Tom O’G Cochrane gives a detailed and graphic account of his escape from under the noses of the Germans’ on 8th September 1943 from his camp in Bologna with his two friends, Peter Hussey and John Farran. They were eventually re- capture on 28th March 1944 on the Adriatic Coast South of Ancona. They recount their struggle with the language, travels through remote villages and the difficult terrain, poor health, the overwhelming generosity, support and friendships from the Italians, John staying behind, meeting up with nine American aircrew and their betrayal and subsequent capture and interrogation by the Germans.
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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Tom O’G Cochrane BOLOGNA camp. Had started on tunnel when Armistice came. Not allowed out but Germans arrive day after Armistice (9th). Some are shot as they try to get away. Two days later rest are taken to Germany. T.C. and others hide in roof of cookhouse. They move out of roof over wire and get away after 2 days. Given food in spite of Germans so near. Priest finds them Italian clothes – of a kind and others help ‘we had not yet realised how very unsuspecting was the average German soldier and more important how completely the Italian people were ready to help us’ after weaving their way among G. army vehicles on the main Bologna Adriatic Road. They make their south east. Near Santa Sofia hear of the Generals being near. Go to family Collinelli at Santa S. After much coming and going they contact Gens, who say they cannot help as they know so little. Qunito of the C, family is the local ‘Grappa’ manufacturer – with some alarming results! For some days they climb south through rain and mist. Given hospitality in a very good Villa in remote village – fortunately for T.C, develops jaundice and one of the others has affair with widow owner. Hear from partisans of boats from around P.San Giorgio. Nine American aircrew arrive nearby by parachute and need some acclimatising. T.C. cycles to Loreto to get news of boats. They move up coast and two visit a Count Brancadro who gives them 40,000 lire to buy a boat. The young Italian with them tries to locate one but is captured but gives things away and T.C. and Peter are captured. Later Americans captured, who were treated badly as semi POWs for rest of capture till liberated at Moosburg as they had partisans propganda leaflets on them when captured. The others, only in mid May were treated as POWs.
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EXTRACT FROM WAR MEMOIRS: September 1943 to May 1944
T. O’ G Cochrane
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Bologna proved to be identical in layout to Chieti with the same kind of barrack blocks, brand new and never having been used even by the Italian army. A number of familiar faces turned up at Bologna from other camps, not the least amongst them being John Cowtan. It wasn’t long before new plans were being forged and at least one advantage of the new camp was that we were that much nearer Switzerland which substantially reduced the journey once we were outside the wire. But first cross the wire!
Again a tunnel seemed the best solution for a break-out of a dozen or more of us and this time we turned our attention to the main cookhouse building whose rear wall was very close to the perimeter wire and wall. At one end of the building was the camp canteen and recreation room which had a bar and a raised platform on which concerts and other entertainments were held. This raised platform gave us the opportunity we needed, because it provided an easily concealed entrance to a tunnel and the length of the tunnel itself would be just about as short as we could make it. So away we went, digging with tools readily available from the kitchens next door, and making good progress when once more fate intervened and on September 8th it was announced that the Allies had concluded a separate Armistice with the Italians and Italy was therefore no longer a combatant.
The story is now taken up by an account of the days and weeks following 8th September 1943 which was written in Oflag 79 in Germany during the winter of 1944/45.
8th September 1943, 8 p.m. The news of the Italian Armistice was officially announced in the camp. The wish to rejoice at the news was rather overcome by the more pressing thoughts of how to get away from the camp as I think every one of us appreciated the danger of the very probable arrival of the Germans to take us away. However, we had the assurances of the Commandant and SBO (Senior British Officer) that we would be protected against such a contingency, scouts were out and would give us ample warning and meanwhile we were told to stay inside under the continued protection of our precious guards. No amount of bribing could persuade the Italian guards to let us through though much of the wire and the gates in the walls had been opened and we had to retire temporarily defeated and utterly exhausted to our rooms at about midnight.
9th September, 4 a.m. The arrival of our Italian scouts and the Germans coincided almost exactly at our front gate. Mike (Blackman) and I rushed into our things and
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flew round to a back gate where there was already a clamouring throng all urging the mule-like Italian to unlock the door. At last he yielded and we poured out into the narrow lane outside. We had scarcely gone 200 yards when a stream of shots from automatic weapons flew over our heads and practically everyone dived frantically into the wood on our left. Never has there been a more resilient rubber-like hedge than that dividing the lane from the wood – it seemed to be almost human the way it pushed one back in the lane and amongst the bullets, though to be honest they were nearly all flying over our heads. At last Mike and I struggled through into the comparative safety of the wood. By now we seemed to be surrounded by the battle and as dawn was breaking we dug ourselves in, in a little hollow and covered ourselves in leaves. We survived in Babes in the Wood like fashion till about 11 a.m. when a passing German – one of many who were combing the wood – tripped over Mike’s prostrate body and we were taken inside. Barely a dozen had failed to return from the night’s adventures, while one officer had been killed and two others wounded. Meanwhile the Germans had completely taken over the camp having marched the Italians away under armed guard and it was obviously a matter of days before we were taken away too. Plans for hiding places were being put into operation everywhere, down sewers, under wood-piles, behind doors, in the attics – anywhere in fact. During the afternoon the 12 of us who had already started a tunnel under the wooden floor of the bar, began to enlarge this to hide us all down there if possible. Mike’s long prepared birthday party took place in the evening and we did justice to our stocks of vino laid aside for the occasion.
10th September: Beginning at 7 a.m. and going on non-stop for ten hours the 12 of us worked on our hole as never a tunnel has been worked on before. The earth was simply removed in wheelbarrows, disguised with lavatory paper – perhaps the sight of a man staggering under the load of an apparent box of paper was scarcely convincing, but the Germans were as new to the game as we were old. By the end of the day we had a hole big enough to take all 12 but due to air difficulties we had to cut down the figure by half. In case of a night move six of us slept near the hole during the night, and got eaten alive by mosquitoes for our troubles.
11th September, 8 a.m. Warning order arrived from the Germans saying that we were at one hour’s notice to move. We drew for places down our hole and Mike with five others were locked in about 10 o’clock. The remainder of us, Peter Hussey, John Farran, Tony Payn, Dopey Cowtan, John Fayn and I decided as a kind of last resort to hide in the cookhouse attic. It was a desperate sort of chance and it didn’t seem to have much hope, but at least we wouldn’t lose much by it if it failed. Meanwhile, other
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people fearing a German occupation of the camp after our departure abandoned their concealment plans in favour of getting away on the journey. When the rest of the camp was moved away at 2 p.m. we were safely ensconced in our attic, with a Red Cross parcel each, six flasks of vino, water and a bucket of boiled potatoes. The strain of trying to keep quiet for hours on end while Germans looted the kitchen and bar below became appalling – such simple operations as opening a bar of chocolate or even snuffling into one’s handkerchief, one couldn’t risk blowing it in the true sense of the word, seemed to resound like thunder and inevitably evoked even more ear-splitting “sshh’s” from the offender’s companions. However, the day passed without untoward incident and we settled down to a night precariously balanced on knobbly concrete beams.
13th September. After a very uneventful Sunday and an even quieter today, Peter, John Farran and I decided to try and get out in the evening, as soon as it became dark. The other three decided to stay hoping that our troops would arrive in the neighbourhood before having to risk themselves in the unknown dangers of outside. This decision was not quite as fantastic as it seemed as the Germans had given as the excuse to moving us that the area was likely to become a battleground within 48 hours and again the SBO had given it out as official news that our troops were already north of Florence and had also landed at Rimini and Genoa. One has to have lived in a prison camp to understand that such extraordinary false statements can take on the appearance of truth. About 8 p.m. just as it was getting dark, the three of us slid down our rope made of sheets as noiselessly as possible – though the crash with which one of my boots fell the odd 15 feet on to the floor below was just nobody’s business. However, after a breathless two minutes all was still quiet and we slipped out of the building and wriggled our way across an open 20 yards to the wire fence surrounding the camp. There were two of these fences to climb, each about eight feet high, and never again do I want to experience the horrible predicament of sitting astride one of those fences, swaying backwards and forwards and with the socks on both feet firmly entangled in the barbs, while the whole time one expected to see a German sentry emerge from the shadows. I suppose it only took a minute or less to get over those fences, but it seemed an age, but at last we were over, through the still open gate in the wall and we were breathing uncontaminated free air. Still carrying our boots in our hands we made our way warily across the country, believing everyone to be a possible enemy, and so not daring to be seen as we flitted like ghosts from vineyard to vineyard.
After two days of very strictly rationed drinking, the freshness of the grapes which we picked as we walked was unbelievably good – in fact the whole atmosphere of that
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night will always remain quite unforgettable, the full moon seeming to accentuate the stillness of it all, in spite of the continual chirping of the crickets; the months of dust- ridden barracks seemed far behind as we walked – still carrying our boots – free, on what I suppose was really a very ordinary Italian autumn evening, but it seemed to have a special magic of its own for us. At about 10 p.m. we summoned up courage to stop at a house as we simply had to get definite news and even more important, water. Between us we knew barely a dozen Italian words and our first encounter with the Italian nation on equal terms was mildly one-sided. However, we managed to get across our meaning, water was produced and plates of food and while we were steadily absorbing the entire bucket of water they told us the nearest Germans were only 300 yards away. So, carrying more food and water and with the good wishes of the family we disappeared once more into the night deciding to find somewhere to spend the night. A maize field provided the answer and we curled up among the stalks and tried to get some sleep, but never have I known such cold. I remember adopting a kind of Buddha-like posture to try and get myself into as small a bundle as possible, but it was useless. John, of course, slept soundly through it all – he always did.
14th September. The day was as hot as the night had been cold; mercifully it deadened the want of food but those mouthfuls of lukewarm water scarcely seemed to moisten the tongue. At last evening came and again as it became dark we crept out of the maize and started our walk east to put more distance between us and Bologna. We still had the moon to light us on our way though we had sufficient cause to curse it as we crossed a wide river bed. Our crossing aroused the interest of someone and as we sat putting on our boots again on the far side, we heard voices approaching and two figures could be seen walking in our direction each with a something slung over his shoulder. We waited no longer and did a breathless crawl up a steep bank and across about 100 yards of ploughed field until we finally reached comparative security in a shallow ditch and could continue our walk once more. Who they were of course we never discovered, though we like to believe they were Germans, a possibility as they were known to be in position along the river. Again at about 10 p.m., or just after, we paid our evening call, this time determined to sleep under a roof – the maize field had been too much for all of us. It was Peter’s turn to go in first to find out if our prospective host was hospitable and after about five minutes he returned to John and I and explained in a horrified whisper that he couldn’t talk; after two days in the attic and one more outside when we had never dared to talk above a whisper our voices had somehow disappeared. However, we made our position clear to our host or rather hostesses – they were all evacuees from Bologna and as fortunately most of them talked French we could at least make some attempt at conversation. Over a meal they
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produced for us, we managed at last to get up-to-date with the news. The evening’s communique had apparently announced the capture of Foggia, in the far south of Italy – an item we could scarcely believe in view of our recent rumours. However, our troops were apparently still advancing and we were not unduly worried.
They then went on to advise us to get some civilian clothes – we were still in battle dress – and to catch an early morning train down south to Pescara or even further. The civilian clothes they promised to find us, but the thought of a railway journey in public appalled us – how could we possibly get away with it, with no papers or documents, scarcely able to understand a word of the language and none of us looking remotely Italian. It seemed the surest way back into prison, but if we had only known, only been able to appreciate the confusion then reigning in Italy, the whole journey would have presented no difficulty and scarcely any danger. But we turned it down, having that sublime faith in the capabilities of the British Army and Montgomery, that together they would cover incredible distances in an incredibly short time. We went to bed that night on a makeshift bed of cushions, and slept warm and comfortable for the first time in many nights.
15th September. At 5 a.m. we were roused by the youngest and prettiest of our hostesses to start off on our search for civilian clothes, she having promised the night before to guide us to a nearby priest. We soon set off, a curious quartet appearing as four vague shadows in the early morning mist, led by our graceful guide in her Red Riding Hood cape. The priest rose nobly to the occasion in spite of the unexpectedness and unorthodoxy of our visit – an impromptu breakfast was soon on the table and the whole household turning out cupboards and shelves in search of suitable garments. Inside an hour we had all been transformed from our military guise into – well, Peter had a suit of blue dungaree affairs, a white shirt and an all too smart Trilby hat – in fact when he was carrying the little suitcase the priest also gave us, apart from the hat, he looked almost like an engine driver or mechanic to the rather biased observer. John became the sort of professional loafer type and with a cigarette drooping out of the corner of his mouth to add to his cloth cap, rather shoddy jacket and definitely shoddy grey flannels, he might have passed anywhere, or almost. While I favoured a definitely clerical leaning with black coat and trousers – much patched – a frilly fronted shirt with a gleaming gold stud (possibly brass) and no collar – all rather contradicted, however, by the soft greyish-blue hat with a jay’s feather stuck jauntily in the ribbon. Scarcely completely confident in our disguise as Italian youths we set out as dawn was breaking after many thanks to our kind priest and Red Riding Hood, and continued on our road eastward walking always across country. The reports of
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Germans in the locality were conflicting and confusing and coming to a convenient ditch we decided to spend the day in it and move on again at dusk. Then ensued the most agonising shave I have suffered: the priest had amongst other things given us a razor and some soap. Now the charm of this razor lay in the fact that the blade lay at quite a different angle to that of the instrument besides being curved along its length – so that by putting the razor to the face it was quite problematic as to what and how much would come off and from where. Combine all that with a mirror the size of a penny and a thimbleful of water and it will be understood that the loss of a mere pint of blood was deemed to be almost luckier than one deserved. However, the shave accomplished we spent the rest of the day peacefully and undisturbed at the bottom of our ditch.
Slightly before dark, emboldened by our new clothes, we set out once more and walked on without incident until our usual stopping time. Though our host this time was of the poorer farmer class, his hospitality was nonetheless wholehearted and we encountered for the first time the problem of the boiled egg in Italy – how in other words to dispose of a soft boiled egg without an egg cup and armed only with a fork. But hunger made light of any such difficulties and the party soon became hilarious under the influence of what, in retrospect, must have been the strongest wine we ever had. We went to bed on a substantial pile of straw that night viewing the world through rather bright rose-tinted spectacles.
16th September. That 5 a.m. when the farmer woke us out of our deep sleep to set us on our way again will always remain as one of the gloomiest dawns I have ever known. We almost staggered along for an hour or so after leaving the house clutching aching heads and with mouths so dry it seemed we would never swallow again. By now it was broad daylight and we searched hopelessly for somewhere to hide when Peter suggested we spent the day at a nearby farmer’s house. In spite of John’s and my fears the plan was a complete success and we were soon comfortably settled in front of huge bowls of sweet milk, with the promise of a midday meal if we cared to stay. We were now about half a mile from the Via Emilia, the main Bologna-Rimini road, on which there was considerable German traffic day and night and also the main railway line which we feared might be guarded at intervals. In other words it presented quite an obstacle to our inexperienced minds – we had not yet realised how very unsuspecting was the average German soldier and more important how completely the Italian people were ready to help us – hence our reluctance to move by day. Our hosts, the Poggis as we came to call them, were quite pathetically poor, but equally insistent that all three of us stayed to share their meals with them and at midday we had our first minestra
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cooked true Italian style. Being our first hot meal for almost a week it seemed one of the best we ever had and yet they were profuse in their apologies that they had to offer such humble fare to English officers. Later in the day we helped them with the grape harvest which had just begun, carrying on the whole time a running conversation which remains in memory as being completely fluent and yet it must in reality have been a most halting affair.
17th September. After having a look at the road and railway from afar we decided to cross over in the evening shortly before dark. We left the Poggis at 6 p.m. overwhelmed by their great kindness and generosity which had taken the form of cheeses and loaves of bread to take away with us, and had soon crossed the railway without incident. However, the road was the main problem as there was a continual flow of German traffic and we decided to cross split up. Peter out in front with John and I about 300 yards behind. We came on to the Via Emilia out of a little side lane, but unfortunately had to walk about a quarter of a mile down the road before the next turning off on the other side. John and I were horrified when we came out on to the road behind Peter to see that famous blue suit topped by its Savile Row hat wending its way indomitably through what seemed to be half the German Army. John and I swallowed hard and followed, assuming a jaunty air of glorious false confidence, talking as we went in strings of the most nonsensical Italian remembered from the days of reading Italian communiques in the paper, the whole of course supported by the most extravagant gestures.
It was such a pantomime that I fear would have deceived no-one beyond the woodenheaded dumbness of a German. Our streams of “carri armati” and “apparechi nemici” became more furious, our gestures yet more astounding as we passed by the Germans and their lorries parked along the road and at last, with an almost hysterical sigh of relief, we were able to turn off into calmer waters. We soon caught up with Peter whose chief fear apparently had been that the Germans might stop him, believing him to be a mechanic, and ask him to tinker with one of their miserable machines. We now realised what walking in Italy was really to mean for the first time as by crossing the Via Emilia we had left the Plain of Lombardy and were now dealing with the foothills of the Appenines. We had been given by the Poggis the address of a priest who might be able to help us and he was to be our first call that evening. After a long climb we reached the peak on which his little village was perched and as it was now dark I went in leaving the other two outside to follow me if all went well. The piazza of the village seemed to have all the romantic perfection of Italian opera, the soft glow from the street lights gilding the inevitable dirt and sordidness of an Italian village with a special
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charm of its own – the strains of a guitar and a man singing only served to enhance the atmosphere. But the priest, a fat prosperous-looking individual, failed to live up to the romance of his village – he was frightened beyond words by my arrival and though he gave us a bottle of wine and some honey he was obviously only too glad to see the last of me. We wandered off again and finally found very humble lodging for the night.
18th September. After another dawn start and two hours of the toughest walking we had had so far – all uphill – we finally achieved a summit of some sort from which we could get a wonderful view of the country over which our way would have to pass. South and east and west as far as we could see stretched mile after mile of hills, barren grey slopes mostly with the occasional shadow of a wood – here and there a higher peak rose above the general level, its higher slopes invariably wearing a crown of grey cloud. Behind us to the north and apparently equally endless stretched the Plain of Lombardy, its flat surface chequered with vineyards and fruit trees and dotted over its whole area with the white splashes of the farmers’ houses and the occasional bigger splash of a village or small town. But it was the view to our front which concerned us more and we tried to plan a route through the hills so that we avoided the highest peaks and at the same time the more dangerous lower slopes from the point of view of Fascists and Germans. Our general direction would be south east following the run of the country itself but always clinging to at least the foothills of the main Appenine chain (see Appendix 1 for map of our route). Now that we were away from the plain walking by day had no more terrors for us: the road was a mere rough track along which motor vehicles would have difficulty in travelling and anyway it went nowhere in particular, so that the people become proportionately less frightened and more eager to help us. Just passing through a small village we decided to try and have breakfast, having been given an egg each by our host overnight, and stopped at a likely looking house to have them cooked. While we were eating them, a young but obviously superior type of a man – a shop owner in Bologna as it turned out – called on our hostess. He took great interest in us, asked us down to supper that evening and tried to persuade us to stay in the district, it was safe here, he pointed out, but movement was dangerous, and anyhow our own troops would soon arrive.
As I write this, the 5th Army more than a year later has just reached the outskirts of Bologna but then, this fellow seemed to be talking fairly good sense and we were very tempted to follow his advice and accepted his offer – our ideas about the war in Italy were still somewhat vague. However, we so seriously considered his offer that we remained his guest for that day having a most excellent supper followed by some real coffee and two glasses of cognac. I remember that evening too, giving a lecture
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in astronomy to a very puzzled Italian labourer, my ignorance of the Italian for “plough” I know curtailing the proceedings rather abruptly.
19th September. Having slept on the advice of our kind friend we decided we were really not justified in stopping so soon and must continue down as far as we could. Accordingly, we parted from our host who bestowed on us so many good things before we left, food, wine, clothes, cigarettes, that we were scarcely able to put one foot in front of the other. After two hours we had crawled up to the top of our highest mountain yet, something over 2000 feet high, a walk which only proved to us that we were trying to carry far too much. It was easy to dispose of much of it and we had a wonderful lunch perched on the ruins of the old church and under the shade of the high pine trees which had formed a kind of avenue up to the church. Lunch ended with a hatful of figs we had picked off a nearby tree and we just relaxed into the pleasantest oblivion for two hours or more. The view was even more complete and far-reaching than that of the other day and I remember thinking how wonderful it was to find such a completely quiet and undisturbed place, so utterly peaceful after the bedlam of having to rub shoulders so continually with one’s fellow creatures inside four walls. But we had to move on, though it was difficult and sad somehow to leave the shelter of the old pine trees and their ruined church and exchange their peace with the uncertainties of further on. However, we loaded up our now considerably lightened packs and went off down the very precipitous slope towards the village on the far side of the valley. Being Sunday our progress through the village street was well observed and widely commented on but we were by now getting rather more used to the perpetual curiosity of the Italians. We passed on across a small road over the river and so on to the track leading up the next valley. The country was now much wilder, the houses more infrequent and at dusk we stopped at practically the head of the valley at the last house.
20th September. After a night in his cart-shed, in the company of sundry rabbits, guinea fowl and other livestock, our host woke us early the next morning and refused to hear of us going further until we had passed a day or two in his house. The argument was continued over breakfast when we were for the first time introduced to the great Italian dish of polenta – a kind of porridge made of maize flour and served up with some kind of savoury sauce, with cheese sprinkled over everything. This being our first time, we loved it and ate vast quantities of it, but the time was to come when the very mention of the stuff was to sicken me. Its mode of eating too is entirely Italian: the contents of the whole pot are upset on to the dining room table, the sauce and cheese sprinkled on top and then the family armed with the inevitable fork gets
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digging, making rapid inroads towards the more spicy bits in the centre. Mellowed possibly by our more than substantial breakfast we yielded to the old man’s pressure and agreed to staying a day or so – short of offending the old man beyond all measure we could do little else as he had supported his arguments by setting some of his children during breakfast to clearing out a room for us and fixing up beds and furniture.
This extraordinary insistent generosity of the Italians was, looking back, one of the great drags on our progress and due to our difficulty with the language, anyhow at the beginning, we found it very hard to explain ourselves sufficiently clearly to them, and so shake off their coils. An outright refusal seldom did anything except harm as, like children, they were quickly offended even to the extent of trying to bring harm on one, and we ourselves, following in the wake of other prisoners, often paid the price for their bad manners. Our host’s house was one of the simpler farm dwellings we had visited, family living quarters and stabling all under the same roof, though nothing beyond chickens and the occasional goat actually came into the kitchen. This room is really the hub of the Italian home being where the family spends all its daylight hours, they wash, feed, sew, drink and naturally cook all in this one room – the small children even sometimes use the fireplace for things a cat at least has the decency to dig a hole for. The furniture from one farmhouse to another is almost identical in every respect, a long table, a number of home-made wicker chairs (according to the size of the family), a large dresser the windows of which are always plastered with photos of the family, faded Easter and birthday cards and a picture postcard of St. Peter’s. But this dresser is perhaps the most individual thing of any Italian farmhouse, and besides, the cupboard is always the keeper of all the little family curios which are proudly produced one by one. The presence of the dainty little coffee cups and saucers on the shelves was ever a source of mystery – why do they all have a coffee set as a wedding present, why not a set of fish knives too? They would be as frequently used and presumably as diligently polished. We never managed to definitely establish the size of our host’s family – it may have been ten, but on the other hand we may well have counted the same one twice as they were all drably alike and yet in contradiction we always seemed to be finding one we had never seen before. We spent our days in almost complete idleness, always appearing at the kitchen door perhaps rather too punctually and obviously at mealtimes. We only made some rather half-hearted attempt at earning our keep when the old man put us on to digging up beet and screwing off the tops – it wasn’t long before our interest in beet flagged considerably, but the old man was a hard taskmaster and kept us at it. There was always keen rivalry for the position of digger – anything in fact rather than the skin-tearing, arm-aching operation of pulling
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off the tops of that miserable vegetable. The one drawback of our temporary home was the fact that it was dry, in fact it was a boast of the old man that not a drop of liquor crossed his threshold, though apparently his principles allowed him to get reasonably soaked once or twice a week at the local pub. After much halting explanation we finally managed to persuade him to let us go down to the pub one evening and satisfy our “craving” for intoxicating liquor. Our entry into the pub was almost sensational, the whole community immediately became silent and stared at us with mouths agape while we made our way to the bar. “Drinks all round” however, loosened their tongues and everybody was offering their advice, good wishes, anything in fact except a drink – but the pub keeper himself rose to the occasion and steered us round behind the scenes where he plied us with much good Marsala. However, our visit had evidently created quite a stir and we reckoned that tomorrow we should lose no time leaving the area just in case somebody might have spread the news – which indeed they had as we discovered the next day.
23rd September. True to our decision reached yesterday evening we left the house soon after breakfast to continue our walk in a south easterly direction. We had barely reached the top of the valley when away over to our right we saw assembled seven or eight men with shot guns and dressed rather ominously in black shirts. It might have been only a harmless shooting party, the black shirt did not necessarily have any evil significance, but just in case we veered sharply off in the opposite direction, just as it seemed as if they had seen us too and had started moving in our direction. We moved pretty fast into the bottom of the valley and were working our way up the far side along a wooded spur, when just below us we suddenly saw the same party. They saw us too and this time there was no mistaking their intentions: accompanied by the inevitable shouting they began moving fast towards us. We didn’t wait to argue and travelled pretty briskly through the wood which brought us up against a practically vertical slope down to a little ditch some 200 feet below and almost entirely overgrown by trees. Our progress from then on seemed to lose any element of control it might have had before; fortunately there were trees to cushion our descent, and as we bounced from one to another, crashed through knots of bramble, with ever-increasing velocity, the bags in which we were carrying our worldly goods became sadly battered.
Picking ourselves up at the bottom we found all our precious water bottles had been broken, and various other little things had fallen out, among them our toothpaste and the infernal razor. However, the result seemed to justify our extravagant gallop as we had shaken off the pursuers and turning up a smaller and steeper valley we decided to
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eat our lunch and lie low for an hour or two in case they still searched for us. It was, as usual, a glorious day and the shade of our wooded shelter seemed doubly good after our recent exertions. Inevitably Italians soon appeared on the scene, but after anxious moments they turned out to be nobody more harmful than woodmen and we all sat down together to our lunch. About 3 p.m. we set off again, saying goodbye to our woodmen friends, and the rest of the day was little more than hard but quite uneventful walking. We crossed another larger river and a road on which there was a little German traffic – a lorry went by just after we had crossed. By dusk we had covered a lot of ground and were very reasonably tired and horribly hungry. We made a desperate finishing burst to reach what looked like a promising house on top of a hill – but on reaching it, it turned out to be some kind of nunnery, who were anything but hospitable and behaved as though the desperate gleam in our eyes betokened the rape and plunder of their house rather than an honest longing for a bowl of something hot and filling. By then it was too late to search further and we finally found shelter in a small draughty rat-infested barn where, shivering in our sweat-soaked clothes, we ate a scanty supper of some dry bread and an apple – the latter being the contribution of our friends at the nunnery. As a direct result of that wretched evening, Peter developed a chill on the stomach which weakened him considerably for two or three days to come.
24th September. And now for the first time since we got out we fairly earnestly concentrated on the business of walking and for the next few days really covered useful distance. By now we had become well used, in fact resigned, to our feet being the only means of locomotion we had at our disposal, so that 15 and more miles a day did not seem such an appalling thing as it might have done a fortnight earlier. Peter for the first day or two suffered badly from his chill and we were glad to stop for lunch on the 24th at a very hospitable priest’s house where he was able to rest an hour or two before going on. The priest already had two English guests – officers from Bologna who like ourselves had hidden and later got away. The chief merit of the encounter was that we were able, by much poring over an Italian dictionary, to fill in many of the gaps in our ignorance of the language: I remember finding a wonderful word for “passing the night” which seemed to suffice in place of our usual halting formula. The new word was duly produced in something akin to triumph that evening, only to be met with a very wooden lack of understanding by the farmer’s wife and we had to resort once again to our famous opening speech which of course at once opened the doors. It was no doubt very pedantic Italian we were trying to speak but it is certainly true that the Italian peasant will understand and speak the impurest and most ungrammatical Italian imaginable. That evening was our first brush with anything like an enthusiastic Fascist family – though they took us in they did it grudgingly and large
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piles of dull stodgy polenta were produced for our supper. After supper we were proudly shown large photographs of Mussolini and many Fascist propaganda pamphlets, to which to make sure of our bed that night we had to make suitable noises of approval.
Shortly after starting the next morning the sight of a large and luxurious looking villa strongly attracted our attention – its well laid out gardens, complete even to fountains and peacocks and considerable vineyards signified a family of some wealth and we felt more than a little inclined to taste a moment of luxury. Added to which Peter was still not well and we very much wanted to hear the BBC – a hot bath, good meal, cigarettes and wines being of course mere incidentals. Unfortunately, however, the family were not in residence and we had to surrender our too hastily formed dreams, though not entirely as we were told that some miles further on there was another villa where lived people who would be bound to welcome us with open arms. We spent almost the rest of the day looking for it, walking through very wild woody country, though very lovely – and at last we found the elusive villa. Not as spacious or as obviously luxuriant as the other but still obviously possessors of plenty of this world’s goods. We were met enthusiastically and ushered at once indoors, but again there was a fly in the ointment – the son of the family was at home, an officer who was working in close contact with the Germans. In fact he gave us each 10 Players which the Germans had robbed from one of our prison camps, but at the same time he made it clear that if we lingered long in the district, he would have to hand us over – in fact he should do now, he continued as he fingered his revolver in his belt. The father and mother and his wife were obviously very sad to push us out so unceremoniously and loaded us up with some excellent ham and cheese and 1000 Lira before we left. They were all quite convinced we would very shortly see an Allied landing at La Spezia, and that therefore we would soon be free.
The dangers of the area through which we had to pass near Maradi turned out to be quite typically exaggerated by our friends at the villa. We had to face a railway, river, road combination whilst our information told us the Germans were active in the hills, making dumps, digging positions and so on so that it was with some trepidation we had started out that morning. However, maybe because it was a Sunday, we passed through all our dangers without the slightest difficulty to do what turned out to be our longest day’s walk so far. The track carried us up what we came to call the Valley of Death after we were half way along it – its steep sloping grey sides were devoid of anything living, a dingy stream flopped along in the bottom while a wind which was almost a hurricane screamed at us. When at last we reached the head of the valley, the
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wind became almost dangerous and we literally had to crouch down to avoid the hail of little pebbles which were flung up by the wind. Once Peter, clutching as ever the little attache case, incautiously stood up – suddenly the blue suit inflated like a balloon and Peter and suitcase and hat, still miraculously in position, sailed majestically into the air. However, we safely made port that night in a little cottage deep in a big chestnut wood where the welcome was inversely proportional to the size of the house – and where incidentally we first encountered the Toscana dialect. We were given a very, very enormous supper starting with two large plates of pasta sciuta, followed by grilled pigeon and ending with a very excellent sugary cake – wine of the house being well in evidence throughout. After supper the daughter of the house and her “young man”, unabashed by the presence of either ourselves or her parents, determined to win their Sunday evening’s money’s worth with a vengeance – our pleasantly mellowed state made us good spectators, though John was a little critical as to technique.
Our luck with the weather which had held on so well up till now could not go on forever and after a normal morning’s walking through very lovely wooded hills, the rains came when we were least ready to face them. At the time we were struggling along a very steep hillside parallel to a road we had just crossed – much overgrown with small trees and scarcely any paths. In a very short space of time we were soaked, the suitcase proclaimed rather more obviously its cardboard origin and we were thoroughly out of temper with the whole business. After an hour or two of fighting with clinging soaking branches we at last came to a small cottage where our appeal for shelter was sympathetically answered. As ever they fed us and clothed us and we were soon sitting round an enormous fire, in borrowed and rather flea-ridden garments, while our own were festooned about the room drying. One took it all very much as a matter of course but how often and where in the world – even in England – would the same kindness and generosity be extended to three soaking wet individuals, belonging to a nation who only a month ago were their enemies in war.
It rained for the rest of day and most of the night and in consequence we had to spend a rather foul day paddling across very muddy country. The weather deteriorated as the day went on and by lunch time we were wandering rather vaguely through a thick blanket of mist. Lunch we ate perched on the hill above Portico, stopping only long enough to eat some very dry bread and almost the last of our chocolate we had been so painstakingly carrying since leaving Bologna. It was sufficiently cold to prevent us dallying long, but thereafter thanks to the mist our progress became more haphazard than ever and finally in desperation we stopped at a small farmhouse to wait for the mist to clear.
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Either our Italian was exceptionally bad that day or the good farmer was more stupid than usual but somehow we didn’t seem to understand each other at all, so that every conversational effort was brought to a rather embarrassing standstill – for instance, Us: “May we stop here a moment, as we can’t see where we are going?” The farmer: “Why can’t you see?” Us: “Because there is a mist”. The farmer: “Where are you going?” Us: “We don’t know cos we can’t see where we are going”. The farmer: “Why can’t you see?” etc. etc. However, we spent a reasonably comfortable two hours in his house over a flask of vino and then had to go to find lodgings for the night. Ensued our worst evening yet for finding a house; it was getting darker and darker as we were politely but firmly informed at each attempt that they were sorry but they had no room, but if we went to that house over there, (pointing to a grey blob on the far side of the valley) they would be certain to take us in. Off we would go and receive the same chilling response. We at last succeeded, about half an hour after dark, and ate as large a supper as we could off great piles of grapes and cheese and bread, and went to bed on the kitchen floor.
The next day, mercifully, was fine again and for a change we were able to cover some really useful distance. It was a day, however, remarkable more than anything else for the amount we ate. While having our second breakfast at a priest’s home just above Rocca San Casciano, we were able to weadle out of him an Italian dictionary – a book that was to be much thumbed before we had finished with it. A shower of rain happily timed our lunch halt for us to enjoy an excellently grilled chicken and in the evening just outside Santa Sofia having paddled across the river we were practically forced into a small house nearby. Here they cooked us a really enormous meal which combined with the excellence of their red wine, convinced us we couldn’t possibly go another step that day. A minor earth tremor rather disturbed our night and provided amongst the Italians a topic of conversation for days and weeks afterwards.
Thursday 30th September was to prove another turning point in our journey. We had barely started on our day’s walk when we were accosted by a strange individual on a bridge. After much wandering round the point, he told us that nearby were living four English Generals, who equipped with radio, were in constant touch with our troops in the south. This seemed almost too good to be true as it appeared we had stumbled on some Italian organisation under the guidance of British Generals, which should therefore be able to provide us with some means of exit from the country. In order to put us on the books, as it were, and to arrange our immediate accommodation before being guided to the Generals, I was taken into the local Italian chief who materialised as a lawyer, Sig. Nanni, living in Santa Sofia. Over a cherry brandy and a cigarette,
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arrangements were discussed and it was agreed that this evening we would be taken to a nearby house and that a guide to take us to the Generals would be provided as soon as possible. Generals Neame and O’Connor and Air Marshal Boyd were given as the names of some of the Generals. After courteous farewells, I made my way back to Peter and John and we excitedly discussed our future together – events seemed to have taken a very definite turn for the better. We had to spend the day at a small pub where we passed the day impatiently enough though feeding and drinking remarkably well between times. The lawyer paid us another visit in the evening and confirmed the arrangements and soon after supper we were taken to our temporary lodging place. En route we stopped at a house to hear if possible the BBC news but unfortunately got nothing more illuminating than Tommy Handley who gave us five very good minutes’ worth.
In fact good wine, good food and our own good news had raised our spirits to a colossal extent and the end of all our troubles seemed near at hand. Our new host, Quinto Collinelli and his family of two sons and a daughter, welcomed us to their house on our arrival and we were soon revelling in the wonderful luxury of an enormous double bed. And so began our first sad disillusionment.
We were woken up the next morning by the younger son Angelino, bringing each of us a liqueur glassful of a completely clear liquid – “Grappa” he explained, so completely unsuspecting we swallowed it down in one, thinking it was possibly rather odd to begin the day with a liqueur. Grappa as we later discovered is distilled wine, in other words 40 or 50% alcohol so our early morning glass had effects that were startling in the extreme. Quinto, however, seemed intent on impressing on us with the strength of things in his house and after breakfast, seeing I had a pipe, offered me a plug of tobacco to cut up and so have a smoke. By now, vaguely suspicious, I was rather reluctant to accept, but in the end had to while John and Peter made cigarettes out of it. After a couple of minutes of puffing, I felt the most terrible hiccough rising and do what I would, I couldn’t repress it – thereafter they came one after another and the pipe had to be abandoned, while Peter and John were looking rather misty-eyed and halfhearted with their cigarettes. The tobacco was apparently contraband stuff, being merely the raw leaves dried and twisted into a roll – it wasn’t long though before all three of us had grown sufficiently used to it to smoke and enjoy it. About 10 a.m. we were again taken off to a house in a safer locality, Quinto’s being barely a mile from Santa Sofia and near the main road. It was expected we would spend two or three days at this new house and then move off into the mountains to seek out the Generals.
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In consequence, at our new home, time passed heavily as there was nothing for us to do beyond wait for orders, eat our host’s grapes of which he had an abundance and play with his small grandson aged 4, who mercifully was remarkably unspoilt and was easily amused. Angelino used to come and see us every day and bring us the BBC news which he heard every night but even there the battle seemed remarkably inactive down in the south and sensational advances were gradually receding into the backs of our minds. A couple of nights of toothache didn’t improve matters for me and I had visions of being smuggled in to see a dentist but luckily it passed away. Our chief comic relief was provided, I am afraid to say, by the family prayers in the evening when they all got together to tell a rosary. Our first evening we were taken completely by surprise when the old man’s wife suddenly started mumbling into her beard – she had one too, a little twisty thing – and at odd intervals the rest of the family chimed in with a dull monotonous dirge. It made no difference to whatever they were doing at the time, the daughter continued to spin, the small child played on unchecked in the ashes and the old man slumbered on undisturbed till his wife realising his negligence kicked him on the shin with a well-nailed boot. Such a rude awakening could not pass silently and the old man told his wife in no uncertain terms what his own opinions were, interrupting himself every time to join in with the rest of the family with their periodic dirge. His wife, needless to say, mumbled on the whole time despite her husband’s continual protestation – finally he had to give it up and turn his attention to a more appreciative audience which unfortunately happened to be us.
By this time we were almost bursting with suppressed laughter after watching this incredible family pantomime mixed in with their praying – every time the chorus chimed in with their mumble mumble mumble stiez (at least so it sounded) fresh bubbles of mirth inevitably broke to the surface. To be fair they did become more serious when the Pater Noster began but for the rest, it seemed an absolute mockery of any religion under the sun.
On Monday 4th October we were still there and still none the wiser having received no word from anyone as regards our ultimate fate. Our present host too was tiring of his duties, not because he disliked us I believe, but because he was getting frightened after our comparatively long stay. The arrival of some Germans in Santa Sofia on Monday to keep an eye on a big Fiesta confirmed his fears and on Monday evening we were whisked back to Quinto’s house some miles nearer the so-called danger. They anyhow were glad to see us again and made us more than welcome, and we soon fitted into their family circle very happily.
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The days passed slowly enough as again there was nothing for us to do and the whole time we had to keep reasonably hidden to prevent too many people knowing where we were staying. Looking back it seems as if much of our time was spent in the drinking and making of wine and subsidiary liqueurs. The grape harvest had just been completed and Quinto had about 2000 litres of potential wine laid down. Though we didn’t actually take off our shoes and socks and help Ugo and Angelino – the two sons – tread out the grapes, we helped in most of the other stages of making that year’s brew. We were also initiated into the mysteries of making grappa, Quinto being the chief manufacturer in the whole district. Although it was contraband he spent practically the whole year going round neighbouring farms with his apparatus making grappa for them. It is the staple Italian liqueur and is most usually drunk in their coffee at breakfast, though it was a method which never much appealed to us.
Meanwhile, Mrs Quinto fed us as we had never eaten before in Italy and for the first time realised that there is a great deal more in Italian cooking than just macaroni – the things she did to humble dried beans and peas and ordinary potatoes had to be eaten to be believed. Inadvertently we let out that in England we always have quite a meal at breakfast and next morning besides our usual cup of coffee there was a boiled egg each, toast and butter and jam – it took us a very long time to persuade her that now we were in Rome we were more than content to do as the Romans did. Some days we used to go out into neighbouring woods and collect chestnuts and that evening we would have the most enormous pile of roast chestnuts to wade through. An especially large chestnut meal always accompanies the broaching of the new wine – in other words about three weeks after it has first been laid down. The chestnuts are intended to produce the necessary thirst to indulge in large quantities of wine – they certainly succeed and the new wine Fiesta was a considerable success.
But in spite of this more than pleasant domestic background of eating and drinking and the general kindness of Quinto and his family we were still no further on with our original project than when we started. Though we never saw the lawyer again we had periodic visits from the man we met on the bridge – Mr Black as we came to call him. He was an ardent Socialist and a fervent admirer of Jack London and his books and it soon became apparent that he and the lawyer were intent on getting us wrapped up as leaders of their rebel bands who were beginning to be formed in the hilly country round M. Falterona. He was every evasive about our continued requests to see the Generals and in fact as we discovered later told us a packet of lies to try and ward off our further requests. One of his main points of argument too was that it was madness to
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consider moving on, it was too late in the year, Germans were guarding all roads and bridges while the rivers were much swollen by the recent rains.
Meanwhile, he continued, they were preparing a house far into the mountains where we could be able to pass the winter in perfect security, be near the Generals and naturally come under their orders – I remember him describing the villa in which the Generals, thanks to their wonderful organisation, were at present residing. I, of the three of us, was possibly the least enthusiastic about these plans for spending the winter so far north and could not believe that further movement south was utterly impossible. John, however, due possibly to his strong attachment to Quinto’s family rather favoured the other course. We were all fairly agreed that see the Generals we must – though we were even beginning to doubt their very existence – as they might be able to give us some very useful help and surely our own forces would try and get them out and maybe us too? But how to find them without the guide provided by the lawyer, as it was very wild country and we only knew the approximate area in which they lived? And it was there that this miserable lawyer had us in his grasp.
One evening at our special request we were smuggled into Santa Sofia to hear the London news. It was wonderful after such a very long time to hear Big Ben striking again, followed by the staid old voice saying “and here is the 9 o’clock news”. The news in itself was nothing sensational but it cheered us up immensely and in spite of having to swallow some rather foul cherry brandy we went home again in good spirits. On the way back to the house we had a rather nerve-wracking encounter with a patrolling Carabiniere as we were out after curfew – fortunately he knew Angelino and he let us by without our having to open our mouths: one word from us, I am afraid, would have been as good as writing Inglese all over our chests in luminous paint and then heaven knows what would have been our fate. At long last Mr Black brought us news that our palatial residence in the mountains was ready for us and that we must be ready to meet the guide at 5 a.m. on the morning of Friday 15th October. Tom and Sid, two Sapper Corporals were due to come with us and they spent the night, before moving to our house. After many farewells or rather au revoirs, as we expected to be able to call in occasionally, and laden with numerous presents of food we set off in the icy darkness of just before dawn. We had been led to believe that it would take us most of the day to get there but in spite of the guide being an hour late and then walking at a snail’s pace with his two mules we had arrived at our destination by 11 o’clock.
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Our new home was a shattered shell of a house, perched on a small knob with sides slanting steeply away from it except where it was joined by a narrow ridge to the slope down which we had come. The many days of preparation, which Mr Black had tried to persuade us had been the cause of delay in moving, seemed to have been expended solely on scraping the floors fairly clean of sheep dung and dumping it in a large pile outside the front door and rather half-heartedly white washing some of the walls. Doors and windows there were none, cooking utensils and so on completely unheard of while a rusty manury smell pervaded the whole atmosphere. However, we had been preceded to Hell House – our own name for it – and we were welcomed effusively by the present occupants who were three Italians, three Yugoslavs and one Russian, so with the arrival of our own five we became a fairly representative League of Nations. Our depression became greater and greater the more we saw of the place and its inhabitants who seemed nothing daunted by the squalor and hopelessness of the situation.
We were at once taken in hand by the heartiest of the Yugoslavs and told the first thing we must do was to build our bed – this apparently consisted of sliding right down to the bottom of one of the cliffs on which we were perched, there cut down enormous trees and branches and then attempt to clamber up the slippery grass slope plus a tree or two entwined round one. There was nothing for it but to bow to the inevitable and never have I spent such a back-breaking, muscle aching afternoon but finally with the help of the Yugoslavs the job was finished and our rustic bower for the night was ready. But there was more wood to collect, this time for the fire that evening as even with the sun out it was cold enough on our draughty peak. That evening having no light we ate our supper, consisting of a little tinned meat and a kind of chupatti affair, just before dark, the whole while fighting for a position near the fire and trying to keep our little pot of jam which Quinto had given us out of sight of the others.
Finally we settled down in front of a really enormous fire – the only cheerful thing in Hell House – but while our fronts got comparatively warm our backs were frozen by the icy draughts screaming in through the doorless doorway. Meanwhile, the Yugoslavs were having an earnest conversation in one corner, while the more loathsome Italian was trying to convince us how incredibly brave he intended to be when the Germans arrived. We ourselves had by now realised that we could never stick much of this and had a half-formed plan to leave, throwing over Mr Black and his devilish schemes forever. Finally, the various discussion groups transformed themselves into a Council of War whereby we officially constituted ourselves to be a rebel band – being the senior officer present I was immediately elected capo banda and
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therefore no less immediately Peter was my second in command, John my Adjutant and Tom and Sid our personal attendants. However, proceedings continued and an armourer was found to look after our 30 rusty Italian rifles just dug out of their hiding place and ammunition at about 12 rounds a rifle – fairly formidable artillery in fact. A cook was appointed, a Q.M, and soon everybody had been made happy by a job, fictitious or otherwise. The meeting was closed by the armourer presenting us each with a rifle and 12 rounds of ammunition which were to become our very own, and so the happy band of heroes dispersed to the cow stalls where their splendid beds awaited them. We three had had our tongues pretty hard in our cheeks during the Council of War and I think that each of us had separately made up his mind before we talked it over in bed that tomorrow couldn’t come quick enough for us to get away. Over a small bottle of Grappa – another of Quinto’s presents – which put some fire into our blood – and the last of the cigarettes we sealed our decision to leave on the morrow, try and find the Generals and, if we failed, leave them, Mr Black, Hell House and the lawyer to their several fates.
Unfortunately, the next day dawned grey and cloudy and our hearts were in our mouths that rain might make it impossible to leave. Luckily it held off. After at least an hour’s expostulation, argument and fervent lying on our part we managed to convince them that our absence would be merely temporary and finally at about 10 a.m. we shook the dust of Hell House off our feet for once and for all.
We hadn’t been gone more than half an hour when the threatened rain came to stay with drenching insistence for the rest of day, except for a brief period at midday. We reckoned we had about 30 kms to go before we arrived in the area in which we knew the Generals were living and therefore hoped to arrive on the fringes of that area before night fell – an object we achieved, though we never knew it till afterwards.
It was a foul day’s walk in every respect through the wildest country we had so far seen – enormous areas of pine and chestnut forest split up by deep gorges with very steep sides, equally precarious for descending as for ascending and the most wearying and heart-breaking obstacles to encounter continually. By late afternoon we were completely enveloped in a drenching mist, rather lost, very hungry but still happy Hell House was behind us. However, as the darkness increased and the black pine forests still continued we began to be a little anxious about our night’s lodging. It was almost dark when the glad sound of distant barking reached our ears and we immediately steered off into what seemed the right direction. It seemed hours before we heard it again – luckily still in the right direction – and by now quite regardless of the soaking
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branches and mud we ploughed on until at last we caught a vague glimpse of a light in the mist, and we had arrived by pure chance at some isolated village of three or four houses. We were very kindly received, sat before a raging fire and given an enormous pile of for once, very good polenta – maybe it was because we were so hungry – and then retired quite exhausted to a very palatial barn for the night.
The next day – it was Sunday 17th October – reluctant to start in the rain again, we waited at our host’s house all the morning being entertained by a blind girl with an accordion. After lunch we started off again, hoping, though scarcely expecting, to get some pointer as to the Generals’ position during our walk. We were unlucky though and coming to a two house settlement consisting of a church and a farmhouse we stopped at the priest’s house and asked for hospitality. The priest – an aged, drooling individual – waved us into his kitchen where thanks to the services of a rather more intelligent youth than usual we were kept well supplied with potato cakes and vino. By now the search for the Generals had faded into the background and we had begun again to think of moving south and to this end our friendly youth gave us much useful information. As the priest was unable to put us up for the night we were sent over to the farm and though we slept in the best barn we had yet found – mercifully so as it was an appalling night on this exposed peak – the rest of our hospitality was chilly in the extreme. The next morning, though the weather was still bad, the prospect was better than sitting longer round a flickering fire being stared at in chilly silence by the entire family who rebuffed every effort at conversation, even the dogs were hostile. We later confirmed our suspicions that our host was an ardent Fascist – the house’s complete isolation most probably saved us from unpleasant happenings.
During the patches of clear weather we could see our prospective route south stretching for miles over ridge after ridge of hills, from this distance seemingly completely devoid of habitation. We were only able to do a morning’s walk before a worse rain storm than usual drove us to shelter once more to a priest’s house in the small village of Ridracoli – after all our walking we were now only 12 kms from our original starting point of Santa Sofia. While eating lunch at the priest’s house we indulged in another of our furious arguments and discussions as to our future movement – the weather was terrible and walking became a misery when day after day one had to spend hours in soaking clothes and besides we were still loath to abandon the Generals completely untried. Accordingly, it was decided that John should return to Santa Sofia, see the lawyer and demand a guide to see the Generals – throwing in a few of our opinions about Hell House to make weight.
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Meanwhile, Peter and I were to wait here for John’s return on the morrow. As soon as John had gone Peter and I soon arranged our own comfort to our satisfaction, being promised a bed for the night and within an hour sitting down to one of the biggest meals we had yet attempted – I say attempted as we both failed to complete the course. Needless to say, after our decision to stop walking, the next day dawned bright and cloudless and in fact remained so for the next ten days or so. John arrived again about 11 a.m. having had a very stormy interview with the lawyer and Mr Black who were, I suppose, rightly indignant of our rather cavalier treatment of their hospitality. However, he had gained his point and he was now on his way up to the Generals with a guide and Angelino. Peter and I whiled away the hours before John’s return with our favourite occupation of throwing stones at sticks floating down the river and reading an American film magazine (prior to consigning it to our pockets for the inevitable use). John passed by about 3 p.m. rather wearier now – and gave us his news. It was disappointing to say the least and the Generals had nothing to offer us at all – there were nine of them altogether. Generals O’Connor and Neame, Air Marshal Boyd, and six Brigadiers, living in a tiny village tucked into the wilds of Falterona, while, because of the terror of the inhabitants they had to retire into the woods every night to sleep in little log cabins. They had no wireless of any sort and in fact John was able to tell them more news of the battle and the world than they could tell him. As to the future, they had no definite plans though they were hoping any day for a radio transmitter and for news of an Italian they had sent south to try and get through the line with a report of the Generals’ location. As to ourselves, they could recommend us to do nothing in particular, as they knew nothing themselves – though they promised that if anything arrived to help them, they would definitely keep us in touch. We decided to give it a week’s trial and accordingly Peter and I followed John and Angelino back to Quinto’s house and so completed our circular goose-chase of some five days’ duration – but the amazing welcome given us by Quinto and his family made it all almost worthwhile.
Hindsight Postscript. Although the prospect at Hell House was indeed hellish, and there was no way in which anyone could have survived the winter in that building, to stay there was to deny our basic motivation. This was no more complicated than the intention to move south with a view to rejoining our own forces as soon as we were able.
Post-war historians of these times make the point that Sig. Nanni, the Santa Sofia lawyer and Head of the Committee of Partisans in that area, was an ardent Republican and not prepared to take any action which might be seen as supporting the Italian King or Badoglio. Though probably not a Communist himself, there was a strong
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Communist element in the organisation. British policy was only to give real help to the Resistance if the Communists were not in control. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Nanni’s organisation played a large part in the eventual successful evacuation of the Generals and partisan activity in the Romagna was a constant thorn in the side of the Germans.
Following our disappointing encounter with the Generals in their mountain retreat, we stayed on for a few more days with the Collinellis. Their hospitality and kindness knew no limits and we had a splendid evening or two with Quinto and his grappa distillation plant. Heath Robinson would have been proud of it, with its maze of tubes and spurts of steam, but it worked and the precious liquid filled the waiting bottles – carefully monitored by frequent tastings, so that the last state of the distillation crew was rather less coherent than at the start of the evening. But happy as this time was, and in spite of the grappa haze, a number of things were becoming clearer. Firstly, we could not indefinitely impose our three hungry mouths on the ever-generous Collinellis, secondly the Allied advance through Italy was obviously going to be a much slower business than we had hoped, thirdly we were running out of time before winter with its snow and freezing conditions would seriously limit mobility. We debated whether to move up to the Generals and wait with them, because surely if anyone was going to get out they were, but our brief visit to them had given us no feeling of confidence that there was any plan in sight to retrieve them. In that of course we were later shown to be wrong as some weeks later they were moved by British special forces down to the Adriatic coast and taken off by submarine. So we decided that we must once more get on the move and get as far south as we could before winter weather forced us to stop, unless of course we had first managed to cross the fighting line into allied territory – and we still thought that there was a very good possibility of this.
So after tearful farewells from the whole family and loaded with cheese, salami and the inevitable grappa we set off for the south and with high hopes of being free in a matter of weeks. The last BBC bulletin we heard before leaving seemed to indicate progress by the Allied forces and surely they would press on with utmost urgency rather than be trapped for the winter in the Appenines. How wrong we all were! and looking back now at history, Santa Sofia was not in Allied hands for another nine months.
Our route took us down the spine of Italy always on mountain tracks and finding our night’s shelter at remote farms towards the end of the day. It says so much for the kindness and bravery of these Italian mountain farmers – who themselves were only
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surviving at a very basic level and were facing certain death if they were ever discovered or betrayed – that hardly ever were we turned away. Most usually the welcome was one of distress that they had so little to offer – bread and oil or chestnuts and a glass of wine for supper and straw in the cow shed for the night. We had no money and so could pay them nothing – though I doubt whether it would have been accepted.
At each place the scene was much the same. A large rough wooden table with plain chairs, a stone or brick floor, a large open fire place beside which invariably sat la Nonna, dressed in black and with an old gnarled hand, stirring every now and again a black pot hanging over the fire. Usually numbers of small children would stare wide-eyed at these strangers who spoke funnily and made them giggle until cuffed by Mama or Babo. Sadly as much part of the usual scene as Granny by the fire was a photograph of a young man in uniform on the mantle piece. This was always introduced by Mama as Mario or Giuseppe or whoever, last heard of in Russia, or a prisoner of the English and then….”Quando finira questa guerra?” But that little ritual over, there came the explanation of why they had taken us in, because we too were far from home and our Mamas and Babos would be wondering where we were – “Quando finira questa guerra?” Marvellous people, humble but proud, poor materially but rich in Christian courage.
Our route took us through no towns, scarcely any villages, but we had no money and no need of shops because every evening shelter and food would in some fashion be forthcoming. The weather mercifully was fair and usually dry, though the nights were beginning to give warning of winter cold. But rain was our real enemy, because once wet it was a slow business to get dry even with the help of the night-stop fire; in addition the tracks became slippery and muddy which slowed our progress. In good conditions, though, we were averaging 30 miles a day and by early November we reckoned we were about 100 miles from the present fighting line. But the weather was now deteriorating with rain turning to snow on the high ground and we realised that we had to make our next major decision, but first we had to have up-to-date information as to the progress of the war further south. By now we were near the small town of Camerino which we had been warned to keep well clear off, because of its strong Fascist sympathies. By passing it we arrived in the small village of Pieve Torina. There, a lucky encounter suggested that we should try our luck in the tiny hamlet of Casavecchia a few miles further on and perched high up above the valley, approached only by a single rough track. There we would find a large villa owned by “una Signora nobile” who would undoubtedly have a wireless and therefore news.
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This all sounded a bit too good to be true and with the Fascists at Camerino a few miles away we suspected a neat little plan by our informant to collect the ransom money which the Germans had put on the head of every Allied prisoner.
But there was also another factor we had to consider. During our walk south from Santa Sofia, we had picked up an Italian youth, Leo, aged about 20. He was on the run, without being too serious about it, to avoid being called up by the still active Fascist militia for work in the labour corps – whose prime function was providing the labour force for the construction of successive lines of defence for the German army as they withdrew up the length of Italy. Leo spoke a little English and had on occasions proved himself useful as interpreter or as scout to reconnoitre the route ahead. At the same time he had showed himself to have a tongue too readily loosened by drink and a strong tendency to boast excessively about his assistance to three British officers. If the weather was going to oblige us to go into winter quarters for a couple of months, could we take the risk of having him blow our hiding place wherever it was going to be? Eventually having talked it over between ourselves and with him, we decided that one of us – it turned out to be me – should go alone to the “Signora Nobile”, in order to hear, if at all possible, BBC news bulletins and also to get some pointers as to the local situation such as Fascist and German activity, any news of local partisans or even our own special operations people. Meanwhile the other two with Leo would find a quiet house somewhere in the neighbourhood and we would meet again in two days time at an agreed rendezvous near Pieve Torina.
So off I set on the comparatively short walk, feeling in a silly way more conspicuous on my own than when walking, as we normally did in pairs. But there was practically nothing on the road and I was soon climbing the steep rough track up to the hamlet of Casavecchia. The Signora’s house was not difficult to find, a large white villa contrasting with the modest and rather tumbledown village houses near it. The Signora, whilst not, as it turned out, being “nobile” in rank was certainly nobile in her reception and I was introduced to Mirella, her daughter and Nino her nephew who was also taking refuge from the universal call-up. The warmth and kindness of their welcome made it easy for me to explain what we had been doing and the question mark now hanging over our next stage. Listening to the BBC news and filled out with the family’s fuller understanding, because they listened to the BBC every day, it was clear that the Allied advance northwards was quite stuck with little or no prospect of a breakthrough during the next two or three months of deep winter. Their advice, very strongly was not to attempt to cross the line, because “the weather will kill you even if the Germans don’t.” Our discussions continued over supper and a bed-room was
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prepared for me with the pure bliss of sheets on the bed. The next day, the Signora with Nino said they would be delighted if the three of us came to stay with them and she would find Leo a suitable safe house in another nearby village; the only qualification they made was that we should arrive after dark and that we would have to accept a topsy turvy nocturnal existence, sleeping during the day. Although Casavecchia was quite safe and its position half way up the mountain meant it could not easily be surprised, they could not risk any possibility that our presence might leak out to, say, Pieve Torino and thence to Camerino. When, therefore, I met John and Peter and Leo again on the following day, I was able to give them better news than we had dared hope for, though the stand-still in the fighting further south was disheartening and disappointing. We were taking a risk with Leo; on the other hand his safety was as much at stake as ours and if we were to be “confined to barracks” in daylight, he could be very useful to act as our eyes and ears for local news. One factor in that context was keeping in touch with local partisan groups who were known to be operating in the area and in particular British special operations officers who, we were told, were also active.
So that evening the three of us appeared after dark at the villa in Casavecchia and were given a royal welcome by the family. A more lavish supper than we had been used to for many weeks, and the joyful comfort of proper beds after the messy business of sleeping in endless stables. In the next day or two, we had reason to double our thankfulness at finding Casavecchia when we were able to look out from the warm shelter of the villa at the first significant snow of the winter. I, personally, had a further cause for thankfulness a few days later when I woke up feeling sick and absolutely wretched and weak. Dark brown pee made it all too clear that I had jaundice and that, combined with the weather, put a firm stopper on moving from Casavecchia probably for some weeks – a conclusion firmly supported by the family who insisted that we should not even contemplate moving.
So began a curious winter interlude which continued until early January. My jaundice improved so far as appetite was concerned, but the yellow skin and yellow eyes persisted much longer and I felt horribly lethargic mentally as well as physically. We soon adapted to an upside down life, having supper with the family and then talking our way through the night aided by chess and draughts, and a pack of Italian playing cards round which we developed our own variety of games. We talked, as all POWs did all the time, of home, of pubs we knew and where to buy this and that, we talked of religion and post-war Britain, of books we had read and when and how the war would end – with BBC news every day we were at that time as well informed as those
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at home. In that context it was strange indeed to hear the King’s Christmas broadcast deep behind the lines in the Italian mountains. But well before Christmas Peter and I became aware that John was more and more leading a life on his own, at least not at all on his own but very much in the company of la Signora. It all started one evening as we sat around after supper and la Signora offered to manicure John’s hands; thereafter John’s hands were in constant, almost nightly, need of manicure and Peter and I were solicitous in our enquiries as to the condition of his hands in view of the constant attention they were so evidently receiving.
But come January, Peter and I were getting rather sick of this menage a deux – Nino and Mirella appeared to ignore it, perhaps it had all happened before – and after six weeks of relative inactivity we were getting restless. Winter was still heavy upon us and snow was everywhere so that even on the so-called main road in the valley there was scarcely any movement. However, such local information as we were able to gather did indicate the presence of one maybe two British special operations people. Such people we knew existed and their function was to act as guide and marshal to individual escaped POWs and to work in conjunction with local partisan groups. These latter were very variable in reliability – as we had learnt already from our brief experience near Santa Sofia – and such contact as we had been able to make with the local band did not suggest much different. None the less they were probably better than nothing and at least might provide access to information. Peter and I reckoned that, while sitting in Casavecchia was very comfortable and apparently safe, it was contributing nothing to our speedy return home – in retrospect, another bad guess, as Casavecchia was liberated six months later by which time our impatience had landed us once more behind bars.
For better or for worse Peter and I decided after much heart searching to leave Casavecchia and move to a nearby village miles off the beaten track where we would be in better touch with partisan activity and, we hoped, our own special operations people. Meanwhile, his hands still in need of a nightly manicure, John decided to stay put and sweat it out until the Allied advance plucked him from the bosom of La Signora. For Peter and I, moving to this very primitive village was a sharp shock to the system. Though once more we were overwhelmed with kindness and hospitality, creature comforts so generously available at Casavecchia were cruelly absent, and with 2 feet of snow on the ground we missed them dreadfully. Movement over any distance was really only possible on skis and Peter and I to the intense joy of the village took our first skiing lessons at their hands.
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To the modern eye our “skis” would have been scarcely recognisable as such, heavy and broad and thick but they served their purpose in allowing us to get about and into the bargain, gave us intense enjoyment. We managed to establish that the local resistance group – mostly Jugoslav – had intermittent contact with British special operations people. It seemed that plans were afoot to set up a scheme under which contact was made with ex-POWs who where then directed to safe areas near the Adriatic Coast south of Ancona. Parties were then taken off either by submarine or in small boats. All of this was pretty woolly, but it did seem to hold out a possibility other than the rather desperate one of trying to cross minefields and heavily fortified positions. We kept in touch with John with occasional nocturnal visits – timed so as to minimise interruption to the manicure sessions – and were all agreed that once the weather improved we would move nearer the coast in order to make direct contact with this so far phantom organisation.
Whilst all this was going on, they fell into our lap – almost literally – the nine man crew of an American Liberator bomber who had bailed out of their crippled aircraft. Unfortunately this presented us with some fairly unwelcome problems – not least of which was to find safe houses for them in this desolate, poverty stricken stretch of the Appenines. Furthermore we were now fairly old and experienced hands at this game and while we reckoned we could hold our own if stopped by Germans, there was no way in which those gum chewing, crew-cut, noisy young Americans could be mistaken for anything other than what they were. If our security was blown, it not only meant the end of our liberty if not our lives, but it would certainly mean the slaughter of Italian families in the villages where we were staying. But things settled down and the Yanks, having come to terms with the fact that this was going to be a long business and that in fact they were lucky to be alive and cared for, proved to be excellent companions. One strange aspect of this meeting was that, for all of us, it was the first time we had met a member of the other nation, so we spent many a long happy evening “discovering” America and they, for their part, England. [Jim Clary, the captain of the Liberator, gives his account of these days in his letter to me many years later when we re-established contact – Appendix 2].
At last the weather began to improve and with the roads now passable to ordinary traffic Peter and I felt that we must now make contact with this boating operation south of Ancona – did it really exist? If so how do we join the club? By now we had what seemed to be reliable information of a contact at an address in Loreto. So there was only one thing to do and that was to go there and find out. This was clearly an expedition for which Leo was inappropriate, even though he could travel openly and
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easily but it was very unlikely “Loreto” would be prepared to share highly sensitive information with an unknown Italian youth. As I had (marginally!) the better grasp of Italian, Peter and I agreed that I should go up to Loreto on my own and find out, if I could, what substance there was to this evacuation of POWs by boat. How to get there? Public transport was out as we had no documents and there were frequent checks, walking was going to be very slow as Loreto was all of 60 miles away; so in the end we decided on a bicycle.
Peter and I agreed that if I was not back in a week, Peter should leave our village together with the Americans in the neighbourhood in case, in any way my capture led to the Germans/Fascists making a raid on our villages. We allowed a week because we reckoned on two days there and two days back allowing for getting lost, unexpected diversions or other hold-ups, and a day in and around Loreto making contact. In fact those assumptions proved to be pretty accurate. The bicycle which we had managed to borrow was an upright, very upright affair, sensible handle bars and not a hint of a gear; add to that the fact that my bicycling muscles had been unstressed for some years, and progress, after a whirlwind start, settled down to a steady grind averaging around 5 m.p.h. Whilst still in the hilly stretch of the journey, the roads were empty and no one about except passing through a village, but once in the coastal plain cycling became almost a pleasure though the security risk increased dramatically. The unexpected road check was the nightmare and my eyes were constantly searching for any signs of a check point ahead.
Once in the vicinity of Loreto, clearly visible a mile or two ahead sitting on its hill-top with the great dome of the basilica dominating the town, I parked the bicycle with a friendly (and brave) farmer as far off the main tarmac road that I could get. Feeling absurdly conspicuous in my crumpled black suit and still sporting my blue-grey hat with the jay’s feather, I managed to locate the address of our informant without too much difficulty. Not surprisingly, getting access to the house was a good deal more difficult, but my photograph of Diane sent to me at Chieti and stamped by the Italian censor “Campo di Concentramento No. 21” helped to smooth the way. Unfortunately after all that, the meeting was brief and the information meagre. Yes there was an evacuation scheme for taking ex POWs off by submarine or small boat; yes there was a British officer in the vicinity who was coordinating it all; no there was no way of getting in touch with him; no there was no information as to when the next evacuation might take place, though they invariably took place when there was no moon and off beaches between Porto S. Giorgio and Porto Recanati. So that was that and there was nothing for it but to retrace my steps back to Peter. Once off the coastal plain, the one
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significant difference was the road climbed almost all the way back to Pieve Torina. It was a ghastly journey which in the end took me three days, much of it, it seemed, pushing the bike instead of riding it.
Peter, John and I then had a council of war to determine what we should do in the light of the very limited information I had obtained. Broadly there were three options – to stay where we were and wait for the battle to roll over us, to walk south and hope to get through the main battle line, and lastly to try the boat route off the Adriatic coast. John decided, not altogether surprisingly, to stay where he was while Peter and I felt that the boat option was a better choice than trying our luck with crossing minefields and other hazards on the battle front. So sadly the trio split up. Peter and I with Leo set off towards the Adriatic coast, taking the American airmen in tow with us plus one or two others we had picked up. We couldn’t move in one body and so we had to proceed as best we could by way of successive rendez-vous. But somehow and rather slowly we emerged into the coastal plain and leaving the main party in what we hoped were safe quarters, Peter, Leo and I moved on towards the coast to make contact if we could with the “underground”.
Following up the flimsy clues I had obtained in Loreto we managed to locate the base from which a British special operations officer, a Captain McIntosh was working. He was not there, but we were advised to make contact with a certain Count Luigi Brancadoro who lived in a large villa at Casette d’Ete inland from Civitanova. We located the house and that evening, after dark, Peter and I went to call on the Count. Remembering all that was going on around us, the meeting was extraordinary. The door was opened by a white gloved butler, who greeted us as though we were expected and showed us in to a small room while he told the Count. He was soon with us, welcomed us in fluent French, said no doubt we would like a wash (which quite evidently we did) and suggested that we joined him for a glass of wine in his study where, looking at his watch, we will be able to listen to the BBC news. And so it was.
After the news, and while supper was being prepared for us, we discussed our plans and asked for any information or advice he could give us. He confirmed that Captain McIntosh was in the area and that there had been evacuations of POWs by boat and submarine from that coast. However, active German and Fascist patrolling was increasing and he felt that it might be becoming unacceptably risky. “Better”, he said, “to acquire a boat yourselves; you may be intercepted by naval patrols but you will look no different from any number of other boats moving up and down the coast. It will need luck, but so will every plan”. “But how”, we said, “do we acquire a boat?
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steal it?” “No”, he said, “here is 40,000 lire which should be enough to buy a boat of adequate size and leave enough to put essential stores on board; probably”, he said, “Porto S. Elpidio will be the best place to find a suitable boat.”
By now Peter and I felt we had stumbled on the real break we were looking for, and crazy as the plan seemed, it appeared to us on this extraordinary unbelievable evening that if it had all started like this, then surely it must work. Adequate thanks to the Count were quite impossible and off we went into the night dreaming dreams and clutching 40,000 Lire.
But our euphoria was to be short lived. The next day or two we spent making and following up contacts for the purchase of a boat and all the necessary provisions. Leo had an important role in this as he was able to move about so much more freely than we could. Down here on the coastal plan there was none of the protection given by the wooded broken country of the mountains, there was much more traffic, a good deal of it on the coast road German. In addition we had been warned of the fairly vigorous activity of the “Camice Nere” – Fascists black shirts who, in spite of the Armistice bringing Italy out of the war, were still acting in support of the German army. Peter and I knew that while he and I could probably survive in the area for a considerable period, the chances of the cover of the American airmen and others being blown were pretty high. We reckoned we had to move fast therefore, if our plan was ever to have any chance of success.
But things started well and a likely boat was quickly located. Leo was sent off to bring the boatman to an agreed rendez-vous on 28 March when we hoped to complete the deal. Peter and I turned up as agreed and there was Leo with a couple of others already at the rendez-vous – a slight ripple of surprise between Peter and I because he was always late. None the less so much the better he was there as it promised well that the business could be quickly done. And so it was, but not in the way expected or intended. As we exchanged “buon giorno’s”, our feet were knocked from under us and we were both face down on the ground with a pistol at the neck. As we later discovered, Leo had been picked up by the Camice Nere for conscription into the labour force used by the Germans to build their defensive positions; Leo however thought he had been arrested because of us and blurted out “I’ll tell you where they are, don’t shoot me” “Who do you mean?” “The English officers”. “Va bene, let’s go and find them.” And so at 11 a.m. on 28th March 1944, another chapter closed with little prospect that the next one would be much fun nor even perhaps of much duration.
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Accompanied by much Italian expletive, we were unceremoniously bundled into a small saloon car, me in the back, Peter in the front with a pistol at his neck held by the voluble and over-excited Fascist sitting beside me. Any attempt at conversation between Peter and me was silenced fairly abruptly, but clearly our chance of escape would have needed a miracle to succeed, and it didn’t seem as though it was our day for miracles. We were driven noisily and violently to Macerata where we were handed over to unfriendly gentlemen at the Fascist headquarters – still very active in spite of the Italian armistice six months or more ago. From there we were taken to the German headquarters at Ancona and ushered into the smiling presence of a smooth German officer with fluent English. “I hope you will join me for supper” he said, “it will give us a nice opportunity to talk and you will be able to tell me what you have been up to – incidentally do you smoke? Have a Players – we took them from an English submarine earlier this week, while it was trying to carry out one of these foolish beach operations for your people.” It was a strange evening during which he tried to encourage us to talk “because otherwise I shall be obliged to send you on to other people who may not perhaps be – shall we say? – quite so patient.”
Anyway the next day we were dispatched to Forli and there for the first time we were separated and put into different cells in the civilian gaol – a gaunt fortress of a building surrounded by high walls. The gaol itself was full with a mixture of prisoners, many of them political who were, as it were, at the bottom of the pile in terms of treatment and abuse. There were rumours of beatings and shootings, quite aside from the routine beastliness of bad and inadequate food. But there were plenty of ordinary criminals, rogues of all kinds some of whom we were to meet later when we were relieved of the tight security status with which we were honoured to begin with.
Soon after our arrival at the gaol we were taken separately to a villa on the outskirts of the town and there interrogated, primarily by Germans, as to where we had been, who our contacts were, names of people who had helped us, information about partisan activity and so on. The line taken was that we were quite evidently spies – look at our clothes, soldiers wear uniform – and of course the fate of spies, if they are caught, is that they are shot. Apart from dealing with the questioning, which though never physically threatening, was psychologically powerful coming as it did on top of the despair and sense of failure arising from our recapture. Peter and I had to keep each other informed of the progress and content of our own individual interrogations. Mercifully the Italian guards in the gaol were on the whole a sympathetic bunch and amenable to bribery. Peter had, with extraordinary foresight, hidden the bulk of our 40,000 lire boat money in the bottom of his shoe and by prudent use of this we were able
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to pass messages to each other concealed in loaves or chunks of bread – and once or twice we were able to engineer a meeting in the wash room. So we were able within reason to keep our stories in line one with another.
The interrogators pursued the “spy” line for some time, rejecting our persistent requests to be seen by a representative of the International Red Cross who would be able to verify our claim to be Prisoners of War and therefore our entitlement to protection under the Geneva Convention. My photograph of Diane was once more deployed as proof of our POW identity – they were not impressed except for the Italian stooge to remark “Ma, come bella”! They also developed the theme that Leo had given them a good deal of information, which they were following up. This was the most threatening line because we felt this might well be true, but we had no means of knowing what specifically he had said. Our one concern was for the safety of those who had done most to help us – the Brancadoro family, those at Casavecchia and so on. We never did discover what they got out of Leo although we were told after the war that Leo had agreed to work with the Germans in organising various “rastrellamenti” through the mountains in search of partisans and that eventually he was captured and shot by a partisan group. On the other hand visits to Count Luigi, to Casavecchia, to the Collinellis in the years after the war confirmed that they were safe and had not been the victims of reprisals. We were thankful to find that our security had held up well.
These days of interrogation were uncomfortable and anxious, but after a few weeks they lost interest in us and Peter and I were re-united in the same cell sharing it with a small time burglar and a self-confessed and genial homosexual. And we settled down to a remarkably jolly and relaxed routine. By now our Italian was such that we could carry on a conversation with reasonable if somewhat eccentric fluency – our two friends even becoming accustomed to Peter’s unique combination of anglo-Italian generously laced with Urdu (Peter having been in an Indian cavalry regiment). They taught us the Italian card game “coppa” – a splendid and noisy game played with special cards, but its rules I have long ago forgotten. By way of return we taught them cribbage, and the cell rang from time to time with triumphant cries of “quindici due!” and one specially loved by the Italians “uno per la sua testa” (one for his nob!). There wasn’t much available reading – the occasional newspaper claiming astonishing German triumphs and appalling Allied losses – though in due course the editor had a bit of a problem explaining the Allied entry into Rome on 6th June. Apart from that I remember getting hold of the Italian 19th century classic “I Promessi Sposi” and slogging through it, though I suspect it would have been pretty hard work even in
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English. Prison food wasn’t too bad, even if monotonous, but Peter had brilliantly held on to the remnants of the boat money and it wasn’t long before we had arranged with a friendly warder to have our lunch sent in every day from a local restaurant. It was a crazy interlude in many ways and in so far as being in prison can be fun, the time went by, once the interrogations were over, with little discomfort or stress. Indeed looking back this was probably the least disagreeable and certainly the best fed period we had until we arrived back in England in the following April.
Eventually in about mid-May, in view of our now recognised status as prisoners of war we were moved to a kind of POW transit camp just outside Mantova. We were taken there by two armed Germans and a driver and given a splendid lunch in a smart restaurant in Bologna. We did our best to get them drunk, dangling the rest of the boat money, but not surprisingly it didn’t work, because of course they would never have survived returning to base and having to report we had gone missing.
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[Hand-drawn map of escape route across the ridge of the Appenines]
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[Address redacted due to GDPR]
November 3, 1988
What with being an invalid with sore feet and more or less bed-ridden for the past nine months and passing time, and with [name redacted] being in London, I had been thinking more and more about my experiences in the big war in Europe.
It was with great pleasure that I was able to locate you through the [Name redacted]. [Name redacted] arrived here at the beginning of October and she had a very enjoyable time at your house for which we wish to thank you.
As I recall, on January 19, 1944, we were shot down about noontime. I managed to be escorted by a Yugoslav partisan from one mountain across a small valley, up another mountain along a path to a very small village. We went to a priest’s house, a small stone house, an elderly man named Don Celso. There were two others of my crew there and some neighbours.
Some time later we heard noises in the village and you arrived. You and Peter and John found us. We were very happy to see you. You arranged shortly after to find quarters for us at Madame’s house and later in other houses.
As I recall, for the next two months or thereabouts, we spent some time together and did much walking. One day we found a place where a so-called Captain Campbell was running a rescue operation. He was a British commando with a radio. We found his quarters but he had gone. There was evidence that he had been there.
As I recall, about that time you had the idea of buying a boat and running your own underground. I never knew where you got the money but I think I was there (waiting outside the house) the day you got it.
After that we made several trips. You escorted me and located some safe houses on the route to the boat. As I recall, you arranged for the fuel and the American flag for the boat.
I never did get to the town that the boat was in. I went back to our locale and picked up two English majors who I had never seen before. They were older, in civies; they were escaped prisoners, Smith and Brown (or Jones). I was to escort them to the rendezvous for the escape.
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On March 20th, we were walking along the brush lines and streams. One of the majors had a shin wound, an old wound that did not heal. He had difficulty walking in the mud. I elected to take a highway, a paved road. Shortly after, on this vacant road, we met a fascisti with a rifle and grenade. He accosted us with his weapons and took us prisoners. He put us in a two wheel cart and had a farmer tie the fascisti’s bicycle on top of us. He took us to a nearby town to the police chief. The mayor of the village interrogated us and called the Germans. A party of six Germans came with an ober (first lieutenant) who was drunk. At one point he struck one of the majors on the chest and his seargents restrained him.
They took us to the Macerata prison. I stayed one night. Next day I was taken by the Germans to the Luftwaff. From there I was escorted by a German soldier to a Verona prison. We walked and hitch-hiked. The Verona prison was run by the SS. I was interrogated at least two times and threatened to be shot because of my clothing. I was held in a cell in this prison for over two months. The cells were about 22′ x 22′. They contained about 67 prisoners to maybe a max of 72. Our names were on the door.
After that, I was escorted to Germany and put in a Luftwaffe camp. This made me feel very good as I had a uniform and the security of the camp. I was no longer MIA. But, I always wondered what happened to you other people.
On December 29, 1944 four of us were taken to the fore lagger before a military court and were charged with favouring the enemy in occupied Italy and inciting the Italians to take arms against the Germans. These charges were the result of the propaganda leaflets we had in our pockets when captured.
We were held from December 29 until May 1, 1945 in solitary cells apart from the camp. We were moved twice: from Sagan to Nuremberg to Mooseberg. We always went in box cars, kept apart from other prisoners and held in irons.
We were liberated by the Third Army sometime around May 1st from Mooseberg and it was back to the U.S.A.
I always enjoyed your company and accepted you as a real leader. This was an entirely new situation to me but you always seemed to have command of the situation, to know what to do and where to go and having great courage. I always remember you for that. While others seemed to fade and do nothing, you always seemed to have a live hand on the situation and a plan. I was twenty-two years old at the time and held you in great admiration. That is why I am happy to have found you.
I seem to be recovering. Who knows the future… it would be nice if we could meet in person again.
After the war, I became a civil engineer. My specialty was highways and bridges. I worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1978, after 29 years I was forced to take early retire-
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ment for [medical condition redacted] for which I had a valve in my heart replaced. I have been self-employed part-time up until 1988 when I was stricken with a foot injury and other ailments.
Best wishes from all of us to all of yours.
P.S. In Italy we stayed with one family named Falchetti and later with another named Cintioli who were near your quarters. In the early years after the war I corresponded with the Cintioli’s and sent them “care” packages. After several years I got away from this.