Alfred Allaway was a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade and imprisoned in Servigliano. At the mass break-out he joined many others moving into the surrounding countryside with Sergeant Bert Birkenshaw, ACC. They were housed in a farm near Penna San Giovanni and stayed for a few months, helping the farmer and his family. This account is notable for its descriptions of the daily life on this Italian smallholding. When Allied aircraft started to appear in the area in June 1944, they set out to meet up with their troops.
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.
(Sergeant/1st Battalion Rifle Brigade)
I teamed up with Sergeant Bert Birkenshaw ACC the night we left the prison camp at Servigliano. After stopping briefly in the wood (which seemed to be full of American soldiers) we continued up the river valley picking up 2 men from the Paras, Lou Bottono and Sergeant Ernie ?. Lou was to prove invaluable as our interpreter, he was born in Bethnal Green, London, of Italian parents.
We were crossing through an olive grove and we were surprised by a voice from one of the trees. ‘Bio Giorno’ it said and it was an old man who invited us to his house. We stopped with the ‘Vinaroli’ family for about a month, after which it became parent that they were getting very short of food. They would not ask us to leave so Bert and I moved on, leaving Lou and Ernie there.
We stopped at another farm for about a week but as it was near a road and railway, the farmer asked us not to show ourselves. The next day we thanked him for his hospitality and returned to the Monte San Martino area. We stopped at a rather run-down farm and were welcomed by a very strange family, which I will not dwell on as they were brave enough to take us in. We left us in the stables which were built very close to the mountainside. One night we had a very bad earth tremor and it seemed as though the whole place was going to collapse.
Bert eventually got accepted by a nice family called ‘Fabiolo’ and stayed there until we were able to meet our troops. I moved to the Penna San Giovanni side of the River Tenna and found a farm where I asked for shelter. After a ‘Bassetti family’ discussion I was made welcome and I remained there for 9 months.
I slept in the stables at first, but after a few weeks I was found a small storeroom and slept on a bed for the first time in ages. I, along with my friends, had to make a quick getaway on several occasions, when the Germans or Fascist came into the area looking to round up the 18-year old Italians who were supposed to join the forces. We went up the mountains for a few days and waited for things to quieten down before returning. We were very careful not to be caught near the farm.
On one occasion we had sheltered in an old disused house and the next morning we were sitting outside when a lady with a goat appeared and when she passed by she whispered ‘Fascisti’ and before we could hide an officer came into view and all he said was ‘Buon Giorno’ and walked on. We thought it was time to move on also.
On one occasion I had a warning and there was no time to get away, so I slept a couple of nights in the chicken coop half way down the field. We were invited one evening to Penna San Giovanni by the local tailoress and she cooked us a very nice meal accompanied by plenty of wine. The problem was getting past the Police Station without being seen as we had been warned in a previous encounter with the Police Chief the week before and he said ‘do not let me see you again or else’.
I had a shock myself one day. I was sitting by the fire in the house having a break when I heard someone coming to the door and ask for water. He was invited in and sat opposite me and warmed his hands by the fire. We struck up a conversation in our limited Italian when he pulled out a gun which I recognised as a German Luger. Pointing it at me he said ‘you must come with me’. The Bassetti children looking round the door and shrieked and ran away. He then smiled and said ‘do not be afraid, I am a deserter and on my way home to Poland’. He had been conscripted by the Germans. He had an unusual sense of humour!
I have quite a few happy memories as well. After the harvest the Bassetti family would all help to build a haystack and they celebrated with plenty of food and wine. Another event with a carnival atmosphere was when the grapes were ready and they were treading the grapes for the wine making.
During my stay with the family I worked at any job they asked me to do and they would pay me a small amount of money. The eldest brother Nazzerano was very adaptable and could put his hand to anything. He had a treadle-driven wood lathe and made wheel spokes for the carts and spinning wheels. He also tanned his own leather. Any bull calves were slaughtered by the miller near the river and the meat was shared but the hide came back to Nazzerano for tanning. He repaired my boots quite a few times. He took me out one Sunday and I helped him cut a tree trunk into planks with a large bow-saw. He took me out one Sunday and I helped him cut a tree trunk into planks with a large bow-saw. Christmas 1943 I went to church dressed in the civilian clothes belonging to Vicenzo, another brother, who was a PoW in England.
About early June 1944 we heard the sound of an aircraft engine and before we could think it passed along the line of the river sweeping around behind us. I recognised it as a Spitfire so was very pleased as I realised our troops were very near. The plane suddenly appeared over my head so I waved my handkerchief and the pilot waggled the plane’s wings in recognition, that made my day!
Later it was reported that our armoured cars had been seen in the area, so we decided to take our leave and try to join up with our troops. We were lucky enough after walking quite a few miles to find a Tank Corp lorry going to Pescara, from there to Naples and after 6 weeks home to England.