G.D.H. (Douglas) Flowerdew, a Major in the Royal Artillery (and regular soldier), was captured at Tobruk in 1942. In this self-published memoir from 1988, he describes life in PG 75 Bari (impressed by the SBO, Lt.-Col. Hugo de Burgh, later SBO of PG 49), PG 21 Chieti, where he was president of the mess committee, PG 38 Poppi, where he was adjutant, and PG 49 Fontanellato. His account is interspersed with a memoir by Drew Bethell, a Captain in the Royal Artillery who travelled with Flowerdew some of the way down Italy after they escaped at the Armistice. [Bethell had been captured in Tunisia in March 1943. He got through the lines near Frosolone in mid-October.]
Flowerdew made part of the journey disguised as a woman. He was recaptured on 19 October near the Bifurno River but escaped and established a camp on Monte Cavallo near Frosinone with some Indian soldiers, where they were joined by other groups of evaders: at one time there were as many as 26 in the camp. Flowerdew, a Gurkha and a mullah finally reached the village of Venafro, which was in American hands, on 12 November. (See also the documentary ʻStranger at the Gateʼ by Andrew Bethell, made with his father in 1986, retracing Drewʼs escape from Fontanellato to the Allied lines in 1943. The film was made and is owned by Double Exposure and transmitted on BBC2 in July 1987. This film below also features Douglas Flowerdew.
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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[Envelope on which is scribbled rough notes] Flowerdew, Douglas. ‘Finding the Way’ (Rev) Douglas Flowerdew. Short on practical detail, strong on human feeling for mankind.
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[Notes by Keith Killby]
Wanders round Tobruk for a day or two until completely captured.
Kind hearts and ferocity, cruelty and kindness were mixed up in their (Italian guards) every action.
Bari never a pleasant camp to be in; before the arrival of de Burgh it was hell. De Burgh gets order and respect.
Chieti: Rich in detail of camp
Capt Croce was put in a cell for five days for letting himself be impersonated by escaping PoW.
P[rison] camp at Poppi was large and more like a rest home.
Exit from Fontanellato dressed as a woman with Drew Bethell, recently captured in Tunisia. Go towards hills. Meet Italians speaking English with Welsh accent (Bardi?).
They get involved with a priest busy moving orphans south whom they contact at various points. Drew Bethell goes ahead. DB looks down on battle on plain before Campobasso and gets through.
DF a mile or two before the front line at Bifurno gets recaptured. With a mixed bag of recaptured PoWs for three days in a cellar.
Driven through C[astel] de S[angro] but before getting to Sulmona jumps from lorry – but whichever way he goes encounters Germans.
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Finally encounters shepherds who scatter with sheep to avoid Germans (DF carrying his shoes). Encounters more shepherds who want him to stay, which he is pleased to do to restore his shattered nerves and body.
An old shepherd with great ability leads him together with his small son on a donkey to a cousin much nearer the line. On arrival he is allowed to stay though the G[ermans] have announced their arrival in the village.
Next day he is taken to four Indian soldiers and all are befriended by a 16-year-old shepherd. Food had to be begged. Others encountered: three S. Africans, two Gurkhas, British Parachutists and two Brigadiers and Italian Glaswegians. Towards Casole some are caught but F gets through with one Gurkha and one Indian. Retires from the army in 1957 and is ordained as an Anglican priest in 1967.
Not strong on practical detail but his delight in humanity shows throughout.
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FINDING THE WAY: Wartime Adventures in Italy 1942–43
By Douglas Flowerdew
FINDING THE WAY is a story of capture in the desert, imprisonment, release after the Italian Armistice, then a hazardous 400-mile walk through German-occupied country, which was only made possible by the kindness and courage of countless Italians. Then came recapture and a daring escape. There followed many adventures and strange, sometimes comical, encounters in the mountains, before a final crossing of the lines of battle and reunion with the Allies.
This book is also the story of FINDING THE WAY mentally and spiritually from initial despair to an acceptance of the lot of the prisoner and fugitive. It shows how strong leadership can restore disciple and improve morale in the worst of circumstances, and describes the many ways prisoners found to occupy their time and retain their sanity.
Escape is a theme running all through the book. Some people felt that only by escape could the humiliation of defeat be wiped out. Major Douglas Flowerdew (31) teamed up with Captain Drew Bethell (22), both Gunner officers, after their release from Fontanellato Camp in Northern Italy, and they travelled together for about three weeks following the Armistice.
In 1987, Drew, by now a retired Major General, returned to Italy with his son Andrew to make a film, The Stranger at the gate, shown on BBC2 in July 1988, in which they retraced Drew’s journey and met many Italians who still remembered him.
Douglas Flowerdew, now a priest in the Church of England, took part in the film as a commentator, and here publishes his own story, first written in 1944. General Bethell’s account, on which the film was based, has been included in this book.
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FINDING THE WAY: Wartime Adventures in Italy, 1942/43
by Douglas Flowerdew, with a memoir by Drew Bethell
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© Rev. D. Flowerdew, 1988
ISBN 0 9514206 0 7
I should like to dedicate this book to all those who shared my experiences with me, especially to the memory of Drew Bethell, my friend and companion for the first part of the way. I am very grateful to Mrs Bethell and Andrew for allowing me to include the manuscript of Drew’s experiences, on which the film ‘The Stranger at the Gate’ was based.
I want to pay particular tribute to the many Italians for their help and kindness, often shown when life was very difficult for them. Without their great encouragement and practical help, it is obvious that I could never have ‘Found the Way’.
I also offer the book to my family and friends who have expressed a wish to have a record of my long walk; and especially I want to thank my wife for the immense amount of work she did in typing the manuscript and ‘tidying it up’.
My thanks are also due to my daughter Barbara for her excellent help and advice in preparing the book for the printers. I am also grateful to my granddaughter Andrea for the cover design and maps.
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|PHASE 1 – WAR IN THE WESTERN DESERT|
|Alone in the Desert||2|
|The German in the Night||2|
|PHASE 2 – PRISONER OF WAR|
|The Green Mirage||5|
|The Red Cross||12|
|A Drab Existence||13|
|Plans and Adventures||28|
|DREW BETHELL’S STORY||45|
|PHASE 3 – ON THE ROAD|
|Life on a Farm||49|
|On the Move||52|
|The Long Walk||54|
|Alone in the Mountains||63|
|Getting near the War||70|
|DREW BETHELL CONTINUES HIS STORY||74|
|PHASE 4 – DISASTER!|
|En Route for Germany||82|
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|PHASE 5 – IN SOUTHERN ITALY|
|I begin again||93|
|My Transit Camp||99|
|Three More Ridges||102|
|Disaster for Some||104|
|PHASE 6 – THE LAST LAP|
|The Little Hut||106|
|Rain in No-Man’s Land||110|
|Over the Top||113|
|We Join the Americans||115|
I had better introduce myself. At the beginning of the war in 1939 I was a regular officer, the Adjutant of a Survey Company in the north of England.
I was happily married, with two small children. The war changed life for our whole nation. The Army was mobilised, and families became scattered. At first my regiment was engaged in anti-invasion activities in south-east England. We moved to the Middle East in 1941.
While we were training in Egypt I became ill and was admitted to hospital, first in Cairo and later in South Africa, with a patch on my lung. Luckily I made good progress and, after some months convalescence, was pronounced fit for light duty. My doctor said that with adequate rest and plenty of milk and butter in my diet I should make a complete recovery.
I was posted back for light duty to the School of Artillery in Cairo. However, it was not to be. A senior officer in my regiment was wounded and I was graded fit and posted to the Western Desert to take his place. I arrived back just in time for the siege and fall of Tobruk.
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PHASE 1 – WAR IN THE WESTERN DESERT
On May 1942 a major battle had taken place west and south of Tobruk. The German and Italian Armies had won major engagements, and the Allied 8th Armies had withdrawn towards the Egyptian frontier, leaving about 2 Divisions to try to hold Tobruk, as a similar force had done the previous year. A short sharp German/Italian attack achieved a rapid penetration and threatened the destruction of the Allied forces. The Allied General decided that the situation had become hopeless, and surrendered to save his Division from annihilation.
I had been to conference at R.A.H.Q., but nobody seemed to know what was happening. A battery of medium guns was in position outside the cave which was our headquarters, firing away to the east. A German tank took up a position over our heads on the escarpment and sprayed streams of tracer bullets against the battery. All we could do was to lie low till the battle moved away from us. Gradually things quietened down and I and a sergeant went out to investigate the tank which had been shooting up the battery. It was getting dark and we ran little risk. I hoped we might climb up the hill to shoot at the tank’s crew, or at any other Germans who might be about. But we were too late, they had gone off to their suppers.
We settled down to wait to see what the night would bring forth. As we watched in the moonlight we saw tanks and lorry after lorry of German troops moving eastward on the road. The situation was hopeless. I gave orders for the destruction of our equipment and we got to work with sledge-hammers, breaking up very expensive sound-ranging machinery. Just before dawn we finished and buried the skeleton. It was too late to move that day and, anyway, we did not know which way to move. We hid in our cave, keeping a guard and hoping we would not be discovered by the German. It was only then that we learnt that the Divisional Commander had surrendered.
We had a respite until three o’clock when a party of Germans discovered the cave. We were forced to surrender or we would have been blown out of our cave by grenades. The Germans were friendly, anxious to show off their English, and not at all alert. They were shepherding us towards a huge prisoners’ cage and I felt it was time for me to make myself scarce. I dodged into a nearby shed and was
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able to get out of a window at the back and climb onto the roof where I stayed all day.
Alone in the Desert
The next four days were pretty unpleasant. That night I climbed in the moonlight up the escarpment and had to pick my way through a sleeping German camp. I got through, and decided to move eastward towards the Guards who, I hoped, were still fighting. I had seen columns of prisoners coming from the west. I found the plain above the escarpment solid with German and Italian camps. Sometimes there were sentries and they called to me, but I shambled off and they took no notice. As dawn was breaking I went to earth in a good dugout and tried to rest. This procedure went on. There was food in the dugouts but little water and most of what there was, was bad.
One day I had to leave when searching Germans were only about twenty yards away, but luckily they were looking for loot and I pretended to do likewise. They did not notice me. I moved away a little, and sank down in a hole in the ground. To my horror I found it was a newish grave, but I had to stay there till nightfall.
One night, the third I think, I found an Allied hospital that had been abandoned. All had been destroyed, and I found nothing except a can of very good Alexandrian water (clear drinking water with no foul taste). Someone had left a clean white cup beside it, and I had a good drink and filled by [my] water bottle. As I walked on I wondered whether it had been poisoned and I began to imagine all sorts of horrible deaths. Next I found a small Indian hospital which was still open, and was told that there were no Allied troops still fighting. I was given some food and allowed to rest for a short time, but the Germans were expected back in the morning so I sadly moved on. I was very tired and felt I couldn’t walk much more, so I began to look for possible transport. There were plenty of more or less disabled British Vehicles lying about, but I failed to start any.
The German in the Night
It was the middle of the night, and I was alone in the Western Desert. I was getting very tired and my morale was low. I was not long recovered from a bad illness, and had been warned not to undergo
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undue strain. I could see no sign of Arabs, who I hoped might help me, nor did I meet any other escapers. I decided that I would have to try to start one of the many demobilised lorries or cars which abounded on the battlefield. I spent much time and energy trying to crank big lorries, and was quite worn out. When I came to a good-looking British staff car, I was at my last gasp, falling over stones that weren’t there.
I opened the door of the staff car, and found myself looking down the wrong end of a Luger, behind which a tough-looking German blond of about nineteen regarded me with a look that conveyed a doubt in his mind as to whether he might as well shoot me and save himself trouble. My German wasn’t very good. I told him I was worn out and undertook not to try to escape. He motioned me into the back of the car amidst iron telephone drums and other odds and ends, and after a bit went to sleep. I couldn’t sleep, and wondered whether I should try to escape, or to shoot him with his own pistol. I had promised, but the position was peculiar. Everyone should be taught to use enemy weapons. Had I been certain that I could use the pistol I could have shot him or wakened him and taken him prisoner. But even if I escaped I couldn’t get far and he might wake and shoot me.
When morning came he gave me an English razor and we washed and I shaved – he didn’t need to! Then we tried to start the staff car, or rather he tried while I watched. It would need a workshop repair. The German had been left by his officer, who wanted the car, to guard it till he could bring a breakdown lorry to collect it.
The German asked me for my watch and ring, but when I said my wife had given them to me, he did not take them. He showed me photos of his wife and baby. He had done the whole job in one short leave and seemed to have considerable pride in them both. The time was about 5 a m. and there were other Germans in the offing. My captor gave me a demonstration with his pistol and without much argument, let me have a shoot with it, too. I fired at the target and looked round to see whether I could do anything positive, but except for a mad fling I could do little and I was still very tired as I had not slept for several days.
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[Map showing Flowerdew’s route from Fontanellato to Allied lines at Venafro]
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PHASE 2 PRISONER OF WAR
The Green Mirage
I do not look back on the next stage into captivity with any pride. I had reached the lowest ebb in my morale during the latter stages of my night walk in the desert. I was afraid and had no hope. I might be blown up on a mine, I might die of thirst, or I might have a serious relapse of my illness. I was tired and had no map or compass. The Allies were about 200 miles away across the desert. I was beaten and I began to think of the alternative. I felt a longing for rest and, above all, for green fields – lovely luscious grass.
I had been taken away from my captor in a lorry, and the driver, after congratulating me on being on my way to Germany, kindly stopped at a dugout to get me some warm clothes, as I had only a shirt and a pair of shorts. It turned out to be the dugout of a Gunner major, already captured, and they brought out some kit already provided with crowns. I got, amongst other things, a British warm and a pair of corduroy trousers. I was to be thankful for them later on.
I was taken to a repair dump where some German and British drivers were salvaging some vehicles. Our troops had been invited to work in exchange for what food and water they could scrounge, and for a day out of the accursed cage. No-one who has not been in a desert prisoner of war cage, without water, and very short of food, for days in the dusty, blazing sun, can blame these lads for their actions. I was kept with them and we fed royally and made some tea. We also bathed. In the evening we were driven in a small convoy to the PoW cage, and I really was “in the bag”. The cage consisted of a space of desert surrounded by a low wire fence and sentries. Round the edge were shallow trenches which had been used as latrines, without any form of treatment, by about 30,000 men.
I found four officers from one of the Gunner regiments sheltering under a small bit of tarpaulin on two tar barrels. My own officers had been taken away, but the men were still there. They were splendid, sitting quietly in their groups, uncomplaining, and making the best of a bad job. They were sorry to see that I had not got away, but were pleased to see me. I spent my time between them and the other Gunner officers, and we hung about, hiding among the men when the Germans called for the officers. We hoped against hope for rescue. When we weren’t hoping, we were buoyed up by
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the green mirage. We got very little food and water. Some prisoners had rushed the water point, which the Germans had established inside the camp, and a good deal had been spilt. There was a sort of administration running the cage, but it was very disorganised, as most units had lost their discipline and authority was almost entirely by moral suasion.
Halfway through our stay, the Italians took over the cage, and what had been disorganisation became chaos. They had lost so many prisoners themselves, and had been fed on atrocity stories, so were a bit apt to get excited and shoot into masses of defenceless prisoners. They did shoot some for jeering, and others for laughing when someone threw a stone at the photographer. Before the Germans left, an officer took the names and addresses of all my battery and a broadcast message about some of us got through to Britain very quickly.
One day, half my troops were taken off and I and the other half cheered them and they us. I had a difficult decision to make: I might take off my crowns and go with the men. I was tempted to do so, but I didn’t think I could do them much good, and I didn’t feel that my recent illness would be improved by undergoing the hardships which we might be called on to endure. After much thought I decided to remain with the officers. We were crowded into a big open lorry and driven off westwards. It was a very hot, uncomfortable ride and, although I had begun to look out for a means of escape, especially near Senussi encampments, there didn’t seem to be much opportunity. We spent one night in a dreadful old fort near Timimi, where the sanitation beggared description. The trouble was that the Italians never in their wildest dreams had contemplated such a huge bag of prisoners.
We drove back through jubilant German and Italian troops, who expected to be in Cairo any day. Some of us had some wild idea of seizing arms and occupying the small towns we passed through. There were practically no fighting troops and, had we been able to do anything, it was possible to imagine a very interesting state of affairs. We passed through the lovely green belt of Mussolini’s colony. We were all bewildered; we suspected everyone and everything.
There was a perfectly genuine Colonel of Lancers, of whom we were very suspicious. He was captured by himself, and had been taken round the battlefield, and met Rommel. He was in our lorry, and was taken out just before we got to Timimi, to spend the night
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in a mysterious house. He joined us again later, and some of us were sure he was a spy. Poor Colonel, he said afterwards that no-one was more frightened than he, when he was separated from us, and that he had had a very uncomfortable night.
Some officers made a point of being as truculent with the Italian sentries as possible. I think it did little to help us to win the war, and certainly made us far more uncomfortable and unpopular than we need have been. However, it takes all sorts to make a world. One chap, who afterwards became a great friend of mine, annoyed us very much with his lordly airs, but by sending a message to the commandant at Timimi fort (the lowest hell!), he managed to get some food sent in to us and a bottle of wine from the commandant’s table.
We arrived at a sort of transit camp at Derna, where we caught up with most of the officer prisoners. We had to fill in large forms of particulars, and many officers, in a fit of zeal, refused to disclose their religion or their father’s name. We also sent off the famous postcard on which we had to admit that we were prisoners of the Italians and were being treated well. This camp was a sort of barracks and stables. It had ground-sheet tents up against the walls, to increase accommodation, and straw to sleep on.
In many ways it was a well run show. The commandant was a funny little man who had been a tourist guide, and, judged by later Italian commandants, was very good. He had an impossible problem and really tried. We got a little money, some good ersatz coffee and some fine loaves of bread. We also got some Italian ‘bully-horse’ and, once a day, a mess-tin full of boiled rice. Gradually, officers were taken off in lorry loads to Benghazi, and thence, by air, to Italy. To while away our time, we watched the bersaglieri in their funny hats with plumes, running about on parade, and listened to them singing their patriotic airs every evening. One night we had a concert, and, in a lull, an Italian soldier began to sing in a wonderful tenor voice. When he finished we all clapped. He was delighted, and sang again, after that, on all possible occasions. It was just one of those almost musical comedy incidents which were always happening with our Italian guards. Kind hearts and ferocity, cruelty and kindliness, were mixed up in their every action.
At last we left and drove off into Benghazi. What wonderful engineers the Italians are! The road winding down into Benghazi was a great feat. It wound round, almost crossing over itself on its way
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down. We drove to the aerodrome and, about twenty at a time, were shepherded into large Savoias and flown over to Italy.
Most of the way we flew almost at water level, in order to avoid the RAF. The door into the cabin was open and some nonchalant, effeminate-looking pilots and radio operators (not at all military looking) might well have been flying a routine trip. We had four Italian armed guards in the plane with us, but they were asleep or air-sick most of the way. Some of us held whispered consultations about taking over the plane, but a large South African colonel, whom we did not know, filled the seat nearest the cabin on one side opposite a guard, and our own pilot companion did not feel confident about taking over the plane in a rough house. One of the pilots might have had a pistol about him!
The sea was lovely, and when we landed at a pretty little place called Lucca, the green mirage seemed to be coming true. It wasn’t quite true, as we had a fairly hostile reception from the inhabitants, and spent, a night in extreme discomfort on the floor of a very dirty barracks. Some of our more fortunate companions were taken to a Red Cross place, where they were fed and accommodated in some comfort. For about a fortnight, life had been pretty unpleasant. I had happened to have a pack of cards on me and there were about two more packs amongst us, so we had a little bridge; but what kept us going was the feeling, that once we were out of accursed Africa, life would be green and bearable.
Bari camp had one miracle; except in the isolation huts, there was access to ever-flowing taps of delicious cold water; otherwise it was so frightful that I don’t know where to begin to describe it.
We arrived in what we stood up in, and did get one, what was called ‘disinfestation’, hot shower. We were completely free from vermin, but the bath was well worth it; otherwise, while in the isolation huts, we washed when we could, at the two or three taps, when they were running. We slept, forty in a room, in double-decker, four-sleeper bunks, and, as they were new, they were mercifully clean. We had one blanket and a very poor grass mattress. (The poor troops were sleeping on the ground.)
We got miserable rations – about an eggcup full of ersatz coffee at about 6 a m., and a mid-day meal between 1 and 3 p m. This meal
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consisted of some grass-like soup and either one tomato or one green fig or a chilli, or two or three very salt anchovies. Twice a week we got a small square of roast meat. It was very small and often three parts gristle. We also got one small roll of bread. It was poor quality brown bread, with a large proportion of chestnut flour and other odd bits of string etc. As far as I remember, we got a small mess-tin of rice or macaroni later in the evening.
This diet meant that we were very hungry indeed. Most of us just had strength enough to walk for about half an hour in the morning or afternoon and then spent what time we weren’t on roll-call parades on our beds. Most of the time we were at Bari we got few Red Cross parcels, and, when we did, we had to share one between ten or one between four. It wasn’t the fault of the Red Cross or the Italians. They simply couldn’t cope with the rush of extra prisoners.
With the shortage of food, all sorts of cooking went on. Some people still had some tea or coffee which they had nursed throughout their travels. Some of it had been used many times, but it did produce a brew. Others had Army biscuits, which they used to make into a dreadful porridge. Most of us had some sort of scheme for soaking the anchovies to get the salt out of them, and many of us used to concoct a sort of paste. I found that it was possible to fry gristle into an edible sort of crackling. I also experimented with olives and nuts, trying to extract oil to cook with or to make some sort of margarine. When we did get shares of parcels, we were in heaven, and made ourselves milk drinks and other lovely brews.
However, I anticipate. For about a month there were no parcels. The roll calls I have referred to were an interminable farce. We fell in by bungalow or hut and stood on parade while illiterate Italian soldiers tried to count us, and what with one thing and another, we were often standing about for a couple of hours. Officers, myself included, took chess games or books on parade with us. There were a very few books and these were swapped around. Some carvers made chess men. I made myself a pair of wooden sandals and a set of poker dice. The latter turned out to be a bit crooked and would have had me blackballed from any gambling club.
Our cooking was peculiar. In addition to brews, men grubbed up roots and tried cooking them. Others ate lucerne in sandwiches, between slices of bread. The camp was in an olive grove, and we were constantly having trouble with the Italians over the trees. We had our cooking to do, even when it was only boiling water, and the
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Italians said that they were short of fuel and would give us no wood. We got some from the sentries and most of the fruit trees disappeared almost by magic. Food seemed to be the main occupation with most people – food and smokes. Officers would barter pound notes, watches or petrol lighters with the Italians for loaves of bread or cigarettes. I think that the black market value was one pound equals one loaf equals ten cigarettes; but it fluctuated.
It was terrible the way people quarrelled about food. The servers were watched by all eyes and grumbles were frequent. “So-and-So’s tomato is bigger than mine.” … “X always gives his friends better helpings than the rest”. Some of us tried to be above food and, personally, I ate very little as I don’t like tomatoes or figs and much of the rest made me feel sick; but the petty quarrelling that went on was disgusting. There were many grand chaps in the camp but, generally, behaviour was very bad. Our few scanty rags had to be watched while they dried on the lines or they would vanish. Some officers did not wash and others grew beards. There was some excuse for this, as few of us had razors, and blades, even blunt Italian blades, were very scarce. The difficulty was that there was no discipline. Senior officers were sometimes as bad as the others. We were out of the war and A was as good as B.
Rooms elected representatives, who went to the bungalow commanders’ conference. I went to these conferences, and they were always wrangling about complaints by one room about another or about the way the food was distributed. All these troubles were the result of a complete breakdown of morale. There were many able, brave officers, but all the best of them wanted was to be left in peace. They could and would do nothing towards the community’s good and, as a result, bad types ran riot and stirred up ill-feeling and made trouble. Senior officers had a difficult time. They were unpopular. They were part of the failure and it was felt that they had let the show down.
I caught up with the officers of my battery, who had arrived at Bari before me, and was received with coolness. I had been their commander and should have saved them. Some felt that I should not have escaped myself after they had been taken. This attitude can be understood after the disaster we had all been through, but, right or wrong, it added very much to my unhappiness. Many other senior officers were in a similar position. Things which had annoyed their juniors, when they were powerless to show their annoyance, now
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came in for criticism. Bari was never a pleasant camp to be in; before the arrival of de Burgh it was hell!
Lieut. Col. H.G. de Burgh was a regular Gunner officer. He had been commissioned in 1914/18 war and, while still very young, did brilliantly. I first met him in 1932 when he was still a captain, but he impressed me as one of the two or three potentially great men I had met. He was of medium build and had dark hair and very blue eyes. He wore his hat at a jaunty angle and, even as a prisoner of war, managed to look smart, dressed in a very much washed bush shirt and corduroy trousers. He was a man of very strong personality and one whom troops admired. I suppose he had a disarming smile, which he turned on when he was being abominably rude. He had a quick brain and a very ready answer. I would describe him as one who would have been at home at Queen Elizabeth I’s court.
In this war, he started off by going to Africa as a C.R.A. (Commander, Royal Artillery), but, when the East African campaign was over, he moved to the Middle East. Perhaps he wanted a more active part in the war. This move cost him his brigadiership, as he had to get used to the desert before he could become a C.R.A. again. He was given command of a medium regiment of Territorials, and, almost at once, settled down with them. He appreciated their keenness and general ability, and they soon realised what an exceptional commander they had been given. There is little doubt that he would have gone far. He was captured after Tobruk, where he had rather shaken everyone by using his medium guns against tanks in the open.
When he arrived at Bari his career was wrecked. A lesser man would have sunk down into the general depression and demoralisation. Not so de Burgh. He was the Senior British Officer and made his presence felt very quickly. First, he realised that, in order to be in any position to argue with the Italians, we must be a disciplined mass. He said roll-call was his parade, and insisted on giving out all the Italians’ instructions himself. He made one or two strong speeches and beards all came off.
In less time than it takes to tell, the camp was a different place. We obeyed de Burgh’s orders, and all Italian orders had to come through him or they weren’t obeyed. He restored discipline to
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bungalows, and elected representatives ceased to represent the rooms. Parades were smartly carried out and general matters were put on a proper basis. Camp entertainments and classes were given a big boost, and rackets and illicit trading with the Italians stamped out. All the remaining British currency in the camp was called in, receipts were issued, and what was not taken up by approved would-be escapers was burnt before witnesses.
Escaping activities were regulated, and a committee was formed to help officers who could produce a scheme which had a reasonable chance of success. We even considered a plan for taking over the camp and beginning a campaign of guerilla warfare.
The Italians admired de Burgh immensely. He was so obviously a great man, and despite the difference in their position, de Burgh conferred with them on terms of equality. There is little more to add. The increased discipline in the camp, and de Burgh’s success with the Italians, brought about a vast improvement. Bari was still terrible, and for a whole year more the Italian authorities would not let the Red Cross representative visit the camp, excusing themselves that it was only a transit camp.
The Red Cross
Before closing this section I will add a word about the Red Cross. The South African Colonel I have referred to had been a prisoner in 1914/18 war. In the early days he gave us a lecture and talked of Red Cross parcels and other Red Cross activities. He said, when it was all over, we would never be able to pass a Red Cross appeal for money without giving something. He couldn’t have been more right.
It is impossible to over-estimate the value of the work of the Red Cross. The prisoners’ parcels were beyond praise, and their organisation to help families at home was wonderful. In addition to all this, they, through their neutral representatives, looked after the interests of prisoners and, with firmness and extreme tact, helped to get rid of cruelty and bad treatment.
The fact that they are in touch with both sides prevents the detaining power from abusing the position of prisoners of war. It also protects the detaining power from the activities of camp commandants who may be tyrants. By the last expression, I mean that, during their visits, the Red Cross representatives get full reports from the prisoners on their treatment. A timely report by the visitor
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may enable the detaining power to change an unsuitable commandant before reprisals are set in motion.
A Drab Existence
At Bari many of us spent a lot of time trying to work out codes to use in our letters home. This was thwarted, as most of the letters didn’t get home, and those that did, did not convey the secret message to their recipients. The trouble was that it was quite impossible for people outside a prison camp to have minds in touch with their men in the camp. If two people are living in much the same conditions and their minds are in tune, they can, when separated, convey a meaning to each other by some obscure reference or by some odd remark. This does not seem to work when such a thing as imprisonment violently alters the life of one of them.
We set much store by the earlier letters we sent home. We tried to reassure our loved ones. We wanted to ask for clothes, for books, for seeds, for escape apparatus and hundreds of other things. As a result we crammed as many words as possible on to a page. Someone managed to write 500 words on a small piece of paper, only writing on 24 lines. Of course, the censors just tore up the letters. I am sure the only way to write one’s first letters is for a set of friends to write a long letter, very clearly written, in large letters, in instalments, serially, to a set of wives. They would have to be passed round and pieced together at home but that could be done – my wife says “No!”
At about this, time Bari Camp began to empty. In theory, the Italians divided the Empire troops from the rest, and field officers from juniors; but, in our case, the thing was done weirdly. We said goodbye to the junior British officers, and then to the South Africans. That left a batch of field officers, some South Africans, some later arrivals who were Australians and New Zealanders, and a collection of junior British officers. For Bari, there followed a golden age. The fruit season was coming in, and, as we got exactly the same amount of food for a much smaller number of officers, we did well, especially in grapes, peaches, apricots and other fruits. Then we left Bari, and, lo and behold, we found ourselves once again with our junior officers and the South Africans.
Before we left, we evolved a scheme for throwing small packets, containing a little tea or coffee, or cigarettes, out of the train, with
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suitable propaganda messages written to the Italians, but the scheme was not approved by the senior officers, who thought it would do little good and would certainly bring down the wrath of the authorities on our heads.
It was a day and a half, the day we left Bari. We filed out of the wire fence at about 5 a.m. as our names were called. We waited about until 10 a.m. and then went through, two at a time, to be searched. What a time that was! We knew enough about being searched by then, not to lose our belongings, but not enough to do it without fuss and melodrama. The search was full of complaints and, if one complained long enough, one would be allowed to go back to the bundle of stuff confiscated and find one’s property – with a sentry looking on. Then one would palm all sorts of treasures that could be returned to their owners. Things were hidden in boots, in pots of jam, in handkerchiefs, in the palm of the hand; sewn into clothing, and even under the badges on one’s shoulder straps. Money, maps, knives, compasses, cameras, and all sorts of treasures, were smuggled through. The search took so long and the confusion was such that we missed the train at 7 p m. and had to be fed and given bedding. We were then marched round carrying our kit, a mattress and blankets, to the old isolation hut for the night. My kit was pretty heavy so I tied it all up in a big roll and rolled the lot along the ground. The Italian sentries were furious, and we had a terrific scene; I, swearing at them and rolling the kit along in front of me, and most of the sentries guarding us all standing around and shrilly screaming abuse at me. It was fun! Finally, the interpreter came to see what was to do, and, to my delight, ordered one of the sentries to carry the bundle while I walked alongside.
We had a fair journey in first class carriages, and waged a perpetual war against our guards, who tried to make us travel with the blinds drawn. We were very closely guarded, travelling with sentries in each compartment and more in the corridor. This did not stop a bright spark from cutting a large railway map out of its frame, right under the nose of a sentry.
There was no opportunity to escape from the train, and we arrived at Chieti Camp one summer evening. It appeared to be a lovely change from Bari. Bari had been flat and dusty; Chieti lay in a green hollow with a picturesque town, towering up above the camp, with a delicate spire showing against the skyline. The camp itself was enclosed in a high wall, with sentry boxes at corners and at intervals;
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it was a well proportioned encampment with flat roofed T-shaped bungalows on either side of the centre road and a nice looking cookhouse at the top. Even a water tower in the grounds was beautifully proportioned. (It didn’t have any water in it!)
Each bungalow was designed to hold about 200 officers, but when we were there, there were more like 300 in each. By Bari standards, the Italian administration was efficient. It had also been well run by some junior British officers, who received us kindly. Cooking facilities were very inadequate and the ration was poor. In most large southern Italian prison camps, there was a lot of trouble over food. The officers’ food consisted of the sedentary Italian basic ration, and what could be bought locally. In South Italy, the poorness of the country, and the scarcity of populace, made it impossible for the locality to support a large prison camp. Nor were there suitable facilities for the transport of fuel or supplies from any distance, even if the camp officials would take the trouble to search for the stuff. At Chieti, there was a very good quartermaster who did his best, but he was not encouraged by a bad commandant or series of commandants, as they didn’t stay long – or by the real power behind the throne, a Captain called Croce, of whom more anon.
It was difficult to find out what Chieti had been built for. It was a new building, and some said it had been designed as a better type of concentration camp, and others, that it was a barracks.
As we settled down we found out the peculiarities of the camp. It was a very democratic place, in that there was a very vocal lot of junior Allied officers, who reckoned that they had finished with the war, and who were much in evidence. They buckled down and got to work at their civilian careers. It meant that there was a first class educational programme, and that there were many excellent teachers on all manner of subjects. It also meant that there was a very high-class theatrical community who produced excellent plays. We had a very good band and some expert musicians. Someone wrote down the whole score of Snow White out of his head. On the educational side, the most popular lectures were on philosophy, on estate management, and on the theory of music. All tastes were catered for. There was even a class of young men who wished to take Holy Orders, who lived in a small community under a padre.
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Another excellent feature was our news service. The local paper was available and other small bits of news filtered in, and there was also news in letters. The whole lot was co-ordinated, and a well-produced news sheet was passed round.
On Sundays, the news of the week would be discussed in a large hall. Experts were to be found to talk about the oil wells of Rumania, the Malayan forests, the importance of gold, and about any conceivable topic. There were sailors and airmen to talk about their own trades, and sometimes new arrivals who, under suitable cross examination, could give an interesting lecture on recent events. The news kings brought off a big scoop over an offensive, and there was no holding them after that.
The camp was run, under the Senior British Officer, by a sort of cabinet. There were representatives from all sorts of communities – education, the hospital, the band, the officers in command of other ranks’ messing, the pay people and many others. In some ways, they reminded me of the present trend of everybody asking for more money. Every department wanted more money, the band to buy better or bigger instruments, the theatre to buy lighting gear and costumes, the educational staff to buy text books for teachers, the games people to buy footballs and so on.
Two of the most popular institutions in the camp were the motor club, which occupied hundreds on Sunday afternoons, and the gramophone club which, after some stormy sessions between high and low brows, settled down to semi-secret meetings and lost itself in music.
Despite these amenities, Chieti was a bad camp. No-one seemed to trust anyone else, and there was not the generosity that characterised other camps, where, if anyone needed something, someone would have it and give it to, or lend it to the chap who wanted it. I was, for my sins, in charge of messing for the last half of my stay in Chieti, and it was a thankless task. The available food was poor, and the cooking facilities were very bad. Fuel was short and the Italians were unhelpful.
It could have been very much improved by the intelligent use of meats etc. from Red Cross parcels. This was done in many of the camps, where most of the stuff in the parcels went straight into a store, and was issued in bulk every day to the cook-house. Even a small proportion of meat or bacon in a stew made a wonderful difference, and such a plan did away with the curse of private
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cooking, and the frightful mess caused by each officer carrying about with him a whole lot of open tins. A further advantage was that some sort of reserve could be built up for winter, when the seasonable things would not be available, or for a rainy day.
Both my predecessor and I worked very hard to persuade the camp to agree to some such scheme, but, from the fuss there was, you would have thought that we planned to eat the tinned stuff ourselves. In the end, we did get some tins from the parcels put by for a winter reserve, and I believe the scheme worked well, but I was no longer there to see.
Another trouble was the hospital. We had quite a lot of illness that winter. It was chiefly jaundice, and the hospital was inadequate and badly run. The same food was served up as in the messes, and most of it was almost inedible for well people, and the sick couldn’t touch it. We were able to get some Italian condensed milk through the canteen and the cooks made a special effort to produce invalid food – with some success. We had two first class officer cooks and a good staff.
The whole thing could have been greatly improved by a small contribution of the more invalidish things out of the parcels of the rest of us, but the camp would not budge. Some argued, with truth, that they fed their friends in hospital; and others, also with truth, that there were some frauds in hospital. However, an excellent chap looked after the patients in an unofficial way, and did wonders. His job was very difficult, as the Italian doctors would not allow our doctors near the hospital, and were very touchy. However, he kept on the right side of them and was responsible for many improvements.
During the worst days, I had a spell in hospital. I went in with a slight go of fever, and, when I was better, I tried to sham a relapse of my old complaint, in order to get repatriated. The old Italian doctor was most sympathetic, and each time I produced a new symptom he examined me thoroughly, and, with tears of relief, reassured me that all was well. However, he did get me, on payment, some milk for a week or two.
The Italian doctors came in for a good deal of criticism. They were rough and had no anaesthetics. They were, compared with our ideas, criminally careless in their use of dirty instruments, which they used on a number of patients, one after another. On the other hand, they had a good rough knowledge of medicine, from long and
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intimate experience among sickness and disease. There was one chap who claimed to be an expert on bridge, love and eye operations. He had such a remarkable success with an Italian officer with an appalling squint, that one or two of us, with similar troubles, allowed him to operate on them, without anaesthetics. The results were very successful. He just chopped about optic nerves with a pair of scissors with four men holding down the patient. (Perhaps I exaggerate, as I never saw one of these operations; but, if so, the exaggeration is only slight.) I never played bridge with him nor did I have an opportunity to watch his technique on love.
I was, rather to my dismay, put onto a course of calcium injections. The old doctor, a kindly little chap who shuffled about like a little mouse in boots, and was neither soldier nor Fascist, was rather fond of injections. He had an Italian orderly who fancied himself at them. He certainly was very good. His technique was to have the patient face downward on a bed and, while the rest of the ward watched fascinated, he would poise the needle and, with a dart thrower’s flick, jab it into the exposed portion of the patient. It didn’t hurt, and was fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, the outside world was existing as best it could during the winter. (It was the winter before we had our parcel reserve.) Most of us were still in much washed, tattered drill shorts, and there was some pretty fancy tailoring. One school of thought sacrificed a blanket to create a suit or just a pair of long trousers, while another planned a dual purpose garment. It was a sort of shepherd’s cloak which reverted to blanket by night. Some were most ingenious. Another minority went in for a form of part-mystic, part-hardening process and walked about with bare feet, practically naked. It may have done them a lot of good, but it certainly made the rest of us horribly cold to watch them.
One officer got a book parcel long before any of the rest of us. How it happened is hard to explain. His theory was that, when his mother heard of his need, she instructed her butler to go down to the bookshop and order the seller to despatch by airmail Master Gerald’s requirements. Whether it was the indomitable spirit of the mother or the Jeeves-like skill of the butler, the result was miraculous, or perhaps the Pope helped! Anyhow Master Gerald’s book arrived long before most of us even got a letter.
Escaping had rather died down for the winter. I sometimes lay on my bed trying to levitate myself out of prison, but I had no real
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success! An amusing and ingenious escape was carried out successfully by some of my friends. I have mentioned the sinister Captain Croce, the Italian interpreter. He was reputed to have been the head of Lloyd Triestino in America, before the war. He was a tall man with wide shoulders and a very narrow waist. He had cold blue eyes, and was one of the smoothest men I have ever met. He wore a smart beard and a bright jewelled ring. His boots were perfect and his uniform just right. He used an expensive scent, and was about the most elegant chap in the camp. With infinite pains, someone made up a complete uniform out of odd bits of cloth and cardboard. Our prisoner grew the beard and, one day a different Captain Croce walked mincingly out of the main gate, followed by two prisoners dressed as Italian soldiers, carrying suitcases. The sentry didn’t even stop them for the small metal discs all Italians received or gave up, as they entered or left the prisoners’ enclosure. About half an hour later, the astonished sentry saw the real Captain Croce again walk out of the same gate, this time without his escort. His alarm was given and, unfortunately, the escapers were caught some hours later. The real Captain Croce was put in the cells for four days, by the Italian commandant, for allowing himself to be impersonated.
Another lad escaped in uniform, and, by dashing past the barrier, managed to get into Pescara station. He found the right train by rushing up to each train as it was about to leave and shouting “Milano?” at the nearest passengers. Eventually someone said, “Si, si” and pulled him aboard. He dodged the inspectors on the train by walking up the train in front of them, getting out at a stop, and getting in again at the back of the train. Finally he was caught between two of them; but, although he pretended to be a German and got away with it with the first Italian-speaking German, he was taken for interrogation at a station and, despite a breakaway, fell over some ornamental chains in the dark and was caught.
Another Italian who caused us some amusement was our commandant, who was brave enough to wander about alone at night in camp. He was short and fat, and, when excited, jabbered at us in a rather harsh voice. Someone nicknamed him Donald Duck, and the name stuck. There was a terrific to-do once, when a general came to visit the camp. Donald Duck wanted us to come to attention, as the Italians all did, at the sound of the trumpet. In order that we should learn the call, we had a practice. The first time all went well. The next time we did not realise that we should act on it and nothing
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happened and Donald Duck wanted it done again. About that time we were on our best behaviour, and were prepared to humour him, but unfortunately the bugler made a mistake and blew a wrong note. We burst out laughing and feeling ran high. Donald Duck said it must be done ten times and we had a sit-down strike. Pistols were drawn, but the incident blew over.
Another incident occurred when we had a surprise roll-call and a search. Our parade stretched across a road into a bungalow, and when the bungalow commander was not looking, the Italian officer asked us to make a gap so that he could march his carabinieri through. When the commander saw the gap, not knowing why it had been left, he ordered us to close up. When the carabinieri came there was no gap, and they marched straight at us and, of course, we didn’t move. There was some shoving and someone got hit over the head with a rifle. An ugly incident was averted by Donald Duck himself. He came and took the Italians away. There was an interval, while the Italians meditated on whether to treat the chap who had been hit on the head and who was in hospital, as an offender or not; but he was popular, and various Italians went to the hospital to ask after his health, and the incident closed.
One night Donald Duck had a surprise roll-call during the night. Officers had to parade in the passages and go to their rooms as their names were called. Unfortunately, Donald Duck wished to speak to three chaps, who had done something naughty, and sent for them. One was naked and Donald Duck took this as an insult to himself. There was a terrific scene, but things quietened down and we went back to sleep, except for the nude officer who, clothed, retired to the cells.
On another occasion, we really did have some excitement. There was a splendid Irish doctor among the prisoners. We were able about then, to buy glass flasks of Chianti, and our doctor hit on the excellent plan of converting the wine into ‘hard stuff’, by adding various ingredients, including potato peelings. The flask was kept under his bed, and periodically taken out and shaken. After about a fortnight, there was a tremendous explosion in the middle of the night, and pieces of glass flask and this lethal mixture were everywhere. The Italians were convinced that we had high explosive grenades hidden away and there was a very thorough search, which went on all night and into the next day, but, of course, nothing was found.
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There was quite a lot of money in the camp, as officers were paid the equivalent of their rank’s pay in Italian money. When we got organised, we managed to buy food in the black market, through the Italian guards and, what with illicit purchases, Red Cross parcels, and good cooks, various groups would save up and have a feast, with plenty of wine and brandy. It became the fashion to have celebrations, such as St Andrew’s night or ‘Maiwand Day’ (a battle honour celebrating a famous victory), and these were very popular. These incidents show how life with the Italians was never too dull or far removed from comedy.
We had very good bridge at Chieti. After a bit we had duplicate competitions and inter-bungalow matches. They were very popular, and the standard of play was high. Once I ran a competition with a selling sweep and running commentaries on the semi-finals and finals. It was well supported. I am ashamed to say that a syndicate of which I was a member managed to buy three out of the four semi-finalists and made quite a good thing out of the sweepstake. However, it was all fair and above-board.
We left Chieti very suddenly just before Christmas, and I took my successor as President of the Mess Committee round to be introduced to the canteen men. The kind-hearted Italian soldiers who were running the show were quite overcome at our parting, and held my hand while tears poured from their eyes as they wished me a safe journey and a speedy return to my home.
The train journey was similar to the one from Bari. We survived the searches, and passed through Rome with our curtains drawn. I got into conversation with one of our guards, and got him to show me a civilian identity card. At this time, I was working hard at learning Italian. I used to take every opportunity to talk to the Italians, as I was convinced that, to make an effective escape, it was essential to speak the language. It was winter, and escaping would not be practicable till the late spring; but I thought the time well spent learning all I could about the country and the people.
As we got onto a funny little railway which ran up the valley of the Arno from Arezzo, we were joined by a very nice sergeant-interpreter, who told us about our new camp. The courtesy shown by sending the sergeant to meet us was typical of Poppi Camp.
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We arrived at Poppi station one morning. It was winter, but the sunshine revealed that this was the real Italy about which so many Englishmen rave. We were in an adorable valley with snowclad mountains towering up on either side. In front of us, in top of a hill, was the little walled town of Poppi, overshadowed b a castle and a church spire or two. The castle one housed Dante as an illustrious prisoner. On another peak was the gaunt ruin of another castle, and away in the distance was a Franciscan hostel, famous among English tourists. The Arno ran sleepily down below, beside the road and toy railway. It is said that on-one can speak pure Italian unless he has bathed his feet in the Arno.
The Commandant of the Camp was there to welcome us, and made us a little speech. More important, he had brought a horse and cart for our baggage, and we dumped it, and marched the half mile to the Camp without too much ado. It was quite exciting. Each large house looked as though it might be our new home. Finally we arrived.
The Villa Ascensione was a small convent school in times of peach, and during the previous war had housed German prisoners. It consisted of an old chapel and the main house, with various outbuildings, which were occupied by our guards. The main building, bounded on one side by a wall and on two by wire fences, was prisoner accommodation. The fourth side was the wall the house. It was four stories high. Living rooms were on the ground floor, officers’ bedrooms on the next two, and other ranks bedrooms and a few stores on the top.
We went through the front door, and were shown into a room where we had to wait till we had been searched. While we were waiting, beaming British officers passed in cups of tea, in proper teacups. We rejoined Colonel de Burgh, who had recently arrived from Bari.
The camp had about forty in it when we arrived and was about half full. It had about an equal number of field officers and junior officers. Some had been prisoners for three years, but most were of our vintage or more recent.
After we had been searched by almost friendly carabinieri, we were shown round and even issued with warm clothes. We had British Red Cross underclothes and Yugoslav officers’ uniforms.
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These were made of a warm grey material with black or red facings, and that night at dinner we put up a brave show. It might have been a dinner scene from The Merry Widow.
We were housed in bedrooms with five to a room. A big feature of the rooms was that we had real beds with thick, good mattresses. We slept like lords, and even began to notice that we still had no pyjamas. Although the inhabitants of the rooms were allocated by the Italian guards arbitrarily, we soon settled in to our groups and, such was our solidarity, that even after a few days all hell was let loose if the Italians wanted to move someone from one room to another.
The food at Poppi was excellent as they had a good kitchen and pooled all the parcels. Poppi was a wonderful prison camp. It had a lovely orchard garden, and the trees completely cut off the wire fence from view.
We might well have been a set of tired old men, having a rest cure in monastic peace. Roll-call was a very gentlemanly proceeding, and life was very pleasant. The Italian Commandant was not a well-educated man, but he took trouble to make us as comfortable as possible and, as long as his dignity was not affected, was prepared to listen to requests. Inside the house he left us to our own devices.
Two other Italian officers deserve a mention. One was a very courtly gentleman who owned some farms, and talked bad French. He was always friendly and had fought in the last war on our side. He did his job, but was quite charming. He would not tell us outside news, but was always prepared to talk about farming, shooting, skiing or any other interests he shared with many of us.
Then there was Lieutenant Borah. He was the interpreter, and, if ever a man could tie strings of long, erudite, but quite meaningless words together, it was he. He was very friendly and had a tremendous sense of punctilious correctness. He always saluted, never would go through a door before his seniors, and had a keen sense of humour. We amused him a lot. Sometimes he would be a bit indiscreet, and he was personally on our side, at heart.
I had many ideological discussions with him. He thought Italy would never do any good, as it was too civilised. It was all quite honourably hopeless. They were ineffective as they were too philosophical and too intelligent. The British were going the same way, and it was young and vigorous and (breathe it not) semi-barbaric races like the Americans who would go ahead.
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All the work of the camp was put onto the unwilling shoulders of Borah, who was at everyone’s beck and call and got so muddled that eventually he would be inevitably, inexorably, behind with everything. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Lieutenant Borah: he tried so desperately hard to please. (He looked exactly like Harold Lloyd.)
Borah and I had to act as emissaries and go-betweens for de Burgh and the Commandant. Often we had to act with great diplomacy and tact, as both were inclined to take a firm stand. However, in the main, we had a pleasant, peaceful time. There was a good Black Market at Poppi. For instance, at Christmas, our dinner deserves mention:
Vermouth & Olives
* * *
Tunny Fish & Hors d’Oeuvres
* * *
* * *
Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
Roast Potatoes and Cauliflower
* * *
Champagne (sweet and Italian, but plentiful)
* * *
Christmas Pudding with Brandy Butter
Cheese Savouries & Nuts
* * *
Remember, this was prison fare, after Italy had had seven years of war – or at any rate, a whole year at war against us. Ordinarily, meals were more usual prison fare, but, on Saturdays, we often had Black Market lambs or young pigs, and vino was fairly plentiful.
At about this time we got into the habit of walking in the passages for an hour or two between roll-call and supper. I used to walk and talk with Colonel Wheeler and occasionally Colonel de Burgh joined us.
Wheeler and I talked on all subjects under the sun, and I feel that these conversations widened the range of my thinking enormously. I suppose the most interesting topic of discussion was on how to live. The answer seemed to be a placid, and unswerving
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policy of doing one’s job. It was pointless to chase opportunity or to ‘ride jealous’. If one ignored ambitions and short cuts, sooner or later, opportunity would come and carry one along, often against one’s will.
We discussed the few really great men we knew, and how this philosophy was illustrated in their lives. The mistakes to avoid were not to allow keenness to sharpen one’s dealings with others, and not to allow disappointment or criticism to force one to change the pattern of one’s life, if one is quite certain the pattern is a correct one. The difficulty seems to be to have a clear certainty that one’s philosophy and one’s plan of life is right. I found Colonel Wheeler a very comforting person to talk things over with. I taught him how to play bridge.
We got two sorts of outings from Poppi. Some of us went to Mass on Sunday mornings. It was quite a performance. We used to arrive late and a whole lot of people would then be turned out of some rather superior pews behind the altar; then we and our guards, who were armed to the teeth, filed in. We had one or two devout Catholics amongst us, and, when they went to the altar, they were followed by an armed guard, who stood behind them lest they escape. Some of the services were very interesting. We heard sung Masses and also a strong sermon on the reasons why Italy had got herself into the mess she was in. Some Italians, including our Commandant, seemed to think that the mere attendance was sufficient, and, when in Church, just sat around waiting until the service was over.
Sometimes the Commandant would vary the walk on the way home and take us down queer little streets in the town. We were just bringing him to the point of arranging for us to visit the Castle where Dante had been imprisoned, when Rome stopped us going to Mass, allegedly as a reprisal. I developed quite an interest in Roman Catholicism.
Our other outings were walks. We went on excellent walks. We had a comparatively small escort, and there were glorious rambles. Sometimes we used to go past an old chapel in the hills, where a priest used to talk to us about the other war when he had been a bersagliere. Another good walk was to the old ruined castle of Franzola. Here, there is a deep well into which the Count is alleged to have thrown his erring wife and her lover.
These walks were all quite delightful. The Italians were friendly, and there was a picnic atmosphere and, especially in the spring, the
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weather was lovely. The Commandant trusted us and had quite recovered from the time when a Polish pilot had broken a parole and run off. In those days they used to take food out for the day and the guard merely helped to carry the lunch. In our time we had a more effective guard and were well watched, but in a very nice way. Anyway, we considered it too early in the year to escape.
We had a big day at Easter, when a very old Cardinal paid us a State visit on behalf of the Pope, and brought a graceful message and some presents. The Commandant also made a speech reminding us that he was a very superior type of Commandant.
Another interesting visitor was the regional carabinieri chief He was a young subaltern and wore the blackest boots and whitest gloves I have ever seen. He had a Valentino face with terrific side-whiskers and altogether looked most sinister as he kissed the Cardinal’s ring. I believe he had a kind heart, but we regarded him as our archest enemy. The Pope sent us a concertina and some rosaries and some Vatican stamps. I got none of them. He also arranged for us to send home an Easter greeting.
Shortly after Easter the Italians began combing out our junior guards. Some of ours went to the Russian front and we had some interesting new arrivals. There was a large roly-poly type of man with a beard and a twinkling eye who was a film star, and brought to Poppi the sweetest, prettiest little wife (?). Sometimes she talked to us through the wire. He said that art was international and refused to be our enemy. He used to buy us marvellous things for our canteen, such as works of art and decorative items or magazines, some of which would prove very useful. I worked hard trying to persuade him to produce a comedy for us, partly for language reasons and partly to work on him. However, he didn’t stay long.
Another remarkable chap was a tiny little aristocratic advocate with a very long nose and a bright red face. He was terrifically anti-Fascist, and would tell anyone a complicated story about how Fascist children had been allowed to humiliate him by slapping his face. However, he had a list! He had fought on our side last time, and gave us all the rumours and news as it came over the B.B.C. I have seldom met a less discreet man. We called him Pinocchio. He was so exactly right, and we were reading the book in our Italian class. He was prepared to be helpful, but naturally very frightened of being caught.
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At about this time we got another interpreter. He was to have replaced Borah, but they both stayed. He was a fine man, friendly, helpful and efficient, but absolutely loyal. At some risk to himself, he took us down to the hospital when we went for X-rays, on parole, without guards. It was very good of him, as the Italians did not allow it, and the relief from supervision was as good as a holiday. He had a fiancée in America and would never mention the name “Mussolini”; but, as I have said, he was absolutely loyal. We also got another interpreter sergeant. He was a sick man with a very tangled life. His family, his job and his home were all bound up with British interests on the Riviera. Personally, I never made my mind up about him. He would tell us news out of the corner of his mouth and spoke freely about travel regulations and the Riviera. He must have known why we wanted the information, but he never gave us any actual help.
Our Commandant, to his horror and surprise, was removed suddenly and replaced by another, who left us very much alone in the hands of interpreters. I believe he was seldom sober, but he was a mountaineer and used to walk off his hangovers by taking us for magnificent stiff walks, to the disgust and dismay of the sentries, who grumbled that these were not walks but marches.
While I am discussing the Italian personnel I must mention the doctor and the dentist. These were visitors. The dentist used to come once or twice a week on a motor bike. He wore big high boots, complete with spurs. We never quite knew whether he wore them to control the motor bike or to get a grip on his patients. The surgery during his visits was babel. He, the Italian doctor, our doctors, Italian interpreters, Italian and British patients and anyone who wanted to chat, stood round and talked as at a cocktail party. The doctor was a little civilian who had a beady eye, and made no bones about listening to the B.B.C. He spoke very few words of English, very cheerfully and very badly, and used to show a red pullover and claim to be a Bolshevist. He used to have the fiercest consultations with our teams of doctors and sometimes go off in a huff but, on the whole, was a cheery, friendly little man.
Life was very pleasant. Our private parcels were beginning to come through and we knew the joys of pyjamas and new and comfortable clothes. It was lovely to get sponges and nail scissors and soft underclothes. Letters were coming through well and the garden was lovely. Parcels from the Red Cross, too, were coming in steadily. We were getting various bits of clothing and things like gym
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shoes and sun-glasses from the canteen, so we were very well off. Accounts at Poppi were very conveniently arranged. We worked entirely in paper credits and our bank in the camp drew our coupons from the Italians and handled all outside transactions.
We had a fairly good library at Poppi and our own book parcels were coming through. There was a slight snag about books; would-be escapers had received money in the covers, and the Italians used to tear the covers and the backs off all books at the censors. Many books got ruined and others got lost in this way.
In May, Colonel de Burgh became very ill. It was a sad blow to us, and eventually he was taken away to Lucca hospital. Also, at about this time, a Captain Micklethwaite, R.N. arrived, and he was the senior British officer in the camp. He was a typical dominant type of naval officer who introduced a new regime which was effective and efficient.
As summer was approaching and I wished to get escape plans going, I rather dropped out of public life, and another officer replaced me as adjutant. I had done it for long enough anyway.
Plans and Adventures
I hope the reader will see that underlying the whole of my story is the escape motive. Even when it is not directly mentioned, my every action and plan was influenced by the question, how much, or how little, will it help? A great many prisoners have the same obsession and some of their brain children are quite absurd. Before any escape is possible all sorts of things have to be considered, and I want to run-through the different problems that have to be catered for. An escape – I am considering Italy – is divided into four stages.
2. Getting out of the camp.
3. Managing to survive and getting to the frontier in good enough shape to tackle the crossing.
4. Getting across the land or sea frontier to safety.
If we leave 1 and 2 for the moment and consider 3, this can be divided into further sub-heads. First, there is the problem of food. A basic ration can be made up with cocoa, margarine, oatmeal, sugar and Bemax (or anything you like) which can be baked into biscuits. Slabs of chocolate and condensed milk are good. Bulk food must be got from the land. We worked out that suitable foods were available
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between July and November. At harvest time, especially in southern Italy, they have crop watchers, which makes life difficult for the hungry fugitive. Of course, if you can do a quick escape or get outside help these factors don’t apply.
Second, communications. We understood that all railway bridges and trains, including goods trains were well guarded. Forests and mountains had special police and game wardens, and the carabinieri were a first class police force who had posts on main roads and in nearly every village. The peasants were very good to us after the Armistice but, from all reports, would do nothing to help and would give prisoners away, before Italy got out of the war. Italy had a huge metropolitan army and the type of job at which it excelled was cordoning off an area and combing it for fugitives.
I won’t go on, but it is fairly clear that stage 3 was a difficult one to deal with and an escape without a proper plan for this stage was almost certainly doomed to failure. In discussing Chieti escapes I mentioned one chap who took a chance, but although he was full of resource and very lucky, he came to grief.
Stage 4 also presented considerable problems. The coast was very well patrolled and we understood that fishing boats were not allowed to put to sea. It might have been possible to get across the Adriatic, but I never heard of anyone successfully doing so before the Armistice, and even then, one would have had to contact the patriots.
Some pilots thought of stealing a plane, but this was beyond most of us and, so far as I know, was not successfully carried out. Italy’s land frontier consists of the obvious one into Switzerland, and this was only possible between July and October. It meant getting past the extremely able mountain frontier guards and also passing the Swiss. They should turn prisoners back at the frontiers, but once across they should, according to international law, do what they could to repatriate them. I believe that one or two did succeed in getting to Switzerland; we all had maps with suitable routes which we learnt by heart, and I also found some panoramas in ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (a famous Italian novel). Rubber stamps were made and passes forged to help us to get across the border.
There were narrow belts of land – one on the Riviera side and one into northern Yugoslavia. There seemed to be little point in going into either of them. The Riviera merely got one into France, and problems still abounded. We did get maps of France and Spain out of old books. Compasses too could be made if one did not have
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them, by magnetising needles and sewing them to a card which could be balanced on a gramophone needle. Several of us thought of getting into the Vatican but the next step from there was hard to foresee.
I think I have made it clear that, unless one wished to make a leap in the dark, stages 3 and 4 had to be well thought-out first; and, unless stage 2 could be worked to fit 3 and 4, it was of little use. Stage 2 could only be done by going over, under, or through the wall or fence, or using the front door. It depended on the camp and the guards, who could be watched for weeks at a time and were fairly predictable.
Tunnelling was the favourite way out. Sometimes it was impossible, due to rock or to water near the surface. The greatest vigilance had to be maintained, and the disposal of excavated earth usually gave the game away. It takes an awfully long time to dig a tunnel with broken knives and odd bits of iron during the few hours when the guard is resting or otherwise engaged and unlikely to hear or interfere with excavation.
Despite every effort on the part of our guards, many people did, and always will be able to get away from camps. The onlooker regards the breakout as the most difficult and only real problem, but I am trying to show that it is by no means the greatest difficulty. Some hundreds have escaped for short intervals but less than ten managed to get home while Italy was still in the war. Stage I is merely a question of patience, hard work and resource. These are qualities the average prisoner of war has developed to a very high degree. The escaper can always get all the help he wants. The problem is to prevent getting too much help, as the more helpers there are, the more chances of a slip up, or a stupid mistake that will give the game away.
I will describe a typically bad escape plan. A young officer, who was undoubtedly very brave, made a plan. He made some biscuit and also prepared to take some unopened tins. (This was a bad thing to do as the Italians, if they discovered it, would not unnaturally stop unopened tins being issued to prisoners, and this would interfere with messing more than with escape plans.) He discussed his project with everyone, including the other ranks, one of whom was very friendly with the interpreter. He planned to run out a sort of draw-bridge over a sentry’s head and to use it to get over the wall and away – a brave idea. He planned to escape in battle
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dress and made no effort to learn Italian. He did not try to learn a route, and only at the last moment, asked for a map.
On the night of the escape he took some planking from a kitchen shelf and, in an echoing passage, hammered the lengths together. During a surprise check, the end of his plank bridge was sticking out a foot from a passage and must have been seen by the officer who went round the house. After hanging about for an hour or two the scheme was abandoned, as the Italian guard was obviously on the alert. We heard afterwards that half the garrison was waiting for him in the garden.
This scheme was harmful to the rest of us, as for some months we had been trying to lull the Italians into a feeling that nothing was further from our thoughts than escape. The officer wanted to go before the weather was really suitable and he simply put the guard on the qui vive and made the Commandant angry. Some of the few privileges we had been given and our minor comforts were removed. A less sensible commandant would have gone further. I have nothing against our young officer, and escaping is such a hazardous job that anyone with a possible plan which he is resolute enough to carry out, has to be encouraged and helped, but often as the season advances there are many schemes which are approaching completion after months of preparation and they can be destroyed by one unthought-out, hairbrained scheme which seems doomed to failure from the start.
In Poppi, our predecessors had tried to tunnel in the three directions which led out of the camp. They had done this skilfully and had not alarmed our guards. One particularly good place for a tunnel to begin was from a little bricked up room directly under the main stair. The Italians seemed to be oblivious of the existence of this place, although they caught us messing about in it sometime afterwards and pulled down the wall in great excitement. There was a beautiful entrance in a staircase well and a tiny hole had been made and well covered over. I had to breathe out all the air in my chest to get in or out and got stuck once.
In all cases they had come to rock. We decided to work on the side that led into the garden. The conformation of the ground indicated that we would get earth on that side, and there was an old drainage way outside the house which we might be able to use. We had to work in the main dining hall of the house and everyone would have to know. Also, we would only be able to work when the
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Italians were safely out of the way – usually during their dinner hour (11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.). Tunnelling involves a large number of people. I had a job of general critic, and also ran one of the look-out vetches. We had to have three unsuspicious watchers on duty to warn the workers and shepherd the soil disposers. Other officers sunned themselves and read books in unusual places. Part of my duties was to examine the diggers to see that their hands were clean and that they had no earth in their hair. In case of alarm, we had a special party who, once the dummy cover was over the hole, placed a table over it and read or wrote, absorbed in their work, while the hot, dirty diggers vanished.
Our tame Sapper gave his opinion as to how much earth could be safely put under the planks in some stores of which we had duplicate keys (a story in itself), and said that the plaster would support four inches. (More of this will come out later.)
The simplest way to take soil out into the garden was in the bottoms of our trousers, tied round with string or with bootlaces, which could be undone as we walked, releasing the soil in appropriate places. One had to be very careful as the earth from the tunnel was usually a different colour and often full of rubble. All peculiar-looking earth had to be hastily turned into the ground. We also carried earth in dustbins or buckets containing other refuse. It is astonishing how much soil comes out of a hole.
As far as the tunnel itself was concerned, we had to make a hole in the floor which was tiled with stone tiles. This done, we had to branch out through a handy arch below the surface and tunnel under a path and the wire fence which separated the house and garden. Another twenty yards would take us to some suitably planted bushes, and we hoped from there to be able to cross the outer wire that was not manned by sentries by night, and so away. You may ask why we did not hide in the garden or get buried in it during the day, but when we were shut in for the night there was a roll-call and the garden was searched.
The hole was the size of four tiles and we built a wooden scaffolding to support a trap-door. We made two trap-doors, a wooden temporary one, beautifully painted, which we used as a cover when we were surprised or when we had to stop work for a short time. The permanent cover consisted of four tiles, which rested in an earth tray. The tray had a sack of earth tied to the bottom of it and when in place did not even sound hollow. When the trap was in
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position, some paste made of earth closed up the cracks and suitable dust was brushed over the top. This trap-door was so steady and beautifully made that the room was repeatedly searched, inch by inch, and tapped, without the guards ever finding any trace of it, although they expected to find it, and nearly caught us red-handed on one occasion. Unfortunately, we left the camp before the tunnel was completed, but I doubt whether it has been found to this day, and perhaps, when the wood rots, a surprised Mother Superior will sink gracefully through the floor.
Another plan which we contemplated was to cut a hole through the floor of the end bedroom and drop into the Italian office below; but we could not do it silently and the office never seemed to be empty by day. At night the house was patrolled by carabinieri, who would have heard the slightest sound. We shadowed them on many a night, and it was quite fun prowling about; it helped to get one used to working in the dark. I had no definite plan for getting out of the camp, but was prepared to use anything that came along, and got to work on the other three escape stages. In preparation, I worked very hard at learning Italian. I also allowed my hair to grow. I could brush it back, but when it was brushed down on either side it easily covered my ears. I planned to escape as a woman, and built up an alias for myself. I would be one Maria Tachini, a French woman from the Riviera, married to an Italian who had just been made a prisoner by the Allies. I had a letter, written in Italian writing on Italian paper, in an Italian envelope and stamped with an Italian stamp, from my in-laws, telling me that I had been nothing but a curse since I married their son.
I had another, which a Frenchman kindly wrote for me, with a French stamped envelope, pretending to be from relations in the French Riviera, offering me a home. I was trying hard to get an identity card from some Italian troops, from whom I had got cash, maps and clothing for paper lire, and for some of my ill-spared treasures from my food parcels. They were too frightened to get one. I got a shopping basket and a copy of the Italian Vogue called Bellezza to read in the train, and had enough money to buy tickets all the way to the Riviera. I had addresses in Florence of people who might help me and knew of two English butlers in houses on the Italian Riviera, and also the address of someone’s girl friend in Cannes.
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I had some lipstick which I had used in theatricals, in which I had played women’s parts, and a brother officer carved me a beautiful badge to go on my hat. I made my clothes and will describe them in detail. From a linen handkerchief I made an essential item of female attire which also served as an excellent receptacle for a pair of socks. We had had to return the Yugoslav uniforms, but I had managed to keep mine and a great-coat from which I made a coat and skirt of grey, which I was assured was the coming colour for summer wear. Two-thirds of the great-coat was easily adapted into a well cut skirt, and two flares destroyed the military effect. The jacket was even easier; I just took off the high collar and put it on so that it turned down; then, by altering the buttons and taking it in here and there, I got it to look about right. We had the husband of a Paris hat-designer in the camp, and he helped me to make a sort of cloche hat out of the turned sleeve of the great-coat. This looked almost too smart, with its polished wooden badge, a bird, I think it was. Finally, to complete the effect, I had my eyes tested, and got a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles made by the optician. The effect passed the critical eye of my room-mates, and the coat and skirt were duly sewn into my mattress. It made a suspicious bulge, and a day or two later, our room had a surprise search. One soldier turned back my bedclothes, looked at the bulge in the mattress, and prodded it. He turned it over and prodded again – and passed on, leaving our room speechless. I got hold of a suitable pair of shoes by swapping with another officer who needed brown boots to pass as a German soldier.
I was all ready for any opportunity when two things happened in quick succession. First, the long-suffering plaster ceiling, which had been filled with earth from our tunnel, began to crack. Our tame Sapper looked at it and said: “H’m … it will last a day or two and then fall in.” We turned to go downstairs, and there was a mighty crash behind us and earth, plaster and great rocks came through.
The Italians’ eyes almost popped out of their heads when they saw it all. For a couple of nights they searched frantically for a tunnel, but couldn’t find one. We expressed astonishment, and said it must have been the Germans in the last war, or possibly the New Zealanders who had preceded us in the camp. The other thing was a sudden order from Rome that we were to be moved to other camps, perhaps because we were being such a nuisance in attempting to escape.
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We now had to plan our escape, either just before we moved or during the journey. Obviously, the sentries would be especially alert during the last day or two, and three of us, myself, Gerald de Winton and a very stout-hearted soldier, who had made several attempts to escape, planned to hide right up in the roof, after an elaborate bogus escape by the rest of the camp. We hoped to be left behind when the rest went away, and, as all the guards would go as escort, we planned to walk out after they had departed. We were all fit; for several weeks I had been walking several hours a day, and on Saturdays I used to walk from 10 a m. until 6 p.m., when we were shut in for the night, and then, indoors until dinner; thus walking all day with only three pauses for meals.
The place in which we were to hide was right up under the tiles. There was no way up, but we cut a trap-door in the ceiling of the other ranks’ room and made a device for shutting it from inside or outside. When in position it was quite invisible. We then placed boards across the rafters and made up beds. We couldn’t stand up, but could just scramble about. It was rather hot under the tiles, but there were some ventilation holes. Another advantage of the place was that a beam completely hid our refuge from the corner where the Italians might expect to find a trap-door. We also took up bottles of water and food for a fortnight, in addition to our escape rations. We thought of every conceivable thing and were safely ready two days before the move. We had had one narrow escape, when we were nearly surprised at work in the Other Ranks’ room, but all was well. We still had the problem of convincing the Italians that we had gone, and we settled down to plan a realistic pseudo-escape. Many of our fellow prisoners were most helpful, and Colonel Wheeler was not only full of ideas but also showed tremendous courage in the execution of part of the escape, as you will hear.
We had to time the plan. First, we had to go to ground exactly at the right moment, and we decided to do so before dinner on the night before the camp was moved. In order to lay a red herring, we had to work during daylight in the garden. The best way to describe the problem and its execution is to give the story and explain each stage as it happened.
About mid-day we had some horseplay in the garden. One young officer was chased and, in a rough-house, his trousers were removed and a good deal of water was thrown. This was to distract the attention of the sentries while Wheeler crawled through some thick
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grass under the wire and cut it and bent it to show where we had got away. He was marvellous. If the sentry had looked or had come up to investigate, it would have been almost impossible for him to get out before a fusillade of bullets caught him. The sentry was rather suspicious, but all went well. It was easier to make a hole in the inner wire from the house to the garden, and while all this was going on, another hole was cut in the kitchen floor into a cellar which was kept locked by the Italians. A panel in the cellar door had been loosened previously, and it was now just propped against the frame and the dust was rubbed off the bottom edge of the panel. The stage was set and for the rest of the day we had the arduous job of watching the holes continuously to see if the Italians had noticed them.
All went well, and our diversion was nearly ready. We still had to shake the reliability of the sentry who stood all night exactly opposite the hole in the inner wire and opposite the cellar door. He would know that we had not come out of that hole, but if we could create a disturbance which could be thought to distract him for a vital moment, the Italian officers might be fooled.
At 10.30 p.m. the fun began. Top floor window shutters were thrown open and rocks thrown at the lights which lit up the outside of the building. There was an immediate fusillade of shots, and one officer had the misfortune of getting a bullet in his wrist. Pandemonium was let loose. There was a roll-call and everyone got very excited when we didn’t answer to our names, the prisoners calling out unhelpful suggestions as to where we might be. The Italian commandant ordered all prisoners to be locked in their rooms. The Italians began a search and very soon discovered (as they were meant to) the apparent escape and two search parties were sent off to scour the country. The remaining Italians began to rush round in twos and threes, all searching the same places, and for an hour or two we were undiscovered.
Our undoing was the farmer officer whom I have described as ‘charming’. He searched everywhere, and even when his men reported that they could not see us in the roof, he sent others up to take the tiles off and look in from the top. Some minutes later, an excited Italian shone a torch onto us, and all was over, except for the comedy. He walked towards me and I implored him to stop. He wouldn’t, and stepped right on top of the trap-door and, like Mephistopheles, sank out of sight. He looked rather surprised, but
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came to no harm. The ladder was fetched to get us down, leaving an elderly and very frightened orderly officer on the roof.
As we came down, all our stores were pitched onto the floor below, and the confusion was indescribable. I still had all my money sewn inside my pillow and was able to put this onto one of the Other Ranks’ beds with my shoes, but everything else, including my companion’s boots and his false tooth, was confiscated. We had saved up chocolate for ages and gone without, and it all was taken with everything we had in the roof. The Italian officers treated us very well and were very much amused. Their eyes popped out of their heads at our maps and compasses, and I am sure, when they looked at my clothes, they must have been amazed. We were taken away and shut into the library, with one blanket and a guard on the door. I had not slept for a couple of nights from excitement, and certainly got none that night.
Next morning we were kept away from the others until the move, and then joined them in lorries which were to take us to the station. The Italians in the area were quite determined that no-one should escape en route. The road down to the station was lined the whole way with soldiers and cadets at three- or four-yard intervals. Except that there was no cheering it might have been a Coronation drive.
Our guard went with us and friend Borah was its moving spirit. We had the usual trouble about drawn blinds, but otherwise they did their best for us. We were bought coffee and some lemonade, and for the night wait at Bologna, they fixed up for us to go into the waiting-room. We were taken, a few at a time, and guarded closely by torch-carrying soldiers from the train through crowds of troops and civilians; but there was not much chance to get away.
We searched the waiting-room, but it had high windows which couldn’t be got at with guards amongst us. We did find a trap-door behind a bar, but it led nowhere. I was dead tired and had no escape apparatus and, anyway, none of us got a real chance.
Next morning we were separated and the field officers were taken to one camp (Fontanellato) near Parma, while the others went to Modena, where the New Zealanders and South Africans were.
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Fontanellato is the name of a small village in the Po valley. We could see the mountains we had left to the south, and to the north, we could see the Alps in the distance. We were in rich agricultural land, well watered by rivers and inhabited by a vigorous, prosperous type of peasant. The village was noteworthy because of its convent and monastery, and was a well-known shrine. The building we were in was a brand new orfanotrofio, built by the funds and inspiration of a remarkable old abbot, who was over eighty and a very holy man. He used to come and say Mass in the chapel. He was pleased that we were getting the benefit of his building. We were in much the same type of rooms as at Poppi and there was a big hall. There were about 400 junior officers, who lived in much bigger rooms. They were composed of three sets of prisoners; two smallish lots were old prisoners from two small camps which, like Poppi, had been closed down, and the remainder were from Chieti. We met many old friends (I found my bridge partner) and, luckily, they were mostly the nicer officers from Chieti, although many very nice chaps had been left behind in that camp.
The tone of the camp was excellent. Food was pooled and there was a very good spirit of friendliness and co-operation. The Italians, too, were a good lot. The Commandant was a delightful man. He was very cosmopolitan, and had lived most of his life at the Racing Club de France in Paris. He was kind and considerate, and after he got over the shock of some officers being so tactless as to escape, he got to the point where he understood the ethics of our relationship and treated us very well, regarding the whole question of escaping as a game, rather like chess.
The other officers were also good, the senior interpreter being a charming gentleman with an English wife, who spent his days walking round in a beautiful uniform smoking a pipe. The other interpreter was a terrific wag, and his conversations with an American prisoner were easily up to music-hall standard. The men in the guard were mixed – half bersaglieri, fine big men from Piedmont and North Italy, many of them blonds, and the other half reservists. The carabinieri were less vigorous than in most camps, and their N.C.O was a chap who was much more interested in his button factory than in being a super policeman. He had a very young-looking wife and a
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pretty daughter, who used to come for the weekends and live in his barracks with the rest of the police.
The best points about this camp were probably the food and the canteen. Being in such a rich area we were able to buy a good deal and the pooling of parcels meant that there was plenty to eat. A Belgian officer made a very good show of messing. Another feature was a bar, which had been put in and which could offer vino, vermouth and sometimes beer. We also had an excellent library, as the small camps had been well stocked and the old prisoners were very generous with the books they had received. Prison life brings out the best in many officers. They have time to think and become patient and generous. They also acquire a very good solidarity.
The other good points about the camp were its view (we were looking out over a busy road and saw plenty of people) and its laundry. The nuns did all our washing for us. They sent us blessings when we slipped in pieces of toilet soap with our things. There was a good playing field at this camp and soccer, rugger and basket-ball were played. The rugger was remarkable. The ground was as hard as iron and the players used to drape themselves in long pants and vests until they looked like American footballers.
Once a week we went for walks. These were quite good exercise, although some of the Italian officers were rather slow. We used to walk on their heels and practically carry them along. An amusing part about these walks was the battle of the patches. Rome had issued an order that all British officers should wear red patches on their knees and on their coats. This was in retaliation for the ‘degrading’ patches worn by Italians. In many camps this was not enforced as the Italian officers felt it to be so shameful. We didn’t mind, and used some of the cloth for theatricals, and I half-planned a cycling jacket made from it for an escape. The Commandant was told he had to enforce the order and gave our tailor the material to do the work. We did little about it, so he only allowed patched officers to go on walks. We used to pin patches to our shorts and take them off afterwards. Luckily, no effort was ever made to make us cut out the cloth underneath.
Other activities in this camp were goose-keeping and painting. Some officers were allowed to keep baby geese in a hut in the playing field and much interest was taken in them by everyone, including the guards, who had rival birds outside. Goose racing as well as food was part of the plan. Not being a good artist I did no
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painting, although many officers did wonderful work, and also carved. We used to have exhibitions, which were a feature of most camps. I did try to draw some horses, but my room mates were so rude about them that I gave it up.
There was a small stream running through the exercise yard and ‘pooh-sticks’ were taken very seriously. Advertised races took place and gambling was organised. There was tremendous excitement and IOUs were exchanged.
One man spent his time arranging his future life. He dreamt up a chain of garage/cafes all over England, to be bought, established, run and supervised by various members of his large family. I wonder whether he tried out his scheme when he got home and whether he made a fortune.
Before I go on with the story I must mention Opps, Ltd. This was a very efficient trading concern and was excellently run. Mr ‘Opps’ was told what anyone wanted or had spare and was very good at arranging swaps or sales and satisfying his customers. Most camps had similar organisations, but few can have been better than this one.
Escape plans were well organised, and something was going on all the time. Just before our arrival, five officers had escaped by getting themselves buried in the field, which was unguarded at night. During the night they unburied themselves, cut the wire, and moved away north. Some of them got as far as Como, but all were caught in the end. Parties did try to tunnel, but tunnelling was very difficult as there was water near to the surface. One tunnel, complete with electric light, was found by the Italians before it could be used. Various other schemes were being contemplated.
I took no active part in things for a while, as I was in gaol. It was rather an honour to be sent to gaol, inside a gaol. Three of us were in the cells, merely as a routine punishment for the Poppi episode. We did not graduate to the very high honour of being sent to Campo Cinque, which was a sort of Chateau d’If, and ranked rather like membership of New York’s Four Hundred. It was on a par with Colditz in Germany.
Before the reader loses himself or herself in a wave of compassion, I recommend that he or she reads further. Being in the cells meant that we were in a room which was the same size as a bedroom for six. We had beds, and one can scarcely be in solitary confinement when there are three together. We had our meals brought to us and got enormous helpings. We also got a cup of tea
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whenever the troops had any, and were showered with books from other prisoners. We were exercised, under escort, among the roses in front of the camp, where prisoners were not normally allowed, and I used to pick roses far our table.
At first we were locked in, but we hit on a plan which enabled us to work on an ‘honour’ system. Whenever we wished to go to the lavatory, we had to beat on the door and shout “Gabinetto!” This meant that our guard had to go off and fetch a fellow who had to stand by the door, while his mate followed us to the gabinetto and stood outside till we had finished. We used to take it in turns to go to the gabinetto, and after a bit, they left the door unlocked and later removed the sentry, telling us that they trusted us not to talk to the others or go out. An amusing story can be told about an officer, before we had the ‘honour’ system, who was chained to his guard and taken to the gabinetto. The officer unfastened his chain and escaped by the window, tying the chain to another chain. When the sentry pulled on the chain, there was a most satisfactory result! However, I stray from my story.
About the time we finished our confinement we welcomed de Burgh back. He had made a wonderful recovery. The organisation of the camp had been quite good, and de Burgh put the finishing touches to it. He also got on excellent terms with the Commandant. The Intelligence Service in this camp was very ably run by Colonel Wheeler. All the Italians who came into the camp had someone whose job it was to cultivate them.
I joined the carpenter’s staff to talk to the carabinieri who came to see that the tools were only used for genuine repairs and for theatrical props. The head carpenter was an excellent sapper and I learned a lot of carpentry while I was on the job and am much more of a handyman than I used to be.
Another activity I took part in was the theatre. We had an excellent drama group with some very able producers and actors. In order to excuse my long hair and to have an excuse for making a new woman’s outfit, I took a small part in Maugham’s The Circle. It was great fun, and I got a very good costume made up out of a pair of pale blue pyjamas.
Gradually, there was a change in the atmosphere. Our guards became even more friendly, and gave us news of the outside world. Some prisoners became very optimistic and were freely betting that we would be home by Christmas. This wave of optimism was
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heightened when Mussolini fell, and we really began to have hopes. As time went on and nothing happened, there was some reaction. It was very trying to wait. A good many of us had been busy on escape plans, but naturally these had been held over to see what was going to happen.
I have been asked what our reactions were to going home. I think that most of us couldn’t think about it too much as our minds were occupied with the huge ditch of the physical act of release. If we did think of going home, we let that we wanted to bet back to normal as quickly as possible, and not to be fussed or to have to answer too many questions. For me, problems about what was to happen afterwards were completely beyond practical politics. At this time, everything was based on escape. After that, we should see. Release would be marvellous, but I couldn’t think past the ides of escape. I felt, too, that if we were released, I would feel my captivity to have been a failure. I would prefer to escape. I looked on the whole of my captivity as a part of my life and I wanted the escape to wipe my slate clean.
After the fall of Mussolini, the entire world waited with more or less impatience for Italy to get out of the war. Colonel de Burgh had already seen one false armistice when he was in Lucca hospital. On that occasion, the guards had thrown away their arms, had embraced one another, and had opened the doors and tried to fraternise with the prisoners. De Burgh had, perhaps mistakenly, stopped it and kept our men in hospital. Next morning, when the rumour was proved false, any opportunity to escape had been lost.
This time, we wanted to keep our options open. In the event of an armistice, true or false, we felt we would prefer to be free, outside the camp, rathe than waiting as prisoners for whatever might happen next. The Italian guards and officers were very benevolent, and as it was obviously not worth trying to escape if an armistice could be expected, we had a pleasant interlude.
As time went on, people began to get despondent, but de Burgh and the authorities were not idle. There was a peculiar, alleged War Office, order that, in the event of an armistice, prisoners were to remain in camps under their officers. This was no rumour, as it seemed prevalent in most camps. It was evidently issued on the
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assumption that the Germans would abandon Italy and the return of prisoners was thought to be merely an exercise in transportation. The order was, for obvious reasons, out of date. In passing, it may be added that most experienced officers thought that the Germans would abandon Italy. It was considered that their new Balkan commitments, added to their needs on other fronts, would force the Germans to withdraw to the Brenner and the Piave. On the whole, we thought that they wouldn’t bother about us prisoners, unless they wished to occupy a temporary line, which might pass through our camp. In that case, we feared that they might evacuate us further north or even to Germany.
Late on the 9th of September there were rumours of an armistice and very shortly, these were confirmed. The Italian Commandant and Colonel de Burgh took immediate steps to get in touch with one another. Within half an hour de Burgh had everyone assembled in the main hall. This was easily done, due to our preliminary arrangements. De Burgh told us of the Armistice and of the orders he and the Italian Commandant had received: we were to behave quietly and to wait for instructions. But, in case the Germans came the Commandant would arrange to have three lines cut in the wire at the back of the camp, and he would send out patrols to warn us of the enemy’s approach. We had a trumpet alarm arranged, and a ration was prepared and issued to everyone. All the plans went smoothly, and the co-operation between the Italians and ourselves was excellent. The whole plan reflected the highest goodwill and efficiency on both sides. Everyone was in high spirits, and although few of us thought that the Germans would visit us, most people thought the plan good and welcomed the excitement and interest it entailed during the tiresome waiting time.
At about 10 o’clock in the morning our trumpeter sounded his alarm, and within two minutes the 500 officers and 100 other ranks were in the field, fallen in, and ready for anything. The senior doctor went into the infirmary to see whether he needed to leave a doctor behind to look after the invalids, but the place was empty. Even a chap [Eric Newby – ed.] with a cracked ankle had borrowed a pony and had fallen in as our mounted troops!
We were marched off to some nearby cover where a stream ran through a wood, the interpreters acting as guides. What fun that march was! Everyone was in high spirits and we moved through vineyards, helping ourselves to grapes as we went. We arrived in our
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camping area. Colonel Gibbs, our Company Commander, went off to H.Q. for orders, and we settled down to wait.
For the next twenty-four hours de Burgh kept us together. Rumours were flying about – the Allies had landed in Venice – La Spezia – Rome – Ancona? In the meantime, we heard that the Germans had occupied our camp. They ransacked the place, stealing what they wanted, and destroying all they didn’t. They smashed the windows and ripped up the sheets. They stole our geese, and the Italians’ animals. They arrested the Commandant and the doctor, who were the only Italians they could find. They left a detachment in the area, who showed no signs of leaving. They were reputed to have sent out search parties for us. Mercifully, they didn’t succeed in finding us.
We had a constant stream of visiting Italians. Some brought us food, others, our belongings, which they had rescued from the stuff dumped by the Germans. Still others brought clothes, sometimes as gifts, and sometimes in exchange for our uniforms. It was useless to try to discourage them. The village people felt an affinity with us as we had been so long in their midst. Some were strong Allied supporters, including, of course, some Jews.
We spent an unpleasant night in a ditch, being bitten to pieces by mosquitos and midges. By next morning, it was clear that there would be no question of returning to camps It was time to move on. Two Company Commanders were given permission to move off with their companies en bloc. In the meantime, the interpreters were believing the remaining prisoners in local farms. One of two of us got permission to move away on our own.
When I decide that I would like to move away from the camp area and from an over-large group of fellow prisoners I immediately began to look around for a travelling companion. Curiously enough, although were were both in the same regiment, the Royal Artillery, Drew Bethell and I had not got to know each other in the prison camp. He seemed an obvious person to choose, a very fit and amiable young man – a good companion, so I invited him to join me on my travels. I was very please when he immediately accepted my invitation and we got permission to go off together.
Now I would like to let Drew introduce himself.
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DREW BETHELL’S STORY
I passed into the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in August 1939. World War II started in September and I was commissioned four days before my 19th birthday as a 2nd Lieutenant RA. Luckily I was sent to France to join a regular regiment in February 1940. Unluckily I was wounded in May 1940 near Lille. After Dunkirk my regiment defended the Lincolnshire beaches and trained as the main UK reserve until January 1943, by which time I was a captain, commanding a troop of four guns – 25 pounders, when the first division was sent to reinforce First Army in North Africa. We went into action about 30 miles from Tunis in early March. The Battle of Alamein had taken place in October. 8th Army had chased the Afrika Corps to the Tunisian border. It was imperative that the Germans should not use troops from Tunisia to reinforce Rommel. So 1st Army was ordered to carry out a series of minor attacks to ensure that the Germans were kept tied down.
At midnight on 30th March a company of Irish Guards with two gunner forward observation officers crept across the wide No Man’s Land to be in position at the foot of a steep-faced hill called Recce Ridge at first light – 31st March. The enemy was almost too ready for us – at least the leading platoon bumped into them. There was much Bren, Tommy Gun and Schmeisser fire with the flash/thud of grenades for about a quarter of an hour before H-hour when the Divisional Artillery put down a ten minute concentration. The company waited under heavy mortar fire and a shower of stick grenades, taking casualties.
As the guns lifted, the Irish Guards started up the hill. But the attack never had a chance. There were some desperate fights in the forward trenches, but a well dug-in determined enemy had every advantage. An hour later it was over. My signaller had been killed, and my driver had his elbow blown off by the same stick grenade which peppered my back and destroyed our radio. I had a mortar splinter in my shoulder and a twisted ankle. (The splinter is still there.) We could not even tell the guns what was happening. The company had 96 killed or wounded out of 111 and I was a prisoner of war of the Austrian Edelweiss Mountain Division. An Irish Guards Subaltern and I were the only surviving officers of six. We were escorted to Battalion Headquarters where the C.O. questioned me – in French – did we cut the ears off our prisoners? I hastened to reassure him – but there was an element of truth.
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The Goums – the hardy, savage, irregulars of Tunisia and Algeria – were offered a bonus for every dead German – proof was an ear. Possibly the occasional prisoner lost an ear to add to the bonus. Fortunately the C.O. believed me.
So off to Tunisia – then the last ship to Naples – then to Caserta, the main reception camp where we were searched thoroughly for the first time. Officers had been issued with an elementary escape kit – a thin file, a front stud which concealed a small compass in the base, and maps printed in silk sewn into the lapels of the B.D. However, the genial Italian officer who searched me had seen it all before. He took the stud, scratched the enamel and tossed it into the WPB, ben my lapel to find the file and laughed. He didn’t fine the map – but it hadn’t much use as it was North Africa! A fortnight of very short commons, heat, dust and picking bed-bugs out of the stitching round our canvas coots was an introduction to PW life. So to our final PW camps – mine was to be Fontanellato, PG 49, on the plain of the River Po between Parma (where the ham comes from) and Piacenza. A long train journey packed into third-class carriages (we were lucky) and then a long march in the blazing heat and dust to PG 49. The march caused some distress to the officer who had managed to retain an army prismatic compass through all the searches. He had it slung on a piece of string round his waist and it dangled where you might expect, to his very considerable discomfort.
The buildings had been a modern orphanage attached to a nunnery; lovely marbled floors, huge dormitories, good plumbing, cool in the heat of summer, but coolish in the winter (particularly as we used the central heating chimney to dispose of the tunnel spoil).
I joined in that most escapist of activities – escape. We started tunnelling – with the disadvantage that the water table was only 36” under the surface. It is a considerable test of concentration to lie on your belly in wet clay, levering away with a trowel at a face illuminated by a bare electric light bulb which occasionally touches, shorts and burns, filling the tin bowls with spoil, as the air-line humps and whistle beside you. The tunnel had to be revetted the whole way, and one had to wriggle back nearly 30’. We were caught out by a snap search which met four officers clad in earth-stained ‘Long Johns’ on their way to the showers – another thirty seconds and they would have got away with it. So we lost
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that tunnel, and the four diggers got 30 days in the cells – the highly civilised Italian Commandant remarked “Gentlemen, I appreciate that your duty is to escape – you will appreciate that mine is to prevent you – 30 days”. Even this was mitigated by news, books and extra rations smuggled in.
On 9th September 1943 the Italians surrendered. Next day the Italian Commandant honoured his obligations and freed his prisoners – at least a hole was cut in the wire to let us stream out to the woods and then to the farms round the camp. 400 left – 20 got back. He even provided a donkey for the officer with a broken ankle [Eric Newby – Ed.]. Two days later the Germans arrived to collect the British PoWs – found none and shot [in fact, was sent to Germany – Ed.] the Commandant on the spot – a honourable and gallant man.
The Italian peasant and farmer loathed and desperately feared the Germans and remarkably had respect and affection for the English. It was to he the theme of, certainly, my, and many others, escape. I suppose there were a dozen of us sleeping in the hay, being fed by the farmer and his large family. They could not have done it for long. The matter was resolved when rumour flashed across the Po plain that the Germans were searching for the escaped PoWs with the usual lethal penalties for those harbouring any. Tedeschi – a word which put a shiver of horror through the simple country folk.
It was my good fortune that a Gunner Major, Douglas Flowerdew, had been planning his own escape for some time and preparing for it. He, being small and blonde, had decided to travel dressed as a woman. He had suffered the mockery of his fellows to grow his hair long. Whatever else, with his skirt, flat shoes, long blonde hair and suitable padding he earned his wolf-whistles! In his kindness, and sense of responsibility for a young fellow Gunner Officer, he invited me to join him. We had to go quickly – but where? One alternative was Switzerland – tantalisingly close, only 90 miles, but even if successful, the Swiss interned the escapee for the rest of the war. Then there were rumours of landings at Leghorn on the West Coast – about 100 miles, but the certainty of landings in the South – say 400 miles or more. We settled for the last. Our kind farmer provided a guide to the railway, which we crossed, in fear of German patrols, at midnight 14th September 1943 and then walked quickly up the increasingly steeping foothills to the Apennines. Dawn found us about 10 miles away in the edge of a
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copse. I learnt my first Italian phrases that evening “Io sono uffiziale Inglesi e volio trovare luogi per questa notte.” Adding “dormire” and “fenile” – to sleep in the hay. We learnt to stop well before dusk, when the doors and shutters were open and the peasant family could inspect us. When the doors were bolted and shutters up, after dark, nothing could persuade them to open.
Not surprisingly we did not arouse much interest – a man and a woman trudging up and down the steep dusty county lanes in the blazing September sun. We were going across the grain of the country – the long spines that ran from the heights of the Apennines down to the plain. On the fifth evening we were taken by a farmer to the house of the village priest. He made us most welcome and his house-keeper lavished her best cooking on us. So we fell into the care of the priests and bless them, they planned, they talked, they gave us guides to the next village, fed us and wined us splendidly. It was easier for Douglas, speaking Italian so well – he understood the endless negotiations, had learnt patience – he had been a prisoner for over two years. But to an impatient young man of 22, aching to be gone and away it became too much when the kind priests suggested waiting for three or four days for a lorry, I struck. Douglas could stay but I was going alone.
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PHASE 3 – ON THE ROAD
We had started out in battle-dress (or the equivalent). I had on my corduroy trousers. When we left on our own, I had the pick of some ragged cast-off clothes and let Drew have my trousers as he couldn’t get any Italian stuff to fit him. He also wore a sort of check smock. We had no hats, but soon got some given to us – Drew got a cap and I got a milking hat. This was an old felt hat with no rim.
Our main aims were not clearly defined. First, we wanted to get away from our fellow prisoners, both from the point of view of getting food and in case the Germans made a sweep of the area. Secondly, we wanted to find a snug billet where we could sleep, out of reach of mosquitoes. Thirdly, we wanted to think things out in quiet; we wanted to move towards our troops advancing up Italy, but we were also determined not to do more walking than we had to. We were not certain what sort of reception we would get from the locals. We needn’t have worried: we were advised not to stay in a roadside house, so we tried the first prosperous, isolated farm we came to and they welcomed us.
Life on a Farm
Our new home was typical of the best type of Italian farm. The house stood at the end of a metalled track and was in the middle of vineyards It had some ground under maize and some potatoes, and was generally self-supporting. The crop for sale was the grape. The main family lived on the ground floor and consisted of the grandmother with one of her sons. The other son, who shared the farm, was away soldiering. Other members of the family, children and other hangers-on, lived upstairs. The farmer was generous and intelligent, but not over educated. He worked long hours. In the better farms the men work very hard, while in the decayed ones they don’t. The women always work.
The two daughters-in-law were quite charming. Maria, the senior, who usually did the housework, was a slim, bright-looking girl of about twenty-five, who usually wore a bright red kerchief round her head and a red jersey. She was a neat, intelligent, quiet person, whom I would describe as placid. She cooked very well and was very nice to us. She had two small children, aged about four and two. The other girl was a year younger and had a softer femininity and usually wore a blue head-scarf She had a toddler, whom she
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left with her sister-in-law during the day, while she worked in the fields or at other farm jobs, such as spreading maize in the sun to ripen. We sometimes helped.
They lived in a large kitchen-parlour, with a stone floor and pillars supporting the roof. Everything was spotless. I never saw their sleeping quarters. The other rooms on the ground floor were mostly offices or store-rooms. They also had some poultry, They had six cows and a bull. Only one cow was in milk, the others were used in the fields as draught animals. They had one bay mare, which was good-looking in a rather nondescript way, and a magnificent foal, which they were beginning to break in. It was a three-year-old called Roma.
In the top of the house lived a family of dependants. I never quite discovered their number. There were several women, from youngish to old, and several children. The most interesting of them was a young boy, who was eleven and very intelligent. He was at school and aiming at higher education. He acted as guide, messenger and sentry for us. He had a rather dressy piece of a sister of about eighteen, who was very much interested in Drew. She was pretty and forward, and worked in a munitions factory in a nearby town. The father of these ‘ducklings’ was a droopy down-at-heel old farm-hand who, I suspect, was over fond of the bottle. He was friendly towards us, and was always trying to buttonhole us and talk to us in ramshackle English.
Our home was in the hayloft, more or less over the stables. We reached it by a ladder in the waggon-shed, but both the lost and the shed were open on one side. It was quite comfortable in the hay and we had a safe bolthole under the bales of straw, just in case any curious person should want to investigate. Sharing our home were the poultry, and one hen hatched out her brood in our loft. Maria use to go us sometimes in search of eggs. She shattered us by poking at these with a stick till they fell on the floor, if she couldn’t reach them. Fresh eggs don’t break when treated with this lack of respect, but I never dated emulate the experiment.
After prison fare we enjoyed eating Italian food. The main dishes were minister, polenta and brodo. I will describe these. Minister is a sort of clear soup, well flavoured, and containing a sort of toothpaste type of macaroni. It was delicious. Polenta was a sort of cross between a chapatti and a pancake. It was made of maize meal, and when it was cooked, it was spilled smoothly over a board
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from which it was eaten. It was cut by sliding a string under the polenta and flicking it up. It cut a sort of slice like a cake. It was rather tasteless stuff, eaten, not instead of bread, but for similar purposes, such as with pieces of grilled meat. Brodo was just broth.
We had some tins from Red Cross parcels with us, and one evening I made them a cauldron of porridge from a tin of oats. A tragedy occurred when I took it off the fire. I didn’t expect the handle to be so hot and spilled that greater part of it onto the floor, but we scooped it up and the dish was voted a great success, even passing the baby’s critical test. We drank some nice vino, mostly red, as did the whole family, including the smallest baby. Altogether, we had a pleasant, carefree three days at that farm.
We had several visitors, including some Jewish landowners, who had special reasons for wanting to help us. They gave us some quite good maps. I also saw quite a number of fellow prisoners, who could not speak Italian and were sent to us by the local people. The latter were so kind that there was no difficulty in finding billets for the prisoners in the neighbouring farms.
Among the friends of our hosts was a very forward young woman. She was conspicuously engaged to a young man who, possibly from choice, was in Albania. She wore a large crucifix and talked all the time in a very loud voice. We called her Walky-Talky, and she was very curious about the habits and customs in England. One day we were nutting, and were quite a jovial company when “sex reared its ugly head”. In a natural and unashamed manner my catechism, especially by Walky-Talky, veered round to topics not usually discussed in mixed company in England. I pretended not to be able to understand. The wit, in Italian, flowed fast and furious. Drew made things more difficult by not wishing to be left out of the wisecracks, and what with general ignorance, modesty, and translating for him, I had a difficult time, especially when, to clear up some wilful denseness on my part, several young men seized Walky-Talky and dragged her, with universal giggles, towards me. However, she escaped, so all was well. I mention this trivial adventure as it was the only advance of any sort made to us. With the typical arrogance of our race we had jokingly referred to our trip, before we started, as “Seductio ad absurdum”.
The reader can imagine that during this idle time we did not just sit and enjoy the sunshine. We were getting used to being at large, and also constantly discussing the situation, seeking news, and making
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plans. Outside news was very confusing. The Germans were still in the area and were thought to be seeking us. Rumours were still very wild about Allied landings, and we still thought that the Germans were going to leave Italy. We felt that we should move at least a little way from the place we were at and get well south of the Po valley. We were also determined to move away from the main bulk of our fellow prisoners to avoid food shortage and being involved in any large-scale German round-up. In view of all these points we planned to move east, round the north of Milan, to avoid the route of the others, and then turn south and aim, more or less, at Ancona. We could either wait en route, go to a reported landing at Ancona, take ship from the coast, go south towards the victoriously advancing Allies or cross the Piave and work down, with or without the patriots, towards Greece and Turkey. We never thought much of going into Switzerland, and avoided the shorter west coast route as we thought it would be thick with prisoners, and also the most likely area for strong German rearguard action.
On the Move
On the morning of September 13th things began to move fast. A message came in that the Germans had ordered all Italian munition workers to resume work, and had also ordered all Italian men to report for mobilisation for work in Germany. News came in that all young men were being rounded up. We also heard that Germans were searching the area very thoroughly. First, we decided to move on next morning, but when we were told that to go east would be folly and that we should cross the Via Miglia [Emilia – Ed.] and the railway by night, we decided to move that very evening. We couldn’t get an Italian guide as a curfew had been enforced, but I got very full instructions to follow the river bed and then, after some complicated directions, to cross the road and railway just east of Fidenza.
We went, or sent word, to the various people I had billeted, to tell them that we were going to move up into the mountains that evening. Over a dozen said that they would like to come with us. We had a good meal and were loaded down with presents of food and more vino than we could carry. We had some maps and some money given us by the Jews, who also gave me two pairs of silk stockings. I wanted these because I felt that I would be safer dressed as a woman, while the Germans were rounding up all able-
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bodied Italian men for work in German munitions factories or to dig fortifications in Italy. Maria and a largish peasant woman provided my outfit. I wore a blue kerchief on my head, which was padded out with some maize hair, and a blue stockinette dress and high heeled sandals. I carried a razor, soap, a towel and a tin of biscuits, with some chocolate as an emergency ration, in a cloth bag with a zip fastener. It was lucky that my bag was small; poor Drew had a sack which could hold much more of our gear. I usually carried a bottle, but that did not look unusual as it might have done in England.
Later on, when, we were on the road, my outfit caused much amusement among the women we met. They easily recognised that I was a man, and realised why I was so disguised. They all wanted to help by improving my appearance. One would get out powder and lipstick and ‘do’ my face, the next would roar with laughter, take a rag and wipe off my make-up. And so on. Some wanted me to have more maize hair, some less. My bosom was either too big or too small.
Before we set off, we said a series of farewells. Drew and I led with our tail strung out in pairs and threes. It was about 9.30 p.m. and we made good progress. I was beginning to feel pretty pleased with myself that I was helping such a large number of my fellows, when pride fell with a bang. Suddenly we saw, about 100 yards away, converging on us, a patrol of four men. They noticed us at the same moment that we saw them, and they stopped dead, watching us. Drew said: “Don’t move – we’ve had it!” But I turned in towards the foliage of the river and he followed. So did the patrol. But, as there were no shots, we began to run, and I dived down through the bushes to the water level, where I crouched under a small bush and prayed and sweated in turns. Noises were everywhere and mosquitoes active. I heard footsteps, and I thought I heard someone addressed as Carl.
Half ah hour passed and then, with relief, I heard Drew calling me. He had hidden some little way away and had ventured out at last when he heard the last pair of our tail passing. What had happened was that four prisoners had heard that I was going through and they had tried to join me. When they saw a man and a ‘woman’, they had paused, and then, when we ran, they had followed. The rest of my people had gone on, leaving the four behind. Two chaps decided to come on with us and the other two turned back. We went on, feeling rather foolish. The night dragged on and we were
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very frightened. It took ages to reach the road and railway. When we did, the others voted that it was my turn to lead. I crept with caution on to the line and leapt across it. I expected a guard but there was nothing worse than a green signal to frighten me. Once across the line I waited and waited, cursing the others under my breath. After about half and hour I moved further away, but still stayed watching the line.
Then I gave up and moved off, all alone, along the side of the hedge. Just at the end of the row I heard voices and found that the other three had just decided to give me up. Drew had found a culvert under the railway, and they had used it. Unfortunately, it landed them in the next field and we had missed each other. Much relieved, we ate a small meal and moved on.
We were travelling more or less due south, aiming for the high ground. We covered quite a lot of plough and I found this very heavy going in my high-heeled sandals. At last we got on to higher ground and at about 4 a.m. we stopped and dozed behind a barn at the back of a fair-sized farm in a hamlet. Two hours later the family began to move about and, when we greeted them, they gave us some bread and milk. We had now completed stage 1 of our journey. We were out of immediate danger from German traffic and felt safe in the foothills of the mountains. We were no longer near the bulk of the British prisoners. So far as I can remember, our two companions decided to settle into a suitable billet and we all felt that two were less conspicuous than four, so Drew and I moved on.
The Long Walk
Throughout Italy we were constantly coming across so-called English-speaking Italians. These usually had been in America, Scotland or Wales and could swear, but beyond that had very little English. It was an awful nuisance, because no Italian would talk Italian to me until the local English speaker had failed to understand our English. We met a Cardiff Italian on the morning after our flit. He was better than most and told us that we should go east of south, in the same direction as most of the others. He thought that La Spezia was much the nearest English occupied place. He was quite wrong. In fact, there were no English landings anywhere in Northern Italy, Questioned further he admitted that we would have to go through a narrow pass, and that in the area there was great poverty and
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food was very short. Drew and I decided to ignore his advice and stick to our plan to stay in the mountains.
Our route now led more or less due east, or south of east. We had to cross about half a dozen rivers, some of them dry, and also to get over the main roads and railways leading from the Po valley towns into central and southern Italy. These were going to be dangerous, as we would have to cross by-passes, which would be more or less defended. Our route wandered on, keeping as much as possible to the foothills just south of the Po valley. We should be able to do this until we had to pass Bologna, where the mountains come down to the edge of the city. We were to find that our route was to run into the tracks of refugees and fellow prisoners each time we crossed the axis leading south from a prison camp or a big town. This did not matter much. The people in this area were fairly rich and had plenty of food and weren’t too frightened of the Germans. We sometimes were to be shown letters from fellow prisoners who had been befriended, and in some cases we would know the officers in question.
We set out, doing from 20-30 kilometres a day. This was not a great distance, but we weren’t trying to do great distances as we still hoped that the Allies would come to us. One night we slept in a wheat store and the harvesters fed us on eggs and chickens. On another, we walked and walked before we could find anywhere suitable, and when we did settle, we found our host’s brother, who was sheltering there, was a founder-member Fascist. He was a kind-hearted chap who cursed himself crooked because I was silly enough to cut my hand with a cheese knife when they offered me some very hard cheese. He had sent someone off to fetch the Germans while we ate, but, when I had cut myself while receiving his hospitality, he found it necessary, to warn us to run away, because the Germans would come within minutes. We didn’t wait for them!
One day, a rich family dragged us in off the street of a village and gave us brandy and money, and also gave me a pair of rubber sandals. The ones I was wearing had heels too high for comfort and were getting very worn. The new ones were much better. The man was a sort of industrialist mayor and had a lovely house, which was almost a miniature mansion. Everything was new and of the best. In another village, we were walking down the main street when we passed the police station and saw the sergeant of carabinieri, with his rifle, standing in the doorway. We walked on with our hearts in
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our boots, and he filed along behind. He followed us to another post, where he had a conversation with his fellows, and then sent a boy, who passed us on a bicycle and had a good look at us. However, we got out of the village and, as soon as possible, we left the road and crossed country.
One of our best billets was a great surprise. We were crossing a river when we saw an Italian family, who looked rather poor, loading water into a bullock cart. Then, with much shouting and belabouring, the driver drove the bullocks along our road. They were young beasts and he was breaking them in. We walked along with them, and they offered us a meal if we accompanied them to their home. We agreed, although we did not expect much. The man was a most exact spit of the Englishman’s idea of an organ-grinder, and his wife was a strong, untidy woman. She had a sister who should have been resting as her baby seemed imminent, and there were also several cheery, ragged, barefoot children. We arrived at a very prosperous-looking farm, and found that the family, including various other brothers and their wives, were very proud of their pedigree cattle. These were fine white beasts, rather like the old Roman sacred kine. Mussolini had a great penchant for the beef from these beasts, and had been presented with several from the herd. He was in some disfavour, and they said he was a very heavy beef eater. We stayed for two days with these people, as I had sore and blistered feet. The food was good and plentiful, and many friends fed there. There was some kind of professional man and his university student son who stayed the night. They were friends of one of the brothers, who was a professional hunter. They were interesting, and the conversation at this place was of a high order. There was a lot of shooting in country districts and some of the dogs were excellent.
As we got away from the rich farms, which skirted the plain, we used to try to seek out priests whose presbyteries were about the largest houses in the small villages. Many of these kindly, educated men were very good to us. The Roman Catholic policy was to do nothing to cause a breach with the Germans, but many fed us and many others housed us in the home farm, which was the main source of their incomes. Others, particularly the older ones, were too terrified to help us and they turned us away sometimes without the proverbial crust. However, by this time it was a clever person who could get rid of us once we had got them to open the door. I usually got to the fireside and took off my shoes, while Drew smiled
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at them. Drew had a very attractive smile. It was very difficult to shift two determined men – one with his shoes off and his feet in a bucket of water.
One priest who sheltered us lived away up in a wooded hill. It was a frightful climb to a chapel-like church with a small home farm, but the priest and his student were kindly and shrewd, the fare was excellent. We felt very safe up there in the views were superb, but the priest did not want us to stay as he felt strongly about disobeying the instructions of his superiors.
Somewhere in these mountains I lost the heel of my sandals and sprained my ankle. We had difficulty in finding anywhere to rest, and spent the night in a very poor cabin where there was little to eat. The old woman who lived there had my ankle in almost boiling water, and by next day it was better and we were able to move on.
Don Zeno was a priest who had a considerable influence on our doings. We met him about this stage in our travels (September 1943), so it is a good moment to introduce him. You must picture to yourself a well-built man in a much travelled cassock with a square black priest’s hat. He had greying hair and a browny-grey strong face. His eyes were wilful and shrewd, with a steady, penetrating look. He had, on his left breast, a cross with the letters P.A. on either side of it. He came of poor peasant stock, and was an earnest, sensitive boy. Although he did not plan to be a priest, he received a good education. God’s message came to him later through an overwhelming desire to love and care for his fellow men.
The result of his call was the creation of a really marvellous order, called the Piccoli Apostoli or little apostles. He had about 400 orphans in his order. The remarkable part of this organisation was that he had been able to build up complete family units. He did this by persuading religious, rich young women to take on a ‘family’ of ten or more orphans. They lived in a section of the house of the long-suffering father of the ‘mother’ of the Piccoli Apostoli. Zeno was reverenced and beloved by all. I have never seen a happier band of people and I was very much impressed by the way they all shared everything and helped one another. The various ‘mothers’ had an adoration for Don Zeno which would be interesting to analyse. The organisation claimed to work entirely on unsolicited gifts. It had
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been in operation for about fifteen years, and some of the orphans had grown up and were earning their livings, either inside the order or outside it. They all, however, remained active members and helped with their incomes. Some had even married and remained in the organisation, their children running with the pack! There must have been 30 or 40 of these families, mostly in North Italy. The headquarters of the organisation was in Modena, and Don Zeno ran several minor industries, such as engineering works and the production of film materials. I think he even went in for some film production and screening, chiefly of propaganda and religious films.
We met him when he was on trek to join the Allies. He was travelling with a lorry and some boys who were going with him. He had some young grown-up members of the order, and several friends and associates who were prepared to go to join the Allies. I think they really went because they would do anything for Don Zeno. He had one or two assistant priests travelling with him. He even had a pass from the Germans for using his lorry for good works, and identity cards also endorsed by them.
We met him at the house of a village priest, and he wanted to cooperate with us. He was prepared to help us, and felt that we could be of help to him when he reached the British, as he had various schemes, of which more anon. It was too dangerous for us to move in his lorry, but anyway, most of his youths walked in small parties, and the plan was to move from one safe rendez-vous to another, several days’ walk away.
Don Zeno’s plans were to go to get permission from the Allies to address Italian prisoners of war before their release. He feared that the lack of interest and co-operation among the peasants would make the country an easy mark for Communism and anarchy, with a resultant godlessness. He planned to organise a form of co-operative Christian socialism, and he felt that he could best start by speaking to the prisoners before they went home. He could urge them to support the Allies and win their goodwill, and to present themselves to the nation as deliverers of the people.
He and I had many fierce discussions about the fate of Italy. He feared that they would be reduced to vassal status, and blamed us and the United States for the war and for Italy’s poverty. I tried to explain to him our aims and my conception of international cooperation. I also explained the composition and ideals of the British Empire to him. He finished up by saying that the best thing for Italy
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would be for her to join the British Empire, and also made the notable admission that it was desirable that emigrants should place their first allegiance to the country of their adoption.
I was very impressed with Don Zeno. His was a fighting faith, and he carried away the communion bell from his chapel to ring as a sort of battle cry. Whenever he arrived at one of his ‘homes’ everyone dropped to their knees and he blessed them, as he did again on departing: and he was a successful collector of money in the way that he took all available cash from the ‘mothers’ of his families for his mission. But the result of his leadership was plain for all men to read – a happy, loving band of children and grown-ups, sharing everything in Christian fellowship, and generous to all.
Drew received a better set of clothes, and was given the cap off a man’s head! I had two sets of clothes from them, and even a pair of shoes. These were like gold in Italy just them. I also got a hat.
I had, of course, to change my sex again, as a Catholic priest can’t be seen travelling with a woman. This was a great relief. The distribution of footwear amongst us was rationed. Those who were going to walk had the pick of what there was. What was left was divided among those who were to go by lorry.
The big thing that Don Zeno did at this stage was to lend Drew and me bicycles. The day before we got the bikes, Drew went ahead with an elderly French woman worker and two young men. I was to have a lift next morning in the lorry because of my sprained ankle, but Don Zeno took fright at the last moment, and I had to walk. As a result Drew had a day with the French woman and the others, and he got very cross with them as they were so frightened and kept him hanging about in woods while they took it easy in barns: also they didn’t eat much and Drew was a very good trencherman.
The preparations for a Don Zeno move maddened Drew. Everyone would discuss what to do interminably, and they never, by any chance, were up to time, even if they didn’t change their plans completely. I found it trying enough, although I was a moving spirit in the discussions, but for Drew, who had to sit waiting, it was infuriating.
We set out on our bikes in fine fettle. They had no tools, and we had to mend a puncture before we started, and the brakes didn’t work, but we didn’t have to walk. Our start was down a steep byroad to a village. This was on a main road and so, dangerous: but we didn’t have far to go along this before we could take a fork road
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off to the right. Our progress was more difficult, as I could only pedal slowly (the chain kept coming off).
We had a good look at the main road as we approached it and all seemed well. We rode along it – Drew well ahead, and as we got to the market place, a motor cycle came up and stopped in the middle of the road. It proceeded to direct traffic, and the German rider looked intently at us. In a flash, a huge convoy of 20 or 30 German lorries drove along. My heart was in my boots, but there was nothing to do except ride on past them. I had to crawl along, as my chain kept half coming off, but all was well, and we reached our byroad in safety.
Drew had two slow punctures: and another snag was that we wanted to go west to east while the roads were mostly north to south, and some of them were hideously main and full of Germans. We found that after the first spell of cycling, most of the time we had to carry the bikes up and down hills. Drew was for cycling rapidly past danger spots, but I over-ruled him and we usually carried our bikes round long detours. Despite the carrying, we made better progress, but found that often we had to spend most of the evening patching up the bikes. Drew was an expert, and wrought miracles; but we began to doubt whether they were worth while. My tyre, after a puncture, proved to be too big for the wheel, and we had to bind it on with some parachute silk a girl gave us.
One evening, after a desperate day carrying the bikes across two valleys and a mountain, we reached a tiny village. The people were terrified, and refused to help us. They wouldn’t believe that we weren’t Germans and, even if we weren’t, were afraid that the Germans would punish them. In vain did I appeal to a glamorous carabiniere who was on leave; he left us, promising to go and find us billets, but really went off to see his best girl. We waited in the village pub, fearing all the time that he had gone off to get the Germans and, in the end, we left.
We found a soldier, who took us to a dreadful leaf hut in which we were able to sleep, but we got no food. Next day we didn’t fare much better, as we had to push the bikes up a long village street and past the hostile looks of a large Sunday afternoon crowd. Altogether a very unpleasant place. We again had difficulty in getting billets, but eventually a priest sent us to two isolated houses, which were occupied by the major and minor branches of a family.
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Our hosts treated us marvellously; Drew got help mending the bikes and we were royally fed. The richer pair in this house were very upset that we would not stay to dinner. But they gave us a roast chicken and some potatoes to take for our evening meal. The other family gave me a crucifix (which I still have) and a set of medals which they said had brought the man of the house safely back from the wars. These were pinned on my shirt. I already had a charm given me at Fontanellato and a Piccoli Apostoli medal. We ate our chicken on top of the world, and it was marvellous. There was a track along a ridge and we were quite literally blown off our bikes. Once I lost my crucifix and medals, but found the cross and the P.A. medal and, curiously enough, a St Anthony medal; the rest had disappeared. St Anthony always finds things!
We rejoined Don Zeno at a charming village. Here he had one of his ‘families’. The squire of the place had killed a calf and we fed royally on stewed veal and bread and wine. I noticed that all the children got their whack. The young lady of the place was a madonna-like beauty and her sister was a very smart, pretty girl. The family was cultured and I suspect that the father owned the village. Their house was grand, and the children had a small block of it. I had a good night in a bed at this place and had a long chat with the padrone.
We were getting near the end of or our patience with the bikes – they gave us so much trouble. One day we were lucky. We arrived in a village where the priest fed us, and the villagers, to our alarm, came round and chatted. We felt that we might be attracting too much attention. However, the result was that two men came and mended the bikes.
We abandoned the bikes at a priests’ conclave, as they were more trouble than they were worth. There was a pretty fierce bit of mountain to cover before we would reach our next rendez-vous with Don Zeno. It was before I got the shoes from the Apostoli and I had on rubber sandals. My ankle was better but we had torrential rain and I couldn’t walk in the slippery mud with the sandals, which were, in any case, at their last gasp. Thus, I was soaked and barefoot. To add to our troubles, we had no good map of this area and had to guess a good deal. The main mountains did not run in the direction we wished to take, and the easiest way was not always the straightest. Drew had a lot to put up with as we often did not agree as to the best direction to take. However, we jogged along. He was also
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troubled with a wrench that he gave to an old football knee. He could go along at a great rate except when he jarred it.
We finally walked into Civitella, which was our next rendez-vous, looking like minor prophets. We were both soaked to the skin and I was barefoot. We had long staves to assist us in walking, and were bareheaded. However, we were hidden in a stable till dusk and then taken into the priest’s house, where we got dry clothes and food. I was not feeling very well, and this was lucky for me, as I was given some special food. Drew and the rest of them fed on some nauseating stale bread broth. We slept in great discomfort in a very bad bed in a room with about twenty Italians.
We were to move off at 9.30 a.m., but did not start until 3 p.m. I tried to persuade Don Zeno to change the plan at this stage and to lift half the party at a time, by lorry, and to cover much more ground. However, they took fright and I got a lift for about ten miles and Drew rode a bike and held on behind, cursing and swearing, as they drove so fast. At that point we reached a little place where a priest lived with his old parents, a cobbler and his wife. They were grand people and did some heavy repairs to the footwear of the community. The priest was in touch with 38 escaped prisoners, including 9 generals, who were hiding in the hills. We sent them a goodwill Christmas message. In the mountains in this part we were constantly hearing about armed bands of rebels in the hills, but we never met them.
We left Don Zeno for a fresh rendez-vous with him at a place a hundred miles away, called Nocera Umbria, where Don Zeno felt that the Bishop would befriend him, and he had half planned to retire to a vacant living with us all, in Southern Italy, until such time as we should be over-run by the Allies.
We had a gruelling day’s march, which was lengthened by having to avoid a pro-German police sergeant, and during which Drew and I became convinced that it would be better for us to separate. He was walking very well, and wanted to do long distances. I felt he was beginning to make a race of it and was chasing kilometres. I wasn’t feeling very well, and a blister on my heel had rubbed itself into a painful ulcer. Drew kept having to wait for me, and I didn’t want to hold him back. He now knew enough Italian to be able to fend for himself, and I believed that we would both be safer by ourselves.
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Alone in the Mountains
I had now got into the Marches. These were the old Papal States and had terrific histories. the country was very wild and hilly, and heavily wooded. The valleys were all dominated by Walt Disney castles, most of them in ruins, and with tiny villages nestling under their protection. The churches were isolated and often had some sort of defensive outwork. The mountains were rugged and steep and were full of charcoal burners and mule-trains that carried the charcoal. The farms were very poor. I walked through this country and began to believe the stories of wild wolves and bears.
Suddenly I came on a sheltered and prosperous village, which turned out to be free from German interference and which had only two carabinieri, who came weekly on horseback to visit it. The priest was a very nice man and received me hospitably. His housekeeping was done by an apple-cheeked sister, who cooked the food under my eagle eye. I have never seen anyone put quite such a lot of effort into making pastry as that girl. Se stood on tiptoes and put her full weight into rollin it out. Then she chopped up and incorporated minute bits of this and that until she had it all to her liking. The result was delicious. While it was being cooked I wanted to wash and se sent me now to to trout-filled, snow-fed mountain rivulet. She said it was very cold – and it was – but such was my degree of hardihood that I stripped and bathed in it and enjoyed it.
That night the youths of the village came in to listed to the wireless They heard both Bari and Radio Roma. then they produced maps and we talked over my route. I wanted to be checked over by a doctor, and a message was sent asking their local one to visit me. e did, at the dead of night. He amused me by making me say “trenta tre” (33) instead of “ninety nine”, and said that I was all right. He gave me some ointment for my foot and departed. He was a nice chap, that doctors, and he and his wife called at the priest’s house next morning to see how I was. He was a Neapolitan and rather a dandy. They were obviously well-to-do people and reminded me very much of doctors at home.
I left Alfero, planning to do a ver easy day. I began by getting a ride on a mule up a hill track. I tried to hire one to take me all the way, but the best I could do was to get a lift on a charcoal convoy going up empty to fetch down more charcoal. This meant sitting on a saddle that so narrow that it was quite impossible to
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be comfortable. Most of the way I perched precariously side-saddle on top of the wooden superstructure. It poured with rain, and, when we reached the charcoal burner’s hut, I stayed a while and sheltered with him.
Charcoal burners are a race apart. They live for most of the summer up in the mountains in shacks they build for themselves. These are really little more than a roof placed on the ground. The door is a narrow section in the broad part of the roof, that you have to enter sideways, and it is usually open to act as a chimney for the fire, which is lit just opposite the opening. Two poles serve as seats on either side of the fire, and separate the lobby of the hut from the bunks and stores on either side; men on one side – women on the other. Chickens run in and out and, at night, perch overhead. There is often a rivulet outside, with ice-cold bottles of water lying in it. For a mountain holiday, I can imagine nothing to appeal to children and picnic lovers more than these cabins.
The family in the hut I was in were a middle aged couple with a son in the Bersaglieri, which is a crack Italian regiment, and whose photo I had to admire. He was “somewhere in Italy”. There was also a daughter, aged sixteen. The girl was quite a beauty. She was blonde and fairly large, but moved with the grace of mountain people. There are quite a lot of blondes amongst the mountain people of Italy, even quite far south. She had a soft, quiet voice, which, however, she could use for calling and conversation over huge distances out of doors, and she was very shy. She made enquiries about my family and, when I spoke of my small son Anthony, she fell in love with the name, which she pronounced “Antiny” and savoured in her mouth. Mid blushes, she made me write it down for the time when her son would be born.
The calling of mountain people to one another, even over long distances is most interesting. I listened to one conversation between two mites which ran somewhat as follows. (Remember that they were about a mile apart across a valley.)
“Evangeline! Evangeline! Come here.”
“Evangeline! Mother is calling and says that she will give you a good hiding if you are late for dinner.”
“I can’t come – I’m busy.”
“Mother says she’ll smack you if you’re late for dinner, Evangeline.”
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“I can’t come.”
“If you are late for dinner you’ll get what-for.”
and so on. Imagine the whole thing almost sung across a valley with the ends of the phrases rising to a high note and the hills around echoing the confidential threats of a mother, who might well have been even further away across another valley; and the whole thing becomes delightfully intimate. I suppose they even court one another from peak to peak!
When the rain slackened, I went on to my night’s destination. This was a high, rather remote farm, which I found with some difficulty. It was worth finding, as I was lent a son’s dry clothes and ate a lovely meal in front of a huge fire. That night I was made to sleep in a largish, comfortable bedroom, which was communal. It held the grandfather and granny and the youngest children, aged five and two. We went up a ladder to it and all slept. This of type of living takes a little getting used to, as there is little privacy. The pride of the place was one article of bedroom furniture which lived under my bed and was cheerfully used by one and all.
I was feeling better when, after a good night’s sleep, I set off next morning. After climbing over the mountains, I was in easier country. It was fairly free from Germans as the roads didn’t lead anywhere much and only had a few east to west routes of not undue importance. I ran across a series of kind young priests who were most hospitable. One such lived in a dear little walled village and had almost rebuilt his church. I admired the altar very much; it was of stone and had very clean lines. Instead of the usual hangings in front of the altar there was nothing and you could see under it. In front and around it there were vases of flowers. The effect was very pleasing.
The priest kindly gave me a bed for the night, as did many others. I would like to pay tribute here to the kindness of the Roman Catholic priests whom I met. The Catholic Church in Italy does not allow a priest to have any woman to keep house for him except for his mother or sister, or a woman over fifty, and many priests install a favourite sister. This regulation seemed pointless to me, as the Catholic Church lost a most useful unpaid worker, which is what the vicar’s wife usually is in England. It also means that a young priest cannot have a cheerful house unless he has a sister willing to be his housekeeper – and the sister has to give up her life to do the job. However, the menage was sometimes quite charming.
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The pair were often well educated and seemed to have the happy air of playing at keeping house that brothers and sisters have as children. I often had long arguments about this with my hosts.
Another progressive priest and his sister lived in a lovely place called Castel Franco. It was just a church at the meeting point of several tracks, and the parish was widely scattered. I liked this family very much indeed. They made me very welcome and even had a bathroom with an English-made charcoal geyser. I had a lovely bath!
After leaving Castel Franco the scenery changed. The wild country gave way to the Gubbio plain. An open valley leads round in a semi-circle of about fifty miles diameter. There were Germans about and I had to cross the valley and climb up into the higher ground beyond without being spotted. I was getting into Umbria. This is a rich province in Central Italy, just north-east of Rome. The northern edge of the semi-circle had a large number of estates with palaces and mansions. Most of these were unoccupied as their owners had moved out of the war zone, so my plans to visit the Prince of This or the Duke of That came to nothing. Most of the estates were in excellent condition and were being renovated and decorated for their owners to return to after the War.
I stopped and had meals with the agents of several of them and watched the wine-making in one. It was fun watching people dancing about on the grapes and hugging each other, slightly tipsy from the fumes. The whole process was supervised by a genial old rogue who spoke good American. He persuaded the home farmer to give me a bed for the night. But they were so frightened that all I got was a stall in a stable and the farmer woke me at 1.30 a.m. to suggest that I should move on. I declined to budge until 5 a.m., by which time it was light and not too cold.
I was still hankering after a night of luxury, so I tried a large house further along the semi-circle. This was no mansion, but adjoined a church, and was the biggest house in sight. It was an extraordinary place. A peasant had prospered and built himself a big house, but his family still lived as peasants. The ground-floor rooms were used as stables and the family lived in a first floor kitchen with hens walking in and out. I got a bed to sleep in, but had to earn my keep by talking to the old man who was ninety-three and bed-ridden and very deaf. He must have been a fine chap but was sinking fast. So far as I could see the place was run by various women and, I
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suppose, they lived on capital as the small amount of farming would never have paid for the upkeep of such a big place.
I managed to reach Don Zeno’s next rendez-vous about twenty-four hours after Drew, so I just missed him. It was a day of pouring rain, and I tried to stop for lunch at a country presbytery a few miles out of Nocera Umbria. I wanted the priest to send a boy to the bishop’s palace to find out whether the bishop was going to help Don Zeno, and whether we would be hiding up in one of his parishes until the war passed us by. But the priest was the most frightened, with the least cause, of any of the ones I met. He would neither give me bread nor allow my clothes to dry. He would not hear of sending to Umbria. I had to go on and did not like the idea of going into the town, so stayed at a sort of monastery outside, where I got good food and from where a priest went up to see the bishop.
This monastery was part of an international order, but, because of the war, the British and American inmates had gone home. The messenger returned with the bishop’s secretary, who spoke English. He brought a letter from Don Zeno saying that the bishop, who had had trouble with the Fascists before, was too frightened to help; and that he (Don Zeno) was moving to a village south of Rome, where he hoped I would join him. On the back Drew had written the date of his arrival. He had collected some British parachutists and was having a high old time. He did not say where he was going but gave me the impression that he would not go on to Don Zeno’s rendez-vous. I didn’t know what to do. I had done a long walk to get to the rendez-vous and now had to move on again. I did not want to cross to Western Italy as we had planned to keep to the east in the mistaken idea that the 8th Army might come to meet us.
I shook the dust of the bishop’s town from off my feet and climbed into the mountains to the south-east of the semi-circle. I had a long, long walk before I came to any form of human habitation, and when I did, I came to a poor little village. I found the priest lying sick, in frightful squalor, in his sister’s house. He was almost insane, and I had to go on. About a mile further on I managed to get taken in by the last house in the village. One half of this house was occupied by a family and the other half by their nephews who were students hiding from the Germans. They collected food every few days. They seemed to manage to collect lots of good food, such as ham, tongue and eggs. They fed me well. When I arrived they were
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playing a gambling card game, popular in Italy. The cards were not ordinary ones and looked more like mah-jong than anything I had met.
My next resting place was a small village where a kind-hearted mason collected me from the house of a priest who was away in the wars, and whose wife gave me lunch. In the priest’s house I met with the only discourtesy I had on my trip. There was an old refugee woman who had no use for us as the R.A.F. had bombed Florence. She blamed us for being uncivilised. Usually the Italians accepted that the R.A.F. normally bombed military objectives.
To return to my mason. He was a go-ahead chap who was very proud of the house he had built himself. He was a man of strong likes and dislikes and did not care for priests. He said they were hand in glove with the Fascists, but this was certainly not my experience. He had a large wireless and the villagers used to gather to listen to the B.B.C.
They all took me to their hearts and vied with one another in showing me hospitality. I had several meals in different houses and finally went away with a large ham omelette sandwich. The most remarkable thing they gave me was a real cup of coffee. This was particularly remarkable as no proper coffee had been seen in Italy for at least four years. The women were pretty and very mothering, and the whole community, dominated by the mason, was far more alive and wideawake than were most rural villages. They had a corporative sense and interest in general matters that seemed to me to be rather like an ideal Communist community.
The next part of my journey was to bring me down into the valley and the town of Norcia, and the road running from Rome to the east coast. The valley contains a number of small townships, and I went into one to try to get a meal. I took fright as it was Sunday morning, when the streets were full of people, and I was the object of all eyes. I left the place, passing some Yugoslav partisans, who were hardier than I was, and were going into the town. There were large numbers of these Yugoslavs about; they had mostly been interned in Italy, although some had been in prison. They were fine looking men, some blond giants, and all very strong. They were very friendly, but most of them were ardent Communists.
As I left the town, I saw a motor cycle coming towards me with a huge trailer pulled behind it. The driver stopped to give an old man a lift, and I got one too. It was lovely to be riding again, but
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the whole experience was terrifying. We drove fiercely along a steep and winding road, and I felt as if I was taking part in one of those ‘wall of death’ exhibitions. However, we reached the walls of Norcia without a sudden death, and the driver pointed out the direction I should take and, after getting me to translate a German permission to circulate for the purpose of moving the property of a German lady who wished to move into Rome, waved me goodbye and drove into the town.
I had to climb up a steep path out of a ring of mountains in order to keep going in the direction I wanted. I was crossing by passo Bernadette and it was a gruelling, rough climb. I had, of course, to keep off the main road to avoid passing Germans. Halfway up I found a piece of paper, which was a recommendation given by Colonel de Burgh to an N.C.O. cook. A little later I got into awful difficulties, as I had to cross a main road just south of the Pass. I found myself getting tired and hungry and I was still on the bare slopes of a very steep mountain. I was thirsty, too, and there was no sign of life.
I went on and on, and, at last, found a shepherds’ camp. This was a set of corrals, with tiny straw thatched huts in which the men slept. They gave me some very welcome bread and water. There was no room for me and they were anxious to get rid of me, so I went on up to the top and some shepherds on the other side sent me down to the village of Capo d’Acqua. This was a straggling, untidy little place in a steep valley flanking the main road that wound up and over the mountain. There was a lot of German traffic and my hosts were poor and timid. However, they repented of their plan to let me sleep in the stable and awoke me, just as I had settled, to bring me indoors and give me a hard bed.
Of the many different beds I tried, the best by far was straw. If you can get well down in between bales of straw and have more straw over you, you can be delightfully warm on the coldest night. Cattle are bad stable companions at the best of times – and maddening when they have bells round their necks.
After another day in fairly reasonable country and a billet at a dear little place called Skai [Scai], I passed a town called Montereale and got into wilder country. The season was getting over, and the sheep and shepherds had, most of them, gone south or into the valleys. The wind was boisterous and very cold from about 5 o’clock onwards. I spent one night with two British Other Ranks, who were
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putting up, cheerfully, with terrific hardships. They lived on veritable scraps, which they got from some shepherds, and slept in a bitterly cold stone stable with no door at all. I was frozen, although I shared their blanket. I nearly persuaded them to move on with me, but they decided to stay on for a few days more.
I got out of those mountains into the Aquila-Sulmona plain [the Sulmona plain is s. of the Pescara river – Ed.]. This large valley is diamond-shaped and is bounded on all sides by high mountains. It is important strategically, as it controls two routes to Rome, one from Pescara and the other from Campo Basso and Sulmona. The Germans were about in some strength, and, as the area was well provided with roads, most of the villages were unsafe for me. I spent on e night inside a walled village, which I could only enter after dark, when the shepherd I had asked for shelter took me to his house.
It was noteworthy as being the dirtiest house I have ever been in. The floor was filthy; the children almost had plants growing in their hair, and had clothes which looked as if they had been enlarged as the kids had grown, without being taken off. Naturally, they were all covered with sores. The water pot was dirty and the ladle, from which we all drank, was covered with slime. When food arrived, it was on dirty plates and was the most disgusting gruel. I retired to bed, in a dirty stable, with an ass, goats, hens and mice, with relief. Needless to say, I was sick during the night and my stomach did not recover for several days. Ugh!
Getting near the War
In order to reach the 8th Army lines I had either to go due south, through the narrow and heavily defended Sulmona gap or I must cross the Grand Sasso by the pass called the Forca di Penna (Ridge of Feathers) and go down the East Coastal belt. I decided to cross, and had another stiff climb up to a pass, without using the road designed for the purpose. The Germans were using that! I got to the top at last and found a small village, where two South Africans and two Italians were warming themselves by a huge fire. We got separate accommodation for the night and the people told us that we had better stay with them, but I wanted to push on and the South Africans asked if they could come with me. The problem was to cross the Pescara (river). It was represented to us as a formidable river,
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with all bridges blown or guarded, and a heavily patrolled road and a railway on the other side. We approached it cautiously.
We got to the river bank near a big mill with a weir and bridge over the river beyond it. There were some men working near the weir, and, although they felt that we should wait till nightfall, they agreed to look and see if the way was clear. We crossed the river, one at a time, and hid in some bushes. Then, again one at a time, we crossed under the road and railway by culverts.
There was a lot of traffic, and it was nervous work. We even saw a tank patrolling the road. We all had to hide in turn under the road while German vehicles passed over the top; but we managed to get clear and up the hillside away from the road. I don’t think that the Germans were looking very much on either side of the road, or they must have seen us. From considerable experience, I would say that people in motor cars, whether troops or civilians, are very road conscious and are moving too quickly to show the slightest interest in people off the road. Who hasn’t passed hundreds of suitable picnic sites as it was too much trouble to stop, and by the time the decision has been made, the spot is far behind?
The country we were moving in was full of Germans. It was bounded on the east by the sea, and on the west by a huge block of mountain called the Maiella. This mountain is a very trying one to flank, as it has innumerable steep ridges and ravines running from its sides. On one day we climbed laboriously in and out of at least a dozen, and they were so steep that one always had to make a big detour.
The area towards the battle lines was crossed by four or five big rivers, and each one was flanked by a road. The Germans were preparing all the rivers as defensive positions, and there was a continuous noise of blasting in all directions. Crossing rivers was, at first, rather a business. We scouted round, hid in the bushes, took our clothes off and carried them over the river, if necessary on our heads, but after a bit, we waded straight in without undressing, and let our clothes dry on us as we got out the other side. We spent one night in a nice house well up in the hills. It had fallen on evil days and was occupied by silica miners; but they were kind and hospitable to us. We had reached it by following a cable railway. The South Africans were too quick for me, as my foot was still troublesome and my shoes were falling to pieces, so they went on ahead.
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The next few days were amusing, as there was a constant stream of people, escaped prisoners, Yugoslavs or refugees, moving surreptitiously towards the lines, and one usually ran into company, either wading across rivers or on hill tracks. Life was not without incident. Whenever we had to cross roads there was always traffic to avoid. One could usually find a covered way up to the road or away from it, but not often both. A road had to be studied and, often at the last moment, one had to go to ground, or pretend to be doing some farming activity, should curious Germans drive by.
On one occasion, I had approached a road at a perfect place, and was leaning out of a hedge to see if all was clear, when a big German staff car rolled silently into view. I pulled at the bamboo I was holding on to and it broke and I fell into the road, right in front of the car. The driver applied his brakes and cursed. I scrambled to my feet and slipped over the road into the bushes. The incident was over.
Similar events were common. I got to the stage when I felt like a steeple-chaser, backing my luck, going flat out at each fence, or river, and hoping that nothing would go wrong.
Life was full of surprises. One night I lorded it in comfort in a large house, or a row of houses, lived in by a big family. Another, I spent sleeping with five Italians in a barn which was bitterly cold. We had good food to make up for it, as a farmer was killing off his turkeys to prevent the Boche from having them. We had almost too much turkey.
As I got nearer, the front seemed to recede from me. Rumour kept placing the battle front over the next river. We were getting close, it was obvious; there were hardly any Italians about and the houses all had the same tale to tell: the Germans had been and stolen their beasts and birds. An old woman had been told to produce a dozen eggs at the point of a pistol. At another place I found four young women, with an old crone spread-eagled between them, ducking her in a mud puddle. Goodness knows what they would have done with her before they had finished because they were very angry. They were interrupted by me and an old man, who came up in the nick of time. She had told the Germans where the others had hidden their rings: under duress, it is true. The whole family was in a panic, and they told me that the Germans would shoot me at sight if I was carrying a bundle.
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I had had a bad day; I had nearly walked into a German patrol, and had had to walk slowly away from a party of Germans, who were pillaging on foot, all armed; and was rather frightened already. The old man nearly put me in a panic. I hid in a hole and abandoned my holdall and the rest of my belongings, which I was carrying in my handkerchief, and only took what I could put in my pockets. In any case I was only a day’s march from the genuine lines, so I should not need much. I ate my chocolates and abandoned a tin of biscuits. That night I stayed in a small house just short of the river Trigno. Behind it the country was unknown. The front might be anywhere. At the most pessimistic, it was behind the second river, the Bifurno. I was making good progress, and began to think about crossing the lines. I forgot my plan to hide up near the battle and, in any case, there seemed little chance of finding a suitable place. I had wandered far from the Maiella in order to avoid the very bad going around its foot and the coastal plain seemed devoid of any safe refuge.
While I was in the doldrums, let us go back to Drew’s story and see how he was getting on. If you remember, we had parted quite amicably, and had failed to meet each other at Don Zeno’s proposed next rendez-vous, Nocera Umbria.
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DREW BETHELL CONTINUES HIS STORY
I turned to the high hills. Dressed in a faded tartan shirt, corduroy trousers and my army boots, carrying a small sack with an army sweater, soap, razor and socks, I walked as fast as an increasingly fitter man can walk. I learnt certain rules – anyone working in a field hated the Fascists and the Germans – whenever one came to a Y-fork always take the one that goes up (it is easier to go down from a mistake than climb again). It was a different world of tiny hill villages with no road to them — only a donkey track perhaps — the peasants hardly knew there was a war on; they were busy enough wringing a living from the shallow rocky earth to worry about man’s unkindness to man in the valleys and plains below. Incredible poverty, disease (in one village practically all hundred souls suffered from trachoma), ignorance made their kindness positively Biblical.
The stranger within the gate sat down with them to their evening meal. It was usually polenta – boiled ground maize spilled over the table top – sometimes wine but more often water – occasionally children were made to sleep on the floor to let me have a straw filled mattress in the second family bed to myself, in spite of my protests. And nightly the catechism started – how old, what was my family, my father (dead, how sad!), my mother (how upset she must be!), my brothers (one was a prisoner of war with the Germans – how horrible!), was I really an officer (so young!), was I married (my negative occasionally earned me an encouraging glance from soft dark eyes), could I drive a car, was I rich (by their standards Croesus himself). Whatever else, I learnt the Italian of the Apennine and Abruzzi hill villages.
I had been going for 26 days when disaster struck. At least, scrambling down from a peak to where my ‘always go up’ theory had led me, to a hill village in a high valley, I fell, twisting and bruising my knee. I crawled the last bit, and then the good Samaritans of Aragno took me in — at least put me in an outhouse 200 yards above the village where they fed me, bandaged and poulticed my horribly swollen knee, got the cobbler to repair my boots, all the while in constant terror of German and Fascist retribution. I lay there for the 10th, 11th and 12th October. I was too much of an imposition – it was more patent each day that my dear villagers expected someone to betray them. So at dawn, before they could know, I left, along a sheep track on the contour of the hill over the shoulder and away to the next high slopes. It was not
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easy going. I did not get all that far – Rocca di Mezzo, then Cesoli and a cold hungry night in a shepherd’s earth-bothy in the high top of Pescasseroli.
I was getting close to the lines – there were the occasional deserted or bombed villages – increasingly I could hear the guns, see fighter—bombers diving an soaring over roads in the valleys ahead. I became increasingly cautious, watching from the hills before moving across the top slopes of a valley and the pace slowed. I had to take to a diet of grapes. I don’t recommend it.
I was sitting on a stone looking back the quarter of a mile at a dried out lake like a meadow, in an almost volcano setting, when two figures appeared at the far side waling towards me. But they didn’t walk – they marched. Germans on a forest walk? I nipped behind a rock to watch, ready for a quick getaway into the trees. They weren’t armed – they wore shirts and dark trousers, hatless, shoulder to shoulder. They reminded me of something. I went back to my stone and waited. They closed in at the classic pace of 110 to the minute – calm, unperturbed, quite ready to deal with what came next. Except my question “Which regiment?” “Grenadier Guards, 2nd Battalion” was the automatic response before they had time to think! They had been captured at Medinine in early 1943 and had escaped from a camp nearby. Splendid Guardsmen. Lee and his friend Smith (I call him) – I can’t remember his name. We set off together for a cold, hungry night on the wooded slopes above Session. We were lucky in the early October weather.
Next morning we were striding down a narrow forest path when two Germans came up the path, rifles slung. They weren’t big Germans, but we were face to face. The first looked at me, asked a question in German and then, to my surprise, pulled out a map, patiently asking his way. I thought it well to demonstrate that I was a simple Italian peasant, so turned the map upside down and looked at it and him in obvious ignorance. He said some name questioningly. I gave an Italian pronunciation, said “Si, si” and pointed up the hill from which we had come. The Germans went up, I suspect in disbelief. I went down and minutes later whispered to Lee and Smith as they too came briskly down having watched the pantomime from cover. We got to the valley bottom to find that we were in a German reserve position. We were very cautious indeed, taking so much time that our Germans, encountered on the path,
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had time to get back from their goose chase and start a partridge drive for us. The valley narrowed at its bottom end to sheer cliffs, a narrow path and a stream. We dropped into the rocky stream, with shouts of the beaters behind and above us to urge us on. We were doing well until we came to the waterfall. We could not see how far it fell or what was at the bottom. I think, in retrospect, it was the bravest thing I have ever done when I waded into the middle, turned up stream, and let myself go face down feet first over the fall. I landed in a deep pool. Lee, with Cockney enterprise, had wriggled to a shoulder of the fall to see the result and then followed with Smith behind. We huddled tight under the cliff as the beaters passed on down and, when we saw them on the far side of the valley, followed the stream bed down to climb again for a miserable wet night – diet again grapes.
I suppose Frosolone was another five terribly slow miles further on – but we arrived just before dusk to find the village on fire, the villagers panic-stricken, driving their livestock before them up the hill; men, women, children and animals with the theme song of terror – Tedeschi, TedeschL We joined them in the rush up the hill. It was too much for the old village sow. She must have had a heart attack and dropped dead as we arrived at the little plateau high on the mountain side. The villagers were starving, so were we. In no time a bonfire was lit, invisible from the valley below, and the flames flickered on the circle of faces each concentrated on a wooden-spitted spluttering lump of sow’s flesh, carved from the still warm corpse. We forgot all else in hot, greasy anticipation and satisfaction.
Four days of a diet of grapes followed by an extravaganza of toasted pork needs a strong stomach. Mine wasn’t that strong – so horrid early morning. But daylight revealed the long slow grassy slopes, beloved by the shepherds, which fell gently away SE for three miles or so to the plains of Campobasso. The hill was seething with peasantry from the villages below, with their livestock and a dozen escaped prisoners of war. Below us were the German positions. It was a grandstand from which to watch the British attack as it started in mid-morning. We were curiously detached from the thuds and rumbles of the guns, the black-centred blossoms of smoke which merged to screen the farmhouses and woods, the “Dinky toy” tanks that advanced, fired and occasionally erupted into thick black smoke. We watched German gunners and infantry in half-tracks
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pulling back at mid-day. We could see the odd German infantryman moving behind a wall or hedge below but they were not digging in – patently only a thin patrol line. We were lucky to find such a fluid situation. An RAF Wing Commander, Lee, Smith and I decided to cross the lines as soon as possible after dark. Lee and Smith wanted to go together, the RAF man and I alone, slightly distrustful that the other might wreck our chances having got so far by ourselves. Lee and Smith disappeared into the dusk, the airman and I tossed for who was to go first, agreeing that the second man would give the first five minutes start. I lost, for the longest five minutes ever. It was strangely quiet, no moon, as I crept down the slopes, stopping every hundred yards to listen and search the black shadows ahead, rather like a lethal form of Grandmother’s Footsteps, expecting every moment the guttural German challenge followed by a burst of Schmeisser.
It seemed to go on for ever – nerves so taut that a sound would have had me diving sideways, eyes aching with concentration, ears tuned to the silence for the slightest click of a safety catch. And then, suddenly, the clip-clop of a donkey coming up the path froze me to the side of the lane until, looking across, I saw a mule and two men with the silhouettes of English tin helmets. I stepped down cautiously to announce “I’m English – escaped” to the two Canadian soldiers busy laying telephone lines from reels on the mule’s back. They were astonishingly calm – “Just keep on down this lane and you’ll come to Battalion Headquarters”. I had passed through the German and Canadian patrols and was well behind the lines! I walked on down until a sentry halted me with all the quiet confidence of a man whose battalion had pushed the Germans back three or four miles and didn’t expect them back.
The Adjutant was equally relaxed as I was ushered in – “There’s not much room here – anyway the Battalion is celebrating its anniversary down the road, why don’t you join them?” A genial Canadian private walked me down to a farmhouse where practically every officer in the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was having a ball. What a welcome – food, wine, merriment – I must have told my story several times, but I suppose it was about 3 a.m. when I rolled into a sleeping bag on the floor of the Command vehicle.
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They let me sleep the sleep of a very tired man – ten hours – before they roused me, gave me a new razor, breakfast and a jeep to Bari.
Quite astonishingly, the powers that be had elected to put escaped PoWs into the old Italian PoW Camp at Bari. It had a reputation for careless cruelty unmatched in Italy. After my wonderful reception by the PPCLI, I was not prepared to stomach it. The question uppermost in my mind was where was my regiment: Tunis was the report.
Next morning I persuaded a jeep driver to take me out to the airfield at Bari. At the Control Tower I explained my situation to the competent, relaxed U.S. Major. Could he help? When did the next aircraft leave for Tunis? “Well, Captain,” or rather “Waal”, “there is one in three minutes and another in twenty.” With no ties, and no toothbrush I elected the former. I an an extremely pretty U.S. nurse were the only passengers. I suspect that the pilot was taking her for a weekend in Tunis – I envied him.
It was an old fashioned Dakota, where the wheels had to be wound down, each by a pilot (the co-pilot was a huge, smiling, most attractive negro). We circled Tunis to the cries of “I gotta wheel, I gotta wheel! OK Joe, down we go”.
A young man dressed in a faded tartan shirt, corduroy slacks, no means of identity, and claiming to be a British officer didn’t carry much weight. He was escorted by an armed G.I., chewing gum, to the office of the Provost Marshal, Tunis. He listened to my tale, then remarked that it was so improbable that it must be true: a perceptive, kind man. So almost seven months to the day, I rejoined my Regiment: a remarkable institution bound by discipline, loyalty, history, pride, shared experience, and recently shared sorrow.
I had come home.
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PHASE 4 – DISASTER!
Meanwhile I, Douglas Flowerdew, still had it all to do. October the 19th began badly. I crossed the Trigno and met some Italians. We walked up the side of a steep hill, which was overlooked from a road that ran round a re-entrant halfway up the side. This road led from one village on the left, which had German troops in it, to another on the right, which was occupied by a German hospital. Halfway up the path some German transport was seen passing on the road. A three-seater motor cycle stopped at the top of our path, and the occupants seemed to be looking down at us. We took what shelter there was, but felt very naked. The Germans moved off, and we continued our climb up the path. As we got to the top, the German motor cycle was seen to come out of the village on the left and drive once again to the top of the path. I was last, and moved quickly off the path and hid under a bush. After about twenty minutes, I decided that I wasn’t being hunted and moved up the hill. The Italians had gone.
I crossed the very exposed road in a hurry, and began to clamber feverishly up the side of the hill. There was no cover at all, and the slope was very sheer. I was climbing with hands and knees, and the slope was so steep that I had to pause for breath every few minutes. But dawdling was inadvisable, as I was in full view, and transport was continually passing within a few yards of me. Gradually, I got to the top. Once there it was lovely. I found myself on a steep, razor-like hill pointing south-east. I was well above dwelling places and could look down without fear on the pygmy forces moving on the roads far below. I think that this ridge, which was so narrow that I had literally to place one foot in front of another, and which went on for about ten miles, was about the best walking I had. It was a lovely day. There was no danger, and the air was like the proverbial champagne; add to that I was really only a few hours from our lines, and the reader will realise how I felt.
I walked on, and about lunch time I met a few shepherds. They said that by nightfall I would be through. They went further, and practically compelled me to wait until evening, when one old man, in a rather smart astrakhan cap, promised to take me through himself. I consented, although it was not warm sitting about. The shepherds were all right; they were muffled up to their eyebrows. As evening drew on, we moved off to a hovel where this frightened old man hid himself and his sheep, leaving his family in the village.
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After he had penned his sheep in a secret place, we had to take his pigs to a hole in the ground, where they had to spend their nights. We then climbed up on to the top once more, and moved on towards the village. This was called Castel Mauro, and was at the end of the spur. Unfortunately, it (the spur) faded away just short of my ‘one more river’, the river Bifurno. As we approached the village, which the Germans were occupying, the old man’s courage ran out of his boots. We met his son, and I was assured that he would take me through. I was sceptical, but had to agree, and soon found that the plan was for us to spend the night in their house and someone would show me the way very early next morning.
At about 7.30 p.m. my guide returned to take me to his house. My arrival caused consternation. There were Germans everywhere. The women didn’t want me – there were no men, only the slightly soft son of the shepherd. After I had talked them round, and played with a very unattractive small girl, they agreed to give me a very poor meal and to let me stay the night. They went further, and said that it would be impossible to get through the lines and far better if I stayed with them for a few days till the English took the village. (They did, a couple of days later!) However, the place was dirty, the food poor and I felt that the Germans were far too close and there might be a mistake or treachery. I was adamant and, as the Germans were in battle positions and so impossible to spot with certainty, I demanded a guide.
Until close on midnight we scuttled about interviewing possibles, but no one would do it. Finally, we met a very shifty, disreputable old tramp, who agreed to guide me past the German positions, which he claimed to know, before dawn, so that I could cross the river before the Germans were too active. The snag was that we would have to be on the move about 4 a.m., before the curfew was lifted.
I retired to bed in one half of the double bed with the semi-simple son of the house as my bed-fellow. After a fair night, we went in search of the old chap, and by about 4.30, were able to rouse him. Then there was no delay, as he was sleeping in his clothes.
We moved on at a good pace, and went up behind the village to cross a main road a little way beyond it. I wondered whether I ought to go cautiously, or to walk openly with my guide, and decided
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that he knew what he was doing. Five minutes afterwards I was regretting my decision. We were walking down a by-path and, when we about ten yards from the main road, we heard the ominous “Halte!”
The old man looked at me and seemed prepared to run for it, but I told him to go on. The light was too good, and there did seem a slim chance that we might be able to bluff our way through. My heart was in my boots as we walked down onto the road. Apparently we were crossing at a culvert, and the Germans had a night sentry there.
We were searched, the old man first, and I, standing, trying to look as stupid as possible. The position was serious, as the old man was liable to be shot if they discovered who I was, and my own position was none too clear as I was in civilian clothes.
The searcher was a young, dark chap, with a not unpleasant but firm manner. He seemed a very good type of soldier. He looked like a Bavarian. His search was very thorough, but more designed to find loot than to find anything hidden. He found, and took, my watch, but did not find my gold signet ring, which was hidden in my handkerchief. He found, and threw away my diary notebook, when I told him it was paper for another purpose. This was just as well, as it might have incriminated others, although I had written my entries as badly as possible, and I was not the worst writer at school for nothing! The damage was done when he came on my Egyptian money, or Englisher geld. He then called me a spy, and held his pistol to my tummy. I tried to say it had been given to me, but it was very difficult to pretend to know very little German and yet to try to argue myself free.
I couldn’t allay suspicion, and he called to an invisible “Helmut”, who instructed him to let the old man go and to detain the young. I was relieved, but the old buffer hesitated to leave me and I had to hustle him off.
For the next half hour I sat the wrong side of a pistol as the young German thawed. I was also throwing away or burying a map, two major’s crowns and various odds and ends like some Horlicks tablets that I had passed off as medicine when I was searched. My captor gradually relented, and, eventually, asked me the value of my watch. He gave me 400 lire for it (about £l). At about 5.30 a.m. he packed up. He told me to pick up his bedding, which was rather nice and obviously looted, and he put away his light machine gun.
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He lifted it up and told me to pick up two very heavy ammunition boxes. When I found it difficult, he brushed me aside and took them in his other hand and nodded to me to follow him. If I had been a Douglas Fairbanks, or even an ordinary commando, I would have thrown his begin at him and take to my heels; but I missed the chance, and it was gone, as we came almost immediately to his post.
The young Germans at the post were not yet up, as it was only half past five. However, they came and clustered round me, and I was searched again by a typically Teuton N.C.O. My money was discovered and IOUs found with it. Someone knew a little English, and I admitted who I was. Their attitude changed in an instant. “Bravo, Tommy! ‘Ave a tsigarette?” They roared with laughter at my getting so close. The line was just down there, across the river. Even then a small British patrol was being captured and would join up with me later. I was taken into their post and fed. I had a huge meal, washed down with hyssop (this was a Biblical drink composed of white wine and honey). My watch and the 400 lire changed hands once more, and I was sent off to Battalion H.Q. When I sat crooked in the side-car, with my feet over the side, no remark was made, but a tommy gun bumped up and down in my ear.
En route for Germany
Battalion H.Q. was much like one of ours. It was in a large, untidy house, and I was put in a room with two Jewish-looking guards. A British Signals officer had preceded me, and two English other ranks, just captured, were to come later. A young German learner-solicitor, who spoke pleasant English, and who was obviously a superior type of clerk, came in next and tried to pump me. He soon gave up when he got nothing, and he realised that I had had a good look at the German disposition map he held. He remained friendly, and brought us some food, and arranged for a terrified Italian barber to cut my hair. It hadn’t, of course, been cut since I had begun my walk dressed as a woman. The barber was pretty hostile, but after I had whispered sweet nothings in his ear in Italian, we were friends. I tried to pass him my name and address in England, but the barber muffed the pass, and the Germans pounced on it and said that I mustn’t do such things. They said that the Red Cross would soon let my people know.
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After an interminable day, we were handed over to a fat, inefficient type of Quartermaster-Sergeant, who spoke a little English, and was to take us back to the temporary prison camp which was to be our next home. We had been inspected by various German officers, the Battalion Commander being a fine-looking chap with an Iron Cross. The troops were the Parachute Corps, especially placed in front of the famous Eighth Army, and were very fine. They had been in France, Greece, Crete and had arrived just too late for Sicily.
We drove back through the night. The Q.M.S. lost the way time after time, and I lay in the dark back of the lorry, filing away at the canopy string with the lid of a tin. I cut it, but our guards were very alert, and I had no chance to get over the side.
During the night we landed up at a different unit, where we were given sausage and bread and ersatz coffee. A fat, fussy little officer was responsible for this welcome meal, and when he went off, our guards told us he was a famous Air Ace, with over 250 victims to his credit. When I expressed doubts, he said that most of them were on the Russian Front. Anyway, it was a grand meal.
We went on and on, and kept having to turn round and retrace our steps. At about three in the morning we got to our new ‘home’. And what a home! It was a three room hovel, with 40 odd prisoners, mostly South Africans and New Zealanders, but with a few British and a Greek, two Italians and two Arabs, who had been caught up in North Africa. They were sleeping on a little – very little – dirty straw. We were thrown in and had to sardine ourselves into the floor space. What a night! The troops were naturally very demoralised, and weren’t pleasant company. I and the other officer did not want to get special treatment, as we felt it would make escape more difficult. It wasn’t a happy prison! Luckily, there was plenty of water and also a nearby vineyard, from which we were given some grapes by our guards.
I spent most of the first day making up for lost sleep, and the second trying to chip away some iron bars on a window. The Germans tumbled to our activities and told a German speaking South African that there would be a sentry outside that night, and if anyone tried to get out, he would throw a grenade into the window. We were not guarded very closely, but there was usually a German with a tommy gun there or thereabouts. Once, I went round the back of the hovel, which was not allowed, and nearly got away, but, unfortunately, one of our chaps had asked for a knife and the sentry
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had gone to the guards’ quarters at the back and saw me. I was well threatened, and they watched me pretty closely after that. We got half a loaf of German bread (nasty sour stuff) daily, and a dish of some pigs’ feed or other, and were pretty hungry.
After three bad days, we were taken off at daybreak en route for Castillione [Castiglione] and Sulmona. The latter was an old prison camp, and the Germans were using it as a transit camp for Germany.
This spell in the hovel was the most depressing time I spent in all my adventures. I felt a longing for congenial company. The Signals subaltern was a courageous chap, who had escaped from another prison camp and had been recaptured, but we had no common friends or interests. I knew that this was the time when morale was inevitably low, when the temptation would be to give in or to wait till later for a chance to get away.
I knew that I should make the effort now, as escaping would get more and more difficult as we were taken further into captivity. Escape from these young men with their tommy guns and an itchy trigger finger wasn’t my idea of fun.
The alternative was no better. It was already two months since I had written home, and if I got taken to Germany, I could expect to lose another three months while I was still missing. If our temporary home was any guide, our trip would not be too comfortable. I visualised cattle trucks – and I visualised right! I foresaw a trip lasting about ten days with very little food and water, sanitation problems and bitter cold. It was the end of October, and we would have to cross the Alps to go into Germany. I was dressed in threadbare Italian clothes, and had no overcoat or blanket. I might just as well die in some worthwhile effort to get away.
The line of thought was new to me. The immediate prospect was so unappetising that it ceased to be a matter of importance whether I lived or died, and when you really don’t care, quite suddenly you lose any fear of the mere fact of death. You can weigh the pros and cons of a plan with an objective interest which is very invigorating. The jump in one’s courage, when the obstacle of the fear of death is removed, is enormous.
We started out at about 5.30 a.m. in the morning. My rank and my obvious propensity for straying had earned me the doubtful honour of having a special escort. He was a loud, swaggering blond sergeant, with an aggressive manner, and was the third person to tell me that the war was over for me. We set out in two foul Italian
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lorries. I was in the rear one with the Signals subaltern, four men of an English patrol, which had been recently captured, a Scottish sergeant, a Greek, two South Africans and the two Arabs I have mentioned already.
I was right inside the lorry, partly for comfort and part so that I could play my usual trick of cutting the canopy rope with my tin lid – just in case. The two Germans, my escort and a fair lad who who was the truck guard, sat on the two end seats nearest the tailboard. The journey was a nightmare. The lorry had a leaky exhaust and the fumes of a very low grade diesel fuel flooded the back. The road was dusty, and the men near the opening soon were covered with a coating of white dust. We just sat in misery. I was slumped down, apparently half asleep with my tin lid outside, filing away at the rope.
Our first stop was at about 10, at Castillione, which was a sort of Divisional H.Q., and where we were allowed to debark and walk about in a sort of square, surrounded by a cordon of troops. The pathetic local Italians showed sympathetic friendship, but were kept at a distance. There were a few sheds and a chapel opening off the square, and I explored all of them, surreptitiously.
After I had looked into the sheds, I got the English patrol to make a screen, while I slipped into the chapel, in case there was a back entrance. There was none, and anyway my personal guard was always on my track. He swaggered in with his hat on and lay full length on a pew, after he had explored the place to see what he could loot. I had a look round. It was a poor tumbledown place, with a drab altar and a few plaster figures and mural pictures. There was no way out, so I left and went back into the square. After about half an hour, we moved on.
Our old lorry gradually struggled over the mountain pass that separated Castillione from Sulmona. The road was full of Germans who were dressed in winter uniforms, and were a quite different group from the Parachutists. They were, predominately, from the Black Forest area or from Austria. There were long streams of untidy men leading unwilling Italian unwilling Italian mules; there were gangs of Italians repairing bomb holes under the direction of German sappers. We drove through a positive fortress at Castel de Sangro.
At about this stage, my bodyguard had had enough. He gave me an appraising look and saw that I was quiet and apparently asleep and went and sat in front with the driver. The other guard was half asleep in a sort of misery, and the two Arabs and the Scotsman were
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taking it in turns to be sick over the back of the tail-board. I began to feel more cheerful, and gradually changed places with my neighbours until I was sitting among the coterie who lent over the tail-board. The guard opened one eye in mild suspicion, and to reassure him, I spat realistically over the back.
Things were going better and better. The Arabs and the guard decided that the air was fresher above the canopy and gradually they moved about until they were standing on the tail-board, with they heads over the top in the fresh air, looking forward. I began to get excited. The chance of a getaway might come at any moment. The trouble was that I was not a gymnast, and I could see no way of jumping out silently without breaking my leg. If I made a noise, the guard would hear; and even if he didn’t shoot me, there would be a man-hunt, and the swarms of Germans around that area would be difficult to avoid. I realised that, if my change came, I would have to act quickly and coolly.
At this stage, things nearly went wrong, and there was an encouraging touch of comedy. We had a roadside halt. I was afraid we would all have to sit down again, when we got back into the lorry and that vigilance would be increased. However, when we moved on, we were much as before, except my bodyguard got left behind in the road. The guard did not see him, and we, of course, said nothing. He held his pistol above his head and had to fire several shots into the air before he was able to attract our attention.
We moved slowly on after he had been picked up. It was tantalising. The country was wooded, and I kept thinking that I was missing my chance, and each time I thought I would try m luck we kept coming to some Germans, who were leading mules along the road. I was getting desperate. Would my chance ever come?
Almost at the top of the pass we had another halt near a place called Rocca. We got out, and when we had once more clambered back aboard the lorry and it was just beginning to move off, my chance came.
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There was no one on the road; the guard and the Arabs were standing on the tail-board, looking forward over it, and the lorry was on the point of moving off. It was the moment. I got the Scottish sergeant to stand up in the lorry, to mask me even more completely from the guard, and when the driver started his motor, I tentatively put my feet over the tail-board. No one noticed. As the forward, I did a vault over the back and some power – be it God or be it nervous strength – enabled me to swing soundlessly on to the road. I walked quietly away into the trees.
Once out of sight I ran and stumbled up a hill, waiting for the shouts and shots which would announce my pursuit. Even if the guard heard or saw nothing, I was sure that the atmosphere of tension in the lorry would communicate itself to him. The moments went by. There was still no sound, and I was sobbing for breath.
I learned later that the Germans did not discover that I was gone until they arrived at Sulmona, My fellow prisoner, the Signals subaltern, who also escaped later and whom I met in England, told me that when my German sergeant escort reported to the Camp Commandant at Sulmona, he said that he had 42 prisoners and a special prisoner. When he was asked where was the special prisoner, he discovered, to his dismay, that the special prisoner had vanished. The camp authorities were not pleased.
One of the snags about the place where I had chosen to escape was that the country to the south of the road was restricted by a railway and a river. I had run off into the woods on the north side of the road, but actually I wanted to go southwards. But the ground on the north side looked more promising. There was a tree covered hill merging into the higher ground north of the pass. So I made for it hoping to cross over and to work southwards as soon as possible. However, for the time being, my main aim was to get away from the road and the Germans.
First I moved due north and almost stumbled on a German camp. I retreated hastily, and tried further west, moving parallel to the road, but still had no luck. There was a merry party of Boche with a banjo. In despair, I tried north-east, but there were Germans everywhere. I wandered cautiously through the trees, going eastward, but still more Germans. I had been through a considerable strain and
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it seemed to be all in vain. I had had little to eat, my shoes were falling to bits, and I was trapped.
I went back to the top of the little hill, almost overlooking the road and saw an old Italian in a field. I was very frightened, and called to him to ask what I should do. He was even more frightened than I was, and said that I couldn’t possibly get away. Finally, after a conference with some women working nearby, he told me to hide in the bed of a stream which ran near them, and he would bring me something to eat when it was dark. I ran across a bare field and dropped into the most comforting refuge. It was much deeper than it looked, and I felt safe for the time being. I waited patiently till dark, and then decided to move on.
I rather thought that I would have to find my own supper. Once again, I had to try to cross the road. I tried in about four places, but there was an awful lot of traffic and there was a disconcerting light, not unlike a searchlight, on the road-railway bridge, which shone down the road. All the time I was moving further west, and soon came to a fresh obstacle. The railway crossed the road and ran northward, and the river also forked north-westward. I was aiming at Rocca, in the hopes of a meal and some news. It seemed impossible to get through. I made nine separate detours. It was fairly dark, but not pitch black, and the roads, and even the woods, were thick with Germans.
At my ninth detour, I was stuck. I couldn’t go further west as a road barred my way; it was some sort of traffic point, as convoys kept coming up in small groups, being checked and then sent on. There was a continuous slamming of car doors, and a hubbub of shouts and orders. I couldn’t go further north, as a transverse road went across the back, and was also full of traffic. I had come from the east and had crossed the railway and its embankments about half a dozen times and the river twice. In fact, I was in a small space, bounded on the south by the back gardens of some small detached houses, which seemed to be offices and an officers’ mess, with Germans going to and fro. The houses were about fives yards apart. Beyond them was a road with some traffic and a fir plantation which seemed to run up to the mountains on the south side.
The place was one of Mussolini’s model estates, and was being used by the Germans as an A.A. fortress; but I didn’t know that then. To the west were some buildings used as guard rooms, with a road behind them on which convoys were forming up. To the north was
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the railway line and the way I had come in. To add to my discomfort, my kingdom sloped up very steeply from the railway to a hedge and fence at the bottom of the gardens. I couldn’t climb without pulling on shrubs and bushes. The place was a refuse dump.
It was full of old tins and had a fine crop of knee-high nettles. As it was growing darker, I blundered noisily and painfully about and was near panic when three Germans wandered along at the edge of the hedge. I decided I must wait. It was about nine o’clock, and I hoped that, by about eleven, the moon would go down and the Germans retire to their rest. Supper was off.
At about 10.30 p.m. I moved on. It was very dark and the going was better. There were still Germans about, but when I heard their voices, I found it easy to avoid discovery by lying flat on the ground. I passed between the two nearest houses, and crossed the road. Then I climbed up through the plantation, passing rides and odd paths. Once I nearly fell over an A.A. gun, but it was not guarded, so all was well. I climbed up and up. The slope got steeper, but at last I was at the top. Somewhere on ahead were the mountains. I steered roughly south, and moved over some undulating foothills winding up a small valley.
I wandered on, feeling more like my old self, when I heard coming towards me, a motor lorry. I left the road, and had no sooner rejoined it, then I heard some men walking along in front of me, and what’s more, I heard them challenged by a sentry. Alas, I had to take once again to the hillside.
I was getting desperate. The country was getting wilder and wilder, and it was pitch dark. The hills were climbing into mountains and my shoes had so come to bits that I had to carry them and walk barefoot. There was a Scotch mist to make things worse. To add to my troubles, I had to begin climbing in earnest. The slope was very severe, and there was a thick belt of scrub. There seemed to be only two possible ways up; one was by the road, that had wandered away in the darkness, and the other was up a timber slide which went straight up. Once again, I was reduced to a scrambling crawl, and it was very cold. My feet were beginning to get a bit frost-bitten. There was only one thing to do and that was to scramble on up.
I climbed and rested, climbed and rested, until at last I got near the top. I was delighted to see there a large cabin, with the door open and a ray of light shining welcomingly out. There was a man in the doorway, stamping his feet. I nearly walked straight into him.
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but fortunately reflected that it would be a peculiar sort of Italian who would stand in a doorway at about one in the morning, on a freezing cold night. I decided to approach cautiously, so I moved over to the right, off the log slide, to circle the building. At the same moment, the man heard me and shouted out in what sounded suspiciously like German. I stood quite still, with my heart in my mouth and waited. Luckily, he was lazy, or took me for a dog or bear, and I was able to shuffle off in the dark.
I went on and on, feeling very tired and hungry, till I heard the faint barking of sheep dogs. These, in this part of Italy, are big, white, savage looking dogs, rather like the larger type of retriever. They are very ferocious, but I found them cowardly if faced. I wandered on, and came on some tethered mules and donkeys. Their presence did not necessarily mean men, as the Italians were hiding their animals away from the Germans.
I went on, and at last, stumbled on a shepherd camp. The camps in this area were more permanent than those I have mentioned earlier, having a large bunk-house surrounded by the sheep corrals. I managed to get a little bread and some water, but they wouldn’t hear of me resting there. They said Germans came to get sheep from them, and they wouldn’t let me stop at all. They directed me further up the back of the mountain and said that there were numerous refuges in the Marche. I went sadly on. I had the prospect of wandering on, in and out of the woody Marche for four or five more hours before I could hope to find anyone.
Then followed a very tiring and queer interlude. I found, several times, that I was going in circles, and the bushes and trees in the dark took on all sorts of shapes. Times without number I walked right up to stone houses, carts or lorries hidden in the trees, only to find that, at the last moment, there was nothing there. Each time I resolved not to be fooled again, but invariably, just round the corner, there would be some new cabin or shack. I would take no notice and try to walk round it, but its shape was so definite that, sooner or later, I would turn aside and stalk up to my quarry. At the last possible moment, the whole thing would dissolve into a mocking bush. Once I did find a real live donkey and a real live cow tied in some bushes, but, except for giving one another a real good fright, it did little good.
At last the night came to an end, and I saw some young lads outside a hovel, collecting their herds. They gave me some nice
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cheese, and promised to take me even further up the mountain to other shepherds, where I could rest in safety. In about half an hour we reached a closed-in valley, which had once been a volcano and now was excellent grazing for sheep. We were welcomed by a friendly old man, who cuffed away his dogs and took me into his hut. I asked him to sell me a sheep, which we could all eat, and while he was preparing it, I took off my clothes and got into one of the bunks.
I was no sooner asleep than they awakened me. A young chap warned us that a band of Germans was on the way up the hill. I was told that I must leave at once, and so, hastily dressed, and all the men began to drive their sheep, goats and mules off in different directions in great panic. I, too, set off to make myself scarce.
A word about the conformation of these mountain valleys will help to explain why shepherds were gathered right up in the mountains. The higher parts of the mountains were all old volcanos, and the summits, or false summits, instead of ending in a spike, consisted of very rich, bowl-like valleys. They were well hidden, and many of them could be passed without ones seeing any sign of their existence. Usually, in peace time, the shepherds spent the summers on the hills, and as winter came on, they used to drive down to the Foggia pastures and to the big fairs which were held there. This year, the shepherds were staying as long as possible, as the Germans were confiscating their herds and because Foggia was the far side of the battle lines.
Meanwhile, I was climbing feverishly, with no idea except to go somewhere else. My shoes were worse than useless, and I was carrying them – for no reason that I could think of. I fear I was in a slight panic. I climbed the edge of a valley and saw another one in front of me. Some other shepherds were driving their flocks out to pasture. I continued on my way, and such was my fear, that I tried to get away from them when they called to me. Luckily, I did not, and a very kind man sent me to his home. After the usual interminable explanations, I was given some meat and put to bed. I was assured that the Germans would not come, and that, even if they did, these shepherds had scouts out who would give me ample warning.
My troubles were about over, as I was fed and rested, and even my shoes were rebuilt by a cunning old man. I fed well – so well that I was ill for a spell; but I soon got better. These men were superior shepherds, and were part of an advisory, experimental
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department which Mussolini had started. I stayed with them for about four days, and was pressed to stay till the battle came to us. Every day we sued to walk along the top of the world and look over the area where the battle was supposed to be raging, or where it was expected to be soon. I began to know the countryside and recover my morale. I was free, and ready to go on.
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Phase 5 – In Southern Italy
I begin again
When I had settled down after my hectic doings, I reaffirmed a principle that I had decided on and had rather forgotten. I would lie low, in a convenient place, fairly near the front line, and allow the battle to overrun me. While it was not difficult to wander about in Italy, it was a fluky and hazardous game to try to cross the lines. The only difficult thing to do was to decide how far to go before lying low. My shepherd friends wanted me to stay with them. The battle was in the Isernia-Volturno river area, and was almost in sight. Our mountain split the advance in two. One wing of it would go to the east through Castel di Sangro, and thence, via Sulmona, to Rome; and the other via Cassino and the coast roads, needless to say, also to Rome.
In favour of staying where I was, was the fact that the Germans were unlikely to come to us, and even if they did, our scouts were good enough to give us time to hide. Against staying, the Germans were fortifying a winter line and had already depopulated Alfedeno and were blasting the roads. The position was very easily defendable, and in two months the snows would drive us down into the valley.
There was another ridge of mountains which ran to the south, just across the Civitella valley, and although Germans were reported on parts of it, there were more sheep on that ridge, and one of my shepherds even had a nephew who was about ten miles nearer the front. He himself lived in Civitella, and offered to guide me across the valley. That decided me, there was no harm in going just a little bit closer.
We set out on the 26th of October. Our party consisted of the father, a short, dapper, grey-haired man, who was as fleet-footed and wiry as any of his goats; the son, a tiny arab of a boy, in shoes and clothes which were ragged and man-sized, and a large cap, which was obviously his pride, and me. We also had a mule. We climbed out of our bowl valley at a rate which was too fast for my comfort, and wound down the other side to a poorer shepherds’ encampment. There we left our moke, and descended towards the main road. I had full confidence in my guide, and admired the business-like way he had cross questioned the shepherds we met. As we went on down, we used the cover there was, in the way the old man had learnt in the last war. He was good. I began to get a bit
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apprehensive as we neared the road. There was a lot of German transport and a few odd men on foot.
My guide then altered our formation. Instead of us all walking together, he went on with the boy and I followed about a hundred yards behind. We went down through vineyards and skirting hedges, until we were only about a hundred yards from the road. Then he beckoned to me to come to him behind some bushes, and gave out his orders. We had to cross the road and then strike across a field to a bridge which led a by road across a river parallel to the road. This by-road zig-zagged up a bit of a hill to a shepherds’ village. We were to do the trip in two stages, first to cross the road and the bridge. Then, using the by-road to skirt the village to his house at the back. There were no Germans in sight.
For the first stage, the old man would go on ahead, and whistle us on when the way was clear. We had a little practice whistle, to make sure we understood. Our first bound was to be the road, and the second, the river bridge. At first, all went well. Our leader reached the road and whistled, and we followed down.
Just as we were crossing, I noticed a German officer riding leisurely down the road on a very nice horse. He was in no hurry, and was admiring the view. I waited until he had passed, trying to look as if I, too, was admiring the view; and then, slipped across the road.
We were by no means out of sight of the horseman and, therefore, I made over towards a row of peasants, digging in a field. I picked up a mattock, or some sort of pick, and joined in. I explained who I was to the nearest man, and he made no comment, but just moved away. I was now alongside number two in the line, but he too put down his pick and moved off somewhere else. It was like a crowd at a Punch and Judy show when the man with a cap comes round. I was unpopular, and all on my own again, but they had served their purpose as the German was out of sight, and my friend was whistling impatiently. I hurried on to join him.
The danger point at the bridge, where there was a copse and where Germans sometimes bathed, was all clear, and we hurried off up the hill. We reached our haven without delay.
We arrived to find the entire village at my friend’s house. There was a secret cellar under the floor, and this had to be opened up and all spare food and spare bedding was being lowered, amid much joking and conspiracy, into it. The trapdoor was in a place where
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any unwary person might easily fall into it, and there were many anxious friends to see that I did not miss a two foot square hole. I was well received, and my shepherd friend went off to find a guide for the morning, a map and a blanket or sheepskin coat for me. I needed all three, and was offering a good price in sterling for the rug or coat. (I still had some money hidden away.)
Another nephew was forthcoming to start me on my way next morning, and a very good large scale map was produced, with a blessing. The coat or blanket was more difficult, but finally I got an average quality blanket for a price. I was paying either £5 or 15/-, depending on how one worked out the £/lire exchange rate. However, I was well satisfied.
While I was waiting, some Germans came into the village, and a town crier went round, calling all the people to the village square. All the ‘official’ residents went, and returned to say that a small German force was coming to stay, and that people were to remain in the village in case they should be wanted to work. They must not go off hiding in the hills. I expected that I might have to move on without supper, but my friend was not a bit put out, and I had a very good meal before retiring for the night in a comfortable hayloft. He even apologised for not letting me sleep in the house, but he was afraid of malicious gossip.
My guide of the morrow brought me some interesting and exciting news. He said that there were some British officers, a Sergeant-Major and a chaplain in a shack in the hills nearby, with lots of food and smart uniforms. Would I like to see them? Would I not!
We set out early. First, I and a small mule, over which I had no control, even if I could say ‘Arhn’, the command the mule was supposed to understand. My new guide followed about a hundred yards behind. He was a garrulous youth, full of threats against the Germans, and armed with a knife. Halfway up the hill, he stopped me and dug up a pistol and ammunition, hidden under a tree. I was very much afraid that he was going to give it to me, but luckily, he was just showing it to me, and then put it in his pocket.
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We went on. I was agog to see the British officers. They were reputed to have some chocolate. I hadn’t had any since I ate my emergency ration two days before I was recaptured. We reached the shack, and I was asked to wait till they agreed to see me. After a moment, I went round the corner and there they were – four Indians! They were fine, but not a bit what I had expected. They were delighted to see me, and were confident that “The Sahib would lead them”; and from then until the end they followed “the Sahib” – and jolly well they did it. However, as time will show, it didn’t make things easier – for the Sahib.
These Indians were some of the prisoners who had escaped from Vezzano [PG 91 Avezzano – Ed.], an Indian camp not far from where we were. The hills were full of them, and they had expected to be relieved by the advancing Allies within a month of the Armistice. They had taken one or two Red Cross parcels per man, and were hiding all over the hills. At the time I came among them, they were beginning to run out of food. They were in difficulties, as few of them spoke Italian, or even English, and anyway, Italian propaganda had referred to them in terms which were anything but flattering, and the peasants were hostile to them and frightened of them. They were thus in rather a bad way.
My future companions were fine men. They were from the Punjab, except for one, a Frontiersman. Their leader was a good-looking Punjabi officer, who came of good Indian family, and was one of the new type of officers from the Princes’ College, the Indian Sandhurst. He was quiet and capable, with just a suspicion of sulky superiority in his manner. Nevertheless, he was a good, loyal chap, and insisted on lending me a razor and giving me a toothbrush and some dentifrice. One has to hand it to these Indians. They were carrying everything they needed and were full of resource. For a long time we even had tea, and they must have set out from their prison camp with masses of tobacco and cigarettes. This officer, called by us “Jemadar Sahib”, indiscriminately with the other officer, had been the autocratic leader of the others till I joined them.
His half-section was the Sergeant-Major. The latter was a very fine chap, who spoke the best English of them all. Facially, he resembled his friend. He seemed able, and told me that his brother had been a sergeant pilot in the Indian Air Force, and had been
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captured with some others, in Burma. He had managed to escape, taking a brigadier with him, and had captured a Japanese aeroplane and had flown home to India. He had received the M.C. and an immediate commission.
The other “Jemadar” was the Frontiersman, and a very likeable man. He was a lively wag, and knew a few words of Italian, which he used in a humorous way. He was a slight chap, with a small, wrinkled face, and had been the headsman of his village. In fact, he gave me an invitation to visit him and eat until I became sick! He wore the silly British side hat, worn dead straight on the top of his head. He was our star cook.
Lastly, we come to the ‘chaplain’. He was a Naik (or corporal), who had been regimental Mullah, and seemed to fulfil the two roles of batman-porter and personal chaplain to the Jemadar. He had a fine beard, and wore a cap-comforter on his head. He had soft eyes, and spent many hours praying, I rather hoped for our safe return, but he may have been above such mundane matters. He carried his Koran tied in a bag round his neck and, in addition, a water-bottle, two haversacks and a greatcoat.
The Indians were ready to move off, and so we set out. The ridge we were on was not occupied by Germans, but wherever there was a path or track across it, the Germans used it as a crossing place and had telephone lines. Some Italians had cut these in places, and in consequence, there were dire threats and occasional patrols. As the ridge was very steep and heavily wooded, we had to keep more or less to the tracks, and it was rather alarming to follow these when there were German direction posts every few paces. We had a long and tiring climb, and found it difficult to contact the shepherds. The Indians were in battle dress, and the shepherds were all on the lookout for men in uniform, and ran for miles whenever we approached.
As evening drew on, we did contact one sixteen year old, who was more frightened of his guardian than the Germans and dared not leave his sheep, and so did not run away. He was a quiet, respectable lad, with a Tyrolean hat and a large cloak. On his feet he wore bits of rubber tyre, fastened by straps which wound round his legs, rather like the footwear in the Forest of Arden scenes in Shakespeare. He was an orphan and very poor, but was generous to us, and usually brought us the greater part of his day’s food, saying that he was not hungry. We met his uncle some days later. He was
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a surly man, who occasionally had a guilty conscience and brought us something to eat. The nephew installed us in his uncle’s summer shack, made of part stones and part straw. There were arguments over the firewood which the uncle had cut and stacked round the hut, which he rightly accused the Indians of taking.
I established a camp in that shack and two or three others near it, and we stayed there until the 6th of November. We were an hour and a half’s stiff climb from the main road and the nearest village. Food was a big problem. We were given a good quantity of potatoes, and were able, from time to time, to buy a sheep from the shepherds with my English money. For bread and vegetables and other odds and ends I had to beg. I used to go down to the remoter villages and beg from door to door, keeping a weather eye open for Germans. Sometimes I would get lumps of dough, or some maize bread, or carrots, turnips and onions, and perhaps some grapes or other fruit. The Italians were usually willing to give me food, but did not want to give any to the Indians, whom they feared.
Italian villages are often built in two parts. The main village is on the road, and a little way off, is a scruffy area where there are a few tumbled down cottages, stables and sheep and goat pens. Usually, the main village was closed to me by German occupation, so most of my begging was amongst the very poor. Even the poorest families did their best to help us. With a little flour, our Indian ‘chef’ produced chapattis and, with the odd vegetables and spices, concocted stews. I also tried to fry, from time to time, on the back of an old spade. Perhaps the highlight of my cooking came on a sad day when the Germans had frightened some Italian villagers up into the hills. One lady had a favourite hen, which she brought with her. Unfortunately, she put it under some bedding in a basket on her head. She was heart-broken when her hen did not survive the journey. She gave me the corpse. We had a good fire, and burnt the feathers off, and roasted the hen on a spit. It was the best meal we had had for ages.
The Indians were unsuccessful as beggars, because they couldn’t speak Italian and, being in uniform, might be taken for Germans. The Germans had also put it about that the Indians were dangerous and would kill them with their knives. It was hard work for me, getting food for us all. Later we were joined by three South Africans, who helped me to forage.
Food was getting scarce, but we got some from shepherds, and also from small boys who used to visit us. Some of our visitors were
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very trying, and taxed our patience. I was very angry once, when I found that some young scallywags had stolen my toothbrush and dentifrice, but once again, the Indians produced a spare brush and half a cake of dentifrice. I used to try to keep the Italians sweet by giving them small cuts of the Indians’ shaving soap and an occasional cigarette. The daytime weather was lovely, and we just dawdled the time away when we weren’t out looking for food. I sometimes used to send the Indian officer and his friend the Sergeant-Major off on reconnaissance to watch out for Germans and to spy out the land for any future move.
My Transit Camp
I have talked about forming a camp, and our home soon became one. First two Gurkhas came and asked to join us, on our second day. They had shorts on, and had lain out in a cave, with practically nothing to eat, for four days in the bitter cold. They were jolly little chaps, who never complained, and did odd jobs for everyone. From the first, they and the Mullah kept a daylight guard on this and our subsequent camps. The night guard I shared with the Indian officers, despite their remonstrances. We abandoned it before long. The weather was so cold and wild that no one was about. The Gurkhas could not speak any language we knew, but with a little Urdu, a little pidgin English, and a little Italian, we managed.
Soon, we got another large increase in our family. A party of Gurkhas, under their own office, came and settled nearby. They were quite splendid, immaculately turned out, and marched in, in step. Their officer came up to me and saluted. I am quite sure that he wanted me to order a kit inspection!
While they were with us, he would report daily for information and instructions. Luckily, they were partly self-supporting, and I had only to get them meat, and what bread and vegetables I could spare. In due course, they moved on south, and I hope that they got through.
Our other permanent guests were three young South African officers, who had tried to get through the lines. They had been nearly captured, and on the way back, had found my camp. They were very nice, and helpful in many ways. Their names were Hone, Honey and Barnett. They spoke very little Italian, but were good company, and fitted in with the Indians very well.
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My most unexpected visitors were some British Parachutists, who had been dropped into Italy to help escaping prisoners. By the time they arrived in my camp, they had rescued one prisoner and collected two hangers-on, and eaten up most of their rations. They consisted of one officer and two other ranks, and were rather aggressive towards the Germans, and were spoiling for a scrap. They stayed with us for a few days, and, after we had moved south, we were told that they had had quite a battle with the Germans in the village.
Our most distinguished visitors were two British Brigadiers, prisoners of war, with two other ranks, who had been their batmen in the camp. They were in battle dress, and carried packs. They had an Italian with them, who was financing them, and arranging guides. They did not stop with us, but got a guide, and were pushing on. They promised to try to get food dropped on us, but did not succeed in getting through the lines as quickly as they had planned. When they finally got home, they kindly telephoned my wife, telling her that they had seen me and that I was all right. I am afraid that her response was to ask indignantly, “Why didn’t you bring him with you, then?”
About that time, we had the great joy of watching the R.A.F. strafing the Germans below us. We flashed mirrors at them, hoping for help, and to encourage them, but they ignored us, presumably being too busy.
The visit of the Brigadiers made me toy with the idea of finding myself a guide, or using theirs. I awaited his return with deep interest, and had asked that he should come and see me on his way back. He did not do so, but I had news first that they had got through, and later, that they had got to a village called Viticuso, which was almost on the front line, and were lying up there. The South Africans had been there, or thereabouts, and had not found any occupied human dwelling. I went on looking for a guide for myself. After a bit, I met a man who spoke a little English, who said that he would take us through. I rather mistrusted him. He had just returned from a mysterious trip of his own.
He was tall, lean and tramp-like, with a very dark complexion and a shifty manner. His wife said that he wasn’t a bad chap, but her faint praise was rather damning. He did some errands for me, and, had I seen him when we did leave those parts, I would certainly have asked him to come with us as guide-translator.
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Another improbable family we met in this area were Italian-Glaswegians, who “hated the lousy place and the lousy grub”. They consisted of a sister and two brothers. The sister was about forty and fat, and spoke very broad Scots. She was an Italian, married to a Glaswegian businessman, and had lived in Scotland for many years. She had left her business and her husband in Glasgow, and had come back to Italy, to collect her “wee girrl”, who was visiting her grandmother and could not get back home to Scotland. She waddled half-way up the hill to see me, and gave us very nice food, and later, as she couldn’t face the hill twice, sent her brother with some clothes for me. I needed them by this time. There were vests, underpants, a pullover, a small blanket and, I think, some socks. We divided them joyfully.
One of her brothers was resigned to living quietly in the village, and being dragooned into German working parties when he could not avoid it. His English was not as good as his sister’s, and I suspect, he had lived most of his life in Italy. He was flabby, but kind. His younger brother was still a student. He was about nineteen and slim, with a thin, shrewd face. He was very frightened of the Germans, but would not co-operate with them, and lived in a sort of exile in the hills. Occasionally, he did something very daring, like cutting a telephone line. I have taken a little time describing these people as the sister was such an unusual type. Her brothers were typical examples of Italian attitudes to the Germans.
Another vigorous young Italian worked regularly for the Germans, and brought us the German bread ration he received, and gave us the most accurate news we got. We had quite a lot of this sour German bread given to us, and it amused me to think that my little camp was on the German ration strength.
Our stay in the camp was becoming more difficult. The battle came no nearer, and food was getting scarce. At one time my camp assumed the proportions of a transit camp – I had twenty-six on my books.
One morning, the owners of our huts came and told us that they wanted to occupy them. The Germans were going to put an A.A. battery in the village, thanks to the activity of our Air Forces, which had damaged the morale of the Germans quite severely. We had seen some effective bombing. We had a council of war, and decided to move off. I took my six Indians, the three South Africans were the basis of another team, and the parachutists made a third.
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I will digress and follow the others for a little while. The South Africans planned to cross the valley onto the third ridge, and to do this they swung north. They didn’t like the look of things, and came back. The paratroops tried to cross by swinging south, and they, too, returned.
They all stayed at our old camp for about another week, with the locals and, one day, some Germans arrived. The South Africans got clear, and hid in the woods, and later got through. They did not leave, however, before watching a very pretty gun-fight in which the para boys defeated the Germans, capturing an officer. They, too, moved on and hoped to bring their prisoner back alive but, unfortunately, the German got blown up on a mine, crossing the lines. The parachute officer also hit a mine, but was not badly hurt.
Three More Ridges
Our difficulty was, as I have mentioned, that in order to get nearer the lines, we had to cross a valley running north and south to Ridge 3, which ran on towards the battle. Both other parties had tried and failed to get across this. Ridge 3 went right up to the area in which American and German troops were opposing one another. I decided that we should get on to Ridge 3 and stay there until the battle had moved on. The battle was taking place in the valleys, and we would be comparatively safe on Ridge 3. The Germans had depopulated the villages, so we would have to lie low. Any movement would arouse suspicion.
My first plan had been to follow Ridge 2 until it petered out, and then to cross onto Ridge 3. The chief advantage of this was that it would take us some distance from the very overcrowded area in the valley which we had been overlooking. There was nothing to indicate that the position would be any better at the end of Ridge 3 and, as the Ridge ended in a pass, it might well be even more thickly populated with Germans. On the other hand, we might get more reliable news of the battle, and might even decide to remain near the edge of Ridge 3, and allow the battle to pass us by on either side.
We set off at about eleven in the morning, and moved near the top of the ridge in a compact body. The going was very difficult. We were not able to follow a definite path, and were scrambling along on the edge of a sheer drop. At about two in the afternoon, it began to pour with rain, and I decided to move lower down the mountain,
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hoping that the going would be easier, and flirting with the idea of going straight across onto Ridge 3. The rain would keep German movement down to a minimum. As we neared the valley road, we met refugees living in caves, who gave us food, and the news that all the houses flanking the road were occupied by Germans and that heavy traffic was using it. It was amusing that our little Gurkhas were always mothered by the peasants, who gave them plenty of food and titbits. It used to infuriate them to be patted like children, but we got more food for them than for the other Indians. No wonder beggars take children with them.
I was already moving cautiously, with my party in pairs, and I now made them string along behind me in single file. It was about three p.m., and rather dark, due to the heavy rain. I moved with great caution, and could see Germans moving in and out of the huts.
I picked my place to get close to the road, in an area where there was a little cover running down to a ruined cottage. There were houses with Germans in them about 150 yards away on either side. We got down to the ruin at about 4 p.m., and, as the rain was abating, decided to wait there for about an hour, as the dusk would begin at about 5.30. We dried ourselves, and the Indians had a surreptitious smoke, and, at last, the dusk and the rain came. We moved on again. The Indians were excellent; they used all the available cover, and kept to the specified hundred yards apart. We moved almost in seniority, the Indian Punjabi officer followed me, and then the Sergeant-Major, and then the hillman, followed by the Mullah, and finally, the two Gurkhas.
I worked down a small stream to the road and, after a slight pause to let some lorries pass, slipped across and waited in a copse a hundred yards further on. My tail hopped like rabbits across the road and joined me, beaming with smiles. We climbed on, up the other side, onto Ridge 3, which was much lower and squatter than Ridge 2, but which was steep at its edges. It was a strenuous job in the rain and the dusk, but, in due course, we got onto a sort of valley plateau. We were beginning to relax our vigilance, when suddenly, we heard an obviously educated man whistling a gay tune in the dark in front of us. He might be a friend, but we had no time to dally with friends, and he might not be one. We struck off to the left, and walked on until about 10.30. We were following a valley running through the ridge, going in a south-westerly direction towards Casino. I thought of visiting the Pope’s Castle near Cassino, but did
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not think that they would accept us all. In view of the terrible battle which happened there not long afterwards, it is just as well that we did not go there.
There was no road, but there were a few houses along a track. We blundered into one of them, where we saw a chink of light. There was a very frightened band of Italians in it, but we were able to talk them into letting us come in to get dry, and the housewife agreed to cook some meat we had with us, and to give us some bread and wine. We all crowded round the open fire, and let the warmth soak voluptuously into our tired bodies. At about midnight, one of the men guided us into an empty hovel, some little distance away, near where some British other ranks were. We rested for the remainder of the night round a big fire, in a doorless, disused stable.
At daybreak, I mounted my guard, and set out to explore. The mule track looked too prominent a road, and we were rather close to it. I went and found the Other Ranks. They were two lads who had been ill. They had been in the stable under the next cottage to the track for a week, and said that they had seen no Germans. They could not light a fire in their home as there was a lot of straw, and there was a family living up above them. I moved in with my party, as I wished to be further away from the track, and shifted my sentry to the new house. Then I went upstairs to get food, and to fraternise with the people. The cottage was full of children and beds. There were three families there, and a French woman promised to cook a stew for us all.
Disaster for Some
Meanwhile, the two Indian officers and the Sergeant-Major, and the two British Other Ranks had gone back to the other house and were sitting round a fire. What happened next is not very clear. I suspect that my sentry didn’t see Germans approaching the house we had been in. Suddenly, the Mullah – who I had never seen move out of a religious and dignified walk – swirled in, rather like a tribal frontier raid, and shouted: “Sahib! Tedeschi!” and dragged me out, put my blanket into my hands, and he, I and the two Gurkhas took to our heels. We climbed in and out of the bushes and rocks until we were about a quarter of a mile further away, and there we paused for breath in a hole under a rock. It was a good place, as we were hidden from view by a hedge of vegetation. I questioned the Gurkha
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who had been on guard, and he said that he had suddenly noticed five or six armed Germans, with some mules, on the track, and that they had been practically on top of the house where our companions were. It was too late to warn them, and he had only just time to tell the Mullah and collect our belongings, before they were on us. His view of the road should have given him a better chance to see them earlier than he did, but he had to keep an all round guard.
I waited for just over an hour, and then went back to see what had happened, leaving the Indians some little distance away. I found the people in the cottage in a panic. They were in tears. The Germans had taken off our five men and had accused the refugees of helping them. As this could involve death, or at least the burning of their homes over their heads, they were utterly terrified. The Germans had found some haversacks in the stable, and half suspected that there were more escaped prisoners about, and had gone away to get instructions from their officer.
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PHASE 6 – THE LAST LAP
The Little Hut
It was no place for us to stay, food or no food, and I returned to my Indians, and we moved off up the high ground leading to the south. We were going to have to do another night march.
Reviewing our situation on this night, it was quite obvious that we were not too well off. The Jemadar had my large-scale map, and the others had all the food. We hadn’t eaten that day – or rather I was the only one who had. The country was very confusing, and I had only a rough idea where the main villages were. We walked for several hours before we found any hut near the road, and then we could not stay because the occupant was rather disagreeable. It was only after great importunity that he gave us a little bread and some very sour wine. He directed us almost over the top of the mountain. We struggled on and on, and once we were down the other side we found ourselves wandering round in one of the bowl-like valleys I have described before. It was very dark, and we walked about rather aimlessly for some time before we found a row of large huts, which were a cross between a charcoal-burner’s house and a shepherd’s corral.
They were big, and yet, despite their size, were so full of people that it was impossible for anyone to get in. These were refugees from the villages below. As these villages were large and prosperous, the people were of a different type from our peasant friends. They were stuffing themselves with a newly killed pig, and would neither give us any, nor allow us to shelter with them. I hung around, refusing to leave, until a charcoal-burner, who was acting as a general servant and scavenger, came to my rescue.
He promised to show us somewhere where we might pass the night. When I asked him for matches, he said he had none, but we went via his home and he carried a burning sod for a quarter mile to our new home. This was a very tiny and derelict hut, similar to our camp on Monte Cavallo. We lit a fire and closed up the entrance with foliage. There was one very narrow bunk, and I felt the situation was tricky. If I slept on the bunk, there was barely room for one more on the floor by the fire, and there were two Gurkhas and the Mullah to dispose of. The Mullah had everything under control; as soon as we were ready to retire, he announced that he and I should share the bunk, and the two Gurkhas should sleep by
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the fire. One large dog would have found the latter difficult, but the Gurkhas managed excellently, and never complained. At least, they had the fire, and it was very cold. As far as the Mullah and I were concerned, we were very squashed. I don’t know how many of my readers have slept two in a tourist ship’s bunk, but our bed was, I am sure, considerably smaller. We had literally to curl round each other, and if one turned, both had to. I felt the Mullah to be an unusual bedfellow, but with my blanket and his greatcoat we were passably warm.
This new home of ours deserves a special description. When daylight came, we found that we were almost at the top of a pass, looking south-south-east, and were overlooking a vast expanse of country. Just below us was the village of Casole, from which came a road which ran round the foot of the mountain to Acqua Fondata and Cassino. It was parallel to the front, and just within artillery fire of Allied guns.
From Casole a small road and river ran through the foothills directly away from us, to the Volturno plain. Halfway to the plain, in the confused hills, was the present front line. Most of the fighting took place along the axis of the road. Away to the left, the Allied attack was further off, and half right, an area of hills and gorge-like valleys ran away towards a small mountain, which fringed the plain and was just above Venafro. The front line was somewhere in the confusion on our side of the mountain. The top of this mountain had a peculiar shape. It had a double peak, resembling two sheep’s heads, one behind the other. It was quite easy to recognise, and this fact was to be of importance. From this description, it will be seen that we had a grand-stand seat for any fighting which might take place. Should the Allies advance, they would come up to the foot of our mountain, and then swing round its sides. Similarly, the Germans would retire by the road below without coming over the top. The position seemed ideal for waiting until the battle over-ran us.
Nearer home, a mule track ran through the little pass and down into Casole. It ran down about a hundred yards from our hide, across a small fold in the ground, but in full view. Just opposite us was a well, which was beside the path. This well was much used by refugees, and also by the occasional small parties of Germans who came across the path from the direction of Ridge 2. They tended to use the path when Allied artillery fire interrupted traffic on the road. We had to be careful, with the Germans coming so close, and I
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maintained my daylight guard – in fact we left the hide early and remained out until dusk.
Behind us was some scrubby vegetation, which climbed to the mountain top, and then led down the other side. This formed a useful avenue for me, when I had to go scrounging food. Food was a very serious matter, as the people in the surrounding hillside were all hidden and had abandoned their houses at the last minute, and were therefore very short of rations themselves. We were able to get potatoes and a little flour, which we made into chapattis, and, occasionally some maize bread, which was nice fresh, but was as hard as bricks when stale. We were very hungry, and were often reduced to a ration of ten small potatoes each, and even if that sounds a lot, it isn’t.
We had an amusing contretemps over food. The Gurkhas had been very obedient, when the Indian officers had ordered them about, and the Mullah had assumed their mantle when they had been captured. In most respects, the Gurkhas were most amenable. One evening, when we were sharing out the load, one of the Gurkhas had a lot of potatoes, and the Mullah suggested that they should be divided, thereby implying that the Gurkha couldn’t be trusted. It was the old problem of race cropping up, and the Gurkhas were up in arms. I had to read the Riot Act. I did it something like this.
“Me – General. Me give orders. If you not obey orders, I go away, and you can go to Hell! I can escape. You don’t know what to do. Me good friend Gurkhas. Me good friend Mullah. Me trust Mullah. Me trust Gurkhas. I order all good friends – all trust each other. You quarrel – I go away. You go to Hell! You all friends. I get food. I find way to escape through lines.”
My language was more forceful, and once for all, I determined to stop any jealousy, and I am glad to say that from then on, they were as co-operative and as good as gold.
We settled down to wait and to watch the battle. There was considerable activity, and, from time to time, I was certain that an attack was imminent. The Americans certainly had some ammunition to fire away. They may have made some minor night attacks, but must have been thrown back again. There were nightly barrages, but, by daylight, there was no obvious progress.
I had various visitors during this time. Several parties of Italians were wandering about, and some of them went off to try to get through. Some visitors came and spent the night with us. One old
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man used to come regularly, and snore in front of our fire. One night five Italians came. One claimed that he had spent a week in our hide and had rebuilt it. They spent the night with us. Where everyone sat, I don’t know. We gave them a little food. They left next morning.
Another party of visitors consisted of a Gunner Sergeant-Major, who had been in charge of about a hundred escapees at one time. He was now one of a pair. His mate was an American sergeant pilot, and they had been right down to one of the villages in the plain some days before. They spent the night in a barn, and only just got away when the Germans searched the village. They then rather lost their nerve, and broke back instead of going on down into the valley.
With them, but not of them, was a very odd looking scarecrow. He had the oldest and shabbiest blue suit, and such a hat! It might well be termed a ‘pork-pie’, but I doubt whether Melton Mowbray would have owned it. The brim drooped down all round. At his other extremity, he wore an old pair of boots, size 11. They had a hole in each toe, and, as his feet were small, he had packed the ends with straw which, in a mad hatter sort of way, seemed to be growing out of him. He was a Scottish private in the R.A.S.C., and had tried to get through the lines. Passing through a field his heart had joined the straw in his boots, when he was hailed by a German officer and called over to a battery position. Here he claimed to be a shepherd, and was not allowed to go any further, but was forced to dig all day. He was given three cigarettes and a loaf of bread, and, at the end of the day, invited to come back next day for more work and more food, but warned that the country to the south was not healthy. He promised, with many Si, si’s to return on the morrow, and then took to his heels. He, and the other two, were living in huts further back, and came to see me every day. We decided to wait for about a week for the Americans to do something, and not to go on unless we ran out of food, or unless the weather got so bad that staying became a misery.
We remained in this place until the 12th of November.
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Rain in No-Man’s Land
On the morning of the 12th of November it was pouring with rain. Our rations were low, and in a week the Americans had made no appreciable advance. At about 10 o’clock, Jock, the R.A.S.C. Scotsman, came to see us. He asked what I was going to do. The weather was bad enough, and he favoured having a shot at crossing the lines. I agreed, and we decided to give the Sergeant-Major and his American until 11.30, and then to see how the weather was shaping.
For some days my clothes had been getting worse and worse. My shoes were broken to bits and I had abandoned one. The other was tied together with puttee tape. My blue coat was even more threadbare than before, but I was lovely and warm as I had on sheepskin clothes.
These deserve some description as they were entirely hand-devised and hand-made. I had made them myself. The top garment consisted of a type of waistcoat-breastplate. This was made with two skins, mostly cured in the sun, and fastened with strings and buttons, in a slightly similar way to the Life Guardsman’s armour. Over my trousers I wore another skin, rather like an apron. I commend such garments to the reader: I was beautifully warm, and the skins kept the water out better than any raincoat. Of course, you have first to catch, kill and skin your sheep. My trousers were very ragged and were more like a divided skirt, and on my head, I had a cloth cap. I had exchanged this for my smart brown felt hat when I re-escaped, in case a description was circulated. Besides, it matched my trousers!
In an attempt to go through the lines, we had considered two possibilities. One was to go to the east of Casole and roughly to follow the footsteps that the Sergeant-Major had taken towards the battle; such a plan involved travelling over ground we knew about and through fairly easy country. There was quite a bit of woodland cover. The other plan meant going down to the west of the village and crossing the road. We should have to avoid the battery which caught the Scotsman, and from there the going was very wild and rugged. This was, in some ways, an advantage, as there was a lot of cover. Furthermore, it went towards our double-headed mountain, giving me a point at which to aim.
On the morning in question, the weather was evidently too bad for our friends, and they did not turn up. I fastened a message for
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them with a twig to the outside of the hut, and we set off. We decided to go straight down towards the village, and pass between it and the battery position, and, once we were past it, to bear off towards the west to my two-headed mountain. Our party consisted of myself the Mullah, the two Gurkhas, the R.A.S.C Scotsman, and an Italian.
We walked quietly down and got into some bushes, which led to the road. The Scotsman, who I deduced correctly had been a poacher at one time, was in the lead, as he knew where the battery was. At first, he was followed by the Italian, who came with us, and I came third to keep my Indians together; but I was too far back to control our movements, and I moved up to second place when our poacher nearly ran into a German sentry – he just saw the three buttons on the back of his greatcoat in time. He halted us, and crept on and had a good look at the sentry, who stood on a bit of a ridge watching the battery’s left flank. We would have to go even nearer the village to avoid his eagle eye. Luckily, there was quite good cover and, although the road was busy with German traffic and posts, the rain was heavy, and we were able to cross it successfully, and to crawl into some more undergrowth.
We were in a small area between the village and the river valley below us. The area had only slight tracks and was not considered important. So far as we could see there were no Germans about. By this time, we were soaked through, and my sheepskin boot had come off. The sole of my other shoe came adrift and flapped from then on, and its nails stuck into my foot whenever it didn’t fall back exactly into place. It was a change from the sharp rocks and prickles which also stuck into my feet and of which there were plenty. Later, my feet got a bit frost-bitten. Finally, as I was soaked through, the weight of my wet sheepskins and wet blanket made me top heavy, and it was quite ludicrous. I couldn’t prevent myself from falling all over the place. I have referred to the cares of the flesh at this stage to get it all over at once, but these troubles were really a continuous and increasing nuisance.
The country we were in consisted of a number of small razor-backed ridges, separated by steep gullies, and we saw some animals: goats, sheep and even cattle. We were moving in the direction of my two-headed mountain.
We kept a good look-out for shepherds, and, all of a sudden, we saw a small encampment of them nestling in a cranny. We went up
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to them, and they confirmed that there were no Germans in the close proximity. They told us that some ex-prisoners had been blown up on mines, trying to get through the lines. They also told us that the best way through the lines was to follow the river directly to the Allies. The left bank, they warned us, was strongly held by the Germans, and so was the road. The defences for the right bank consisted of machine guns and mortars, firing from the ridge across the valley. The ridge was covered with scrub, and descended steeply to the river, and the going would be very difficult. As far as they knew, there were no Germans down on the right bank of the river. Incidentally, they told us not to go towards the two-headed mountain, as there were Germans in the village we had to pass, who would be holding a defensive line.
I didn’t believe that they were, as it would take too many troops to defend such a large and wild area, but, reluctantly, I decided to follow the shepherd’s advice. We blundered on in the dark, and made very slow and noisy progress. It was very bad going, and we were always falling about the place and having to retrace our steps. At one time, we lost the Italian. At first we called him in whispers, and then tried to whistle for him. Just as we were giving him up, he found us. I was beginning to get worried. We were going very slowly, and making enough noise for a troop of elephants. We would have to pass through a narrow gap overlooked by the enemy, and, within a short time the moon would be up, and it was almost full. I talked it over with the Scotsman, and we decided to go back to our own plan. We would leave the valley, and strike out into the wilder country towards our mountain.
It took us about half an hour to climb out of the valley, and, when we were out of it, the going was very confusing. We were on the look-out for the dangerous village, but it was still so dark that we could see nothing. For obvious reasons we kept off the paths. The country was very irregular, and we lost most of our sense of direction. At one time we saw someone walking with a torch across a little valley, but he did not suspect our presence. Later we did find some deserted buildings, which we took to be the outskirts of the village.
We made a detour, and began to get worried about our direction. I was leading with the Scotsman, and I felt rather lost. He wanted to go in a direction at right angles to the one I favoured. We wandered about in some doubt, trying to tell by the sound of the guns and
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their shells, which way to go. Both sides were firing, and we found confusion getting worse. I tried to modify my direction to suit the Scot, and our compromise satisfied him.
We went on and on. The moon should have risen and given us our bearings, and the stars would have made it dead easy, but it was a cloudy night and there were neither moon nor stars, and even the wind was slight and variable. We might well be lost, but we tramped on, across valleys, up hills, across terraces with steep walls and varied cultivation. Once someone nearly fell down an unguarded well.
At about midnight, we had our second sign of German existence. We heard voices, and quietly moved off away from them. I think we were in the front line of German posts.
Half a minute later the Scotsman said, “We’re doing fine,” and thereupon all hell broke loose, as a fusillade of tracer bullets lit up the air from tommy guns, fired from a nearby hedge.
My feet had been troubling me, and I was behind the others, and I instinctively followed their example in diving into a ditch, but a moment’s hesitation showed me that this was stupid. The fire was providing an excellent firework display, but, so far their aim was wild, and we couldn’t even hear the whing of the bullets. If we stayed, the Germans would find us when they investigated.
I scrambled over a wall, and ran off up to the right. The Mullah sprang after me, and one of the Gurkhas followed suit. There was a fresh outburst of fire, but our luck was in, and we were unharmed. I led the way at a scrambling, stumbling run, and we followed the course of a track which seemed to be mostly stream. After about ten minutes we paused, and there were no sounds of pursuit.
We continued skirting the path. The going was particularly thorny, and I kept coming on little paths and following them, but before I could go ten yards, the sepulchral voice of the Mullah would croak out: “Sahib! Sahib! path no good” and I would sorrowfully scramble off the path into the bushes.
Over the Top
At about this point we saw, lying on the ground, first an ammunition box and then a rifle. It seemed strange to see them lying there, and our persecution mania made us fear a trap. We left them severely alone, and it wasn’t till later that I realised that they could be accounted for by the fact that we were in no-man’s-land, and that
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some poor chap had lost them, and would probably not need them again.
A little later we had to stop, as some star-shell was being fired in the valley in front of us. It was very close, and lit up the surroundings. We had been quite warm walking along, but when we stopped we realised the bitter cold. The rain was icy, and there was a fierce wind. We went on as soon as possible, and, quite suddenly, at about 1.30 a.m., the moon sailed out for about a second, and there, straight in front was my two-headed mountain. I was thrilled to see it. It looked different, as we were so close, but, with the moon on it, I was sure. The moon went in and, though I was very much encouraged, I decided that we would still be careful, just in case we had gone round in circles and it was another mountain.
It was our mountain, and we made straight for it. Suddenly, on the ground in front of me, I saw a cigarette packet and picked it up. Imagine our excitement when we saw that it was an empty packet of “Luckies”! Did that mean we were through? Then we saw a small American tent. It was shut up tight, and I wanted to investigate, but the Mullah wouldn’t let me. He whispered “Tedeschi?” So we went on.
I rebelled about not taking paths from now on, as I felt certain that our next problem was to find the Americans and to prevent them from shooting us. If we walked openly along the path, we would be challenged, whereas if we scrambled across country they might fire first and ask questions afterwards.
We followed a path which wound up the mountain, and the going was fairly easy, but I was still top-heavy in my soaking sheepskins. We climbed right to the top, so that we could hide up there, if we were not certain that we were through the lines, by daylight.
Thank God, there was no room for doubt. From the top we saw before us the wide, rich plain, with the Volturno running through its midst. It was not quite dark, and we could just see the grey ribbon of river.
We began to climb down. It was a frightful job. The mountain was almost sheer, and was covered with loose rocks and a sort of camel thorn. I fell at almost every pace, and finished up going along hand in hand with the Gurkha, and with my other hand holding the Mullah’s shoulder strap. They, too, were falling about, but the Mullah had boots (he had offered them to me) and we just managed to
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prevent ourselves from slipping over the side of the hill. The Indians were beyond praise.
We Join the Americans
At last we were down, and after winding along at the foot of the mountain, we came to a big village, afterwards confirmed to be Venafro. There were one or two Italians about, and, when they had admitted that there were Americans in the village, I asked to be taken to some. We were almost light-headed with delight. We were led to some neglected-looking caves, and, when I asked if there were Americans inside, a sleepy voice said “Yeah”. I asked where the Headquarters was, but they didn’t know. I told them that I and my companions were escaped prisoners and wet and hungry, and asked where we could get a hot drink, and get warm and dry. The only answer I could get was, “You can’t get anything tonight. Come in here and go to sleep.”
I wasn’t to be put off, and eventually persuaded one of the Italians to take us into the village to find someone in authority. There were vehicles and telephone wires everywhere, but seemed to be no signs of sentries or troops. Finally, we succeeded in knocking up a military police H.Q. They took us in, fed us, and gave us blankets and beds in a warm room. We demolished several ‘C’ (emergency) rations apiece, and dropped off into a fine sleep.
Next day we were shod, and our worst clothing, including my trousers, were replaced, and, after an interrogation, we were passed on. How good those Americans were! And how happy we felt! We couldn’t believe that we were really through. One snag about being smartly dressed as American soldiers was that a G.I., walking behind me, became suspicious of my peculiar ‘English’ accent, and was in two minds about shooting me. He thought I must be a spy, but fortunately he did listen to my explanation and allowed me to go on with my companions to report to the American Battalion Headquarters.
The rest of the story is soon told. The missing members of my party had also taken to their heels, and they turned up – first, the Scotsman and his Italian partner, and next, the remaining Gurkha. We had a very happy reunion.
Soon the Other Ranks were taken back to the British Organisation for the Reception of Escaped Prisoners, tactlessly situated at Bari,
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which was surely the worst of all the Italian Prisoner of War camps. Sadly, once they were absorbed by the system, I never saw my friends, the Mullah and the two Gurkhas, again. I hope they remember me with affection, as I do them. I could not have hoped for stauncher or more loyal companions in adversity.
I was asked to stay on with the Americans, and spent a week going round their forward units, telling them what I knew about German positions and about the lie of the land. I told them that the Germans were strong in the villages and valleys, but they could be by-passed by going over the mountains. Fortunately, no-one invited me to guide them over the three ridges.
Then I, too, was absorbed into the military ‘machine’, and it took nearly as long to escape from its red tape as it had to walk down the length of Italy and to escape from the Germans. To add to my frustration, I developed a bad attack of jaundice, and had to spend a week or so in an American hospital in Egypt. Eventually, I got flown to Marrakesh, but was stuck, because Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were there, having a conference. At last, I got a lift to Casablanca, and got a cabin on a ship which was transporting American troops to Britain.
I think it was February 1944 when I finally reached my house in London. My wife, who was not expecting me that day, opened the door to find me standing there, unbelievably thin, with hair still down to my shoulders, with an enormous basket full of oranges – and no other luggage at all! My happiness at being with my wife and children again must be left to the imagination.
I was granted six months sick leave, and, during that time I wrote the first draft of this story. Life went on. I served again in the Middle East for several years, and was then posted home for two senior appointments, and finally retired as Lieutenant Colonel in 1957. I became a management consultant and, about ten years later, having become involved with my local parish church, decided to volunteer for ordination. I was accepted, and went to a theological college. I was ordained in 1967. Then followed thirteen happy years as curate and later as rector of two small country parishes in Winchester diocese.
I retired for the third time in 1980. In 1986 I received a letter from Drew Bethell, the companion of my Italian walk, now a retired Major General. He reminded me of our adventures together, and told me that his son was anxious to make a film describing his father’s
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walk down Italy. We got together and compared notes, and my manuscript was dug out and consulted. Drew and his son made a reconnaissance trip to Italy in the Spring of 1987, and were successful in finding families and priests who remembered both of us. They returned in September with a film crew, and a documentary was made, entitled ‘The Stranger at the Gate’, which was shown on BBC-2 television on July 31st 1988. Sadly, Drew died from a heart attack before the film was shown, though he had seen a version of it.