Big Man of his organisation would like to pay us a visit, so this was duly arranged for the 6th October.
About this time someone, I think it was a combination of Boyd and Pip, had a brain wave, which was to build a hut in the woods, similar to those used by the charcoal burners,
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about three quarters of a mile from the village, to be used in case of emergency. A site was accordingly selected, and Laurenzo and Co. got to work. While it was in process of construction, however, something occurred which necessitated its very rapid completion. We had instituted a system of periodical visits to Eremo, two at a time, to listen to the wireless. Those of us who were sufficiently good at Italian used to go in for a night or two nights, stay with the Brothers, and a few days later the process would be repeated. On one occasion Boyd and O’Connor had gone in, but at midnight that night, Ted, Pip and I were woken by stones on the window, and found O’Connor and Boyd outside. Whilst at Eremo, Camaldoli had rung up to say that a party of Germans had arrived, were searching the place, and had expressed their intention of going on to Eremo. This necessitated a very rapid get away by Boyd and O’Connor, and it also shook the inhabitants of Seghittina to some extent, so much so, in fact, that they wore strongly in favour of our living in the hut and only coming into the village for meals. The hut was completed the next day, and we duly took up our quarters there.
That hut was hell. Eight of us slept there the first night, in the most extreme discomfort. On our side Boyd, Ted, Pip and I were packed like sardines. On the other side Neame, O’Connor, John and Dan were like sardines in a tin which was much too small. The weather had broken and everything was damp. The fire, which was in the middle of the hut, between our bunks, smoked. It always smoked. After one night we decided that it was necessary to thin out. After some palaver with the villagers, they consented to a few of us sleeping in the village. Meanwhile we arranged for another hut to be built. It rained a great deal, and the hut leaked badly. Mud was everywhere. The journey out after the evening meal was in itself a perilous undertaking, for the path was narrow and muddy and the hillside very steep. We had a candle lantern with one pane of glass broken, but that was extravagant in candles, which were scarce. Finally, after the second hut was built, Boyd, Ted and Pip who occupied it, used to take out potatoes, coffee, bread and honey, and have their evening meal out there, in order to avoid the journey in the dark. There was no water handy. We used to take our gear in and shave in the village. Once or twice O’Connor and I went down to the stream, some hundreds of feet below the hut, to have a proper wash, – but it was very cold. Such was our mode of life throughout the month of October – one of the wettest months within living memory. But to return to the 6th and the Big Man.
Signor N— was a most charming gentleman. He brought with him his son Torquato, and Spazzoli? whom we soon came to regard as the brain behind the organisation. Bruno also came with him. He told us that the objects of the organisation were to help British Prisoners with money, kit, and plans for escape, and also to assist what was then known as the “Rebel” Movement, a party which subsequently developed into the Partisans. Money, he said, was no object. We could have as much as we liked, and to show that his word was good, handed over Lire 15,000. This was welcome, for the Brothers had instituted rates of payment for billeting at Lire 30 a day per officer, and Lire 20 a day for men, but their cash was running a bit low, and we were behindhand with payments. We gave him a list of our requirements in kit etc. and he also promised to assist the farms with grain.
He could not give us much war news, beyond telling us that
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the Germans were preparing defensive works in the Bologna area and that they appeared to have a line approximately Pisa – Rimini. Bruno’s plan was to go through the line, get in touch with the British and endeavour to work out some plan for our escape. Meanwhile N——- considered our present location as safe as anywhere. He promised to warn us of any German developments which would affect us. He also asked if any of us wanted to join the rebels.
During October there was a constant stream of escaped British Prisoners passing through Seghittina, all of whom spoke in glowing terms of the hospitality of the Italian peasants.
We had continually been discussing plans, and amongst others, the question of walking South frequently arose. But few of us were sufficiently well equipped with footwear to make that possible, and moreover, we still clung to the hope of a rapid British advance. It had become obvious that it would not be as rapid as we thought, but we felt it was best to stay where we were for the present anyway. I believe that we made our initial mistake at Arezzo, for I think that had we walked off South from there in the first instance, we would have got through while the line was still comparatively fluid, and the weather good, but having once committed ourselves to another line of action, or inaction, it was not so easy to correct it.
On the 23rd of October we had another visit from N—-, who brought with him on this occasion a regular entourage, all of whom were entertained to lunch at the Rossi house. It was an imposing array, but one which was to have unfortunate consequences. On this occasion N——- announced that he had washed his hands of any connection with the Rebels, for political reasons. This, we thought, was a quick one, but knowing the traditional instability of the Italians, we were not unduly surprised. Bruno had gone off, but there was no further news of him. I forgot to mention that he carried a note, carefully hidden, from Neame to General Montgomery. We discussed the possibility of one or two of us going South on bicycles, accompanied each by an Italian, and N—- said he thought there should be no great difficulty in arranging that. We had asked for maps and compasses, and eventually an aeroplane compass arrived, a most beautiful instrument, but hardly suitable for pocket use! After lunch T—–, N—’s son, took our photographs, with a view to getting papers for us, and the party broke up with much handshaking and general bonhomie. They then moved on to Strabatenza, where they spent the night.
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For some time past we had begun to feel apprehensive about our security. There had been constant rumours of Germans in the small towns on the main road, one being that a large body of them had arrived at St. Pierro in Bagno, in plain clothes, with the object of combing the hills for prisoners. Also there were indications that all around us were not trustworthy. Moreover, we felt that the recent lunch party might well have been the cause of advertising our presence. Taking everything into consideration, therefore, we decided that a move of some of us, at any rate, would be advisable. Accordingly on the 28th of October Dan went over to the Strabatenza area to look for billets for four of us. Boyd, Ted, John and Pip decided to stay where they were for the moment. Dan returned in the evening, after a very long walk, to announce that he had found a very good barn in a Palazzo at a. place called Rio Salsa, on the far side of Strabatenza, where he proposed that Neame and he should go, and similar accommodation for O’Connor and me at a farm known as “The Villa”, just above the Palazzo. We therefore decided to move on the 30th, for it had been raining hard for some days and our wet blankets would be too heavy for the mule which we proposed to charter for our kit to go the next day. Later in the evening, however, we got news from a reliable source that the Germans had heard that there had been a lunch party at which British Officers were present, and they proposed to come and search the neighbourhood. We therefore decided to move the next day, whatever the weather. And move we did, but not in the direction we had meant to!
It continued to rain hard all that night and we woke in a mass of sodden blankets. I was the last left in the hut after the others had gone in to breakfast, and was just preparing to follow, when I met Ted on his way back to his hut. “You’ll have to go without your breakfast this morning”, he said. “There’s a very big “paura” going on”. I myself counted eleven German trucks on the road, and I can think of only one reason why they should be there.” Ted passed on to his hut, and I waited for some time, for I felt we were pretty safe in the woods – then O’Connor turned up. Whilst we were discussing the situation, Laurenzo appeared from below the hut – he had not come by the path, “There are about 100 Germans searching the village”, he said. “I got away. Collect all the kit you can and come quickly. We must go to the Campo Minnaci hut”. The Campo Minnaci hut was about 3 miles up the valley of the stream which ran below our hut. As far as I knew there was no path on this side and the stream itself would be too swollen to cross. The banks on our side were in places practically perpendicular. It promised to be an interesting journey. Added to which it was raining like the very devil.
I seized my haversack and Italian despatch case and shovelled a certain amount of stuff into a sack which Laurenzo took on his shoulders, and we set off, leaving blankets etc. as they were. Having crossed a small side stream which was in spate, we found Neame, who had come out of the village by another route. Finding that we had left his despatch case, which contained a mass of highly interesting and valuable literature, he sent Laurenzo back to the hut to get it. While we were waiting for him, Pip passed on the opposite side of the stream. We shouted at him for all
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we were worth, but it was no use. The rushing water in the stream completely drowned our voices. Eventually we ran down and collected him. “Where are Boyd and Ted?” we asked. “I don’t know” said Pip, “I haven’t seen them, I think they must have gone on”. Laurenzo returned with the despatch case and we moved off. We found a path for a short distance, and then the country began to get very difficult. Then we ran into Boyd and Ted, so there were six of us accounted for, but no one knew what had happened to John or Dan. We crawled, literally, in places, along a slippery khud side with a perpendicular drop into the stream. We crossed three streams in spate, including the main one, which necessitated crawling along a fallen tree over the rushing water. This demanded, a very high standard of gymnastics and it was here that Neame’s despatch case fell into the water and was swept away by the torrent. However, Laurenzo retrieved it. Three of us had Italian despatch cases, which, being made of cardboard, disintegrated in the rain and the contents were shovelled into the sack which Laurenzo carried. Laurenzo was marvellous. I doubt if I would ever have climbed some of the places without his help, for I have a game leg, a relic of the Great War, which does not flex much. At last we viewed the Campo Minnaci hut, which, humble though it was, represented at any rate a haven for the time being.
The Hut was perhaps fifteen feet by twelve, but it had a fire place, and an old gate in the corner. It was only partially waterproof, but there were dry places. Laurenzo drew his knife and chipped kindling wood off the rafters, and in an incredibly short time had a fire going. We went out with an axe and brought in more wood – wet, to be sure, but it burned. And now the question of food arose. It was about four in the afternoon. Some of us had not eaten since about 5.30 p.m. the day before. We had some tinned stuff and a few biscuits, but again Laurenzo came to the rescue and went off to Camp Minaci to get bread. He returned shortly with a couple of loaves, and we made a meal of sorts. We spent the rest of daylight in trying to dry our clothes as much as possible, but were only partially successful. Laurenzo returned to Seghittina, promising to come back in the morning with food. We lay down on the damp stone floor to get what sleep we could. Strange to say, no one suffered any ill effects.
The next morning, October the 30th, John and Dan arrived, with Laurenzo and food. They had watched the Germans going into the village from the ridge above the path from the road. They had then returned to the hut where they spent a miserable night sitting huddled up in their mackintoshes. It was far too wet inside to lie down. We were now eight in the hut which was about six too many for comfort. Laurenzo said the Germans had cleared off after a perfunctory search, but having skinned the Fattorio of a considerable amount of black market stuff. For various reasons we decided that Neame, O’Connor, John and Dan would move at once over to the places which had been found in the Strabatenza area, while for the present Boyd, Ted, Pip and I would remain in the hut, till further accommodation could be arranged.
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We had collected a few blankets which we managed to dry off to a certain extent, Laurenzo had brought a couple of planks to sleep on, and one way and another we managed to pass a reasonable night. We spent the next day in further organisation, more food came, the rain eased off a little, and in general the outlook became a little brighter. Then about 3 p.m. Laurenzo’s father, Jingo, arrived on his way back from Sunday Mass at Eremo, with an individual whom we had not seen before, who brought a letter addressed to “Generals Neame, O’Connell and Air-Marshall Carter-Wright”. It was to the effect that they were to be at a rendezvous near the coast by 2 p.m. on November the 2nd where they would be met by a certain British Officer in plain clothes who would “make arrangements for them to be conducted to the British Lines”. The bearer would guide them. The said British Officer had got a bit muddled over names and spelling, but the purport was clear – moreover the letter contained Lire 10,000 in notes and the guide had a packet of “guts-giving” pills. It looked as if these might be needed! The rendezvous was a very long way away – some 80 kilometres as the crow flies, the intervening country was mountainous, and the persons in question were several hours walk from the nearest main road. There was no time to lose. Ted went with Boyd, hoping, I fancy, to squeeze in on the expedition, but that was a pious hope, A quick glass of wine from one of the two flasks Jingo had brought us, and they were off, Jingo swaying somewhat, for he had obviously gazed upon the vintage when ‘twas crimson.
And so Pip and I were left alone. We did more organising. Pip did what cooking there was to be done, and I fetched water and cut wood. The rain stopped and life looked better. The Autumn tints on the leaves were beautiful beyond belief, and for the moment we were content. For we argued, if the others got through, surely the plan could be repeated for us. That evening I celebrated the occasion and gave Pip one of my last two Turkish cigarettes. On the Tuesday morning, November the 2nd, Aida arrived with many good things – coffee, honey, bread, potatoes and wine. Aida was the wife of Giovanni, Laurenzo’s brother and she was the only member of the Rossi establishment who did not habitually shout. Then Beppo, the eldest son of Campo Minnaci, came with a load of straw for our bedding, followed by the lovely Julia, with a bottle of milk for Pip. Laurenzo arrived later in the day with a note from Guy, to say that billets had been fixed for us in the Strabatenza area, and we were to take up residence there on November 4th.
We took the journey in two stages, out of consideration for the mule which was to carry the kit which had been abandoned in the exodus from the village and stayed the night of the 3rd at one of Laurenzo’s farms. When we arrived, the Contadino wouldn’t hear of keeping us for the night, as the fear instilled by the Germans’ visit to Seghittina was still fresh with him, but after a little persuasion by Laurenzo he agreed to let us sleep in his hay loft. Later he became quite convivial, and we spent a most sociable evening. I made an unfortunate choice of a place to sleep, for my feet were over a door, from which hay had been extracted, and consequently there was a hollow below, of which I was not aware. The result was that after a short time my prone position gradually became more upright and before I realised it, I was practically perpendicular, my feet having sunk. It was a matter of some difficulty to regain firm
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hay again and find a new place in the pitch darkness. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast consisting of three eggs apiece, bread and honey and coffee, we moved on to Strabatenza. I joined Dan at the Palazzo, while Pip billeted himself on Laureuzo’s sister, sharing a room with that pregnant lady, her husband, and two children! John and Ted were at the Villa, Michael, Baas and Guy still at the Mill. There was a certain number of soldiers in the valley, including twelve New Zealanders with malaria, but most of the others had moved off, as their farms were unable to feed them any longer.
I now heard of the plan for the next party to go to the coast. I am never quite sure who originated it, but the idea was for Michael, John. Ted and Dan to start early on the 8th for Bagno, on the main Mandrioli Pass road, and there pick up bicycles and so on to the coast. I should have been of that party by virtue of being next senior to Michael, but it was a cycling club outing and my leg prevents me from riding any machine except one built specially for me, so I had to possess my soul in patience and hope that some other method of travel might be possible with the next party. Actually I missed nothing, except a very hard day’s walking in a snowstorm! The party started off alright, but when they got to Bagno, they found that something had gone wrong, so they had no alternative but to turn round and come back.
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From now on we awaited eagerly news of the first three. On the 12th Michael had a note from Bruno, saying that he had returned and hoped shortly to arrange for two parties of about a dozen each, to be got out. We imagined he was with Neame, O’Connor, and Boyd, but he made no mention of them. I should have mentioned that Neame had sent Michael a note by Mauritzio, who acted as guide to them for part of their journey, in which he said – “Do not lose touch with this organisation, they are very thorough and efficient.” From then on, at intervals, we were constantly hearing rumours about the others, but it was not until very much later that we knew on reliable information that they eventually got out, by a motor fishing boat, just before Christmas, at their eighth attempt to embark. They arrived in England on Boxing Day.
November was on the whole a peaceful month. We had some alarms and there were many rumours of all kinds, but nothing serious. John and Ted were very soon forced to leave the Villa. The eldest son of the house, who had been a Carabinieri, returned home having deserted from Spezzio, and his family were nervous that an attempt would be made to apprehend him. John and Ted had many moves and lived in a variety of houses and barns, some of which were not at all comfortable, but they finally became stabilised for the rest of the time in that area, not far from the Mill at Strabatenza, Ted in the house of one Sandrino, which was known as “The Bottega” and John in a farm called Trapeza di Sotto. Dan and I were very snug in our barn at the Palazzo, and were very well fed, turkey being a very frequent item on the Menu. Our host, Nereo, who was a refugee from Reggio, was a most charming man, and his niece Teresa a most competent housekeeper. Bruno, Nereo’s son, and Alfredo, his nephew, completed our little party, while a Contadino and his family occupied the kitchen next to ours. Dan became an expert at the game of “Maletto”, played with a pack of 40 cards. The others were no match for his superior intellect, and card sense, and he skinned them with unfailing regularity. Fortunately for them, the stakes were small.
At the end of November it became necessary for Dan and I to move. Nereo was going to Reggio for a time, and his Padrone, for whom he was acting as Factor of four farms, was arriving to live in the Palazzo. Nereo was quite willing to keep us, but he did not know what view the Padrone would take of his having British ex-Prisoners in his house. The subject would be broached, said Nereo, and if the reaction was favourable, we could return later. We accordingly asked Mauritzio to find us billets. And then Mauritzio did a very bad thing. He said it would be difficult, but if we were prepared to pay Lire 40 a day instead of 30, it might be managed. After a few days he said he had found us a place, but we must move immediately. This ultimatum was then modified twice, but in point of fact there was no reason for haste, as we subsequently discovered. Mauritzio was just throwing his weight about. However, the price of billeting went up all round, but this was rectified soon after by C—–, our local link with the organisation, and we returned to the original tariff. When it is remembered that Mauritzio had three officers billeted on him, his action is easily understandable. Mauritzio loved money above all things.
I went over to our new billet, a farm called Vinco, and Dan followed the next day, December the 2nd. It was very
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near the top of the Casa Nova ridge, a stiff hour’s climb from the Mill. The family consisted of father, mother, and four children ranging from sixteen to eight years old, and also an elder married sister with a three year old daughter. The farm consisted of 3 rooms, that is to say, a kitchen and two bedrooms. Dan and I occupied one of these and the eight members of the family the other! Our feeding was of a more humble order than that of the Palazzo, but good, nevertheless. Breakfast consisted of toast and honey with coffee and milk. Milk was rare in these parts. The mid-day meal would be pasta, or “minestra”, which is a form of soup made out of pasta, followed probably by bread and cheese. Supper consisted of a plate of beans, or potatoes, and as long as it lasted, Italian Army meat rations, supplied by the organisation, who also supplied each farm where officers were billeted with a quintal of grain. Two glasses of wine a day was our ration. All this may seem a trifle light as diet for what Kipling calls our “Five-meal, meat-fed men”, but we found it adequate.
December, like November, was a terribly wet month. One of our chief evening occupations was scraping mud off our boots, and drying them. At our height, we were enveloped for practically the whole month, in mist. The evenings were very trying. Our supper would be finished by about 5.30 p.m. There was practically no light, and in any case we had no books, except Italian children’s school books to read, so there was nothing to do except stare at the fire, and occasionally join in the family conversation, which was not too easy, as they spoke a particularly virulent form of the Romanolo dialect. One could not go to bed too early, otherwise the nights would have been too long. Thursday was the big day of the week, for our host, Francesco, would go to market at Santa Sofia, four hours walk each way, and bring us back odds and ends of shopping, such as jam, apples, (when available) and a newspaper. Walking somewhere was our only form of recreation, but though the actual days dragged out their weary hours, the weeks passed really quite quickly, and we were fortunate in our family, who were really grand people.
On the 17th December we had a visit from C —, with whom we discussed the situation and plans. Our plans at this stage consisted of waiting for Bruno to return with something arranged for getting us out. C—— was a most likeable individual with a great sense of humour. He would promise us the earth, without, we judged, the slightest intention of producing it. He promised us money, which was badly needed, for our exchequer was running very low, but the first instalment did not arrive till well into January, He gave us news of the first party, which we subsequently found to be quite inaccurate. It was at this visit too, that he smoothed out the matter of the increase in billeting rates, and also settled some little troubles between the local inhabitants and the “Partiganis”, who had by this time begun to appear in small parties in our area, and who were causing a certain amount of nervousness amongst the peasants. He successfully withstood a severe verbal attack by the local Priest, who, being a very rich man, had been heartily “milked” by the “Partiganis”. The Man of God rode away on his mule in a towering rage, breathing the most un-Godlike sounds, but next morning C-— had a letter of apology from him, which was only just because after all C —– was in no way responsible for the Partiganis, and had
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done his best to smooth out any misunderstandings.
By this time all the other ranks had moved off except three New Zealanders, and one Private Meader of the D.C.L.I. [Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry] who had just managed to reach Strabatenza on his way South, when his feet gave out. He had been with an Australian Pilot, who had managed to find living quarters at a Mill farther down the valley. Meader lived with a very stout friend of ours called Giuseppe, and the New Zealanders with a lady of most unprepossessing countenance, but great courage, known to us as “The Madonna”. By this time all the inhabitants for a very wide radius round Strabatenza were known to us. We were known to them by our Christian names translated into Italian, except Dan, who was called “Il Conte” on account of his title, and we were pretty well informed of local occurrences in the neighbourhood. I should make it clear that by no means all the information we got was correct, but a great deal of it had to be acted on, out of consideration for the stout fellows who risked their hearths and homes for us. I never heard of an authentic case of a peasant being shot for housing prisoners, though later some cases of heavy fines being inflicted came to our notice, but the risk was always there, and it is impossible to pay too high a tribute to the help given us by those primitive dwellers in the mountains and elsewhere, at considerable risk to themselves.
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Christmas came in continued wet and foggy weather. Some of us went to the war time substitute for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass – a service at 4.30 p.m. – at Strabatenza Church. It was easy to pick out the British Officers from the Italians. We had all taken great pains to affect disguise – had our clothes dyed – two of us had grown goatee beards, while I sported side whiskers, but these measures would have deceived no one at close quarters; the only hope was to be comparatively little obvious at moderate distances. This was the first time I had attended a Roman Catholic Service. The Church was very cold and dark and the responses given in nasal tones which grated somewhat. At the end of the Service, however, when everyone started walking about the Church, the village girls gathered round the Cot and broke into a chant with most attractive lilt to it. Afterwards we sloshed through the mud over the hill track to our farm, where they had done their best to provide a suitable Christmas Eve meal, but the Italians do not set much store by Christmas, their big day being January the 6th, which they call the “Bifana”.
On Christmas Day Dan and I went to lunch at Rio Salsa, where we had a Royal meal. Wine flowed, and the Padrone, who had by this time arrived and proved most friendly, produced a bottle of Grappa, which added to the gaiety of things – if any incentive were needed. We introduced the girls of Rio Salsa to the mistletoe ritual, of which, much to our surprise, they had never heard. I confined myself to saluting Teresa in this manner, more as a duty than anything else, because she had been so good to us. Dan fixed up to return there, since the Padrone was willing, but this time he had a room in the school opposite, where Maria and her daughters lived, as it was judged too cold for him to return to our previous quarters in the barn. We looked in on Michael and: Guy on our way back, and eventually reached Vinco in the dark after about four hours walking in the day, very full of food and drink.
Dan left Vinco soon after Christmas. I stayed on. The weather cleared for a few days, but on New Years Eve a violent snowstorm came on, by the next morning there were big drifts on the track, and we were snowed up for a time. I was due to lunch with the Priest on New Year’s Day, but the path was impassable. I eventually went on the 6th and had just finished an enormous meal when Mauritzio arrived with a note from Michael asking me to come and see him urgently. When I got there I found a Greek Lieut. -Colonel, an ex-prisoner, who had come from Rome, and offered to take two of us there, the idea being to lie up, until the City was taken by the Allies. Michael asked me if I was on for it. The plan entailed walking to Badia, on the main road, taking a bus thence to Bibbiena, and so on by train. The Greek had been to Strabatenza before, and was vouched for, but the plan didn’t appeal to me, partly because I don’t trust Greeks any more than Italians, but there were other reasons. We had no papers, there were many rumours about the difficulty of getting into Rome, and the journey itself, was likely to be a tricky affair. I did not like the idea of being cooped up in Rome for an indefinite period. Moreover, I still clung to the hope of a Bruno plan materialising. Michael then hawked the offer in order of seniority, and Baas said he would go. The Greek eventually agreed to take three, so Pip was included. John and Ted felt they would like to see the horse jump the course first, had they
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had the offer; Guy would have gone, but Dan felt the same way as I did.
The Greek told us that he was in touch with a certain British officer, a Prisoner, who was in the Vatican, the only one there, as far as he knew, though there were alleged to be many hundreds in hiding in Rome. He offered to take the names and addresses of our relations with a view to getting a message to them, through this officer, via the Vatican. We availed ourselves of this offer, though as far as I am concerned, mine never arrived. He also said he had access to funds, so some of us asked for money in fairly large quantities. This arrived as a bulk sum considerably later, after most of us had left the area. We also arranged a code by letter to Mauritzio, to advise us of the party’s safe arrival in Rome, or otherwise. The Greek said that if all went well he was prepared to return and conduct more of us to Rome. I should have said that he had a false passport, and spoke perfect Italian.
Accordingly, on the 7th, Michael, Baas and Pip set off about mid-day with the idea of completing the four hours walk in daylight and lying up in the woods until dark, when they would enter Badia, Much to our surprise they were back the next day, Michael fed up, Baas very tired, and Pip more or less all in, the exertion having brought on a go of fever. There was a lot of snow on the route and it had been a fairly trying walk. They had arrived at Badia where there had been the usual chaos about finding billets. That evening there had been a check-up of papers. Fortunately they were well hidden, but this caused an atmosphere of “Paura” amongst the inhabitants, who became very-temperamental. They arrived at the bus rendezvous at the appointed time – 5:15 a.m. but no Greek appeared. The “Paura” now increased to such an extent that they were hustled out of the town and had no alternative but to return to Strabatenza. Next day I visited the Mill and found that Michael had gone off again. Apparently the Greek had sent a note, apologising for having overslept himself, and saying that he would now be prepared to take one. Michael at first said he’d be damned if he’d have any more truck with Greeks, and went to see Baas, who was still very tired and his boots were wet! Pip was next on the list but he was still suffering from the effects of the first journey, so Michael reconsidered his verdict and went himself.
Michael’s departure left me the senior of the party, and I was very soon called upon to make a difficult decision, which in point of fact should have been made when the Greek arrived and his plan was made known. It had always been understood that vacancies for the “Bruno” or original organisation plan, if available in numbers less than the total of our party, should be by seniority. But there were now two plans, the Bruno plan, for which we were waiting, and the Greek plan, so the question now arose – Had those who had had a chance to go on the Greek plan, but had refused, i.e. Baas and Pip, still a right to remain at the top of the roster for the Bruno plan? The decision had to be made by me alone, for all other parties ware interested, and rightly or wrongly, I decided that one had to elect for priority on one or the other. This put Bans and Pip at the bottom of the roster for the Bruno plan, and had an effect which will become apparent later.
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One thing which emerged from the Greek’s arrival was a fairly regular contact for a period with the British wireless, something which we had not had since early October. When in Badia at the first attempt, Michael, Baas and Pip had met a British Internee and his wife who used to listen secretly to the BBC. Michael found that he had been at Eton with this gentleman and subsequently Pip used to receive a summary of the news, (and sometimes a few cigarettes) whenever he could arrange for a reliable messenger. This messenger was usually Julio, brother of the Priest of Strabatenza, but the contact faded out when the heavy snow came in February and the passes were closed.
About this time Mauritzio had decided that he could only house one officer, so Baas went and lived with one “Lungo” (the Long) Rossi, while Guy stayed on at the Mill. Mauritzio had been up to this time our main contact with C—, but he had been very unsatisfactory and deceitful, and had acquired the habit of appropriating for himself a rake-off of the stuff that the organisation sent us from time to time. It might be a few tins of Italian ration meat – or a bottle of oil – but it kept on happening. We therefore appointed Ted’s landlord, Sandrino, in his stead. This was not done obviously, but the change over was allowed to happen, in the normal Italian, or oriental manner. Sandrino was a first class fellow, and much beloved by more than one woman of Strabatenza, but he did us very well.
The “Rebels”, or “Partaganis” as they now came to be called, had been about in our area for some time. They had appeared in small parties at first and had caused some consternation amongst the peasants, owing to their high-handed methods of requisitioning and the habit of the Russian element of getting very drunk, and firing off their rifles indiscriminately. About the middle of January they took up their quarters at Fiurli, the farm where Michael, Baas, and Pip had originally been billeted, just below the Casa Nova Ridge. On the 17th they raided St. Pierro, on the main road, two hours walk from Rio Salsa, and shot the Podesta in cold blood on his own doorstep. This may or may not have been a good thing – I wouldn’t know. John and Ted had gone over earlier in the year to meet their commander, one Libero, and subsequently got into very close touch with him. But it seemed to me that we ought to consider our position vis-a-vis the Partaganis and to appreciate how their presence in our area affected us, for there were definite pros and cons.
The position briefly, as I saw it, was roughly this. None of us had sufficient confidence in them to wish to join them. They ware a motley collection of Italians, Russians, Poles, Czechs and Yugoslavs, with one or two British, but on the other hand it was conceivable that they might be of value to us as guides, or possibly in certain circumstances to create a diversion which would enable us to get through. Their presence was also probably an insurance against Fascist incursions, and it was unlikely that the Germans would have troops to spare, in the normal course of events, to hunt them. On the debit side, however, they were taking large quantities of food and wine from the inhabitants, and it appeared to me that there might come a time when the limit of requisitioning, though on a payment basis, might be overstepped. Then someone might turn evidence – or again there might be a traitor in our midst, in which case the Germans might see a chance to strike a blow –
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and experience of Germans shows that they can strike very quickly. I put my appreciation to each member of our party, and all agreed with my views with the exception of two, who dismissed the last and worst possibility, i.e. a German raid. Nevertheless, within a fortnight it had occurred, as I will relate presently.
January was a month of lovely weather, during which we often saw large numbers of American Bombers on their way North. On the 27th, a Thursday, I went over to Rio Salsa to lunch with my previous hosts. I found them in a state of some disorganisation, having had to produce breakfast for a large party of “Partaganis “ who had raided the Carabinieri Barracks at St. Pierro the night before and were on their way back to Fiurli with the spoil. They had removed all the arms and equipment from the Barracks, and marched the Carabinieri, eighteen in number, to Rio Salsa, where they had sorted them out. Fifteen youths had been paraded in front of the Palazzo and made to strip to their underclothing and hand over their uniforms. They were then given Lire 100/- each and told to get to Hell out of it. The “Brigadieri” and the other two were taken along with them. One of these joined the “Partaganis”, but the “Brigadieri” and the other were shot and buried – very badly – near Fiurli, where their bodies were found a few days later by the Germans.
I began to be apprehensive lest this affair should bring on the “worst case” of my appreciation. But on Saturday, the 29th, C—- and L— arrived and we discussed possibilities and plans and were told that everything was normal and quiet in the neighbourhood. After a deal of discussion, and just as we were breaking up, L—- suddenly said “Would you be prepared to go in a boat if such a thing could be produced?”. With one accord we answered “Produce the boat – cost what it may. Its just the very thing we do want.” We hammered away at this idea on every possible occasion when we gained contact with C—–, and it may be that our insistence in this direction eventually led to the plan which put us on the path for freedom. I am not sure of this, and I will never know. Some thought it was political jealousy which goaded our organisation into action, but I am getting too far ahead, and there was much that happened before this came about.
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Sunday, January the 30th, was a perfect day. In the afternoon I went for a walk up Monte Merino, the highest point of the Casa Nova Ridge in our area, from which a lovely view was to be had of the countryside all round. Everything seemed as peaceful as possible. But the calm was soon to be disturbed, and I was to have a view of Monte Merino in very different circumstances before 24 hours had passed. About 6 a.m. on Monday, 31st, I was awakened by my host standing beside my bed saying “General, you must get up – the Germans have come to the Mill and it is thought they are going on to Casa Nova.” “Who brought the news?” I asked. “Francesco from the Mill” he replied. I was ready in about five minutes, for we always slept with everything ready for a sudden move, and during this time my good hostess had cut me some bread and cheese and wrapped them up in a napkin. I went into the kitchen to interview Francesco, who was sweating profusely, from his sprint up the hill. Francesco, I should say, was Mauritzio’s younger brother. “What has happened to Guido (Guy)?” I asked. “He has gone up into the roof” replied Francesco – “There was some shooting, which woke us. My mother saw to Guido, and by the time I tried to get out the doors wore guarded, but there is a window at the back, and I dropped out of that, and came up here, warning Giovanni (John) at Trapeza di Sotto on my way”. “You have done very well, Francesco, but be careful how you go back, lest the Germans, if they see you, suspect that you have been warning us.” – “Leave that to me” he said. “I will look after myself.”
A rapid move was indicated, so I made my way up the steep slope to the hill top, which was my pre-selected position in such an emergency. When I arrived at the top of the ridge, I thought I had better have a look over the other side in the direction of a farm called Al Pisella, which was just the other side of the crest. It was as well I did, for as I passed over the top, I saw a great collection of Germans all round the farm. It was only just light, and my background and surroundings were all right, so I remained in observation for a few minutes. Presently the Germans started to move off in the opposite direction, towards Ridracoli, and I counted 80 of them go. But unfortunately a considerable number remained, so I felt it was time to repair to my scrub-covered hill-top, for this seemed likely to be a prolonged visit. In this, however, I was baulked, for I soon heard German voices on the path below me, leading from Al Pisella to my hill-top. It was obvious that the Germans had appreciated the observation value of the local features in the same way as I had, and that I must go elsewhere. I accordingly dived into a very small and rather open wood which ran from the top of the ridge to within two or three hundred yards of Al Pisella, and took stock of the situation.
From my little wood I could, by crawling to the edge, where there was a sheer drop, see the hill-top on which by this time the Germans had established a look-out post.
I could also see that they had put out another on the slope of Monte Merino, and I judged that they would also have one out at some point of vantage farther along the ridge towards Casa Nova. Later in the day they appeared to establish a sort of H.Q. [Head Quarters] in the dip between my hill-top and Monte Merino, so the countryside was pretty well picketed and it was obvious that any move on my part could only be made in one direction, i.e. towards Vinco, and there the cover was light, for there was no leaf on the trees at this season.
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I accordingly bided my time and pulled a few twigs over a small scrape in the ground, as a hide, rather of the same type as those employed by poachers in the Central Provinces of India, in which to lie up for sambar over water holes.
The time passed. I began to feel hungry, so ate some of my bread and cheese. Whilst so engaged I heard voices above me, and flattened myself in my little hide. Two Germans came along the ridge path and turned down towards Al Pisella, passing not more than 25 yards from me. That was a bad moment, and it meant that I must be very careful. Shortly after this I heard sounds of wood cutting at the bottom end of the wood in which I was. This gave me to think. It must be one of the Al Pisella family, all of whom were staunch friends of Vinco, so I worked my way carefully down and eventually identified Dolfo, the eldest son, whom I knew was a stout fellow. I made contact with him, and told him what I wanted him to do. Reconnaissance and Information were essential to me, and Dolfo did his stuff well for the rest of that rather anxious day. He moved about the wood, cutting here and there, but actually observing the German movements all the time and reporting to me at intervals. Once, when he was at the bottom of the wood, two Germans came up from Al Pisella, spoke to him and passed on, skirting my wood by the same route as the previous ones had done. but in the reverse direction. This was another narrow shave, and I must have been sitting down or they would have seen me.
Soon after mid-day, whilst I was looking out over Monte Merino, I saw an individual in plain clothes brought in to the German H.Q. [Head Quarters] in the dip below. He was not one of our party, so I concluded, rightly as it turned out, that he was a soldier who lived in a remote farm who had been picked up. This showed that the Germans had spread their net pretty wide. The afternoon dragged out its weary hours and I began to wonder if the Germans intended to spend the night in the area. Once I moved up my wood to the top of the ridge, but hastily withdrew on seeing two Germans about 200 yards away on the ridge, between me and their look-out post. About 4 p.m. a good deal of shouting took place, between the various German posts and their H.Q. [Head Quarters], which I concluded hopefully was a prelude to their departure. This was soon confirmed by Dolfo who told me that the Germans who had left that morning for Ridracoli were back at Al Pisella, having taken a detour round some of the outlying farms, and appeared to be about to depart.
Dolfo now stayed with me and we watched the Germans movements together. We saw the long snake of Field grey uniforms winding its way up to their H.Q [Head Quarters]. Later these ware joined from the direction of Casella, a farm lying below Monte Merino, by another party of about 25. Having assembled, they all moved off toward Strabatenza. I then sent Dolfo off on a rather wider reconnaissance from which he returned about 5-30 p.m., and reported all clear, so I emerged from my little wood where I had spent about eleven hours. On my way back to Vinco, I was hailed, much to my surprise, by John. He had been unable to reach his reconnoitred hiding place owing to German movements, and had eventually come to rest behind a boulder about 300 yards below the German look-out post on the scrub-covered hill, and about 200 yards above Montaltuzzo, a farm just above Vinco. He had been shot at by Germans, on his way up,
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from across the Casella ravine and had probably spent a more anxious day than I had. Neither of us knew what had happened to any of the others, beyond what Francesco had told me about Guy. When I got back to Vinco, I found that the Germans had paid them two visits and had searched the small premises in rather a perfunctory manner. They had also searched the ruined farm about 15 minutes walk away, which at one time I had considered as a hiding place. In fact it transpired that they searched practically every building on either side of the Strabatenza Valley. My host was somewhat shaken by the day’s events, but his wife maintained her usual stout attitude and I was allowed back in the house. In deference to their feelings, however, I slept in the loft, pulling the ladder up behind me, and putting the trap door in position. The trap door was not such as we understand them, but merely a section of boards, and when in position was indistinguishable from the rest of the ceiling.
I had a rough mattress, and my pillow was a sack of maize, and the air was somewhat limited, but I was better off than the others, who slept in barns or ruins, as their hosts would not have them in their houses.
Next morning I went to the Valley to get the news, but I was treated by the inhabitants as if I had the measles, for most of them fled at my approach. I gathered that all were living out, their food being taken to them. I tried again the day after, but just as I was starting John arrived to see me. It appeared that the Germans had sent troops by lorry from Forli, who had debussed at three points, St. Pierro, Bagno and Badia, all quite close to the Mandrioli Pass, and the three columns had gone into the hills simultaneously. The St. Pierro column arrived first at the Villa. They then went on to the Palazzo. This was about midnight. Dan was warned and prepared to escape out of the window of his room, but on looking out he saw a German standing underneath, so he considered that method of exit inadvisable. The house was surrounded, and the Germans came in, but by some inexplicable miracle did not enter his room. Dan’s heart must have been beating double time until the Germans passed on.
Proceeding to the Valley, the Germans surrounded “Lungo” Rossi’s house where Baas lived. Baas, whose normal reactions are not rapid, acted on this occasion like greased lightning. On hearing the house was surrounded he summoned Irma, who slept with her husband in the next room and told her to occupy his bed and feign sickness, while he shot up into the roof, and placed the trap door in position. Irma played her part well, and Baas remained up in the roof for about twelve hours, during which time he suffered from fright and lack of what the house agents call the usual offices. How he overcame the latter is perhaps too crude a story to tell here. All this time the Germans were in or about the house.
The Germans now appear to have split into two parties, one going down the valley to the Bottega where Ted lived, and the adjacent house where Pip lived, and so on towards Casella. Pip went up into his roof, but Ted got out and went off to his little stone hut in the woods, up the hill.
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The other party, which I have mentioned, went upstream to the Mill, where they treed Guy. Approaching the Mill, they heard sounds of movement in an open stable. They challenged – there was no reply. They challenged again, with the same result, so they shot. There was a sound of a heavy body falling – Mauritzio’s mule – dead. They told him this during the day. The other two German columns came in, one by Pietra Pazza and so to Casa Nova, and the other from Badia along the timber road and so along the Casa Nova ridge to Al Pisella. Estimates of their numbers varied from 3,000 to 1,000, and I think it is safe to say that there were probably not less than 800 – a fairly formidable combing force. They picked up the soldier I saw taken, and one New Zealander who walked out after dusk, thinking all was clear. He and the other two had survived the day in the Madonna’s loft. Why they never bothered to look in the lofts is something quite impossible of explanation, but it is as well for us that they didn’t. I should have mentioned that at Fiurli they found the bodies of the “Brigadieri” and the other Carabinieri who had been shot by the “Partaganis” the week before.
The net result of this incursion was a bad attack of “Paura” in the neighbourhood. I was fortunate in being allowed to remain at Vinco for “sleeping and Maintenance”, but the others were on the strength of their respective establishments for maintenance only. Guy, Baas and the four soldiers, were in an empty house about 40 minutes walk from the Mill, while Ted, John and Pip occupied a semi-ruined farm some half an hour from the Bottega. Their meals were sent out to then at first, but later they were allowed to come in for the mid-day meal. The German raid was a-well conceived effort, very rapidly and suddenly carried out, but I do not think they were really after prisoners. I think the “Partaganis” who had been at Fiurli but had moved on to Ridracoli the day before, were their real objective. But they knew there were prisoners in the area, for the Dame of Al Pisella told me afterwards that the German commander of the detachment that went to her farm said to her, “We know that there is a General at Vinco, but we can’t find him”. Little did he realise that I was about a quarter of a mile away from him all day!
Confidence in the Village was gradually restored to some extent as time went on, but we had to be very circumspect in our movements, keeping off the main tracks and generally showing ourselves as little as possible. Being much more scattered than previously, it was difficult to connect, for exchange of news, rumours or plans. I therefore established a daily rendezvous, from 2-3 p.m. in a little hollow just above the Strabatenza cemetery, where anyone wishing to meet anyone else could go. This worked well for a time until the snow came and the place was unapproachable. I took the line that the Germans having made their raid with very unsatisfactory results were unlikely to repeat the manoeuvre. Some of the locals, however, maintained that the Germans having been, the Fascists would come next. Incidentally there had been a number of Fascists dressed as Germans, in their ranks on the day of the raid. But I felt that the Fascists would never come without a stiffening of Germans.
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Early in February the fine weather broke and cold east winds began to blow. The locals took a very gloomy view of the situation and prophesied that we were in for a spell of rough weather. They were only too right. On the 6th a woman from a neighbouring farm returned from a visit to Bagno with the news that there was likely to be a Fascist raid of our area in the very near future, with the object of rounding up the “25” class who were evading summons to service in the ranks of the Blackshirts. I could see that my host and even my hostess were shaken by this news, and sure enough, the suggestion was made that I should sleep for the next few nights in the “Cave”, together with Fredrico, the eldest son of the house who was actually only sixteen, but looked older, and a youth called Rina from Al Pisella. The Cave, they said, was a very safe place. This suggestion filled me with horror, for I knew the Cave. It was actually a mere slit or fissure in the rock, in the deep ravine running below the farm. The floor, where we would sleep, was at an angle of about 45°, and the roof not more than 4 feet high. It was certainly safe, being approachable only by difficult climbing. In the afternoon Francesco, my host, went down to get it ready. Getting it ready consisted of putting a few fascines at the bottom so that our feet would not rest against the V-shaped base, and we would not actually sleep on wet shale, for there was considerable seepage and the place was not merely damp, but actually wet.
Fredrico had been away all day and returned about dark with another youth to spend the night. On hearing the news, however, this youth – also announced his intention of sleeping in the Cave. This meant four of us in a place where two would be a squash. However, we set off about 9-30 p.m. in broad moonlight, I with my three blankets and the others with coverings of sorts. We also had a loaf of bread and some cheese in case it should be necessary to stay there for any length of time the next day. As we approached the Cave, Fredrico dropped the bread and cheese into the stream, which made all three youths go off into peals of laughter. I failed to see the humour of the situation, I established myself on the inside, and finding that the others had very inadequate bedding, shared my big blanket with the next two. I had all my clothes on, but I was very cold. It was freezing hard. About midnight the three boys could stand it no longer, so they returned to the house in search of more bedclothes. When they came back they were followed by “Vienna”, Fredrico’s dog. Practically all dogs in Italy are called either “Vienna” or “Farfalla” (Butterfly) though I have known one called “Micky” and another that answered to “Moscow”. Vienna spent the rest of the night hunting for a warm spot somewhere on top of one of us, and dashing out and barking. A sure give-away had there been anyone searching. Morning came with the temperature well below freezing and we were all chilled to the inside of the bone.
Fredrico’s friend went home that day and Rina said he’d rather join the Fascist than spend another night like the last, but our family were firm and Fredrico and I were hustled off again to the Cave, where we ‘spent another equally cold night, if a trifle less cramped. About the
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middle of the night I sat-up in an endeavour to change my position and get comfortable, and in doing so hit my forehead a resounding crack on the roof. This caused me to give vent to some very profane expressions, which of course Fredrico did not understand, but he thought it all very funny and roared with laughter. This made me give further expression to my feelings, which he thought funnier still. However, we eventually settled down and got some more sleep. I was even more chilled than I had been the day before, when morning came, and it took me a long time to get anything approaching warm. I was therefore more than delighted when my family told me that the rumour had been a groundless one. Apparently the woman who spread the alarm had seen a lorry full of Fascists drive up to Bagno and this became magnified until it appeared that practically the whole Republican Army had arrived. That night I was back in the loft.
On the 10th it began to snow and my diary tells me it snowed until the 20th with the exception of one day. There was no suggestion of a thaw at any time, and as far as I was concerned, I was snowed up, though a few sounder men than I managed to battle their way through the drifts. It was not till the 21st that I managed to get down to the Valley, and that was a procedure which called for much expenditure of energy. About this time the “Partaganis” had returned and established their Headquarters in the Priest’s House at Strabatenza, with the majority of them in that Village and with others in various farms adjacent. I had hoped Vinco might escape having them billeted, but on the morning of the 22nd a party arrived and took up residence – no by your leave or with your leave. They just arrived. There were three Italians, three Poles, two Yugoslavs and three Russians. About mid-day I went into my room and found a Russian asleep in my bed with all his clothes on. Later another took his place, but they evacuated it by the time I wanted to turn in. They were quite well behaved, and slept on the floor in the kitchen, pretty well filling it. I was very relieved, however, when they departed the next day. From then on they were all around us, and therefore gave us a good measure of security. I should have said that when the heavy snow came, I was allowed to return to my bed.
In spite of the presence of the “Partaganis”, rumours of a further German incursion were rife and the inhabitants were in a very unsettled state. Most of our party were allowed back into their houses when the heavy snow came, but as no organisation plan had materialised, it began to appear that we should consider other plans, and these resolved themselves into the only possible one, i.e. walking through the line. Ted and John had become very intimate with the “Partaganis”, who were being organised to some extent by their leader, Libero. There was a British squad, living at Trapeza di Sotto, John’s farm, and included in this were Kerens, a Sapper, Harris, another Sapper, the first a Captain and the latter a Subaltern, Jack Reiter, an American Flight Lieutenant, and Kirkland, an Australian Flight Lieutenant. The remainder were other ranks. Most of these, I fancy, only joined up to get a roof over their heads until the weather improved sufficiently for them to set off walking.
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Guy and I had some time ago decided to go together if it was a question of walking. Ted and John were a pair and at this time Dan, Pip and Baas were, more or less individuals and rather undecided, with a preference for waiting till about the end of March. On the 25th Ted came up to see me and told me that he had been over to see C—, who could throw out no hope of any plan, but was prepared to help us with maps and money and, if available, guides. None of these materialised except the money. Ted and John had fixed up to take certain information regarding the Partisan requirements, and Libero had promised them his best guide and given them false papers. I then asked Ted if he would try Libero for guides for Guy and me and for the others if they wanted them. Ted and John had arranged loans from a friend of theirs, and I asked him to send a note to C— asking for money for the rest of us, though Dan and, Pip managed to arrange some locally. Without going into details, this was all arranged with the “Partaganis”. I went and met Libero on March the 1st, by which time Ted had prepared the ground, on the basis of Libero having more than one string to his bow, i.e. three parties, Guy and I, Ted and John, Dan and Pip, while Baas was to follow later.
Libero produced papers for the rest of us. We had the necessary photographs, taken some months back at Seghittina. John and Ted were to start on March the 4th, and the other two parties at some undefined dates about a week’s interval apart. I did not care for the plan much, having very scanty information and most inadequate maps, but it seemed the only thing to do. Then suddenly, events took an unexpected turn. About 10:30 a.m. on March the 3rd I got a message from Ted to say that C—- had arrived in Strabatenza and would like to see me at once. I went off straight away and found that C——- had come with a plan, initiated by S—-, which was for seven of us to set off walking the next day to a place which was not mentioned, near the coast, where he hoped to arrange for a boat. The stipulation was that John Kerens and Jack Reiter, both of whom had lived for a considerable period with R—, S—‘s brother, must be included. The other five should be good walkers, for it would be a hard trip.
The other five were easily selected, for this was an organisation plan for which the priority was myself, John, Ted, Guy and Dan. It was unfortunate, but Pip and Baas had to be left behind. The weather was not too promising. There had been a thaw and mud was everywhere. It was raining at the time and looked like continuing – if it didn’t snow! We were to assemble at Kulmolo Mill, two hours walk from the Mill at Strabatenza, at 5-30 p.m. the next evening. C —— gave us Lire 5,000 each, on a written promise to pay and promised us more at the first rendezvous. Libero took this change in plan, which affected him quite a lot, in very good grace. And so, having arranged these details, we dispersed to organise our kits and generally prepare for departure. C——- warned us that all we could carry was a small wicker basket, rather like a shopping bag, an article which was commonly seen in the mountains and would not attract notice. I had been having practice
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mobilisation of my kit with a view to walking, so it did not take me long to put things in order, but there were certain things to be done – last minute washings etc. and other essentials to departure to arrange.
I sorted out my stuff that evening and gave the surplus to my family, for whom it was a windfall beyond price, because “robe”, or things, were practically unobtainable in Italy. I gave my host a certificate indicating how much help and shelter he had given me, and made a present of Lire 50 each to the children. I was given two sausages as an iron ration, (which I eventually carried right into the British Lines), three hard boiled eggs and some bread and cheese. I said goodbye to them the next day. I could not thank them adequately for all they had done for me because no words could express what I owed them. I trust some day they will be adequately rewarded. As I write this, the British Army is not very, far from them.
On my way to meet Guy, with whom I was going to walk to the Kulmolo Mill, I stopped and had a hair cut by Guiseppe, Sandrino’s brother. He gave me some cigarettes. The Madonna with tears in her eyes, gave me a glass of wine. Pip’s landlady, Laquina, gave me another. Guy arrived loaded with a cake and some hard boiled eggs. I said goodbye to Mauritzio, who, villain though he was, had done a lot for us. We were buttonholed at Borgi’s Mill and made to drink some Grappa – very powerful. And so we arrived at Kulmolo, where we were given more wine. Jiji, owner of the farm where we were to stay that night, met us, to guide us there. Soon all were assembled, in very high spirits, for this looked like the real thing, vague though the details were. The worst thing about it all was the weather, which was to prove even worse than our fears, and it held us up for a full week.
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“THE WANDERINGS OF A FUGITIVE”
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We left Kulmolo Mill shortly before 6 p.m. on the 4th March. It was a three hours walk to our destination for the night, a farm close to Spinello, which was in the angle of the St. Pierro – Santa Sofia and St. Pierro – Casena Roads. Very soon after we started it began to snow heavily. We kept to a track for a while, but soon struck across country. As we crossed the main road I realised that I had not been on any road capable of being motored on for nearly six months. It was all up hill – most of Italy is up hill. It continued to snow hard and it was a very trying march. We arrived, wet and tired, at about 9-30 p.m., and were met in a nice warm room by R—, and his wife Zelma, who had prepared a grand dinner for us. John, Ted and I shared one room, while John Kerens and Jack Reiter bedded down on camp beds in the living room. Dan and Guy were billeted out at a farm about half an hour’s walk away. I felt very sorry for them having to turn out into the snowstorm after dinner. We had come about 20 kilometres as the crow flies from Strabatenza, and much more by our route. I had had the extra hour’s walk from Vinco. We slept well.
Next morning it was still snowing hard and the drifts were very heavy in places. There was to have been a conference, but S—- was unable to get from Santa Sofia. There was now nothing to do but wait for the weather to improve. Fortunately we were very comfortable. No one could have taken more trouble on our behalf than R—– and Zelma. We heard the British wireless most nights, and it was now that we learned the truth about the first three, and also that O’Connor had got a big command, which pleased us immensely. R— produced cigarettes for us, and, from then on, we were never very short. This was a great joy, for there had been a great lack of tobacco all the winter. Some of us had bought “Tesoras”, or cigarette ration cards, but they were of little use when none were available. Playing cards were also produced and we spent a lot of time playing Picquet, for there were not four bridge players amongst us. Jiji and his family lived in the other part of the house. His real name was Luigo but. He was always called Jiji. He was to be our guide for the first stage when we moved.
On the 6th it stopped snowing, and on the 7th there was a slight thaw and S—–, C-— and L—–arrived for the conference. S—– outlined the plan, which was for us to walk to the area of Porto Recanati, some miles south of Ancona, where he said he knew a friend who might be able to produce a boat. Not very satisfactory, but anyway a move in the right direction, and we were assured that the area was a pretty safe one. Arturo, S ——‘s youngest brother and Georgio, his cousin, were to accompany us, and I was asked to do what I could to get them into the British Air Force. This was rather a big question, but I said I would do what I could. Arturo could speak a little English and Georgio knew a few words. C—– produced more money, so that we all had at least Lire 10,000, though we were assured that all we would spend were a few hundreds on the journey down.
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Asked if stages and accommodation had been arranged for us, L— said that there was nothing like that about the plan. Our first stage would be Pereto, 20 km in a straight line from Spinello and after that we were to make our own plan. So the whole thing remained rather indefinite. I knew that John Kerens had a pistol, but as we all felt it would be best to go unarmed, I extracted a promise from him to get rid of it. This, I regret to say, he did not do – being the type of Irishman who will say Yes, meaning No. Reiter behaved in the same way. We were given two rendezvous with contacts in the new area.
The weather improved sufficiently for us to start off on Monday, March the 13th. Jiji led us by what may have been, a very safe way, but there was the hell of a lot of snow. We moved in pairs at intervals of about 200 yards, and on one occasion Guy failed to notice which way Jiji and I had gone and it took some time to get the party on the right road again. Jiji made great play about the difficulty of crossing the main St. Pierro – Cesena road, but in point of fact it was quite deserted and presented no difficulty. We had left about 7-30 a.m. and arrived at Pereto about 6 p.m. It had been a pretty hard day, and what with finding billets etc. we did not get settled in till about 8 o’clock, when we all dined in the Priest’s house and then went off to our various places. I had a nice bed over a shop, but got little sleep owing to cramp.
On the 14th we got going about 7-30 a.m., and found we had to make a considerable detour, owing to snow drifts, and by 10 a.m. having accomplished two very stiff climbs, were only about 2 km away from our starting point. Here we checked for a short time at a farm and had some wine. Shortly after moving off again we came to a point where our guide gave us the option of going round by the track or straight across country, which would save about an hour. We chose the latter, much to my discomfort. It was virgin snow, just melting, which meant that every footstep sunk in about a foot, and with my stiff leg, was a very severe exertion. After about an hour of this, we dropped down by a path and then followed the bed of a stream, crossing it at intervals. It was while manoeuvring one of these crossings, which necessitated crawling along an overhanging ledge for a time, that Ted fell in. However, he was none the worse for his wetting. We crossed two more streams, and a main road, and finished the day with a really stiff climb up to a village called Bashio, arriving about 6 p.m.
Dan went on with Arturo to fix billets, and I was allotted the Priest’s house, with a very comfortable bed. They produced food for me(pasta)> but I was too tired to eat. The Priest then suggested that I should go to bed and he would bring me coffee and eggs in an hour or two. I took his advice and he duly appeared with some coffee, strongly laced with Grappa, and two eggs.”I don’t know if these are hot enough for you” he said, so I tried one. It was barely warm and of course quite raw, but I ate it and asked if he could cook the other one. He was back in a few minutes with a slightly warmer egg, which I also ate raw. Ted and John came to see me to discuss time of start and plans for the next day, and I had to tell them that if I was not fit to go they must leave me behind. However, good night’s rest put me right, and from then on I never looked back. It was the short cut over virgin snow that had tried my leg too highly.
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On the 15th we got off at about 8 a.m. We were somewhat apprehensive about a pass which had to be crossed, over a snow covered ridge of formidable looking hills, but this actually proved much easier than we expected. It was again a hard day, however, for we failed to receive much of a welcome at a place called Campo, where we had intended to stay, and had to go on to Gajji, and lost the way in the process. We didn’t get in till about 6-30. We split up into three farms, which meant a good deal of extra walking for the outliers, and food was somewhat scarce. I slept in a cowshed with Ted, John, and Jack Reiter.
We managed to make a somewhat earlier start on the 16th, and made good progress along fairly easy paths, with not very much snow, though some pretty steep climbing, until we reached a suitable looking farm about midday, where we stopped for a meal. Whilst eating, we discussed the question, which had already come up, of splitting into two parties, which we felt would facilitate matters of billeting, movement, and security. Accordingly we decided to billet that night in two parties and make our way separately from thence forth, to the rendezvous where our first contact was – a place called Cupramontana. John, Ted, John Kerens and Arturo comprised the first party, with Guy, Dan, Jack Reiter, Georgio and myself in the second. We went on together until quite near our areas for the night, and then split. Our party, thanks to Dan, found a comfortable farm house, where we were well fed, and slept in a spacious cowshed. I had by this time acquired the habit of eating raw eggs at intervals during the day, which I found most sustaining. We also found wine was good to walk on!
I will leave the other party for the moment, for they took a different route from ours. They were stronger walkers on the whole, though Dan, who was with us, was by far the best. But Jack Reiter had broken his pelvis when he crashed from the air and was not quite sound – nor was I. They were also in a great hurry for some reason I was unable to fathom, and appeared to consider the idea of stopping for food as “soft”. We, on the other hand, started as early as we could, walked for two hours or so, stopped for breakfast, and then went on till about midday when we halted for a meal. We then continued till about dark. I am quite sure that we benefited by this system of movement and feeding, for the sustaining affect of pasta is limited in duration.
Dan had procured a guide for the 17th, who proved to be the best we ever had. He accompanied us for the first two hours, until we crossed a main road and halted for breakfast at a village on the hill above, where we found hospitality in a house where there was a very pretty girl. We struck a road from then on and halted for lunch in a village called Serravalle, where the inhabitants were most friendly. We came across one who had been in America, and talked English to some extent with an American accent. His most common expressions were “Jeez” and “Pretty Good”. I bought an umbrella here for Lire 100/- for mine had become unserviceable owing to having been used as a walking stick in the snow.
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We carried our “sportas”,or basket bags, on sticks over our shoulders. Some miles on we tried to get billets at Polcona but the people wouldn’t have us, but we eventually got taken in at a farm about a mile away.
That night Dan said to me : “I’m afraid we’ve got a hard day tomorrow. Without making a big detour, mostly on main roads, our only alternative is to go over the shoulder of Monte Catri, which takes us on our direct line.” It had to be done, but it was a terrific climb. From the river and main road we crossed shortly after starting, it was a scramble up a very steep hill-side for some hundreds of feet, then a steady pull up along a snow covered track, and finally a steady and apparently endless drag up to the summit of the shoulder, where Monte Catri towered high above us. We must have been walking on four feet of snow, but fortunately it was freezing and we sank in only slightly. Down the other side was a track almost waist deep in snow, which I found very trying. After this the way lay through partially cut woods with varying amounts of snow, gradually lessening till we reached the bottom of the ravine. From then on the going improved, till we struck a road which took us to our night’s halting place at Serra. Guy and I slept in mangers that night, and very comfortable they were.
Dan had made friends with another American-speaking Italian who accompanied us as guide for the first part of our journey on the 19th. This was a fairly easy day, mostly road work, though we had to cross one snow covered hill by a pretty steep path. We found billets in a very hospitable farm overlooking the road, railway, and canal we were to cross the next day. The village of Serra San Querico lay below us to the North. There was a party of Germans reported in the station, about a mile away, so caution was necessary. I slept for the first time three in a double bed, and vowed that I would never do it again. We were nearing the end of the first stage of our journey, and could see Cupramontana across the valley. What fun, we thought, if we beat the other party, who considered themselves the fast party, to the contact. We had come along very well and it was a possibility. We vowed that John should never hear the last of it if we succeeded in doing so. Buck’s Club and the11th Hussars would hear all about it.
On the 20th we started early and slipped across the triple obstacle of Road, River and Canal at a point where they all ran close together. We were warned that Cupramontana was full of Fascists, so we established ourselves at a farm about 5 km out of the town, and sent Georgio in to make contact. This was about 11.30 a.m. Georgio returned in the early afternoon, saying that he had seen S—–, but that the other party had not arrived. We cheered loudly, for this meant we had won the race. Georgio said he would go back and wait until the other party reported, and S—- gave us the next stage of the plan. He returned about 5.30 saying that we were to go to a place called Sambuchetto and there make contact with the Priest. We should be there by the next evening, or at the latest by midday on the 22nd. This required some thinking out, for Sambuchetto was 32 km as the crow flies from where we were. We considered starting immediately, but that would only give us about an hour of daylight and finding billets in the dark would be difficult, so we decided to make a very early start next morning and try
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to do the whole distance in the day. It was all road work, so we chartered a pony and trap. We would have liked two, but only one was available. Georgio said that the other party had arrived and were starting that evening.
Accordingly we bedded down in cowsheds, and set off about 5 a.m. on the 21st. The pony trap would only go a certain distance, so we decided that Jack and I, the two crocks, would go in it with all the kit, while the three sound members should travel light and step out until we had to part with the conveyance. This took us about 12 km, which were covered in two hours, and then we all took our kits and walked. We found a friendly house for breakfast, and pushed on after a good meal. At lunchtime we had reached the Chateau of a Count, reported friendly, so we called on him. He was a bit nervous as his house stood on a main road used by Germans, but sent us to his Contadino, a short distance away. Hearing, however, that Dan was an Earl, he sent for him and presently the two returned, and we all chatted. The Count was a very pleasant fellow, very interested in horses. He put us on our way, and after the usual handshaking and thanks all round, we pushed off.
The last part of this day’s march was a very gruelling one, for we followed the course of a small stream which meant moving over fields and a certain amount of plough. By dark we had reached a point almost 5 km due North of Sambuchetto, and finding a friendly farm, decided to call it a day and to do the short remaining distance next morning. We had covered 32 km in a straight line that day, which was probably nearly 45 by the route we had come. Next morning we set off at dawn and found a friendly farm about a mile outside Sambuchetto, whence we sent Georgio in to make contact with the Priest. He was soon back, having seen the Priest and also John and Ted, who were established in his house. The Priest, he said, would come and see us later in the day, but we were to be ready to move any time after midday the next day, the 23rd. We were thus able to relax for 24 hours, our first rest since we started.
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Our billet here was a comfortable one, with beds. There were only man, wife and Grandmother, which meant quiet. At all our other billets there had been hordes of children. Dan had by this time developed quite an eye for a billet, and we found that the peasants understood him much better than they did Georgio, who spoke a broad Romanolo dialect. Dan was splendid the whole time. His wonderful stamina always enabled him to have something in reserve and his cheerful outlook was a great tonic. On only one occasion did he flag in the least, and that was when we crossed Monte Catri, but it was only temporary. By this time he spoke very good Italian, and understood the peasants, with whom he had a knack of getting on. In our leisure here we reviewed our march. We had come 155 km since the 13th, measured daily in a straight line, which meant that we had probably walked, about 250. For the first half of the journey we had had appalling conditions of snow and mud to contend with, so on the whole we considered that we had made pretty good time.
In the afternoon the Priest had paid us a visit. He could tell us little except that we were expected to move the next day and that he would come again. We spent a very restful night, but in the daytime, kept to the house. About 1 p.m. on the 23rd the Priest arrived to say that we were to go at once to a rendezvous on the other side of Sambuchetto, whence a lorry would take us to our next place. He said that S—– was there, and had hinted at the possibility of a boat on the night of the 24th. What sort of a boat he could not say, but it all appeared quite hopeful and we began to calculate by what date we might be In England.
We skirted Sambuchetto and found the lorry which was in fact only a very small truck, and we found some difficulty in packing ourselves in so that nothing important showed over the side. About an hour’s drive landed us up at a farm called La Tanza, in the valley of the river Tenna, which flows into the Adriatic about half way between Civittanova and Porto San Giorgio. Here we were met by an individual who called himself Leo, an Italian Officer working for a British organisation to get prisoners out. It was now that we heard for the first time that Italian manned MA [Military Attaché] boats under British orders did come periodically to land individuals behind the lines and to take others off. Leo said that he hoped our departure might be arranged soon, and that a friend of his who worked in a similar manner would probably join us tomorrow. Meanwhile he asked us to keep hidden. Guy and I were at La Tanza, and the others quite close. Leo and a tough called Quinto lived adjacent, but fed at La Tanza.
Next morning Leo’s friend, Peter, arrived and told us that one Major McKee, with a subaltern called Curtis, two Sergeants, one of whom was a Palestinian and spoke Italian, and an operator who was temporarily mislaid, had been landed a few nights before in the area. What their particular job was, we never discovered, but they came into our subsequent plans quite a lot. Later in the day an individual known to the Italians as “the Engineer”, but eventually more familiarly to us as “Cag”, arrived,
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having been landed by sea practically in the middle of a German post near Porto San Giorgio, and having lost his wireless set, and many pounds of English gold. It was he who had made the plan which had got Neame, O’Connor and Boyd out in December 1943. He impressed us much more than Leo or Peter. He had with him one to whom he alluded as “My man Aldo”, who proved to be a man of sterling worth.
About 9 p.m. that evening, the 24th, Peter suddenly dashed into La Tanza and said that there was a rendezvous on the beach, arranged by McKee, of which he had only just heard, from midnight till 2 a.m. We were hastily assembled and moved off at about 10.15 at a cracking pace, arriving just before midnight, at the rendezvous, about 8 km distant. We signalled for over two hours, but eventually gave it up and returned to our billets, arriving about 4.30 a.m., to find our hosts not in the least nonplussed, in fact they turned out an excellent supper for us of bacon and eggs, bread and cheese and wine.
On the morning of the 25th we had our first taste of difficulties to come between the two factions – Cag on the one hand, and Leo and Peter on the other. It had transpired that S—- had stumbled across Leo quite by accident, and not having any plan of his own, handed us over to him. But Cag had been specially sent by the British to get us out. He had been unable to come earlier, because the weather in January, February and part of March had been unsuitable for boating operations. Cag was consulting me regarding the wording of a message he proposed to send across the line by wireless, when Peter arrived and announced his intention of also sending a message. It was therefore essential to co-ordinate the two and send only one, because our only means of contact was through the “Partagani” set at Cingoli, 40 miles away, and there being innumerable difficulties of communication with them, besides language and cipher complications, it was obviously of the utmost importance to cut down the number of messages to the absolute minimum. The gist of the message was to ask for a boat rendezvous, and I thought I had fixed it, but I found later that another message had been sent on the quiet!
On the 29th we had another rendezvous on the beach. That on the 24th had been on the North bank of the Tenna, or the same side on which we were billeted. This was on the South side and it was necessary to cross the river near its mouth by a railway bridge which might or might not be patrolled by the enemy. McKee’s party were in on this and it included an Italian woman who had married a British Sergeant, Prisoner of War. We arranged to move in two parties, with a first meeting point just short of the road bridge, which was a short distance inland from the railway bridge. Our party started first, and was halted by Leo and Peter about half a mile short of the road bridge. We had come across country. We remonstrated with them, insisting that we were still short of the meeting place, but they were adamant. After a very long wait someone approached us from the direction of the road bridge whistling “Lili Marlene” which was the recognition signal and we connected with McKee, whose party had moved by road, passed us, and got to the right place first.
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Having cursed Leo and Peter soundly for their stupidity, we moved on, crossed the road and then the river by the railway bridge and then met a nasty obstacle to negotiate in the dark in the form of a broad irrigation channel, approached by a very steep and bramble-covered bank. Nellie, the Italian woman, took a beautiful toss into this! Our unwieldy party of 25 eventually arrived on the beach, where we waited in a biting north wind for a couple of hours and then gave it up. McKee’s party dispersed somewhere, while we went to the house of one Guerrini, close by, and got some rest. Cag had been in on this party, and now took a hand in matters, arranging for our seven to go to the house of a Count Salvadore, quite close. We moved there that evening and kept another rendezvous on the beach that night on a slender hope, but returned to the Counts house about 3 a.m. on the 31st.
We were most comfortable here – very well fed and looked after. The Countess was a charming and very brave woman, who spoke perfect English. Her father had hunted with the Pytchley. There were books to read, and many bound volumes of Punch. There was also a piano, at which Guy amused himself and entertained us. We were right on a road which was frequently used by Germans, in fact they had on three occasions called and demanded meals, but we worked out a plan which gave us some measure of security. That night we had a conference, at which Cag, Leo and Peter were present. We had come to the end of the favourable moon period, and there could be no more rendezvous for at least a fortnight, so we judged it advisable to vacate our present area and move farther inland. The feeling was strong amongst us that we would like to hand ourselves over to Cag, for Peter and Leo had proved themselves untruthful and unreliable, but it was a difficult thing to do, so I finally arranged as I thought, and hoped, a compromise, but I was wrong, for Peter and Leo’s jealousy prevented any co-operation on their part.
On the 1st of April we had a scare due to the proximity of some Carabinieri, and in the evening we moved, over an hour later than the time arranged, owing to Leo’s lack of organisation, to a farm immediately across the river from La Tanza – known as Mario’s Farm. We stayed there 24 hours and then moved across to our old quarters at La Tanza. After two days, on the 4th, we moved again, some ten miles up river, to various farms in the Grottozzolino area. Here we found numerous prisoners living all round us, and consequently an atmosphere of some nervousness among the inhabitants. Since our arrival in the Tenna Valley we had never shown ourselves unnecessarily in the day time, all our moves being done at night.
Our contact in this area was one Germano, a very good chap. Through him we kept touch with Cag. About this time Leo and Peter faded out, saying they were going to walk through the line. We were delighted to hear this, and immediately put ourselves in Cag’s hands. The other two returned some time later, saying that they had found it impossible to get through the line. Personally, I don’t believe they ever made the attempt. I omitted to mention
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that on the 31st I had concocted a message to the British pointing out that although we had kept repeated rendezvous, no boat had ever materialised, and asking for one to be sent at the first favourable opportunity next moon period, and every subsequent day till successful. I doubt, however, if this message ever got through, as about this time the “Partaganis” at Cingoli were engaged in an affair with the Fascists and were unable to use their set. At Grotto our party was augmented by an American Diplomat whom Cag had picked up somewhere, and we also heard that Pip and Baas, who had been left behind in the Strabatenza area, had now arrived, with a party of 8 all told, and were in the La Tanza area.
Pip and Baas’ party consisted of themselves, Harris, an American, an airman called Hughes, and the two New Zealanders, and Meader from Strabatenza. They had moved more slowly than we had, and had travelled more by pony cart. They had also rested for a day owing to Baas’ exhaustion, while Pip arrived very lame. They had received the money we had asked the Greek to send us – Lire 60,000, but had got rid of Lire 47,000 on the way down! We now had to watch our strength, for 25 was the limit for a M.A.S. [Mezzi d’Assalto, (assault craft)] boat, and our numbers were swelling. On the 15th we left Grotto for Mario’s Farm. On the 17th Peter and Leo arrived, and we had a two hour conference with them regarding relations with Cag. It was eventually agreed, rather grudgingly by Leo and Peter, that, they should do the billeting and Cag the plans, but in point of fact they actually did little except get in the way.
We now heard that the “Partaganis” had a rendezvous with an ammunition boat, for the 18th, 19th or 20th. Accordingly we went to the beach on the 18th, but nothing happened, so our party returned to the Counts house. On the 19th we went again, and, after a time, heard a boat. Shortly after this a few shots were fired from the vicinity of the railway, about half a mile distant. We saw the flashes. I decided to hang on for a bit, as I felt this shooting had no connection with us, but after a while there was such an atmosphere of nervousness among some members of the party that I called it off and we went home without incident. It turned out that the shooting had been directed at some British Prisoners who were on their way to the beach, just to see if, anything was doing. One was wounded on the nose. We tried again on the 20th, but there was an Italian or German Diesel engined boat cruising along the coast, which probably scared off the M.A.S. [Mezzi d’Assalto, (assault craft)] boat we heard out to sea. On the 21st we acted on a message from the other side, which came very late, and we had rather a scramble to keep the rendezvous. This time we heard the M.A.S. [Mezzi d’Assalto, (assault craft)] boat clearly, well out to sea, and moving North. Later it returned, but made no effort to come in and search for our signals. Just before we gave it up, a Diesel engined boat passed within 100 yards of our signals, shouted at us and passed on.
We had no more rendezvous fixed and it looked as if our message had not got through. On the’22nd, in collaboration with Jock McKee, I sent a message asking for a landing craft, as it was by now obvious that M.A.S. [Mezzi d’Assalto, (assault craft)] boats, being Italian manned, had not the necessary courage to come inshore. We had kept seven rendezvous on the beach without success, and we felt that the chances of making a get-away by this method were very slender. We could not stay on at the Counts house indefinitely, so a move was
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indicated. Cag fixed this, and on the 23rd we left for various billets not far distant. We were warned to be ready for another try on the 25th, but it was called off at the last moment.
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At this stage of the proceedings the outlook did not appear too bright, and a certain air of depression among some members of our party became apparent. As I have said, we had kept seven rendezvous on the beaches for boats which either failed to arrive, or else went to the wrong rendezvous, or allowed themselves to be scared away. Each expedition to the beach entailed a certain amount of nervous strain, for though we had been lucky in never meeting trouble, we were after all in enemy country, and one would have thought that an enemy opposed by an overwhelming superiority of sea power would be sensitive about his beaches. I think the answer is that the Germans could not spare the troops to defend or patrol the beaches, but left it to the Fascists who didn’t do their job. Nevertheless, an expedition to the beach was an affair not without an element of excitement. We had a certain number of arms, and would probably have got away had a fight ever been necessary, but we were most anxious to avoid trouble and the consequent compromising of points available for embarkation.
During this time also, we were continually being disturbed by scares of the arrival of Fascists. Some prisoners had been picked up in farms in the area, which all helped to produce “paura” amongst the Contadini. We heard of three authentic cases where the farmers had been roughly handled by Fascists and fined according to what amounts could be extracted from them, – these ranged from Lire 15,000 to Lire 2,000. In all three cases, however, those who had suffered had their fines reimbursed by McKee, who was very well provided with cash. In very few cases, however, did we hear that the Fascists were coming to look specifically for us. They were usually bent on some other purpose such as extracting taxes in money or kind – or very often merely happened to be passing through. Still one could not disregard any such information, both for our own sakes and on behalf of the good people who were housing us.
By this time also, the practice of never being seen outside our houses in daylight except when we had to make a get-away, had come to pall considerably. Let it be realised that the farms in which we lived, though comparatively rich in foodstuffs, as Italian farms go, were entirely devoid of any comforts. Except in the Counts house we never found anything but extremely hard, upright chairs, or benches. The only place where any rest was possible was in bed, and not always then. Moreover, owing to our constant night moves and frequent cowshed billets, a very large proportion of our nights were by no means restful. I am not complaining that we were badly off. We were not. Few wandering prisoners could ever have been as well off as we were. Nevertheless, it was an unusual existence, to which had been added a long series of disappointments, and prospects for the future did not look too rosy.
When we had dispersed from the Counts house, we were all placed in farms comparatively close by. Guy and I were together, with John and Ted just above us, On the morning of the 26th about 6 a.m., our host came into our room chattering with fright, but saving nothing coherent. We managed to extract from him the information that a couple of lorries, believed to contain Fascists, had arrived in the
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village about a mile away and were moving up to our farms. “Via”, “Via”, said our host. “Via” “Via”. So we had to go. Gathering up our somewhat scanty belongings we dropped down into the nullah below, where we were soon joined by John and Ted from above. There was only one way to go, which was downstream, for the other direction was towards where the Fascists were reported to be. Moving down some distance we held a short conference. John and Ted went on straight away, but Guy and I waited for some time to consider our next move. It now started to rain, and it was imperative to find some cover. Accordingly we followed the other two down the nullah, climbing up the banks at intervals to have a look round. While in the nullah we were in good cover, but we were not quite sure where it led, though the general direction, we knew, was towards the sea.
After about a mile and a half, the nullah became shallower, and looking out to the left, we suddenly realised that we were not more than about 500 yards from the Counts house, This meant also that we were very near the main coastal road, so. we obviously couldn’t go much farther in that direction. We felt that it would be inadvisable to go to the Counts house without the way having been prepared for us by an Italian, for the Count was a difficult old gentleman and we did not want to compromise a very good haven in case of an emergency. We therefore went to the house of his Contadino, which was in the grounds, for although we didn’t know them, we knew they were good people. We received a most affable welcome, and found that the scare had not reached them, though they had seen an Armoured Car pass the house that morning. Yes, we could stay as long as we liked and have their beds, for they slept In the cowshed, being frightened of bombing. I should have said that our Spitfires bombed the road and railway bridges daily – and these were very close to the house. I may say the Spitfires never hit their target!!
A small boy took a note to Cag, whose H.Q. [Head Quarters] were with Guerrini, very close by. Cag came to see us soon after, and told us that John and Ted were in a very wet AIR Raid shelter, in the nullah, “attached for rations” to Guerrini. There was still no news of the scare, so Aldo was sent on a reconnaissance, from which he returned later to say that the whole thing was a false alarm. However, we felt we would be unwelcome in our previous billets, for there was great “paura” amongst them – so we decided to stay where we were for the moment. We were very comfortable and very well fed. Inez and Olivia, the two girls of the house, were grand, and could not do enough for us. Anna, the maid from the Counts house came over periodically. She was engaged to a British POW who had escaped earlier in the year by sea, and he had taught her a smattering of English, including, I regret to say, certain expressions which no young girl, even an Italian, ought to know!
We saw Cag frequently while we were here, and it was about this time that we asked him to try to make a definite plan about a sailing boat. We had lost confidence in M.A.S. [Mezzi d’Assalto, (assault craft)] boats, if we ever had any. Cag promised to do what he could, and we discussed numbers for the boat and the possibility of getting two boats. For this purpose we had a re-shuffling of areas and billets, so that our party, whose composition I will detail later,
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should be together and handy to collect, and also so that we should not be too thick on the ground in this rather congested area comparatively close to the sea. For this and other reasons we decided on a move for John, Ted, Guy and I. The others had not been affected by the scare.
The move was fixed for the evening of the 27th, but just as we were starting a very special dinner cooked for us by Inez, there was a sudden influx of John, Ted, Cag, Aldo and others, to say that there was a party of Fascists in a house about half a mile away, and we must go at once. This was most disappointing, and poor Inez was in tears, but we got away in about five minutes and made for our destination, which was not far from Mario’s farm. Here we were very crowded. The four of us slept in the cowshed and lived in a room about the size of a billiard room, making a total of 19 on the ration strength. They were very good people, but the perpetual noise was very trying. There were three small babies, all in the most elementary stages of nourishment, who were fed thus in public. When they were not being fed, they were screaming.
Cag visited us here and said that the plans for boats were going forward and that he was optimistic. We felt, however, that a move to some quieter quarters would be a pleasant thing. This was accordingly arranged, and on May the 1st we moved to three adjacent houses on the hill just above. I had a very pleasant room with a single bed – John and Ted were together, and Guy by himself in another house which was all good except for bugs! We felt we were in a secure area, which had excellent observation, and wondered why we hadn’t struck these billets before. We expected to be here some days, but on the evening of the 2nd, Aldo suddenly arrived with the refreshing news that Cag had fixed the boats, and we were to go that evening to a farm not very far off, but close enough to the selected point of embarkation to get there in one night.
A short march brought us to a farm just across the valley from the one from which we had departed so hurriedly on the 26th. Here Guy and I were lucky again, striking excellent quarters and a very pleasant family. John and Ted were handy, and Dan and the American Diplomat just across the valley in our old quarters. The next morning John and I arranged to see Cag and tie up the ends of the plan. We moved down the same nullah which we had used on the 26th and met Cag and Aldo some way down it. After having discussed all the details we started for home, but before having gone very far, were met by John and Ted’s hostess with her small nephew, who gave us news of another scare. The lady was not in the least excited. She had seen the Fascist lorries and said she didn’t think they were coming our way, but it was best to take precautions, so we told her to go on ahead and find out more about the situation, and inform us in the nullah in due course.
We followed, but soon saw Dan, Jack, and John Kerens running towards us. “They had a shot at us,” said Dan. “I think we’d better get away from here”. “Did they see who you were?”, I asked, “No, I don’t think so – they were some distance away, and were probably just shooting to intimidate. There were about half a dozen of
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them – Fascists.” “What have you done with the Yank?” “Oh! He – went to ground in a wheat field – said he was too exhausted to run.” “I reckon that’s what we’d better do, go farther down the nullah”, I said, so we moved off at a brisk pace. When we had almost reached the scene of my interview with Cag, we climbed up the bank and crawled into a field of corn – John and I in one place, and the others some distance away. The corn was not very high, but it gave us cover.
It was then about 12.30 p.m. At intervals for the next hour and a half we heard shots. Not many – just a few and then after a pause a few more. We were lying near a tree and at intervals we raised our heads carefully and had a look round. About three o’clock I reasoned with John that if the Fascists were looking for us, they would have combed the adjacent farm by now. If not, they had probably cleared off. We agreed to give it till 4.30 and then reconnoitre our way back. About four o’clock I felt like moving, but John argued that we might just as well give them a bit longer. At 4.30, then, we crawled back to the nullah and worked our way along it. We soon met some peasants who told us that the Fascists had gone. Apparently they had been after the petrol in some detachable tanks which had been dropped by our aircraft the day before on their way home. We had seen them fall, but never connected the two things. Dan and party stayed out till much later. In fact only got back just in time for our move that night.
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It was while we were here that Cag told us of the escape of one Captain Losco, from Macerata Jail. Losco had been put behind the lines some months previously, in uniform, with some others, but had acquired plain clothes and had been wandering about so garbed when he was taken by the Fascists. Unfortunately he had a pistol on him. He managed to pass himself off as an escaped prisoner, but nevertheless was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, of which term he had served five months. It was for the purpose of getting him out that Quinto had come over from the other side. I never discovered how much Quinto helped in the escape, for I gather that the plan was made inside the Jail. Anyway one fine night the plan, which consisted in rushing the sentries, was put into operation, and Macerata Jail was emptied of its occupants, including Losco. Cag proposed to bring him in our boat, and he appeared with some others at the starting point for our move to our embarkation area, on the night of the 3rd of May.
We moved off about 10 p.m. absolutely straight across country, across the frequent ridges between the rivers and streams. We were therefore always going either up or down hill – it appeared to be mostly up! Occasionally we struck a track for a while, but more often we were ploughing our way through crops or heavy grass. On one of the few occasions when we struck a road, we had to pass within about a quarter of a mile of a house which was occupied by a German Headquarters. Dogs barked in our wake as we passed farms or villages, though for the most part we avoided them. We got very thirsty on the march, for we all sweated profusely, The final stages led through the outskirts of a small town, and then we dropped down a steep path to our farm house, about a mile and a half from the sea, where the whole of our party was to be accommodated.
After various changes, it had been decided for a number of reasons that our party should go with Cag in one boat, from a point about 3 or 4 miles South of Porto San Giorgio, and the other with Leo, which included Baas, Pip and their party, from a point about 2 miles North. We numbered sixteen all told, and consisted of myself, John, Ted, Guy, Dan, John Kerens, Jack Reiter, Arturo, Giorgio, Cag, Aldo, Losco, Curtis (in uniform), a sailor called Nanhe, and another Italian who was being sent to undergo a course in wireless. I almost forgot the American Diplomat! The other party was approximately the same size, but we never saw them again till we were all safely on the other side, so I will leave them for the moment. Of our lot, twelve were accommodated in this billet.
There had been endless difficulties between Cag and Leo regarding the boats. Originally Leo had resented Cag’s presence because he said he was working in his (Leo’s) area. Now, however, that Cag had made the plan, and procured the boats and men to sail them, Leo sat back and did exactly nothing to help, but frequently accused Cag of taking the best boat and the best sailors. Cag dealt with all these petty jealousies in a most generous and tactful manner. I did my best to smooth over the difficulties, but as I was going with Cag, Leo regarded me with grave suspicion.
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Cag had paid Lire 35,000 for our boat, and the mast, sails, oars and rudder cost another Lire 30,000. I don’t know what he paid for the other – possibly about the same amount. The boats had lain on the beach for months without being put into the water, and therefore a good deal of tarring and pitching was necessary. Much was done, but as events turned out, it was not enough. All this had to be done at night, for there was a ban on boats, and any attention they received would most certainly have called for comment and aroused suspicions. On the 4th, however, Cag announced that all was ready, and that we were to try to get away that night if the weather was good.
It was necessary to have good weather, for the boat had to be pushed into the sea and towed out for some distance before it would be safe to put the sail up. The Adriatic frequently looks calm from a distance, but breakers often continue for some time after the weather has cleared. The question of wind also had to be taken into consideration, for ours was not a boat that was likely to be very easy to handle, and a favourable wind was an essential. The boat had the reputation of having crossed the Adriatic from Yugoslavia some months previously and was alleged to be a good boat, though good, with Italians, is a comparative term.
We were to embark at 10 p.m. or as soon after as possible. At this time it would be bright moonlight, a fact which gave us cause for some apprehension, but Cag dismissed our misgivings, saying that he had had the Fascist patrols along the railway watched, that their movements were regular, and at that time they would be well out of our way. The railway here runs very close to the sea, with the main road parallel and just inland of it. The patrols in this area used to come up from the South to Porto San Giorgio, where they repaired to a house to have dinner. After midnight they returned to their starting place, some five miles to the South.
It had been blowing up all day, and by dusk on the 4th it was decided that weather conditions were too bad to make an attempt. After some parleying with our hosts, they agreed to keep us on for another night, though they were not too happy about it. Nor were we, from the comfort point of view, for twelve in a small farm savours distinctly of overcrowding. Five had beds and there was just room for the remaining seven in the cowshed, with one sleeping directly below the cows’ tails. ‘ We decided therefore that if it were not possible to embark the next day, it would be essential to move.
There was no improvement on the 4th, so that night we counter-marched to a farm on the top of a hill some 40 minutes walk distant. This time John, Ted, Dan, Guy and I were together and the, others at another house. We had a good view of the sea, and spent a lot of time staring at it and hoping it would calm down. This, however, it showed no signs of doing in the immediate future, and we stayed there till the 8th, when the Contadino felt he could keep us no longer. Cag accordingly arranged for us to move to what we hoped would be a very temporary billet, closer to the beach.
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We moved after the evening meal, and found ourselves in a very poor farm, where there was not even sleeping accommodation in the cowshed. There was nothing for it but to make the best of the very limited space on the kitchen floor. By making adjustments of the furniture, we were able to clear sufficient space for all five of us to lie down, but It was a very hard floor! Our last billet on the wrong side of the line was the worst we’d ever had.
On the morning of the 9th it was still blowing to a certain extent, but the sea was undoubtedly calmer. Matters improved as the day went on, and during the afternoon Aldo arrived to tell us that it was considered good enough to have our try that night. We were to assemble at a house a short distance away, just off the main road and almost a mile from our point of embarkation. Here distribution of loads would be made. These consisted of food, water, oars, mast, sails and rudder. The time of start was to be 9.30 pm and it was hoped that if all went well we would be safely afloat by 10:30. Afloat we were, by the appointed time, but not so safely!
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At 9 p.m. on the evening of the 9th of May we assembled at the starting point. Arturo and Georgio took the demi-john of water between them, while two litre flasks and the food which consisted of six dozen hard boiled eggs and bread were distributed among the remainder of us. The Italians dealt with mast, sail, rudder and oars – no mean loads. We had had the All Clear information about the Fascist patrols, but were delayed for a few minutes while a small German convoy passed along the main road, some 100 yards from us. However we soon got started, whereupon I immediately took one of my periodical tosses down the bank into the road, but sustained no damage except a severe bruise on my left hip, and managed to preserve the flask of water I was carrying intact. A small hitch occurred crossing the railway under a narrow culvert, which was not wide enough for the demi-john, but that was overcome by taking it over the top.
In good time we arrived and had our first view of our boat. It was a seven-metre, and it looked as if it would be a bit of a squash for sixteen people. At first it refused to move from its bed, so it was necessary to scrape away the shingle below the bows, to provide a slope for it. This scraping process went on for a considerable time before there was any response from the boat, and it had to be repeated at intervals before any free movement was produced. In the meantime Aldo, Nanhe, and Guerrini put up the mast. At last the boat was coaxed to the water’s edge, and I took up my position in it. The others had to continue pushing till it was afloat, but I, with my game leg, could only be a handicap when it came to jumping in out of the water. There was a certain tense atmosphere connected with this operation and we were all keyed up somewhat, for we felt we must not fail. In consequence things were done rather at fever pitch, and provisions, water, boots etc. were hurled haphazard into the boat, and many items did not come to light till the next day. Moreover, someone put his foot on the hard boiled eggs!
We had a short pause before the final launching, to look round and see that nobody or nothing had been left behind, said farewell to Guerrini, and off we went. Aldo and Nanhe took the oars, while everyone tumbled in over the side, and away we went. Fortunately there was a cloud over the moon, which lasted till we were well out to sea. The whole operation had been completed in amazingly good time, for by 10.35 p.m. we were afloat and beyond the breakers, but it soon became apparent that the tarring and pitching had not been sufficient to overcome the shrinkage due to constant exposure without being in the water, and the sea flowed merrily in through the seams. Accordingly baling operations had to be initiated and these continued without ceasing until we quitted the boat.
Aldo was in a hurry to get the sail up, and hoisted it far sooner than we considered safe from observation, but as there was probably no one looking, presumably it didn’t matter much. The canvas soon filled, and we found ourselves bowling out to sea under a good breeze.
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Nanhe took the tiller, while Aldo ran over the rigging and generally saw to the trimming of the boat. We decided to sail almost straight out to sea for a time to get away from the shore, and then make course parallel with the land. Curtis had a good oil compass, so we were able to maintain our course.
The breeze soon freshened, with the natural sequence that most people were sick. There was no place to sit apart from the gunwale and a small covered space in front of the mast. There was never much less than a foot of water in the bottom of the boat in which odd boots, flasks and other articles wore floating. I was sick three times in quick succession, and then found my sea legs. John and the American were particularly badly affected, and others to a lesser degree. The Italian wireless man was either asleep or sick the whole time.
The breeze continued to increase, but it was fortunately in the right direction and we were making very good time, though in our little not too sea-worthy craft the waves appeared alarmingly high at times. Somewhere in the early hours of the morning, about 2 a.m., someone drew attention to the fact that there was an exceptionally large amount of water coming in under the bows. Aldo went forward to deal with it and soon called Nanhe to his aid, for it was a dangerous leak. While they were grovelling inside the small space with a torch, the mast worked out of its bottom socket, and took an alarming list to starboard. By superhuman efforts it was got back into position, but it had been a close call, for if the mast had really come adrift and over the side, that would have been the end of all of us, and apart from those who were too sick to care, we all realised it.
While the leak was being plugged, the water had been gaining on us, and as the baling bucket also leaked pretty freely, we took into use the brass case in which the boat’s compass rested, for being Italian, it was no use as a compass. Aldo worked hard at the leak, and eventually managed to get control of it, but it required constant attention. By this time everyone’s hands were covered with tar. It was impossible to avoid it, for it had been liberally used, and was far from dry. This however, was possibly a good thing, for it meant that plenty was available for plugging leaks.
With the dawn the wind began to diminish. When it was light enough to see the coast, we discerned a snow-covered mountain which those who had seen that coast before stated was the Maiella, but there was considerable discussion as to whether it was that or the Grand Sasso. It seemed impossible that we had made good enough time during the night to be far enough South to be opposite the former. Later on, however, as the light improved, we were able to distinguish another snow-covered mountain, and a comparison of shapes gave us our position roughly. Later, bursting shells on the coast proved that we were approximately opposite the junction of the lines. In the absence of a map I will not attempt to quote distances, but we had made astonishingly good progress during the night.
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We were a considerable distance out to sea, – probably 20 miles, but after all our wanderings we were determined not to make the mistake of running into any trouble if it could be avoided. We therefore edged only slowly into the coast, with the idea of getting ashore well South of Ortona. By this time those of us who were not too sick began to think of eating some food, but there were several who touched nothing the whole trip. The wind soon began to fail, and our progress became slower and slower, until about 10 o’clock we were entirely becalmed. We got the oars out and took turns at them, but the boat was heavy and our movement very slow.
About 10.30 a flight of Spitfires returning from a mission flew over us. We all stood up and waved frantically. One machine came down to about 300 feet, circled round us and then went off. The procedure was repeated a few minutes later when another flight came over. Our hopes ran high that a message might be sent to the effect that there was a boat, obviously not fishing, in our position, and a rescue craft sent. We felt it was not too much to hope for, but we were disappointed.
We continued our rowing, making perhaps half a mile an hour until about 4.30 p.m., when a slight breeze sprang up, and we progressed under sail. By this time we could make out the line of the coast, and could identity the mouth of the Sangro. Soon the masts of fishing boats came into view so we reckoned that we were in pretty safe waters. After about an hour’s sailing we found three of these vessels straight ahead of us, so we steered for the, middle of them, and finally came to within hailing distance of one, a fishing tug with an engine. The Master of this vessel spotted us at once for what we were, came alongside, and threw us a line. It was not long before all of us, except Aldo, Arturo and Giorgio, were transferred to this boat, with our rickety, leaky craft in tow. He suggested taking us to Ortona, to which we agreed.
I will not attempt to describe my feelings as I stepped on board that fishing tug. My first act was to congratulate Cag on having planned, organised and brought off, a very fine achievement. The little man was quite beside himself with joy. As we neared Ortona the realisation grew on us that we were really free men, no longer fugitives unrestrained. It was a wonderful feeling, after, in my case, two and a half years in prison and eight months wandering about the mountains and escaping. As I looked back at the rickety, leaky boat that had brought us down the coast, I realised the full significance of the Perils of the Sea, and I knew that we had been lucky to get through.
We reported to the Port Authorities at Ortona, who gave us cigarettes and a whisky and soda, something we had not drunk for over three years. We dined at the Headquarters of an Indian Brigade, and were sent to Lanciano. From there we were passed to the P. of War Reception Camp at Tornino di Sangro, where we arrived
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about 2 a.m., and thanks to the efforts of an elderly subaltern in charge, were soon bedded down. This was the 11th of May. None of us had slept a wink since early morning on the 9th, so it can be imagined that it did not take us long to get to sleep. When we woke, we found a towel containing all the necessities of washing and shaving gear on our beds, A great man, that subaltern. A hot shower and a good breakfast soon put us right and from there I went, with Pip and Baas, to stay the night at 5 Corps H.Q. [Head Quarters]. Next day we were motored to Caserta, where we were the guests of General Alexander at his most comfortable Guest House. After a busy day in Naples, shopping, changing money, getting inoculated, vaccinated and interrogated, I flew home via Naples, Algiers, Casablanca, New Qua! and Hendon. And so Home after nearly six years, for the last nine months of which there had been no communication between me and those who belonged to me in England.
Pip, Baas and Co., in their boat had much the same experiences as we did. They beat us on time, but I fancy they must have lugged the coast more closely than we did. Leo, they said, showed up well on the trip, but he was never lacking in courage. It was his everlasting intrigue and jealousy that made him so difficult. However, all those are matters of the past, but there is one man whose memory will live with us for ever, the gallant little Cag – a great gentleman with a very stout heart.