Bill Cooper was captured in June 1942 at “The Cauldron Battle” in the Western Desert against Rommel’s Nazi Forces when his “Bren-Gun” carrier hit a landmine and exploded. He was lucky to survive as everyone else near him was killed.
He describes his experiences of Sforza Camp near Macerata but because of his outspoken comments to senior British Officers also imprisoned there about wanting to escape he is put in “solitary confinement” along with an Australian solider who was suffering from PTSD. [Post Truamatic Stress Disorder]
He escapes during a prison disturbance in early September 1943. His memoirs then detail the journey back to Allied territory. Along the way he receives help from Italian civilians (mostly farmers and shepherds). He also gives several detailed accounts of how he was able to return the help he was given back to some of the Italian locals. Eventually he makes it back to British Forces where he details his Army de-briefing and his journey back to the U.K to look for his mother in bomb damaged East London.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
[Digital Page 1]
by Bill Cooper
[Digital Page 2]
[Black and white photograph of Bill Cooper in uniform from 1959]
RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] WEP (Bill) Cooper.
Rifle Brigade Depot
Enlisted June 1939, Rifle Brigade.
Appointed MBE [Member of the British Empire] June 1959
Commissioned December 1960
Retired as Major, 1969
[Digital Page 3]
‘GOING HOME’ by Bill Cooper MBE [Member of the British Empire]. Captured as Corporal in desert, retired as Major 1969. Story has been sent in by his son, Mathew.
With his usual yearly contribution to the Trust Bill Cooper added once how he had been, at night, led through a German occupied village by a small boy ’Please God that he got safely home.’ Now he has died his family have sent a fuller story with some unique experiences. Captured around ’Knightsbridge’ when his gun carriage was blown up, his three companions had been killed and for days Cooper was dazed and deaf but ‘came to’ in a dreadful desert camp in the sand before being shipped in the hold of a ship to a [word unclear] dreadful camp in Southern Italy. The next camp at Sforza Costa, roughly adapted from a trading estate, he was there when Mussolini fell and then the Armistice but the senior medical officer, obeying Whitehall, said nobody must leave. By good fortune he got the blame when his squad of POWs misbehaved and he was put into a temporary prison pen beside the wall. There he did his best to treat and help an Australian whose mind had snapped and when the demented Aussie rushed to climb the barbed wire and wall he followed and so was at liberty. [before others defied the ‘stay put’ order. (these words have been crossed out in original document)]
Alone, instinct and his humanity guided and helped him as he found the tremendous support of the Italians. Asked to carry a dog with a broken leg down to a farm he found himself harvesting the maize and then sampling the [word unclear] polenta when covering table. He followed shepherds taking their sheep south one of them though starving and without food was reluctant to kill one of his flock. Having veered round the Gran Sasso he found himself travelling with a nurse from Modena hospital making for home with a heavy case which he helped to carry. They got to her home village gave the stone statue of the Madonna which the girl had brought for her mother.
Hiding in the furrow of a field of beet he was soon surrounded by the German guns taking up position to shell the Allies across the Sangro. He survived one day and night and could smell the food they cooked and heard their orders over their radios. But remained for second day and night. Fortunately the artillery did not retaliate around him. Another day and night and Bill remained literally ’grounded’. Then more noise as the Germans cheerfully withdrew. Taking time to get to his feet and get his balance after forty eight hours trying to bury himself into the ground he soon found an inebriated Italian nosily celebrating the departure of the Germans. The Sangro at that point was not too difficult to wade over and he went on until suddenly faced with a Gurkha carrying a machine gun. The British officers and sergeants he then encountered seemed to think he was a bit of a nuisance, but a Corporal saw to his needs until he was sent to a luxury flat in Bari and drank with a base bound Captain. At a Camp in Taranto bed bugs were prevalent and only reluctantly did the QM [Quartermaster] produce powder to diminish them. Put in charge of a mixed bag of other ranks he finally reached Liverpool. In bomb-battered Caning Town his mother was out, having been asked by the priest to ‘sit’ with a corpse until relatives arrived. As they left for home an air raid warning sounded.
The war was not over and so, as a volunteer parachutist trooper jumped into Normandy on ’D’ Day then again over the Rhine. By the time Cooper got to India the Japs had ‘packed it in’. Cooper received an MBE [Member of the British Empire] in 1959, was commissioned in 1960 and retired as a Major in 1969.
[Digital Page 4]
‘Going Home.’ by Bill Cooper (MBE) [Member of the British Empire] Captured as Corporal in desert, retired as Major 1969. Long term Trust supporter. Sent by son Matthew.
Almost first to escape from Sforza Costa Camp managed to lie hidden for 48 hours with German artillery and men all around and then, when they went go towards lines.
In early Desert fighting and then in the area of the Cauldron Battle blown up with Bren Gun Carrier. Others killed B.C. virtually unconscious and then deaf and dazed taken POW. After awful Desert Camps taken in the hold of a ship in appalling conditions to Naples and Capua Camp. Taken to Sforza Camp near Macerata. (His account of journey a little muddled, result of being blown up.) At Camp Sforza Costa the senior NCO [Non-commissioned Officer] ‘brought order out of Italian chaos’. Slowly rumour shows that Italy is collapsing and rumours abound. The Senior Warrant Officer (who would be backed up by the Senior Medical Officer) said all ranks must stay and that if and when the Italians gave in and disappeared Allied men would guard the Camp. When his ‘platoon’ misbehave on roll call he is put into clink but the only place is with a mentally deranged Aussie in a little cell beside the wall. An RSMC [Regimental Sergeant Major Corps] Sergeant; gave BC medical material for him to patch up the mentally ill Aussie. He got his own blanket etc. from an ill tempered Medic Sarge. (Brit). One evening there was a riot at the other end of the Camp. It sent the ‘mad Australian literally up the wall and as no one was taking notice BC climbed up and over and out.
With virtually no Italian he was on his own – to his surprise he found that all the Italians were willing to feed and help hide for a night at least. ‘I was a young man far from home whom the very poor Italians thought must help.’ Near Sarnano he meets Italian who had been in America. Sees women (on a Sunday) carrying their shoes, which they put on just before going into the Church. He goes on – ’20 or 30 miles on my feet – only 10 as the crow flies.’ Warned by shepherd Germans ahead. Meeting, on the hills more and more shepherds trying to get their sheep south but away from Germans of whom they warn B.C.
Asked to take a dog with a broken leg dawn to a farm. Stays and helps with the maize harvest and samples Polenta. Told to be beware of ‘Tedeschi’, next day suddenly ducks as he sees German repairing his car which he finally does. On a village with ‘born again fascists he is led around this despot’s village by a nine year old boy at dead of night’ and the poor lad had to then make his way back home! ‘I will never know, but please God he did.’
Meets Italian sailor walking home – north. Feels earthquake. Gets North of Gran Sasso then hits PESCARA River (in its area was always the railway and main road from Rome). He can see no way over other than the bridge, which though not guarded is in constant use by Germans even at night but early in morning makes a dash for it. (On the way he had heard of the Armistice and so he got out before the general exodus from Camps). He meets a group of Jewish men who said, that until Mussolini was restored to power they had previously not been hassled.
All the way Cooper ‘mucks in’ and works with those who give him food and shelter 64/ Hears guns in the distance. Joins up with a female nurse who, after the-Armistice left Modena to get to her family.
(Met(page 44) a wealthy Swiss woman who is storing unsafe grenades and. rusty rifle. She agrees to him making them safe and removing the rust and then burying them in case she can find partisans which she wants to lead. They disguise the dump as a grave).
Cooper and the Nurse find a strange youth and seemingly fascist so they divert him on to the wrong route. Finally the village is reached and she reveals that the very heavy case he had often carried contained a ‘beautifully carved stone Madonna – for her mother!
Now in the area of the front line places were abandoned and a shepherd he met was starving – but he would not kill one of his sheep. He finds himself in the middle of a German Battery of guns.
He hid among the foliage of beets in the irrigation furrow. It rained all night. He could smell the field kitchen and hear the radio operators shouting orders. Though the guns had fired fortunately there was no reply from Allied lines. All day he lay hidden. Answering fire in the evening fell short. He could hear the reeling out of a linesman near him and smell the smoke of the German’s cigar.
[Digital Page 5]
Bill Cooper cont.
He tried a raw beetroot, as bad as the first but it ’sustained him’.
It rained continuously but daybreak and there was fine weather. He fell asleep and was woken by the guns firing – in a different direction and then with a change and, it seemed, nearer. He heard troops moving and laughter. Were they going forward or retreating ? Telephone line was being reeled in, orders shouted, guns were being hitched and half track started up. In two minutes he was on his own. He waited and listened. He tried to stand up. Eventually he got to his knees and finally got up and waved his arms around to get his circulation going. By good fortune he found his gear not far away untouched. With the aid of stars he went south. He heard singing in the distance and then an Italian yelled ‘La Guerra finito’ and he met a very drunk Italian shared some of his ‘grappa’. He followed him to the Sangro. He waded across and soon was faced with a young Gurkha with a gun pointing at him.
Taken to the Adjutant who would not believe the Germans had pulled back and said he arrived too late for breakfast and there was plenty of time to cleaned up. He refuses to be marched in front of a Sergeant Major, pointing out that he might be superior in rank and then has to face a young Lt Col of intelligence busy looking for his pen. After a lethargic interview he was sent to the Chief Clerk who rather resented the intruder to his well ordered office and who allowed him to send a message home – which never got there. Fortunately he was passed to Lance Corporal who found him everything and got off a message to Cooper’s mother, which she received. He took him to the cookhouse and a comfortable armchair in which to sleep. Taken to Bari in a Camp of high class flats he met a humane Captain who was Camp Commandant . Hot water and a good canteen. But ‘heaven’ came to an end. Sent to an embarkation Camp at Taranto he had to ask for some ’bug powder’ after the first night and twist the QM’s [Quartermaster] arm to get some. Cooper is informed he will be in charge of a mixed bag of forty being sent home. Finally arrived at Liverpool in the bowels of an old boat.
About three months are dropping from the wall at Sforzacosta he was home – but his mother out. She was at the request of the Parish priest ’sitting in’ on a corpse until the undertakers came. They left as the all clear air raid warning was sounded. He returned to a very battered Caning Town.
He meets in a pub another ex Sforza Costa POW and hears how the Germans took it over and the inmates (who had not escaped) to Germany.
He volunteered for the Parachute Regiment and jumped into Normandy on ’D’ Day. Then jumped over the Rhine. Flown to India but the Japs ’packed in’.
Cooper was commissioned in 1960 (MBE [Member of the British Empire] in 1959) and retired as Major in 1969
[Digital Page 6]
Early September 1943, at the start of the fifth year of World War Two, found me running and clambering up a steeply terraced vineyard in the Marches of Italy, whilst a number of Italian soldiers desperately fired their rifles at me. Bullets whistled and ricocheted around me as I panted and puffed, trying to go ever faster, but I was unfit, skinny and badly out of condition with the germs of dysentery in my body. I pounded on under the vines which at this season were heavy with fruit. I could feel my heart beating against my poorly covered ribs but I continued to climb up the dry wall terraces thereby breaking cover and giving the soldiers a clear view of me. I ducked back under the vines again, this gave cover from view but not cover from fire. However, they were firing wildly and I was sure I was not always visible to them – but there was always the chance of a lucky shot. I expected the machine-guns in the sentry boxes to open fire but they remained silent. I guess that they had been badly sited and could only fire into the camp – my lucky day!
I broke clear of the vineyard and reached the crest of the ridge and using what cover I could cleared the skyline. Running downhill through a field of maize I was again in good cover. But soon I left the maize and now running and walking alternatively began to climb another terraced vineyard. Black grapes hung in huge bunches and I started to stuff myself. Delicious, sweet and juicy and very plentiful. Of course I was to suffer for this gluttony, but for the present I revelled in the sweetness of the grapes and convinced myself that the sugar content would give me energy.
[Digital Page 7]
The firing had now stopped and my worry was how quickly could they mount a hunting party and would they raise the alarm countrywide. The sun was setting on my right hand so I was going South – good – but I would have to change direction slightly and go South by West so I could converge on the Apennines mountain range some miles down country. I knew I would have a better chance in the mountains.
My situation was far from good – Italians firing at me with the intention of killing me, the country in front of me full of Germans and the P.O.W. camp I had so hurriedly left was full of people who disliked me and would take pleasure in seeing me punished.
The unknown factor was the people of the countryside – the ‘Contadini’ – what would their attitude be? Mussolini had gone and with him the Fascist party, but Italy was still at war with the Allies, what would the local people think? They must have fathers, sons and brothers in the armed forces; my future depended a lot on their conduct.
But for the present I was free – so goodbye Campo 53, for I was GOING HOME!
[Digital Page 8]
Now I must digress and explain how all this came about. Since late in 1940 and all of 1941 and up to June 1942, I had been taking part in the war in the Western Desert, that is the Egyptian and Libyan deserts in North Africa. We were fighting the Italian and German armies. I went to the Middle East as a young 22 year old Corporal, and after the early battles which we mostly won, I was promoted Sergeant, for I was keen and really wanted to do well.
The Colonel when promoting me said I had better grow a moustache to make me look older. So I did, I was that type of soldier.
So I was Platoon Sergeant and the only member of the platoon younger than me was the platoon officer. Of course Sergeants are never popular and I was really too young to be a good Sergeant, maybe ten years too young. But we were all young, my company commander was only 25. There were older men in the ranks but they were either lazy, stupid or just out to look after number one and were therefore not be prepared to take on responsibility or make decisions.
They had chosen their path and they would seldom take risks. There was a lot of this type but being older had an awful lot to say for themselves and this carried a lot of weight with their fellows. To add to my difficulties I was a Londoner in a Battalion of Geordie’s. But I did my job and took part in many battles. Some we won, some we lost. I gained a lot of experience and my luck was good, so my standing in the Battalion was high, so much so that when my platoon commanders were killed or wounded, the company commander always said take over until I get a replacement.
[Digital Page 9]
I lost two or three young officers, for officers have to take more chances than the rank and file. I was not loved but was getting along reasonably well. But then we had a particularly hard fight against the German 90th Light Division when my platoon, acting as cover for the company over a long withdrawal, had heavy casualties.
We retired to the Administration Echelon for a rest and to lick our wounds. I received a new young officer aged 19 and a dozen or so reinforcements. All were conscripts aged 26 or 27, they were all completely without battle experience, of poor physique but worst of all their morale was low. The war was beginning to tell on our poor country; doubtless the pecking order for men went as follows – RAF [Royal Air Force], Navy, Army Specialist Corps and then finally the “P.B.I.” – Poor Bloody Infantry. Well, my lot could not have been happy to find such a young pair commanding them; furthermore the old soldiers in the platoon would have little good to say about me.
Amongst this crowd I also received a Corporal and he plays a big part in my story so I had better tell you about him. He was aged about 24, well educated and had served with the Battalion H.Q. [Head Quarters] on the intelligence staff The idea had been to train him to be an officer in the Intelligence Corps. By profession he was a Trade Union organiser and I remember there was a time when the C.O. [Commanding Officer] reckoned him the cleverest man in the unit. But somewhere and somehow he had blotted his copybook. So there he was with my reinforcements. As soon as I saw him I went to the Sergeant-Major and said “please not him!” But he replied, “You make him do his duty and if he doesn’t – charge him.” This was really stupid as if we were in a peacetime barracks and not 500 hundred miles West of Mersa Matruh.
[Digital Page 10]
From day one he started undermining my authority. First with the rations and water then letters home which had to be censored by my officer, then sentry duties and so on?
By this time it was June 1942 and the armies faced each other at Gazala about 30 miles South of Tobruk. Our platoon was ordered further South to cover the open flank of the Army, and to operate a standing patrol against any outflanking attempt. So we watched and waited and passed negative reports until our three days of duty ended, then before we could put a final report in, the battle started and we lost all communication.
We could hear the battle raging to the North of us and there was a real confusion of noise on the radio net, but we were unable to contact Battalion H.Q. [Head Quarters] So the Platoon commander called an orders group of N.C.O.s [Non Commissioned Officer] and telling them to prepare to move asked me what he should do; head for the rear and hope to find the Admin Echelon, or go north and try and find our company. I told him we must go north and support our comrades, you must always in battle move towards the sound of the guns otherwise we would never win a war. Thereupon my Corporal protested strongly and said we had done our bit and should go back to the rear area!
I said three days eating and drinking and watching an empty skyline, smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio and you say we have done our bit?
He then said everyone knows about you – – you want a medal and you don’t care who gets killed and so on and so on. He really let himself go and began to say lets take a vote on it (what an army!) I put my hand on my revolver and felt sure I would have shot him, when the Platoon commander shouted mount up – we go north.
[Digital Page 11]
So I carefully navigated around the rear of our division and after one or two narrow escapes arrived to find the Company dug in and defending a Battery of guns. The Company commander was delighted to see us, my officer got a pat on the back, and I received a friendly wink.
I reported my near mutiny to the Sergeant-Major, and he said “I knew he would do that – as soon as we get out of this lot I’ll get rid of him.” What did he know that I didn’t?
Well for 5 or 6 days the battle went to and fro and it became obvious that the Germans were wearing us down. We could hold their infantry and really punish them, but their tanks were far superior to anything we had, and the 88mm. gun that they moved around on tracks had us reeling.
My boy officer was one of the first casualties and I was given temporary command of the Platoon – they really did very well – and after the first day had very few wounded and no one killed. The wretched Corporal was keeping his mouth shut and his head down. I hoped in vain for him to stop a slight one so I could have him away to a casualty clearing station when I could then promote a good chap, for now I was commanding I had authority to do this.
Then it all went wrong. The Germans appeared to our rear and our guns could not align on them. They would have to change position, I was told to take three Bren-gun carriers and lay a smoke screen to cover this movement of the gun battery.
Well this was really a job for my Corporal. However, I did not trust him so I did it myself.
[Digital Page 12]
As soon as we moved, two of the carriers were picked off. I laid about 200 yards of smoke and turned around to thicken it up with a second canister, but on this canister the fuse misfired. I started to crawl back across the top of the carrier to fire the fuse by revolver when we struck a land mine and at the same instant a shell burst overhead, the carrier rolled over and I was thrown clear but the three chaps crouching inside were killed.
Neither the metal from the mine or the shrapnel from the shell touched me and not a drop of blood did I lose but I was knocked unconscious and I supposed badly shell-shocked!
I recovered some of my senses 2 or 3 days later to find that I was now deaf and unable to stand. But worst of all I and most of my comrades had been captured and were now Prisoners of War, for regardless of the smoke I had laid down, the guns had been overrun.
When they saw I had recovered consciousness some kind chap gave me two pills and a drink of water and two other chaps tried to get me on my feet, but nausea took over and I was very sick. We were soon handed over to the Italians, who loaded us onto trucks and headed firstly North for the coast then due West towards Tripoli. All this took 6 or 7 days and I remember being given bread and water. One day an Italian medic gave me a very salty sour medicine which really did me good and I found I could stand and not be sick.
Throughout this journey I was left very much to myself although I do remember seeing familiar faces; I guess people had given up trying to get through to me. I was unwashed and unshaven and neglected. But somewhere on the road to Tripoli I felt my left ear starting to pop and pop and then I could hear the noise of the truck and people talking.
[Digital Page 13]
We arrived at a large P.O.W. camp South of Tripoli, Campo Benito, a filthy unhygienic place but each day we were given bread and there was water. All I wanted to do was lay in the shade of a very torn tent and sleep possibly for up to twenty hours a day.
Then one day I woke as everyone was settling down for the night, I made my way to a water standpipe and sitting underneath cleaned myself and dried myself on my shirt. Then a curious onlooker said you need a shave, I agreed, and he produced a safety razor with a very blunt blade – such kindness made me cry, my nerves still being very shaky, this embarrassed the poor chap and he helped me to get rid of my beard and gave me half of his soap. Every other day he allowed me to use his razor.
From then on I started to pull myself together, I did not sleep all day, I began walking round and round the compound, I cleaned and dried my clothes. I also started to talk and take an interest in all that was happening.
The camp was awful with absolutely no organisation; some men were already helping the Italians. Helping is the wrong word. Collaborating is better. A black market had started with rings, watches and other valuables being exchanged for cigarettes. Funny to look back now, but tobacco had such a grip that even the best of men were taking part in this racket. We had a starvation diet, but I even saw food exchanged for a “fag”.
But I kept away from all that. I ate all I could get and drank only clean water; I took reasonable exercise and kept clean. But I must have been very “different” for I never had a friend, although there were people I knew well in that camp. And one time I think I heard an acquaintance say I was “bomb happy,” so maybe I was. But I was learning to survive although I was losing a lot of weight.
[Digital Page 14]
I had never been so thirsty and really thought I would not get off the ship alive. Eventually some humane person lowered a fresh water line rather like a garden hose into the hold, it arrived above my head and I was able to swallow a pint or two before passing it on. I dozed and woke and dozed again. It was a long night but I prayed and finally dawn came. What a sight! The hold was like something out of Dante. But with the dawn came an air raid alarm – were we to be attacked by the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] or possibly a Royal Navy submarine? But nothing happened and now the chaps on deck were shouting encouragement to us and telling us what was going on. We were in a small convoy of two naval vessels and three small tramp steamers, someone on deck with knowledge said we were passing Cape Bon and were heading for Sicily. I was past caring.
The sea became choppy and the water and other fluids and solids in the hold sloshed around. I sat and said every prayer I ever learnt. Sometime during that long day the hose was lowered and I was lucky again. The day passed slowly with the “comforting” chap on deck occasionally calling down “is anyone alive down there?”
The next night was awful with two or three alarms and a chap near me becoming delirious and shouting orders to a ghostly gun team. Dawn came very slowly and our friend on deck still asked comforting questions. He was not answered. For we did not really know; maybe we were all dead.
Then someone shouted we were passing Capri. And an hour or two later, “it’s Naples.” How did they know? Then we were alongside the dock and the chaps on deck started to disembark. Then we were ordered to climb up on deck, it took hours. I managed, but only with great difficulty. A lot of chaps in that hold never got out!
[Digital Page 15]
On the deck there were firemen with breathing apparatus and lifting slings and on the quayside there were ambulances and Carabinieri. There was also a hearse or two!
I was soaking wet, stinking and filthy as I stumbled down the gangway. At the bottom I was offered a cigarette as though this made all well. I followed the crowd and climbed into a railway goods van and fell fast asleep.
The next thing I remember was being dragged out of the van feet first by two very young and small Italian soldiers, who for some reason were crying. Then came the usual shambles, out of the railway yard and up a lane towards a large barbed-wire prisoner of war cage. We passed soldiers and civilians on the way all of who had tears in their eyes. Then we were in the cage. This was a prisoner’s transit camp – Campo 66 at Capua near Naples. We were each given a blanket, a lump of bread and pushed into a hut; there were no beds, and only a clean wooden floor.
It appeared that the camp although controlled by the Italians was administered by a staff of British P.O.W.s. There was a vague promise of Red Cross parcels, medical care and a lot of others things, but by now I had gone back into my shell and was sleeping all day again and was past caring. A kindly chap brought me soup and bread each day and told me of plans to have a lot of us examined.
Then it happened again. I woke in the middle of the night, went to the rear of the hut, found water, removed my clothes and cleaned them and myself. In this state I was discovered by two sentries who did not know what to do with me. So they waited until I finished and then escorted me back to the hut and my waiting blanket.
[Digital Page 16]
Next day wearing only my boots and the blanket, I hung my clothes out to dry. At this stage Red Cross parcels arrived to great excitement. But anti-climax, there was no food, just toilet things. I was not too disappointed. I got a very good razor, shaving brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, a small mirror, a bar of Lifebuoy soap and a “housewife,” (this contained needles, thread, wool, buttons, etc.) My comrades were mad. No food, but worst of all no cigarettes.
Then an Italian officer arrived with prisoner of war cards which we could send home to our next of kin. Who should be acting as “dogsbody” to this officer but none other than my wretched trouble-making Corporal? He looked well fed and already had a good command of the Italian language. Apparently he was a member of the camp staff, it was the last time I ever saw the wretch. I filled a card in knowing my mother would never receive it; of course she never did! The Corporal departed on the heels of his master carrying the box of cards and the officers’ hat and gloves. But he left me with a legacy. With his knowledgeable and smooth tongue he had informed a lot of simple soldiers that I had been solely responsible for a lot of men’s deaths, this information was passed on and so I became an outsider. Even after I had moved on to Campo 53 my reputation followed me.
Well some more Red Cross parcels arrived, no food but each of us received ten cigarettes and wool socks and underwear. I gave five cigarettes to the chap who fed me during my depressed period, he was delighted and surprised. I found my friend of the blunt razor and gave him three cigarettes. I used the last two to have my head shaved for lice had appeared.
[Digital Page 17]
About this time a Red Cross representative arrived at the camp and a great many men gave evidence as to the cruel treatment we had received in transit. I was now regaining my senses and knew now why the soldiers and civilians had cried when we arrived. We really had been brought back from the dead, what a state we must have been in, but I never thought it was cruelty. The Italians were never capable of being cruel; it was just that they were totally inefficient and furthermore just did not have the same standards of rations, hygiene and administration. The word atrocity did not come into use until some years later, just as well, for my bitter comrades were busy building a big case. I never gave evidence; I suppose I was considered too stupid. But I am glad really, when one considers Auschwitz and Belsen we were small fry, anyway nothing ever came of it, and I have never seen a written word about the affair.
So we went on receiving a bowl of soup and about six ounces of bread a day and occasionally an apple or a tomato, the British camp staff were corrupt and had complete control of all Red Cross goods arriving. When the Italians started issuing ten cigarettes a week to each man a huge black market started. You could buy almost anything for a few cigarettes! I used to pass my ration around the hut but even this created jealousy and some men thought I was trying to buy friendship.
After three or four weeks in Campo 66 we were herded down to the railway siding and loaded onto goods wagons, after being locked in we were shunted up and down and then moved off northwards. There were cracks in the woodwork and we were given a running commentary. But it was a slow journey. After about two hours we halted by a water tank, relieved ourselves and had a drink.
[Digital Page 18]
We were well guarded and had no chance of escaping, anyway there was only Switzerland and we were heading that way. About midnight we arrived on the outskirts of Rome and the chap with his eye on the crack told us that we had reached Tivoli and had started going eastward.
Early next morning we had another comfort break and we could see we were now moving through the mountains. About tea time we arrived at a small station called Sforzacosta. After being unloaded we marched down the road away from the village. Almost immediately someone said we are near Macerata, and that was in the Italian Marches near the Adriatic Sea. However this did not mean a lot to me. After a mile or so we arrived at a high walled factory with a large main gate and a guardhouse. There were many buildings in a large compound, each building separated from the others by barbed wire. There were sentry posts on the wall and lots of soldiers around.
Now for the first time we underwent a search. All our clothes off and a body search! All our pitiful possessions were examined – it took hours. Finally we were shown into a large warehouse full of bunk beds, three high, no mattresses or palliases and just one blanket. The bunk beds had slats about six inches apart. We had come up against the inevitable Italian inefficiency – a good bed but almost impossible to sleep on! We were told that “Domani martini” we would receive palliases and straw to fill them.
At this stage of our captivity we believed the “Domani” (tomorrow) thing. Later we learnt that they always said ‘Domani’, not really meaning tomorrow but in the future, or even never. So we settled down to try and sleep.
[Digital Page 19]
Next morning we were roused out of bed early for a roll call, this was done by making us all walk through a narrow gate and we were counted like sheep. This first morning it took six goes before they gave up and fed us soup and bread.
Everything was a shambles; too few latrines, (a hole in the floor!) only one water stand-pipe, cookhouse totally inadequate etc. etc. The only efficient thing was the guard system and the barbed wire fences. We went on in total chaos for a week or two; it was uncomfortable for us and very difficult for the Italians.
Then there was a meeting of our senior warrant officers and the camp commandant. This resulted in the prisoners becoming responsible for a lot of the administration. Things improved immediately! A senior warrant officer was appointed to run cooks, camp police; organise group leaders and to detail clerks etc. In no time at all the camp was on a sound footing and I think that for the first time the Italians found out how many prisoners were in the camp. However, I think that there appeared to be an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t cause any trouble or try to escape.
However, to come back to me. My health had steadily been improving all the time and although my hearing was still bad my nerves were better. I could now talk well and therefore as a Sergeant was appointed as a group leader over forty men all older than myself and all very awkward!
But I found no difficulty in detailing them for cleaning duties, food collecting and other jobs that turned up, I also had to parade them for roll call.
[Digital Page 20]
But generally my comrades still steered clear of me and I had no friends which was most unusual in a prison camp.
In the course of time palliases and straw arrived, together with Red Cross parcels. One parcel shared between four men, which was awkward for me being an outsider, another blanket was also issued for winter was fast approaching. They also began issuing five cigarettes a week to each man. This issue re-started the black market, food could be purchased for fags. Also the camp administration staff, who were friendly with the guards, smuggled in drink and more cigarettes.
About this time, thinking that most chaps felt the same way that I did, I was indiscreet in saying to someone or other that I was ashamed to be a prisoner-of-war, this was turned round to sound as though everyone should be ashamed. Even worse was the fact that I let it be known if I could escape I would. This was unpopular, for my comrades had settled for a quiet and safe war with no more risks, after all they had been through the mill and they knew their pay was accumulating. Anyone escaping meant long cold roll calls and if by some chance the escaper got home it made those remaining look bad.
Toward Christmas we received another Red Cross parcel which lifted spirits, we did not know at the time that this would be the last we would receive. There also arrived a consignment of underwear and Penguin paperback books. I still gave my cigarette ration away and occasionally got a book in return, this made for a better arrangement.
[Digital Page 21]
Every month group leaders held a meeting with the camp staff where lots of trivial matters were raised and alterations were made. At one of these meetings I said that it appeared our staff could smuggle into camp anything except the latest war news!
This earned a very loud telling off from the Senior Warrant Officer; however, this time one or two others agreed with me. It did seem as though the Admin. People were loath to pass on news that may have been bad for their Italian friends. I felt that they had become too friendly. We had all seen the large loaves that had arrived in the camp, but no radio parts, no maps and no cutting tools made it in.
Christmas came and went. The weather was very cold, however, we received mail but no real news. Then came a small batch of new prisoners who had been captured in Tunisia. It was then we learnt of El Alamein and the progress of the desert war, Stalingrad and the bombing of Germany. All the news was good. At last we were on the winning side – even the weather improved and with it came the promise of an early spring.
I took to walking the perimeter and studying the wire but it was a tangled mass on the one open side and the other three sides there was a high wall with a wooden walkway at the top with sentry posts. It seemed as if I would need a miracle!
Spring arrived and with it a plague of flies and the lice who had been in hiding all winter re-appeared. I shaved my head and body and using some cigarettes made my first foray into the black market – I purchased a highly fragrant powder and worked this into the seams of my clothes and powdered my body. It worked and I remained lice-free.
But the flies had brought dysentery and most of us succumbed, it was a nasty thing to have and very weakening. No medicine was provided so I had to fall back on starving myself and having nothing but warm water for three days. This either kills or cures or in my case something in between.
[Digital Page 22]
Summer arrived and our daily soup improved slightly but the bread got darker and the quality deteriorated. We received nothing from the Red Cross even though the central depot was less than a hundred miles away. But it could have been on the moon for the only transport in the camp was an old bicycle.
The guards were getting very edgy and hardly a night passed without shots being fired. First Northern Italy was being bombed and then Rome. The British camp staff still would not provide us with news but an interpreter whispered that there had been an invasion of Sicily and then a few days later that Mussolini was out. That evening after roll-call we all sang “There will always be an England” and then the National Anthem. Shots had to be fired to get us to move and be locked up. Everyone started to make plans; some worked out how long it would take our army to reach us, two weeks was the favourite. Some others worked out how much back pay they had coming. All were to be disappointed.
Time passed and news was scarce. Rumours ran wild. Then the Camp Warrant Officer ordered a meeting of all group leaders and told us that whatever happened we were to stay in the camp. (I am sure some of the Italian sentries had already deserted). He had conferred with the Camp Commandant and had agreed if need be we would guard ourselves! The Commandant had replied that the Italians would defend us against the Germans, what nonsense!
Well everyone argued, the Warrant Officer got upset and fell back on the old one – “That’s an order.” So we broke up. For once I had wisely not opened my mouth but on the way out some odd bod asked me what I thought. Well I fell for it and said the first chance I got I would be away.
[Digital Page 23]
About half an hour later the Camp Warrant Officer sent for me and gave me the biggest rocket ever. He had two large camp policemen present and an evil little Italian interpreter from Glasgow. All enjoyed my discomfort and he told the policemen if I caused any trouble they had authority to beat me up!
Some days later at an early morning roll call my group of misfits decided to give the Italian Officer taking the call a bad time – it must have taken him ten minutes to count forty men. He was furious. The interpreter was screaming and the rest of the prisoners were sick of hanging around, I was pig in the middle. Finally I was arrested and marched off to the guardhouse and the entire parade cheered and were happy to see me punished.
Well I stood outside the guardhouse for an hour or so and then the clerk came out and said you have received thirty days bread and water. A sentry took me off to the punishment block but it was so full that try what they could they were unable to squeeze me in. So back to the guardhouse. I waited and waited, no bread, no water. Around evening the Italian Glaswegian interpreter came by on his way home and seeing me enquired of the guard commander what they intended to do with me. All he got was a shrug of the shoulders. So he ordered me into the rear of the guardroom and got me a large bowl of pasta with a tomato sauce. It was delicious and the best meal I had as a prisoner. Now this was typically Italian, blowing hot and then cold. One of the guards gave me a mug of red wine and another gave me a peach. I slept on the floor at the back of the guardroom and decided that I had had an interesting day.
Next morning the punishment block was still full so they cast about for somewhere to put me and eventually decided that I would have to go in a small wire cage with a very sick Australian.
[Digital Page 24]
He was a huge man still in a bad state of shock and should really have been in a mental hospital. He sat in a corner of the cage rocking to and fro and then would have periods of rage when he tore at the barbed wire with his hands and body. Well I was really afraid but I sat in the far corner of the cage from him and hoped that he would not notice me. The cage had been constructed against the main wall and reached to it’s top. It was three sides wire and measured about nine feet square and had a crude wire door.
During the morning a Royal Army Medical Corp sergeant, a member of the camp staff, arrived with bandages, medical spirit and so on but he would not enter the cage. So taking up the lint and spirit and getting the poor Aussie to open his hands I started to clean his wounds. I warned him the spirit would sting and of course it did and we had a few moments of rage but he settled down and I was able to carry on. The poor chap was also foul and filthy dirty so I asked the Medical Sergeant to get me some water and a cloth and between us we could clean him up, but to my amazement he said no – that grub was up in five minutes! I called him a bastard and said I would report him. We started to argue and abuse each other to the surprise and amusement of the Italian guards looking on. At this moment the Italian Medical Officer arrived with my now friendly interpreter, so I told them all. They were pleased to see something being done and soon I was given lots of water, towels, toilet bucket, fresh clothing for him to wear and food and water.
It took me all day to clean him and change his clothes and to dress the other small wounds I found on his body. I talked to him all the time telling him exactly what I was doing and I even got an answer or two, but most of the time he just rocked back and forth.
[Digital Page 25]
Well next morning my “friendly” medical Sergeant arrived and I asked him if he would get my blanket and toilet things from Settore 11, my bunkhouse, of course he said no!
I replied by telling him that when the Italian Medical Officer arrives I shall ask for help in the cage and suggest you! After all you are the expert and you should dress and examine his wounds. This worried him so off he went, and returning said here is your rubbish. He also told me that the Senior Warrant Officer said you are to stay in the cage as you are a calming influence on him. But watch out, it’s a full moon in 2 or 3 days ! I said when I get out of here you had better watch out; now empty our bucket and get some fresh water or I will speak to the Italian M.O. [Medical Officer] – so off he went to do as I asked.
We went on like this for 3 or 4 days, never a word from the poor Aussie but at least he was clean and healing. He used the bucket but most of the day he still sat and rocked. He did respond when I dressed his wounds and when I gave him the larger share of our food he would push it back to me. Given time I might have got through to him, but alas that was not to happen.
That evening when the guard was changing there was a big disturbance at the far end of the camp, there were shouts of hate and rage and then shots were fired. The guard turned out and doubled off, sentries raced along the walkway overhead. My poor Aussie got very excited and started to tear at the barbed wire with his poor bandaged hands. I tried but could not calm him and he shrieked and shrieked. Finding the wire near the wall was taut and firmly fixed he started to climb upwards and clambering on to the wall dashed toward the machine-gun post at the corner of the wall.
[Digital Page 26]
Whilst this was happening I put on my jacket – all I possessed was in the pockets. I looked round, but no one was taking any notice of me. Then, following the example of the poor mad Australian, I climbed my side of the wire by the wall and reaching the top crawled over and lowering myself down the other side, let go. I landed in a dry ditch. I raced out across a road and into the vineyard. It was then that the shots began to fly. I had been seen. There were loud shouts from the wall and more shots rang out but I kept going. The vines were fully grown and were over head height and so gave good cover. But every ten yards or so I was forced to break cover when climbing the dry stone walls that followed the contours of the hill up which I was running. This gave them a view of me and a chance to shoot at me. But I kept running and climbing, panting and puffing and thinking my heart would burst with the effort. Then I was over the top of the hill and the shooting stopped. I looked at the country in front of me, beautiful and looking friendly. I could see freedom!
[Digital Page 27]
The country in front of me was hilly and well cultivated with many small woods. South facing slopes were terraced and covered with vineyards, in the valleys grew maize and sugar beet. Scattered in my path were a few farm houses. I had plenty of cover so I advanced carefully, walking two hundred yards, running two hundred yards and keeping well clear of any habitation. I was soon near exhaustion but knew I was making good time. I had little fear of being chased but knew a telephone call could, of course, alert the police or military to my front.
The sun was now setting behind a distant mountain range (The Apennines) so I had a good marker for due west. I wanted to go South by West so I could merge with the mountains and hopefully travel safely down the middle of the country.
So I started to plan ahead. The Allies were somewhere to the South so that was my aim. I could get what I needed to eat from the fields, I would walk at night and sleep during the day. I intended to steer clear of people. This was how I thought at the start of what I knew would be a long journey. They turned out to be ideas born of ignorance.
On the ship carrying my comrades and I out to the Middle East via South Africa I had attended a lecture given by a Staff Colonel. During the Great War he had escaped from Germany and had made his way across central Europe to Greece, he told his story well, speaking of opportunity, common sense, fitness and good luck!
I had grasped my opportunity and now I must use my common sense and hope for good fortune. The Staff Colonel had laid down certain rules for success –
[Digital Page 28]
(a) Sleep by day and walk by night.
(b) Keep clean and well shaved.
(c) Keep clothes clean and repaired.
(d) Look at the country ahead and not at your feet.
(e) Stay away from groups of people.
(f) If given food always offer to work to repay the debt.
(g) Steer clear of the opposite sex, be polite but keep your distance, familiarity could cause jealousy.
All these points came back to me and seemed to make a great deal of sense. That first night I tried walking all night but found walking in the dark in the hilly terrain extremely difficult. Also, although I was avoiding farms and people, dogs were a different story. A dog would scent me over a hundred yards away and begin barking and would carry on until the next one took over and so on. Furthermore I was totally exhausted from the exertions and the excitement of my escape that late afternoon, so soon rule “A” was broken! I found a sandy hole halfway up a dry river bed and hidden under the top of the bank. It was a beautiful night. The warm air was scented by some Acacias nearby; bullfrogs croaked and small creatures ran along the bank above my head. I removed my battledress blouse and folded it into a pillow and stretched out, I was hungry and tired but ecstatically happy.
I woke with the sun next day and following my dry river bed downwards for a mile or so came to a pond of good clear water. In seclusion I stripped off, bathed, shaved and dried myself on my shirt. Finally, shaking the sand from my clothes I moved off toward the mountain range. With hunger gnawing at me I looked around for something I could eat without first cooking as I did not have the means to start a fire. However, I found nothing. I suppose tomatoes and salad-like food were grown near the farms. So trying to ignore my hunger I continued climbing toward the mountains and left the larger farms in my rear, there were only a few smallholdings ahead.
[Digital Page 29]
Many women and old men were working the fields and small children were looking after goats and the odd cow. I steered well clear of these people and kept out of sight. My legs were aching and my feet were sore and my head was getting sunburnt. I kept climbing up and up and heading due west and as time went on I left the cultivated region behind. During that morning I heard a church bell ringing and saw the women in the fields stand and cross themselves, I knew it was the “Angelas” so I stood still and crossing myself said the prayer “The angel of the lord declared unto Mary….”. At noon each day the bells would ring and, on occasion, even when I was deep in the mountains I would hear them.
I knew that I could not continue much longer without food so I decided to find the most isolated small holding and beg for bread. So sometime that afternoon, maybe around three o’clock, I selected a very small house at the end of a dusty track which appeared to be a cul-de-sac. Carefully approaching I saw a very small building with a barn at ground level and steps up to the living accommodation. From the barn door a large white ox looked at me with a total lack of interest. Then a very old man (about the age I am now; 84) came out of the barn and seeing me greeted me in Italian “Giorno Signore.” I replied by saying “Hello” Then an old lady appeared at the top of the steps and she too said “Giorno Signore.” On impulse I bowed to her and she laughed and chatted to the old man, he put his glasses on and asked “Inglesi?” To which I said “Yes, Si Si”
The old lady tapped her stomach and said “Voi Fame?”
I understood this tapping of the stomach and nodded vigorously saying yes.
The old chap then said to his wife “Maria, Subito Subito” and he then gave me a box to sit on and he took a seat on the steps and began my introduction to the Italian language. Maria soon appeared with a large brown loaf of bread, cheese, onions, tomatoes, figs and a bottle of wine. The man placed the loaf under his arm and opening a large clasp knife sliced me off a thick chunk. What a delicious meal, I will never forget it.
[Digital Page 30]
I ate well and drank the wine which had the flavour of blackberries. I gave a toast in English and crossed myself and thanked God. Having ate my fill I felt wonderful and tried to communicate with them. (The wine helped) I asked about the Fascists, they shook their heads and said “Niente” I then tried them with German? Deutsch? Boche? Nothing. I was surprised to hear that they were called “Tedeschi.” Usually “Brutalli Tedeschi”
The Germans were very unpopular and it was felt that they had ruined Italy, “Povera Italia” they said. The wine was cool and helped to loosen my tongue. They were two very gentle old people who had time and patience and I found myself repeating in Italian what they were trying to teach me.
Da Dove Venite? (Where do you come from)
Dove Andante? (Where are you going)
Incontrane Comrades (To meet my comrades)
Che sona alcuni Tedeschi in queste vicinanze? (Are there Germans about)
There were lots more useful phrases and they showed great patience toward me. Then remembering the rules I stood up and offered to work in payment for the food, but they laughed and laughed for it was obvious to them that the wine had got to me. They offered to put me up for the night, I could sleep “Nella fienile colle bestie” or in the hay beside the ox. But I said no I must go on and I thanked them most gratefully. So old Maria wrapped food in a clean cloth for me and saying my goodbyes I weaved my way toward the mountains and found a secluded sleeping place.
That night I slept well and woke to find an early morning heat haze and the promise of another wonderful day. Less than fifty yards away was a clear cold stream, so naked I sat in it and shaved and completed my ablutions. I had my breakfast on the hoof and continued to climb south by west.
[Digital Page 31]
At this point I should describe my appearance and what I was dressed in. First, I was twenty four years old, desperately skinny. I was wearing good stout Army boots, grey socks rolled down to my ankles, khaki shorts; these from my days in the Western Desert; a good strong khaki drill shirt, a battledress blouse with lots of useful pockets. Unfortunately this battledress blouse had printed on the back in black the letters “P.G.” Meaning ‘Prigione de Guerra’. (P.O.W. in Italian) I was hatless and in my pockets I had a razor, about ten spares blades, shaving brush, toothbrush, a flannel and soap, my housewife (repair materials, cotton, needles etc.) a comb, a small steel mirror. On a cord around my neck were my I.D. [Identification] discs and a medallion of “Our Lady of Fatima” and finally thanks to the Red Cross I wore good, almost new underwear.
I was in good spirits after my first encounter with the country people of the region, the ‘Contadini’. My legs were stiff, my muscles ached and my head was red and sore. My dysentery was already a lot better and I felt well enough to push myself on. I met lots of women and old men working in the fields, I kept my distance but was no longer afraid, I waved and they waved back. But they were still curious and watched me until I was out of sight.
The country was really beautiful and I was so happy to be on my own. For years I had lived with a crowd but now there was just myself, no more roll calls, stinking latrines, men arguing, vile language, the smell of unwashed bodies, the tale telling and the petty jealousies. Unlike the camp, I was now not hungry all the time. I drank cool, clear water from mountain streams and ate bread and rock hard cheese and fruit and nuts which I picked. I sometimes stopped to stand and listen to the birds or to watch rabbits sunning themselves. Life was good and I thanked God for my good luck.
[Digital Page 32]
So for the next day or so I lived like a Buddhist monk, travelling and begging for my bread. I was never refused, in fact I seldom had to ask as it was generally offered first. The peasant’s natural sympathy with the underdog asserted itself and their Christianity impelled them to befriend me and to feed me. There was a simple dignity to these humble people who saw me not as a former enemy but as a young man in need of help, a young man making his way home.
Then one day toward evening I sat by a stream, with my boots off, cooling my feet. Laying back I decided life had never been so good. I must have dozed off for the next thing I knew was a voice saying “Buona Sera” and standing on the other side of the stream and about ten feet away, was a civilian with a shotgun on his arm. Captured, was the first thing that came to my mind!! Visions of Campo 53, The Commandant, the Senior Warrant Officer and all my unfriendly comrades flashed before my eyes. Then he gave a big smile and said “Inglesi ?” He looked so friendly so I said “Si Si” and smiled at him. Then taking his time and speaking slowly in fractured English, as though his voice had lain in store for a long time, said “Do you speak American?” “Yes I certainly do” I said.
Removing his boots he waded across and sat with me, rolling a cigarette he told me he had not spoken “American” for twenty years. As a young man, just after the First World War, he had emigrated to the U.S. of A. (as he put it) and had lived in New Jersey. He had two jobs, working on a building site by day and waiting at table in an Italian restaurant at night. He was sending money home and was also paying a “Big Boss” for borrowed money and the cost of his entrance to America. This sounded very much like a Mafia arrangement, anyway, after some years he had paid off this debt and was doing well, in fact he had money in the bank – then his father died and he had to return home to care for his mother and the rest of the family, a bad mistake he said, but what could he do?
[Digital Page 33]
His only son was a P.O.W. in Canada and was being well treated according to the letters they had received, but they had heard nothing for six months. “II Papa” (The Pope) assured them that all prisoners of the Allies were being looked after. (The Pope had made Mussolini very angry with these comments).
The peasant also had four daughters, two married and living locally, and two younger ones who were living at home. So we talked and talked and as it started to get dark he said “come, eat at my house” So I went with him.
I met his wife, who was waiting and no doubt worrying, (for these were worrying times) and his two daughters aged about 15 and 16 years old. I freshened up under the pump in the yard as his wife prepared the evening meal, for he had shot a hare some days previously and it had hung long enough to be edible. While we waited we drank his own wine, it was good and strong and it made me bold, for seeing they were laying the table for two only, I said let us all eat together, like in America. He translated this to his family and it was well received. (I had noticed before that the men were fed first and the women ate later)
The hare had been sautéed in olive oil and a tomato puree mixed with herbs and it was served with pasta and peppers. It was delicious, we also ate cheese, figs and apples and drank lots of wine. It was now dark and the room was lit by an oil lamp, (oil which came from the final dregs of the olive press).
My new friend was kept busy translating lots of questions, for this was really the very first time his family had ever heard him speak American. He was improving all the time as his tongue and memory began to find the words more familiar.
He also got lots of questions from me for I realized that he had been present in New York and New Jersey at the time of Prohibition, Bootlegging and Gangsters. He had of course visited a “speak-easy” and in fact the restaurant he worked in served the forbidden wine, but in coffee cups!
[Digital Page 34]
Well we were all happy and his wife was charming, his daughters pretty and very proud of their father who was delighted at being at last able to show off his proficiency at speaking a foreign language. I asked for news of the war but he had none, nor had his friends. Their radio batteries had long since gone flat and replacements were not available. Electricity was not to be had for miles around and he avoided going to a town or village of any size for fear of being carted off to work for the Germans. The nearest town was Sarnano and he rightly said we need little from there as we grow everything we need to eat. He proudly pointed out that everything on the table that night was produced on his own land. I then said who would want to leave such a paradise!
Then he showed me his boots and said they were ten years old and it will be another ten years before I can afford to replace them. He also pointed out that clothes for his wife and daughters were difficult if not impossible to afford. He said if I was working in New York, boots, shoes and clothes would be no problem. I would work hard and could look forward to a good life. Here in Italy it is beautiful but all we can look forward to is hard work and to grow old quickly – in America people live longer. I suppose he was right.
He then took me to see his “Padrona” – he made it sound like a must – she lived in a much larger farmhouse about three hundred yards away. The “Padrona” had nine or ten smallholdings which were all rented out, my friend told me she was wealthy and that hers was the good life.
I got the impression that he was her “fattore.” (Her steward or bailiff). She turned out to be a beautiful young woman of about thirty, rather short and starting to get plump, but she had marvellous dark eyes and a full figure. She was dressed in good black clothes and had an air of prosperity about her, a companion or possibly a servant lived with her.
[Digital Page 35]
She was a widow, her husband having been killed in Greece and her only brother was missing in Russia. She gave us wine, pressed pears and small lemon flavoured cakes. She asked many questions and my friend interpreted my answers. Some of the questions were very personal and looking back I must have been a very naive twenty four year old. I found myself gazing at her with much admiration for it had been three years since I had talked to any young women. Maybe I am wrong but I got the impression that my friendliness was returned but I could have been wrong. It was an emotional meeting, as when she talked of her brother she shed tears. She offered to put me up but I politely thanked her and refused. (Much to the relief of my new friend I think). So she walked us to the door and wished me safely home. My friend explained on the way back that she was upset about her brother but had not mourned her husband who had been a show off and a waster and if they had been married long enough, would have ruined her. He hoped she would find a good man soon.
That night I slept well on a pile of hay under the stars and next morning washed and shaved by the pump. Mother and the girls went off to church carrying their shoes and dressed in their Sunday best or “vestisi da feste.” This day was a fiesta and the air was heavy with the sound of bells – I thanked them for their kindness and asked for their prayers at mass, they left me a generous gift of food. I followed their father who showed me a mountain track that was going south. It was a good long walk and that good, kind man had the same long walk home. I thanked him in American and wished his son a safe return and the family a speedy reunion. We embraced and I found it hard to find the words to thank him for such kindness.
So on I went due south, my friend had told me to stop and talk to the local people and ask if there was any danger, if there was the people would tell me of it.
[Digital Page 36]
All that Sunday morning, with church bells ringing all round my route, the people answered the call of their religion. I had a lot of opportunities to try out my few words of Italian. Little groups of mainly women would stop, smile and say – “Giorno, da dove venite” (Good morning, where do you come from?)
“Giorno, da vicino Sfortzacosta” (Near Sfortzacosta)
“Dove Andate?” (Where are you going?)
“Incontrane comrades” (to meet my comrades)
Then I would try – “Che sono alcuni Tedeschi in queste vicinunze?” This question made them late for church trying to work it out. Then I would get “Niente Tedeschi”
I asked “Fascisti?” “Niente Fascisti” they replied, no fascists. When saying the word for German they would always cross themselves. Then they would go on their way to church saying “Arrivederci soldat Inglese”. If an older woman was present I would get a blessing, usually mentioning the Blessed Madonna. Carrying their shoes and dressed in their best black, with not a lick of make-up between them, they made their way to mass. They had skin like brown velvet and big dark eyes and although given to plumpness I felt that I might have a difficult time sticking to some of my rules!
Even after all these years I remember the glorious feeling of freedom, not just the freedom from Campo 53, but the freedom from the Army and the freedom from the war. All I possessed was in my pockets, I owed no man and was responsible only to myself, for I was going home!
The weather was wonderful and the country was beautiful almost beyond belief. Each day I climbed higher into the mountains and although I was not making much progress south I was getting fitter and my muscles no longer ached, my feet were hard and I was alert and happy and my dysentery was clearing.
[Digital Page 37]
Despite having to scrounge for food my body was filling out for even the small amount I was getting was more than the camp rations. I was well tanned and as I walked, if there was no one around, I would take off my shirt and get a good share of vitamin “C.” Funnily the locals usually worked in their shirts so I normally conformed to their customs.
It took two days for me to climb to the Apennine Way, you could not miss it, used by man and mule for thousands of years. The biggest problem was the corrugated lie of the land, all day I went up a thousand feet and down a thousand feet, and although I was now going due south it was hard and slow, maybe twenty or thirty miles a day on my feet but only ten as the crow flies. At this stage I had food for a few days if I was careful and water was plentiful from mountain streams. September was a good month to travel, neither too hot or too cold. Everyone I met was kind and curious.
The high pastures on my right hand were full of sheep and shepherds, lower down on my left hand, every few miles would be a group of “carbonarri” (Charcoal burners). These men collected wood, skilfully stacked it and then started a small fire, the burnt wood was then collected in sacks and despatched down the mountain on sledges, a thousand feet or more, then a young boy would spend all day dragging the sledge up to the gang to be used again.
News was hard to come by but rumours abounded everywhere, in fact the entire country was filled with rumours and fear. The “Tedeschi” were said to be rounding up all males from fifteen to fifty and any attractive girl. This mountain range was said to be safe but I was still careful and looked well ahead as I walked. Up and down I went, always another ridge in front of me, no one was going my way, everyone was making north and many a man tried to warn me that I was walking into danger.
[Digital Page 38]
But I had no friends in the north and I had my Army in the south. After a few days my food began to rapidly disappear, so before long I knew I would have to go down the mountain to replenish it.
Up to this point my luck had been phenomenal, not one scare, not one hint of danger, I could have been on a ramble. But reality was about to surface. Early one morning, passing a shepherd tending his sheep on the high pastures well above my track, I heard him whistle and saw him wave. I climbed up to meet him and after the usual polite exchanges he warned me that the Germans had built a small fort astride my track just a few miles south. It was occupied by Germans and ‘Guardia Forestal’ who were an elite mountain force, fit and well trained. Rather like the R.C.M.P. [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] in Canada they always got their man! The bounty for an escaped prisoner was 1800 Lira, nearly twenty-five pounds, not much by the standard of today, but in 1943 in poverty stricken Italy, it was a tidy sum.
Well I was having the usual difficulty understanding all the shepherd was saying. “Piana, piana” Slowly, slowly I said. He was an above average man for I saw books in his tiny hut which was unusual for the ‘Contadini’. Furthermore he was shaved and tidily dressed and did not look like a man to be panicked. He had difficulty communicating anything complicated to me as it was beyond my comprehension, but he was sure I was heading into trouble.
I told him I was short of food and he suggested I go down to his “Patroni” who had a large farm, was a good man and very “saggio.” (Wise). He had always been a Christian Democrat but had managed to survive the Fascist regime for many years. The shepherd said he would give me food and news for he had a radio. He would also show me a new safer track south. Well it did seem to me to be the best thing to do, although I hated to get away from the mountains.
[Digital Page 39]
“Accordasi Signore” he said. I nodded and said “Si Si”.
He was pleased with this and said “Buono” and then he went on to say that as I was going down the mountain could I take a dog down for him? It had broken its leg chasing a wolf (Yes there were wolves in the mountains, I often saw them and heard their howling).
What could I say but yes to this request. With a stick he drew a map in the dirt and pointed out landmarks. He pointed out that I would be going east and as the wind came from the East all I had to do was keep the wind in my face. I told you he was above average!
So putting a sack across my shoulders he carefully placed the dog on the sack and whilst I held the dogs front legs and his one good back leg, he fastened him on my shoulders very skilfully. I had the feeling of being used but it also felt the right thing to do. Then wishing me good luck he put me on the right track and off I went.
It took about two hours, all downhill and was about six or seven miles. The dog seemed to be a knowing creature and licked my neck all the way down, he appeared to know I was doing my best to try and help him. When I had to adjust my shoulders he gave a low whelp with pain, but he did not make a fuss.
About midday I staggered into a very smart farmyard. A very pretty young girl was tending a pair of huge oxen; she ignored me but recognised the dog who was delighted to see her. The girl let out a loud ‘coo-ee’ and people arrived from all sides. They carefully removed the dog from my shoulders and placed him in a very old-fashioned pony trap and off to the vet he went.
While I was trying to get my shoulders back in there right position they fell to saying what a wonderful man the shepherd was and so on. At last they got around to me and we did the usual questions and answers, then a very elderly lady seeing the dog had wet me declared it to be lucky, this of course raised a laugh. She took my jacket and said she would wash it.
[Digital Page 40]
It gave them all another laugh when I removed all my worldly goods from the pockets and laid them on the ground. The elderly lady appeared to be the farmer’s mother and was addressed as Nonna.
Well, I was finally thanked for my efforts and invited to eat with them. The farmer’s wife (Mamma) and Nonna produced bread, cheese, onions, apples and wine; so we all found a seat in the yard and had a good meal.
Whilst we were eating the farmer and two oldish men examined maize cobs and must have decided that it was time to harvest the crop. The farmer started to give instructions and pointed to various fields and at his staff who consisted of him, his wife, a couple of oldish men and four or five children. At this I stood up and said “Me too.” He was delighted and put me to work with the pretty girl and the oxen – oh yes, and an old lady as chaperone!
So off to the fields, cutting and loading and pulling the stalks, about six hour’s hard work. We cleared our field and transported tons of the cobs back to a huge pile in the farmyard, we then loaded cobs from other fields and took them to the ever growing stack. Whilst we had light we worked. I was astonished at how much the children did, and the pretty girl could make the oxen do absolutely anything.
Work stopped only with nightfall and then we ate an evening meal in the kitchen. It was splendid, consisting of stewed chicken, sweet corn, peppers and a turnip-like vegetable. The farmer poured his own wine of which he was justly proud. I noticed that the women and children added water to their wine. We then listened to the radio, the battery of which was on its last legs. I could not understand a word but the farmer said that Italy now had a new government and an Armistice had been announced. Italy had also changed sides and joined the Allies and was at war with Germany!
[Digital Page 41]
This, of course, was good news for me and I asked the farmer where the Allies were.
Salerno, he told me. I then asked where was that and he informed me it was south of Naples, about three hundred miles away. He saw my face fall and said I should stay there with him until the Allies advanced.
Thinking about that suggestion I went out and made myself a bed on the stalks of the maize cobs and was given an old blanket. My work partner of the day seeing me settling down said “its not a bad night for sleeping outside” but she was rapidly hustled away into the house by Nonna!
Next morning I was up with the sun, washed shaved and cleaned my clothes and boots and hung my blanket up to air. My fellow workers slowly appeared, yawning madly. We had a cup of “coffee” (acorn and chicory) hitched the cart to the oxen and off to work, this time with a small boy as a chaperone. We cut peeled and loaded maize cobs all morning and at midday we were given bread, seasoned with lard, an onion and some figs. As soon as one field was cleared a neighbour appeared with an ox drawn plough and began to prepare the ground for the next crop. The girl and I formed a good partnership and worked well together. It was hot and sweaty work but we cleared a large field by mid-afternoon. The pile of cobs in the farmyard was enormous, closely matched by the heap of stalks behind the barn, this was to be used as animal fodder and bedding.
When the field was cleared the farmer was delighted with what had been achieved and kissed his daughter and patted me on the back and then started to organise the next step.
Neighbours appeared and we started on the cobs. Women and children (and other less useful hands such as me ) set to pulling the husks off the cobs. Skilled men plaited the husks to rope and others on ladders tied the plaits to beams in the roof of the barn. It was all very skilfully done.
[Digital Page 42]
Looking around I could see women and children old men and babies, I was the only young man there. One could see what the war had done, some already knew their loved ones would never return while others waited and worried. When talking about the news they all said “Guerra finito subito,” the war will finish soon, but they were so wrong.
Whilst this work was going on Mamma and Nonna were mixing a large quantity of maize flour and water in a huge “witches” cauldron and in a smaller cauldron a mixture of goat meat, tomato puree, olive oil, herbs and I know not what. The maize mixture was called ‘Polenta’, it does not have a distinctive taste and sets like blancmange but it is very filling. The sauce is the thing!
It started to get dark so lamps were lit. Then the music started, accordion, fiddle and a mandolin. Work still went on at a great pace. The parish priest arrived and having blessed us, blessed the crop and “thanked God.” Wine was passed round and quite a party started. Soon all the cobs were hung and our work was finished. There was more wine and more music, then a large wooden table was carried into the yard, scrubbed down and the cauldron of ‘Polenta’ was emptied on to it. Mamma and Nonna rolled it out over the whole table until it was covered completely to the depth of about an inch. Then the thick sauce was poured and spread, finally hard goat’s milk cheese was grated all over. We were each given a fork for our right hand and glasses in our left hand. The priest said “Grace,” a well known tune was struck up and they all sang and at the end of the song we started to eat, it was wonderful! More wine came and for the older men. ‘Grappa’.
The priest came to me and asked in Italian if I were Christian. My “girl” who earlier had seen my medallion and quizzed me on it was delighted to tell him that I was a member of the church. He was surprised at this for he had assumed all English to be (as he put it) of the Reformed Faith.
[Digital Page 43]
I was busy explaining all this when a man rode up on a bicycle, and dramatically falling off, said that the ‘Tedeschi’ were in the vicinity! This instantly broke up the party and people scattered to their homes. My farmer did not seem unduly worried so I helped carry the table in and tidy up and then made my way back to my blanket. I made sure all my goods were close to hand and worked out a line of retreat.
I slept well enough, but before doing so had decided my being amongst so many people had been a mistake. Not so much for me but for the farmer and his family. I would leave next day.
Next morning I tried to explain all this but did not have the words, but I guess that he had been thinking along the same lines, for he said “discrezione, discrezione” and so I prepared to leave.
He gave me the blanket, food and wine and best of all a haversack to carry my possessions. Nonna gave me a kiss and a medallion, the rest kissed or shook hands and shed tears. My working companion embraced me and shed lots of tears! I wish I could have explained better but “discrezione” said it all. I did manage to explain that they should let it be known that I had gone on my way. The shepherd in a nice way had used me, but I had done well out of our encounter.
[Digital Page 44]
So I made my way sadly south feeling rather lonely after having spent time with such friendly, generous people.
In the area I now travelled were many well tended farms from which I received good food so I lived well and was getting very fit and sun-tanned, the deadly dysentery germs in my body seemed to have gone.
Everywhere the harvest was in progress and I became a useful pair of hands. I helped harvest maize, collected olives, picked tomatoes, cleaned barns, cleared fields of stones, (very hard work!) spread muck, cleared an irrigation system built in Roman times, it was lead lined and inscribed in Latin or Etruscan, (to do this awful muddy job I stripped to only my underpants, to the amusement of the locals!) I held a bull by its nose while the farmer prepared the cows. I minded a young child for a long, long day whilst its mother and grandmother assisted at a confinement. Whilst on my journey I delivered a cat; a well- known ratter, that was being hired out. (Some of the farms could have done with a thousand of these rat hating cats!)
I helped repair a roof but most interesting of all the jobs I undertook was to spend a long hot tiring day treading grapes.
A large stone trough had been built into the hillside, about nine feet long by six feet wide and three feet deep with a bung hole at the bottom. A barrel could be placed beneath this hole.
The grapes were tipped in to fill the trough and then the women tucked their skirts into their knickers and climbed in to tread them. I was invited to help, so washing my feet (this raised a laugh) I climbed in and we all marched on the spot, having big feet I was made to feel very welcome! After about half an hour the juice was drained off and more grapes were tipped in. This went on all day. We sang and marked time – a really hard day! At the end of this my feet were purple and it did not wash off, six months later I was still purple between the toes.
[Digital Page 45]
But time was passing and I was not making the progress I wanted, news such as it was sounded bad. The Germans were holding a strong line in the south and Mussolini and his Fascists were making a re-appearance and becoming active. So leaving the farming area I headed once more for the mountains, here there was less food but there was also less work and more time for walking. I was away from the temptation of sitting around some farmyard in the evening drinking wine and talking and ogling the girls.
On my last evening in this land of milk and honey a young lady offered to cut my hair, so first I washed it in some strong carbolic mixture and she started clipping. Her grandmother sat so close to us we both got the giggles, the old lady became so indignant that she threatened to throw a bucket of water over us! We were saved from this by the arrival of a very old priest. He was huge. A large wooden chair was placed under him, he refused a glass of wine but accepted a glass of ‘grappa’, it was poured and quickly despatched, another was poured and this one sipped. He constantly wiped his face and head with a large red bandanna, lighting a home-made cigar he started to grill me. The young lady became so nervous as she continued to clip that she could have cut off one of my ears.
After about ten minutes of questioning he appeared satisfied and said “excellente, primeggiare” and ordered Confession and Holy Communion for me on the following morning. I pointed out that I had a little Latin and a little Italian but not enough for Confession. He said confess in English and I will absolve you in Latin “God understands all.” There was no arguing with that and then tossing back his ‘grappa’ he was lifted out of his chair and prepared to leave. I was now brave enough to mention what penance I should do after Confession. For the first time he smiled and slowly, in careful Italian, said that because I was in such grave danger that I would be excused any penance.
[Digital Page 46]
Well he had ruined my prospects for a good evening and brought me back down to earth, funnily enough Granny was far more friendly after the priest had gone, so I made for the barn and an early night.
Early next morning I was taken to the church and entered by the Sacristy door. The priest was robed and waiting for me, I knelt and started my Confession in Latin and then continued in English. He answered my Latin in Latin and my English in Italian, it went well. He then asked God to see me safely home – he made it sound like a personal plea. After this he placed a chair in the doorway so that I could see the altar and proceeded to say mass. The congregation could not see me but knew I was there and knew who I was – this was “discrezione.”
After mass he blessed me again and I departed from the farm and my generous hosts with many tears.
There was such a shortage of young men that a girl in her twenties could see the convent gates getting ever closer!
My plan now was to go south by west until I struck the Apennine Way again. The weather was starting to get a little uncertain and at eventide heavy clouds appeared.
Once again I was away from the large farms and among the smallholdings with their tiny “casa” and among the “contadini.” They were magnificent, big-hearted people and I owe them such a debt of gratitude, they risked all to help me. I tried to push on faster but was continually being warned, “Tedeschi” here, “Tedeschi” there and so on. I had to detour two or three times a day.
So far I had not seen a German or an enemy of any kind and maybe I was beginning to think my informants were a windy lot and imagining things. Then it happened. I had been warned to keep off a good track so I reluctantly moved uphill keeping above but parallel to this track and about a hundred yards from it. Suddenly there was a small truck on my left and a German soldier with his head under the bonnet!
[Digital Page 47]
He appeared to be alone but he had an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. I went to ground instantly and stayed very still. I could not see him then but could hear him tinkering with the engine. After what seemed an age he opened the door of the truck and started the engine. After a few false starts he got it going but it sounded awful so he switched it off and got back under the bonnet. This happened two or three times until at last he was satisfied and slowly backed down the hill.
I had been very lucky. I was on a bare hillside devoid of cover, if there had been only one other man with him I would certainly have been seen. For the next night and day I stayed well up into the mountains and making good time covered a lot of ground. But I was short of food and knew I would soon have to go down to get more.
In exchange for food I did more work at the farms. The harvest was now in so the main jobs were collecting stones and clearing barns. This barn clearing was almost always followed by muck-spreading. Although I was once again working, I kept on the move, but only managed to cover a few miles a day.
The news was again bad with the war in Italy becoming static. Naples had been given a really bad time and thousands of Allied troops had been killed trying to block a German supply line. But it was also sometimes difficult to tell news from rumour; I became pessimistic and took to telling people it would be a long hard winter and to prepare hiding places and to store food and so on. It turned out that this was good advice. Some people listened and some took no notice.
As I continued my trek south there was a day when, having received food, I was working my debt off by carrying olives from a grove to the press, when a lady rode up on a very smart mule. Aged about forty, she was dressed in good riding gear and as she dismounted all worked stopped and my fellow workers bowed and fluttered about.
[Digital Page 48]
I was introduced to “Il Signora,” I bowed and she said in very good English “I am pleased to meet you.”
This lady was the wife of their ‘Padrone’. She was Swiss and spoke a number of languages fluently, well travelled and informed, she began to question me closely about my military past, my P.O.W. days and the time since my escape. It seemed more like an interrogation and I have never since been questioned so carefully, it appeared as if every word out of my mouth was held up and examined.
Wine, grapes and figs arrived, we sat and she told me that her husband, a captain in the Alpine Regiment, had been fighting for the Germans up near Leningrad, but now that the Italians had joined the Allies she feared he would certainly be a P.O.W. in Germany. As I turned to pick an olive from the ground, she spoke to me sharply in German! What a woman, after all the questioning she still did not trust me!
Well she was a most aggressive female and a really strong character but with no real idea what the war was all about. Above all she was indiscreet. In front of all present she said she was involved in recruiting a band of partisans and would I like to join them? No I said, my duty was to rejoin my regiment in the south. She liked that answer and suddenly we were friends and there were no more questions. I was accepted for what I claimed to be, but it soon became apparent that she wanted to make use of my military training.
She had collected a quantity of arms and ammunition and as I was a soldier would I inspect them for her and prepare them for use? I agreed, so thanking my hosts for their kindness, I went off alongside her stirrup as she rode away. We travelled for an hour or so, she talking all the time about her plans to fight the Germans. At last we came to a large well kept house with lots of female servants. She told them to prepare a bedroom for me, but I stopped that and said no thank you and explained what would happen to them if I was discovered there.
[Digital Page 49]
She found it hard to believe and could not see that this was a deadly serious situation.
She had stored her warlike equipment deep down in an old cellar, so she lit a couple of lamps and down we went. The very first thing we saw made me quake! It was twenty or thirty pounds of a substance labelled nitro-glycerine solution of gelignite. It was so old it was sweating and rotting out of its packaging! Only male pride kept me in that cellar! There was also a wooden case of thirty-six Italian Bakelite hand-grenades, (guaranteed to blow the throwers hand off) a lot of very old rusty rifles, bayonets, a sword, large knives and finally a dozen brass knuckle-dusters (a gift from the Mafia?)
I told her of the danger to her house and servants but I am not sure she truly believed me. I would clean, oil and make safe the rifles but the explosives were unsafe and should be deeply buried, well away from people and any habitation. I also said the grenades should be buried, for having found no detonators I guessed they were primed ready to throw and as their safety pins were rusting away any mistake could start something too awful to contemplate.
Amazingly she agreed with all I said and shook me by adding “my dear friend Roberto told me all this”
So out I went and searching up the hill behind the house found a quiet spot where there were no tree roots and dug a deep hole. She again said “this is what Roberto said we should do.”
Well Roberto had all the right ideas, but why the hell hadn’t he done something about it? As I was digging she returned to the house and sent up lots of food and wine. The young girl who brought it decided she would wash and iron my shirt and was there anything else I wanted? I dug and dug and eventually got down about five feet, I couldn’t go any deeper as I was having difficulty climbing in and out of the hole! So back to the house I went for a good wash and brush up. My shirt was clean and well ironed and the same young girl started to improve my Italian!!
[Digital Page 50]
Fortunately I was saved by the arrival of Roberto and it was obvious why he had done nothing about the situation other than to offer advice.
He had lost a foot and part of a leg due to frostbite in Russia and walked round on a crude wooden stump and two sticks. He was well educated and spoke fair English and was a very handsome man of about twenty-eight. He had been fond of dancing; after the war was over, he told me, he planned to travel to America and buy the very best false leg on the market and dance again! We had a glass or two of wine and then I told the Signora that I was ready to start. I suggested that they eat “al fresco” downhill away from the house and to keep the servants away as well.
After finding a pair of gloves to handle the “jelly” – it would give you an almighty headache if handled with bare hands -I carried two or three pounds at a time and placed it carefully in the bottom of the hole. Next, with the same degree of caution, I did the same with the hand-grenades. I filled the hole with the earth and poured two or three buckets of water over it!
Then I went to eat. They had saved me a really wonderful meal, as I ate and drank both wine and brandy the good lady told of her plans to fight the Germans! It turned out to be a very pleasant evening and I ended up walking Roberto home – for he had dined too well for a man with a wooden leg!! His mother and two sisters were waiting up for him and I was a great surprise to them. They kindly offered me food and wine but politely thanking them I returned to my blanket in the barn.
Next morning I washed and shaved and then started on the rifles. Many of them had been left loaded and I thanked God for my good Army training on safety measures. All of them were rusty but I had a good supply of olive oil and with some sand had them back to shiny metal in no time at all. I then covered them with sacking and tied them ready to be transported. The ammunition also had to be cleaned and repacked so I had a whole day of work.
[Digital Page 51]
Later “Il Signora” told me she was anxious about my hole and its contents, but I pointed out that it was five foot deep and well off the beaten track. Then we both noticed that it looked like a grave!
So I collected some suitable stones and lined it, my lady dashed off, (she never walked) and returned with a very good wooden cross. I hammered this into the ground and it looked good, at least anyone tempted to dig there would go carefully.
So we returned to the house where I lectured her on the so-called partisans. They were young men in hiding in the mountains, free food, no work and a rifle to carry. But as soon as they inconvenienced the German Wermacht all hell would break loose over a wide area. Fire, rape, shootings would all be taken out on the local populace, for the Germans would not go chasing around the mountains or bother looking for evidence. And I pointed out that she had most to lose, I struck a cord with her when I said her husband would hope to return to a good home and wife and not a derelict farm! I then went into my standard lecture on finding a safe hiding place, storing food for the winter, hiding any valuables and looking after yourself and the bunch of young girls who worked for her.
She agreed with all this and maybe she changed her ways; I never mentioned her good friend Roberto; that was her husband’s problem!
So early next morning we parted on the best of terms, I was given food for my journey, my bottle filled with wine, a woollen scarf and last but not least all her thanks for the job I had done and for my advice.
As I made my way back up toward the mountain track once again I realised that I should have asked her for a map. I had been kept so busy that I had never asked where I was or even the date! Even within a short while of leaving, I began to feel lonely again!
[Digital Page 52]
It must have been early October by this time and certainly the weather was on the change. That night I shared sleeping quarters in a shepherd’s lean-to in one of the high valley sheep pens. It rained and rained and I became somewhat depressed probably brought on by the fact that I was not making the sort of progress that I wanted.
Well next morning the sun rose and as I washed and shaved the moment of doubt had passed and I said out loud “I’m going home.” The shepherd replied by saying “Dopo la pioggia viene sereno” (after the storm, fair weather) he then also said “chi va piano va sono e va contano” (he who goes slowly, goes far). I shook his hand as we parted. He had been alone for five months and in two weeks was due to drive his flock down to his wife and small farm and also into danger from the advancing tide of war.
I followed my track and he watched and waved for many a mile. I was on this track for two days, up and down following the contours of the mountain range, seeing only charcoal burners. These were unusual people with hardly a word to say, just a black smile and a “Giorno.” I felt these people were doing a lot of damage by cutting down the mountain trees and scrub. After three or four days on my high track it was time to go down once more for food. Due east again and time wasted from my aim southward but I could not go forward without food.
As I moved down into the valley I realised it must be a Sunday for all the church bells were ringing and the great army of women and children, all dressed in their decent black and carrying their shoes, were on the move.
I approached a better than average farmhouse and was ready for the usual questions and answers, when the front door burst open and a young female aged about twenty or so dashed out and picking up a stick, waved me away!
[Digital Page 53]
I went quickly and continued down the valley slowly having lost a great deal of confidence. I approached the next property carefully and was near the front door when it opened and four females, carrying their shoes, came out.
I recognised at once that they were off to mass – they always put on their shoes at the church door- they stayed briefly to ask all the usual questions and hear my answers, and then left me with the Father (he was not a Catholic but a Free Thinker; most unusual!) The women told me to stay there until their return when we would eat. So I helped to strip tobacco leaves and put them in a press, we then sieved seeds for the next year’s crop and put them to dry and mature. Amazingly they were genuine Virginia tobacco plants that had been imported some time before the War. This was interesting for at that time the Americans had very strict laws against the movement of tobacco plants and seed, this was, of course, to protect their market. The European plant of Nicotiana was difficult to cultivate in large quantities and had a harsher flavour and a different aroma. The farmer also grew a Turkish variety of leaf and when blended with the Virginia smelt wonderful. As well as tobacco the farm produced its own wine which the farmer sold for weddings, funerals, first communions and so on and although all the wine I had so far come across on my journey had been red, this farm produced a very fine white variety.
I told the farmer of my experience farther up the valley where I had been chased away. He said they had been very strong for Mussolini and were die hard Fascists but were unfortunate to have two sons killed and another son was a prisoner in Egypt. He said they were good people but were broken-hearted at their loss and upset at the fall of Mussolini and the change of fortune of the Fascists. He said they would get over it given time, after all politicians were all rubbish and should not be taken too seriously. Whatever the politics of a man he still had to work to eat, “Niente lavora, niente mangiare .” It appears I had met a philosopher!
[Digital Page 54]
When the womenfolk returned I was given a good meal and drank my share of wine, during the meal I was carefully questioned by the daughters about my love life (I didn’t have one) and teased about it. I think they found it enjoyable to have a man to practice on once again.
I was invited to stay until the Allies advanced but I explained how dangerous it was for them to have someone like me around, especially with neighbours who had Fascist sympathies.
I also said that Montgomery was “piano, piano, sempre piano” and that he was advancing so slowly that it could be months before the Army arrived. They saw the wisdom of all this and I went through my routine speech about winter and the war and hiding places and so on. The farmer drew a very good map for me and told me I was north-west of Montorio in the Abruzzi. Then the eldest daughter offered to put me on a good track the next morning and much to my surprise the family agreed. So early next day, after bidding the family farewell, we walked away.
I was most grateful for this information about the track for it saved me a lot of blundering around. The girl was about nineteen and had a kindly face and a very good figure, she showed me a track I would never have found on my own, in actual fact it was more like a footpath but it went on for miles. I thanked her and in the face of such trust gave her a brotherly kiss and said “arrivederci” and she said “ciao.”
I have never been able to make up my mind whether she had looked surprised or disappointed at the kiss, anyway she must have returned in good time enough to keep her parents happy.
That night I slept in a rat infested barn and had my left ear-lobe bitten in my sleep. I have always hated rats and I spent the rest of the night outside sitting up and it started to rain!
[Digital Page 55]
At day break the rain still hammered down and it looked set for the rest of the day, but I decided to walk on anyway. So using my map and following my footpath I set off and making good time covered a lot of ground. I was concerned about the rat bite but I had been inoculated against most things except, of course, rabies.
Well. I walked all day and was soaked to the skin but early evening found a good place to spend the night but my clothing and blanket was so wet I could not lie down, so I spent another night sitting up, wet and miserable – it was my worst night yet! Dawn was slow in coming but fortunately when it arrived it brought a really fine day. But I was wet and unhappy and knew that walking in the rain had been a big mistake, I can only put it down to impatience for now I would lose time drying all I possessed, furthermore I had a headache and felt feverish. Was it the rat bite?
So I found a good bushy wood with a stream and plenty of cover from view. I undressed and laid all my clothing and blanket out, washed and shaved and ate wet bread and a red onion and finding a sunny spot, tried to sleep. But I was on edge and the slightest sound had me awake; I think a completely naked man will always feel vulnerable.
By mid afternoon everything was dry so I went on and after a few miles found a small ‘casa’ where I was made welcome. I was put to work carrying logs up from the fields and building a circular log stack around a central post – this is the way the “contadini” like it done. I was fed and slept “nella fienile colle besti.” (In the barn with the beasts). After my experience with the rats I slept with blanket wrapped around my head and very nearly suffocated!
In the morning I finished the log stack and was complimented on my work. I really had moved a mountain of logs and they had the biggest log stack ever.
[Digital Page 56]
The old couple were grateful and before I departed they gave me a thick soup of pumpkin and celery. It was delicious.
The old man listened very carefully when I warned him of the coming winter but the old lady shrugged her shoulders and said (from what I understood) “life has always been hard for us, coffee, sugar, clothes, boots always they are expensive and scarce and since that imbecile Mussolini took over, none at all. Poor us, we must be content with our lot, life is short and so on”. From what I had seen on my journey, she was right, the “contadini” led a hard life.
Thanking them I went on my way thinking there had been a change in the attitude of the local population since the euphoria brought on by the fall of Mussolini and the declaration of the Armistice. Word was getting around about the harshness of the Germans. According to rumour, the usual punishment for helping someone like me, or indeed any infringement of their rules, was to shoot the man of the house in front of his family, set fire to the home and take any livestock for food.
After the war it was always the S.S. [Schutzstaffel] or the Gestapo who received the blame for any atrocity but, from my experience in over five years of war, any unit of the Wermacht reacted violently when thwarted or threatened. They did not care, their attitude was “no one likes us, so we don’t care.”
I know I was right to warn people about what could happen once the arena of war reached their area, it was better for them to be prepared, particularly as the Italians had earned the contempt of the Germans for changing sides. So I kept telling people I met to be prepared for a long hard winter. To myself, I kept saying that I didn’t want to still be behind German lines when the winter did arrive, I knew what I would be in for!
So I pushed on trying to keep between the plains and the high mountain ridges, but always walking across the grain of the country made for slow progress.
[Digital Page 57]
Then I came across a badly frightened area, where I was not made to feel welcome and if I was lucky was given food in a hurry. House and barn were closed against me. This was an area controlled by a band of Fascists thugs led by a man called “Il Maggiore.” (The Major) He was described as “Il Brutalita,” “Il Animale” and very many other rude titles.
A young boy; he could only have been aged about nine; risked his life to show me a detour around this despots village, this in the dead of night and the poor lad had to then make his way back home! I will never know, but please God he did!!
This man had the entire area scared witless, capturing men, young and old, and sending them off to work in Germany. All men of any age had gone into hiding. Apparently he had then begun to take the young girls from their homes and send them off! He had any known anti-fascist killed and this included a large number of priests!
So after this area I made once more for the mountains, hungry but a lot safer, I pushed on southward and tried to ration my food. I began to notice that the sheep were now being driven down from the mountains to the lowland winter pastures, which was a bad sign for me.
That night I slept in an empty sheep-pen. The shepherds hut was empty but the door was fastened and I would not break it down. So I gathered lots of gorse and made a bed in the corner of the pen. The sky that night was clear and full of stars, one of those nights when you felt you could almost reach out and touch them. I had matches and could have lit a fire but knew that could attract attention and one cannot see outside the ring of light. I was safer in the dark.
Next morning dawned misty but I found a spring and before the mist had started to lift I had shaved and washed all over and was on my way, a bit hungry but making good progress.
[Digital Page 58]
I had been going for about two hours when coming toward me I saw a young man with a pack on his back and walking with the aid of a stick for he was limping badly.
This was unusual so I was nervous about him and I could see he was not sure about me. We slowed and approached each other cautiously. He spoke to me in Italian, the usual questions, and for once I had the pleasure of asking him the same questions that had been put to me so often before. He was my age, twenty four and had been in the Italian Navy.
He had been on the road for a month and had travelled from Brindisi in the south-east and was making for his home in Firenza (Florence). He had decided that the mountain route was safer than the Naples, Rome, Genoa road. I asked him about the ‘Tedeschi’ battle lines and he said “difficile” and “rischio” but he had made it with a large pack on his back so I felt if he could do it so could I! I had always intended to ditch all I possessed when I got near the fighting lines and just keep my shirt, shorts and boots.
He had lots of food and wine and like all Italians was generous with it, but he craved tobacco. I warned him about the area I had come through controlled by “Il Maggiore” but he still intended to go down to the east – tobacco filled his mind.
He limped because he had cut his boots down to shoes, a big mistake! I had seen this done in Campo 53, it made for a very sloppy fit which caused blisters. He showed me his feet, the heels were red raw and looked septic to me and his feet were also filthy, in addition he was unshaven and smelled very gamey!!
We tore the tail off his spare shirt and I dressed the wounds with a drop of wine. I told him he had better get his feet cleaned and he agreed but only when he stopped for the night. Despite his lack of hygiene he was a good, generous chap and we wished each other “dio ce lu mandi buena” (may we get out of this safely) so we parted – each about half way to his goal.
[Digital Page 59]
Later that day I came to a small ‘casa’ in a most isolated valley and was greeted politely and given bread spread with seasoned lard. I sat against a barn wall eating and talking to the man of the house when the earth shook and there was a most terrifying rumble. The barn moved and tiles flew off and there was dust everywhere, “pressa di terra” said the ‘Signora’ dashing out of the house with her many small children. An earthquake!!
Later there were many small rumbles and a few shakes and the family thought it better to sleep out of doors. After thanking them and wishing them a safe sleep I made for the mountains and slept in the open.
By this time I was just north of the Sasso of the Abruzzi, I have seen higher mountains but never such a wide, deep mass of rock. I intended to skirt round the fringes.
I shortly met and was fed by a forester living alone in a small hut. He had a son who had left him to join the partisans. Not for any patriotic reasons but for the excitement. Food, wine, no work and a rifle to carry. If the ‘Tedeschi’ caught him, God have mercy and give him a quick death, we both crossed ourselves!
Before the lad had departed they had cut down a large number of trees and now he was slashing off the branches so he could send the trees down the mountain to a saw mill thousands of feet below. There was a crude overhead trolley wire – very dangerous for anyone unlucky enough to be climbing up the mountain when one of these trees were hurtling down the other way!!
Anyway, the forester asked me to help him, in return he would give me food and wine and a pair of khaki coveralls. So I started to slash branches off the trees with a large machete. After only three or four hours of this my arm was shrieking with pain but I stuck it for two days and then to my relief a replacement arrived.
[Digital Page 60]
It was the foresters daughter. She had good strong arms, was of a solid build and when wielding a machete, put me to shame!! She was also of a passionate nature and very quickly started to plan “our” future. So I collected my coveralls, a little food and wine and refusing money made my way south once more. My hands were extremely blistered and covered in pine tar and for days after I smelt like an old log!
[Digital Page 61]
About this time I found more and more military activity across my route, villages that I carefully skirted were occupied by the Germans. Houses and barns were gutted to provide camouflaged shelters for tanks and self-propelled guns. Traffic on even the smallest roads was considerable and crossing major roads was very risky.
I had always been careful and taken my time when crossing roads, first seeking good cover close to the road, then watching, waiting and observing. My hearing was still not good as a consequence of the knocks I had taken to my head in Africa months previously, so I relied entirely on my eyes. When I decided all was safe I would dash over to a preselected shelter and recover my breath and study the route ahead.
Now when crossing a road I found myself waiting to last light and even then it was very risky and I had a few close shaves with motor-cycles.
Food was now getting very short and I was forced to collect from the fields and this often meant the danger of lighting a fire which was also time consuming. Although there were many days when I considered going to friends and hiding and laying up for the winter to wait for the advancing Allies, an inner sense of purpose kept me going forward. I also thought about the danger I would be putting anyone in should they be caught helping me.
Then one morning in front of me I discovered a deep river, I could have swum across but what of my clothes, blanket and the gear I had so painstakingly acquired? I carefully surveyed the river bank one mile upstream and one mile downstream. There were no boats, rafts or people, so I turned back from the river to seek information.
[Digital Page 62]
I found an elderly man cutting timber with a saw and I asked him about the river. He said it went down to the sea at Pescara, (this was the Adriatic which was about twenty five miles away) and upstream to Popoli and then Sulmona, but they are both occupied by the ‘Tedeschi’. But, he told me, if you walk two hours downstream you come to a bridge with many roads leading to it and many roads leading from it. He told me he had not been that way for many years so did not know if it was guarded. He was a kindly man and showing me a hiding place went off to get some food.
I spent an anxious couple of hours (was he betraying me?) but thank God he returned with a can of hot soup, a loaf of bread and wine. And he also had the good news that the bridge was not guarded but was in constant use.
He had risked a lot for me and I felt bad for having doubted him, but many fears are born of loneliness and fatigue. I ate well and we drank the wine together, I then thanked him and departed.
Walking slowly I took pains to arrive at the road junction just above the bridge at last light. The old man had been right, there was constant traffic on the bridge and he had reminded me there was a curfew at night so I had to be careful not to be seen.
The road on both sides of the river sloped down to the bridge and the traffic crossed at a fast pace. There appeared to be no foot traffic. There were plenty trees and bushes on both sides of the river to provide cover but the bridge itself was bare and open. So I went down to the river bank and studied the bridge, particularly the underside, but it was plain with large trestles, far apart. So I went back to the road by the bridge to watch and wait. I stood by the shoulder of the bridge for some hours, but even now that it was dark the traffic was continuous, trucks, staff-cars, tank-transporters and despatch riders. Then there was a pause, I stepped out from my hiding place, prepared to make a dash, when with a swish a staff car was on me and missed me by inches!!
[Digital Page 63]
I dropped to the ground and waited for the squeal of brakes, but nothing; over the bridge they went. They must have seen me, but maybe he could not have been bothered with what he thought was only a curfew breaker. I lay for some time with my heart pounding and my body trembling. It had been so near, so very near!
Over eight weeks of endeavour almost went down the drain. It took a long time and many sips of wine before I got myself fully under control to consider another attempt to cross. I waited and waited and in that time noticed that most of the smaller vehicles coasted downhill over the bridge. I wondered why? Probably conserving fuel.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning the traffic thinned out so I got to my feet, moved my limbs and flexed my muscles to warm up for a dash. After a few false starts I pounded over. A seventy five yard dash to the end of the bridge and then I flung myself into cover. None too soon as a car coming downhill towards me was only a few seconds from catching me, if he had been using lights he would have seen me! Thank God for the blackout. I got myself under control again and moved off westwards away from all the traffic and people and found a good sheltered place for a few hours sleep
After this tense river crossing I then had two or three good days when I covered a lot of ground. The weather was kind and the going easy. There were fewer ‘Tedeschi’ and consequently the “contadini” were less nervous. I decided I must have passed through a defensive line or a fall back position or even an Army Corps Echelon area. I thought I would now only have the forward fighting positions between myself and freedom.
News was hard to come by, but I heard that General Badoglio was now in charge and telling the Italians to fight the Germans. Naples had fallen to the Allies.
[Digital Page 64]
There was fighting near Bari about two hundred miles from me and in the direction I was travelling, maybe if the going was good it was only a two week march away! However there was talk of some fearful atrocities committed by the retreating Germans.
Around this part of my journey I was hearing large planes going north and at night the sky was full of bombers. The locals I spoke to liked this and talked a lot about the Allies, always including themselves in this group.
Unfortunately the weather had become uncertain with lots of wind and rain and very cold nights, but even this late in the year some days were as good as an English summer. I was gaining in confidence having been out for more than eight weeks and my instincts were sharp. As I said my hearing was not great but my eyesight was good and I could pick out the slightest movement at a great distance. When walking I tended to keep to the shadows and was getting an instinct about which “casa” would welcome me and which ones wouldn’t. My Italian was still not all that good for speaking but I could understand a lot, and in Italy, where everyone speaks and no one listens I was an exception, and therefore welcome, for every Italian is an orator and only lack an audience.
My body was brown and fit from all the walking and working but my clothing was beginning to show signs of wear and my boots were about to give up. I shaved and washed every day and if the weather was good stripped off and climbed into a stream or pond. I was only caught out once like this and it was by a group of girls obviously on the way to mass on a Sunday . The “Donna” with them shooed them away amidst much laughter and therefore spared my blushes.
I slept in barns or stables but such places were often full of rats; one hardly ever saw a cat but there was a great need of them. I always offered to work but with the harvest in and the present uncertain conditions it appeared little was happening.
[Digital Page 65]
But I still helped to feed animals, bottle wine and assisted at making pasta. This was made and cut using a machine like a mangle and I spent many hours turning the handle and changing blades for the different types of pasta. I also continued to clear stones from fields and clear muck from stables.
I spent nearly two days carrying stones for a farmer repairing his terrace walls in a vineyard. His son had deserted from the army and had arrived home to hide, he was helping his father, when against all advice, (I can look after myself!!) he had gone into a local village at the invitation of a girl and had been grabbed by a Fascist patrol and sent to Germany to work.
The leader of the patrol was a cousin, as was the girl who baited the trap!
Slave labour in Germany was a terrible thing and the mother was distraught and his three sisters were mad with anger. The father of this household was the recipient of all this emotion and was expected to “do something.” At the end of my first day of work he produced a rifle, a point two two and asked me if it would kill a Fascist?
I said something like this “squirrel-gun” would probably wound but not kill. Then to my surprise he said he could borrow a pistol, would I as a soldier help him kill this Fascist? “You have killed men, why not kill this enemy?”
I was washing at the time and kept my head down and thought hard. I admitted I had killed men in the war and to give myself time to think I asked him, in my limited Italian, a number of questions like this – “Do we lie in wait and catch him when he returns home? Or do we follow him and shoot him when he is alone?” “Who will the Fascists think has done this shooting? Where will they come looking?”
Well, he replied, they may think its me or maybe someone else, but they could not prove it.
[Digital Page 66]
Then I said at a time like this do you think they will bother with proof? If you do it now everyone will know it is you. That will mean your death, they will burn your farm and rape your daughters. Then your son will have nothing to return home to. If you wait you will get your chance before the war ends or even when the war is over there will be courts and punishment!
Whilst I finished my ablutions he thought about what I said and then started to cry “Povera, povera” and so on.
So I tried again, best to wait until after the war and then you, your son and friends can sort him out. Well, this thought cheered him up a bit and he asked me to tell his family what I had told him. I said I would try but I knew women would be harder to convince!
We had a good meal together and when the table was cleared, an oil lamp was placed in the centre, wine poured and the women sat around with dark, liquid eyes. He told them what I had said about not doing anything whilst the Fascists ruled the area. If they picked the right moment retaliation would surely quickly follow. They talked and talked and I tried to help and was listened to politely. I pointed out if their father was shot and their farm burnt then the son would come home to nothing. I also pointed out that not all prisoners got to Germany, perhaps he had already escaped and was making his way home – after all, he had got away from the Army. This idea was well received.
All along, I felt the one to convince was the eldest daughter. She was only a little younger than me and from the looks I got from her I was not sure that she liked me. She did most of the talking and came down on my side. She proposed at the next “fiesta” that they all go and call on the “Vescovado Monsignore” (rather like a rural Dean) and have the Fascists forbidden the sacraments – a kind of local excommunication. The mother liked this idea and so they agreed to do just that and in the meantime they would nurse their anger and get revenge later.
[Digital Page 67]
So we had some more wine and then I made my way to the barn and sleep.
Next day we finished the walling and about midday, after some soup I said goodbye. By this time I think the eldest girl had come round to liking me and we embraced so much that the others laughed with glee! This girl was a do-er, I bet she sorted out the girl and the Fascist leader from the village. She had a strong spirit.
Next day I saw a squadron of R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] in formation quite low overhead, so near and yet so far. Rumour said that the Allies were on the move but that the Germans were operating a scorched earth policy as they pulled back. Well I had food for three days if I was careful, so I made for the mountains and pushed on south. This time there were a lot more people using the Apennine Way – all going north. There also appeared to be a lot more people in hiding in the hills. There were so-called partisans boasting about what they would do to the Germans and Fascists.
I even came across a party of Jewish men sheltering in and around a shepherds hut, they were most remarkably well equipped but looked a bit out of place in their town and city clothing. They had been in hiding for about two years; early on they had apparently got their families away to France but they had hung on to their businesses until the last moment. Funnily enough they had been fairly safe under Mussolini but now that the Germans held sway they had moved out from their safe houses into the mountains. They were kind toward me and gave me real coffee and a very large hard biscuit. I do hope that they were able to hang on, but to my thinking they seemed to be too static. They all spoke Italian, German, French and English. A crowd of their size made food provision more difficult. I did not stay with them long but pushed on making good time.
[Digital Page 68]
Late one night I heard a big rumble and thought it was another earthquake, but nothing shook and the sound went on and on! Yes! I was listening to a gun barrage, but knowing how sound travels in the mountains realised it was still many miles away. So it was not yet time for “plan A” when I would discard all my gear and go forward in light order.
I made an early start next morning, the night had been bitterly cold and I had not slept well, after about two miles I came up behind a young girl in some sort of uniform, she was on the same track as me but was not travelling so quickly as she was carrying an impossibly large suitcase slung on her back.
We exchanged greetings and walking together she told her story. She was a nurse in training at a large hospital in Modena when the Germans, moving in, turned the sick out and conscripted the doctors and nurses and all the nuns, much against their will. Well, this nurse, with three friends all from the south, packed their bags and got out of a basement window and made for the railway. They were helped aboard a goods train which was going south along the Adriatic coast, but at Pescara the train had been commandeered by the Germans and everyone on board was made prisoner. Luckily for the four friends there were a lot of travellers and few Germans and with help from some railway staff they had got away.
Her friends all from the Abruzzi had now all gone their ways and last night had been her first night alone. She admitted to being scared and had little sleep; we must have been very close to each other when we camped last night. She was pleased to have company and even more so when she discovered I had food for she had not eaten for two days.
So we shared a meal of bread, onions, tomatoes and a heel of cheese that was starting to go green. She wolfed the lot and was very grateful, but for me it meant I would have to go down to the valley a lot sooner than I had expected.
[Digital Page 69]
We exchanged burdens, she carrying my pack and blanket roll and I her great heavy suitcase that was secured with rope.
That night we found a sheltered corner against an outcrop and by gathering rocks in piles, made two coffin shaped sleeping burrows and filled them with gorse. She had my blanket and I the coveralls.
Next morning as soon as we came to a spring I went through my ritual of washing and shaving. She was much amused and said her father took less trouble when invited to a wedding. So we walked on and neither of us were lonely now, she was a good companion, vivacious and talkative. I suppose I must have understood about half of everything she said. I think she may possibly have been too trusting or was a good judge and had weighed me up early on!
Early that evening we saw a well used track down to the east, we followed it down and came to a small ‘casa’, she spoke to the man and his wife in the local dialect of the Abruzzi, a ‘patois’ beyond me!
She was made welcome, me less so, but we were fed and given wine and she was invited to sleep in the house and I was shown a manger in the barn. This barn was a cave, and to my mind reminiscent of Bethlehem! I liked it and was happy enough.
The next morning I completed my ablutions before they had stirred in the house. For breakfast we were given food and more wine and I was busy thanking them when the woman of the house asked the girl a lot of questions in the local dialect, she went scarlet and said non and ‘niente’ several times. So I could guess what she had been asked!!
We walked back uphill to find our track, the wind and light rain were in our faces, I led the way and for once she was silent. After the first hour we stopped for a ten minute break and I took her hand and tried to say that she shouldn’t worry about what people said.
[Digital Page 70]
We were friends and just travelling together in much danger but we were “going home.” Well, it may not have been in great Italian but she understood and laughed and said “stupido” and “ignorante” and so on. This cheered her up and we went on as before walking side by side and her talking constantly.
Toward evening we found a sheltered spot and I made two sleeping shelters. She prepared bread with seasoned lard and grated vegetables and we ate a melon. It was all very nice, but I noticed she watered our wine; not the way I usually drank it, maybe the woman’s words had made her aware of her situation. I do hope she was not worried about me!!
We started early once again the next morning but at the first spring I went through my normal practice, it must have tried her patience but she was too polite to say anything.
That night, with luck, she hoped she would be sleeping in her own home!
We were making good time but I began to feel slightly worried, for suddenly there was not a soul on our track where for some time there had been regular travellers. So I told her if I said so she must drop everything and we would race uphill into the mountains. About midday we came to a cross track we had been told to watch out for, here we made our way east, downhill.
The directions were vague from here and we were uncertain of the way to go, the plan had been for me to leave her when I got her on the road to her village, providing there was daylight and the distance was not too far. I didn’t want her to be found with me, for it was dangerous for her if found with an escaper.
At last we met a young man on the track; now this was unusual, for young men on their own was a sight I had not seen on my journey. To me he looked shifty! Well she spoke to him in the dialect and they had a long conversation which I had no hope of understanding. But I knew her well enough by now to know she was not happy with him. She told me her village was ten miles away and that he would take her there, but not if I was around!
[Digital Page 71]
Ignoring him, I said “Voi felice?” (you happy?) I could see from her face she was not, so I picked up her suitcase, hoisted it on my back and said “andare vai,” (lets go) and off we went.
He dragged along behind us still trying to persuade her to go with him, so I put down the case and grabbed him by the throat and threatened his life while shaking him like a rat -I was concerned and had no time for his nonsense. I then made him walk back away from us and I watched him out of sight. I was not going to have him with us or waiting ahead of us. All this delighted her and she kept saying what I believe to be, “just like the cinema – just like the cinema.”
We walked quickly on and after a few miles got good directions from a woman collecting rushes. Another hour or so and the girl recognised the road and farms and then in the distance her village.
She was so happy and almost running but for me this was dangerous being in such a populated area on the plain where there was little cover. We stopped short of the village and finding a good spot hid our packs, she also removed her coat and hat as if to make out she had only been walking in the fields should she meet anyone. She made for her home as I hid and waited. It started to get dark and she seemed to be gone for an age and then she appeared with her father and an uncle who were carrying food and wine.
We recovered her coat, hat and suitcase, her father embraced me and cried with gratitude. Her uncle opened the wine and we drank deeply. My girl having been brave for so long, now broke down and the tears flowed. I said goodbye, but before I went she insisted I should see the present she had got for her mother and which I had been carrying in her suitcase for many miles. It was the most beautiful carved stone figure of The Madonna. The stone was like alabaster and even in the twilight I could see the beauty of this statue.
[Digital Page 72]
So we embraced (the first time we had been really close) and I said farewell, just in time, for her mother, unable to hold back her curiosity any longer, was coming down the lane calling her daughters name. So I departed, never to see her again, she was a brave girl and I hope she had a good life.
Carefully, by a different route, I returned to the mountains and found my old track, I had lost a day or two but I now had food and felt good about what I had done. Her suitcase had rubbed my back sore but carrying a statue of The Madonna could have done me no harm.
About this time I started to hear the guns continuously, day and night, and many more aircraft flew overhead. I began to meet shepherds driving their sheep back up into the hills, the valleys having become too dangerous. Also there were a lot of people on the track, all heading north and telling the same story.
It was impossible to get south because the ‘Tedeschi’ had all the tracks covered, go north they said where there is food and safety and the Allies will come. But both the Armies had dug in for the winter and it could stay static for some time.
Well I had known it would not be easy, so I listened to this advice but went on. The guns sounded nearer now and I saw and heard artillery spotter planes. Then one night I saw flares in the distance and knew it was infantry calling for S.O.S. fire from the guns. How often had I done just that and very often been ignored because the gunners were sleeping and often then got a rocket next morning for being windy. I felt it was fast approaching time for “Plan A.”
The central mountain range now started to change to rolling hills which even so were still very high. I met charcoal burners going north carrying all they possessed and only got a nod as a greeting – they were certainly different! Then I met a very frightened man, also running, he said that a few miles ahead was a main road and a river where there was fighting!
[Digital Page 73]
A defensive line had been dug with forced labour and when it was completed the labourers had been shot. He suggested I go west toward Cassino (a name unknown to me then) but I did not have the food for that and it did not seem a good idea. So I went on but even more carefully than ever. I found the shepherds a great help as they gave me valuable information. I now passed through desolated villages, burnt out farms and ‘casas’, a village completely destroyed and bodies in the street – the smell was awful. They were the poor folk of the country caught up in a dreadful war, women, children and even babies.
Food was non-existent and I collected what I could from the, fields, mainly carrots. I met some more shepherds, these were trying to hide their sheep, one shepherd was so hungry that I shared what food I had with him. I suggested he kill one of his flock. This horrified him and he said he could not do it and if he did, could not have ate the meat. I left him building stone shelters against the coming winter.
I knew the sheep would always find something and survive, but I thought the shepherd might starve.
I now moved slowly and carefully, spending ages watching each open space before crossing. The weather had turned very cold and most days it rained, the nights were agony and I was now without food. All day I heard heavy guns and now machine guns and small arms fire. I could see lots of tanks and soldiers in the valleys and everywhere there was movement. I made my decision that in the morning I would carry out Plan A and jettison my kit and go forward in light order; surely there would be a gap in the lines I could find to make my way through by night.
I searched around for food and discovered a small vegetable patch some farmer had cultivated on the slope of a hill, a patch protected by a hedge near a sunken track. Here I found tomatoes, and beetroots.
[Digital Page 74]
As the beets were quite tall and had a lot of foliage I settled down here for the night in an irrigation furrow that ran through the plot. The whole thing reminded me of an allotment in England.
It was extremely cold and I was finding it difficult to sleep when, in the middle of the night, two German half-tracks towing guns drove up to my front. I eased downhill away from them only to find two more half-tracks with guns to my rear. I was caught in the middle of a battery position!! Then lots of soldiers with the usual gun position survey instruments appeared and more vehicles arrived every minute. There were one or two staff cars and even a field kitchen – they were all much too close to me. I knew that I had to try Plan A now!! I discarded my blanket and everything else and crawled to hide face down among the beets. More troops arrived to my left and right. I had nowhere to go, I just had to stay put! I felt I had made a big mistake. I thought I should have stayed afoot and kept mobile.
I dreaded the thought of morning and daylight, surely I must be discovered, some soldier was bound to stumble over me.
I knew retreating troops could not afford to take prisoners! I had taken part in many a retreat and knew the embarrassment of prisoners taken when one is falling back – guards for them, food transport and so on. We had moaned many times about this problem although I had never seen a prisoner shot.
But these boys were different, having terrorised most of Europe I could not see them worrying too much about shooting one man. I was very unhappy and prayed and asked God for a miracle!!
Fortunately the Germans were kept busy setting up their position and were soon called on to give S.O.S. fire and at one stage, anti-aircraft fire.
It rained all that night so they did not move around much. I expected counter battery fire all the time but I never heard a shell land near us.
[Digital Page 75]
The Germans must have been very confident for they never dug-in and this told me that they didn’t expect to be staying long.
Daylight came and I was still face down in the beet. The gunfire slowly petered out and I heard sentries being posted and the rest of the battery settling down to sleep. The rain pelted down and no one moved around and the war seemed to stand still, but I dared not move. I was surrounded on all sides, was wet and freezing cold and my stomach rumbled with lack of food. But I lay and prayed. I could smell the field kitchen and hear the radio operators shouting, once or twice throughout that long day they were called upon to shoot. But still I was not discovered.
Fortunately with the dreadful weather it got dark early so I was able to move ever so slightly and pull a beetroot out of the ground. I cleaned most of the mud off and bit into it; uncooked it tasted of the soil and not very pleasant but it gave my stomach something to work on.
The guns started again and this time there was some answering fire from our guns but it all fell short, luckily for me.
It was a long cold night and I was tempted to try and crawl away but I was completely surrounded with men all around and vehicles on the move. At one point a linesman laid a telephone line within four or five yards of me, I heard his line being reeled out and could smell the cigar he was smoking.
The rain stopped and it got even colder! I must have dozed in fits and starts and this second night seemed longer than the first! I tried another beetroot, it was as bad as the first, but it sustained me.
Someone shouted into a radio all night; I suppose their communications were as bad as ours! I was getting resigned to being discovered for surely my luck could not continue to hold out for much longer.
[Digital Page 76]
Daybreak brought fine weather and the gunners settled down to sleep, the sentries this time roaming around shouting at each other and throwing stones. There was a big fuss when someone wanted “Heinie!” Then a voice with authority in it told them to shut up.
For a second day I lay wet and muddy not daring to move, I even began to look forward to the evening and a bite of beetroot and a slight change of position. I must have fallen asleep through sheer exhaustion, for I woke when the evening shoot began, this time it was flat out fire and a change of direction – off to my left and I thought at a shorter range. Then from the direction of the sunken track I heard troops moving on foot and then more troops moving parallel to them. There was lots of shouting, laughter and some greetings. Was this reinforcements going forward or troops retreating? I could not tell, it was just noise, movement and the sloshing of mud. Then there was a real flat out flurry of gunfire, the target was different again. Was the range shorter? Then there was the sound of telephone wire being reeled in, orders were shouted, guns being hitched and half-tracks being started up.
In two minutes they were on their way leaving me in sole possession of the hillside and with a tremendous sense of relief. I waited and listened for some time but there was not a sound. I tried to stand but for the life of me I couldn’t manage it.
Eventually I got to a kneeling position and moved my arms, and still on my knees moved around a little. Then in time I did get upright and waved my arms and got my circulation going.
My first thought was to then look for food, I hunted around for scraps that might have been left, a tin of something, a pack of biscuits or even a crust of bread. But there was not a thing, just a terrible mess – even the latrines had been left open.
I searched around and found my gear, took the toilet packet, said a thank you to the rest of my few possessions and left everything. Plan A was now!
[Digital Page 77]
I walked stiffly away to the sunken track, looking skyward I found the constellation of The Great Bear, turned my back on it, and walked south.
The night was fairly light and all the guns had fallen silent, only the wind moaned a little and an owl called, it all seemed so different to the last two nights I had spent.
I thanked God for my miracle!!
I was weak with hunger, soaking wet, muddy and rather light-headed. I could smell the German tobacco in the hedges along my track. But which way had they gone? Forward or back? I would still have to be very careful.
I came to a cross track with the usual shrine of a crucifix and a stone memorial to someone long gone. I was unsure of the direction to head. Go south or east? I paused and could not make my mind up.
Then I heard a sound in the distance.
It was singing!
I waited and concealed myself.
Yes it was definitely singing and coming from the east. And then there was shouting in Italian.
A good strong voice was singing “Armapola.” I knew the tune. Then another shout, “La Guerra Finito” a pause and then the song again.
There was then the sound of boots sloshing through mud, and peering out I saw a small civilian holding a bottle and obviously very drunk!
I stepped out and he jumped in surprise. I shushed him quiet and asked him if there were any Germans near.
He had trouble standing still but said “Tedeschi andara via” (the Germans are gone) I said “Niente” and he replied “ad crepascolare.” (at dusk). Again I said “niente.” He said “si” and thrust his bottle toward me. I drank deeply and choked and spluttered on the fiery ‘grappa’.
[Digital Page 78]
He laughed and then told me his story. He had been grabbed by the Germans and made to work, with a large number of other Italians, repairing a road. They had been beaten and had received no food during their labour. Then suddenly a truck had arrived and the guards climbed aboard, before driving off they had turned on the Italian workforce and opened fire on them, killing some and wounding many others. He had been lucky and had run and run, heading for home. He had stopped at the house of a good friend where he had been given food, wine and ‘grappa’. The food and wine was now gone, but here, have some more ‘grappa’ he said.
I was still very uncertain, had the Germans really gone? I asked about the River Sangro which I knew to be a wide river close ahead.
He told me it was a two hour walk away and once more broke into song.
I said “discrezione,” but he was too far gone with drink to take any notice. He then said follow me to the Sangro, I can go that way, so I walked along some yards behind him as he continued to sing “Armapola.” I shall never forget that song.
I was concerned about the situation, had the Germans really pulled back? It certainly appeared that way and my new friend was certain about it. But why were our troops not on their heels? Why did there seem to be a vacuum? I didn’t believe it could happen that way, a large open space and no one fighting over it. So with these thoughts we walked on. Another mouthful of ‘grappa’, a shout “La Guerra finito” and so we reached the top of a ridge.
Before our eyes in a deep valley was the River Sangro. There was a road running alongside it, on my right a ‘casa’ was burning fiercely and close by another burnt out one with only a few embers flickering. We had a grandstand view of the entire valley, the war and the killing appeared to be having a night off. There wasn’t the sound of a gun or a plane. My friend now decided it was time for him to make for his village.
[Digital Page 79]
I thanked him and said “arrivederci” and he said “ciao” and then embracing me said “sempre frattello.” (we will always be brothers).
So I hid and watched and waited and I could hear my “brother” slowly fading away to my left. Apart from him everything was quiet, there was no traffic, no lights and no movement of any sort on the road. I waited until about one hour before dawn and then made my way down to the river. It was fast flowing but did not look deep and there were lots of rocks to help me across. I removed my boots and waded over, clambering from rock to rock. I soon made the far bank and put my boots back on and studied the road in front of me. It was metalled and unbroken, so no mines, but I carefully checked the verges by crawling around and feeling the grass, also unbroken. It would have been tragic to have stepped on a mine at the end of my journey!
So having reassured myself I swiftly crossed the road and checked the far verge in the same way, nothing. I felt sure I must be in or near Allied territory by now.
Then I saw a movement from a scrub directly to my front and very close!! Suddenly there was a young Gurkha with a gun pointing directly at my face! He was very nervous and I was sure he had taken the first pressure on the trigger. I spoke very quickly in Urdu “ Tik-hi Johnnie”. Slowly other Gurkha’s appeared to my left and right and then a young British officer. I told him who I was and where I had come from and he said he was on a reconnaissance patrol and were there any Germans over the river?
Not for miles I told him, they had appeared to have pulled back last night. I showed him where to cross the river and the track I had come down but he was very cautious and was not going to push on so I shut up. He then said that his orderly would escort me back to Battalion H.Q. [Head-Quarters] and off I went.
[Digital Page 80]
At Battalion H.Q. [Head-Quarters] the Adjutant questioned me but would not believe what I told him about the situation on the far bank of the river. He was adamant that the other side must be defended. What could I say to convince him? He was a flippant young man, when I mentioned food, for I was starving after spending so long hiding in the beet field without food, he said “too late for breakfast, you should have escaped an hour earlier then you would have been in time.”
I then said that I wished to clean myself for I was still wet and filthy but he said, chaps like me had to go to the Staff Officer G.I. (Intelligence) at Army H.Q. [Head-Quarters] and that I had to go at once!
I started to protest but he told me I had the rest of my life to get clean and go now! There was an edge to his voice so I went. It was not how I wanted it to be, filthy dirty for the first time. What an anti-climax! But I had made it back!! If I had expected a warm welcome I would have been disappointed; it was almost a pleasure to find that nothing had changed – the Army was still the same!
[Digital Page 81]
So I was taken by truck over ten miles of rough track to the Army Corps H.Q. [Head-Quarters] this was a days march for me just a short time ago, now it took half an hour.
I reported to the officer commanding the Corps defence company who was barely awake and had little time for me so he passed me on to the Senior Intelligence Officer. I was escorted to him by a most officious Sergeant of the Military Police, all mouth, ‘blanco’ belt and gaiters. The stupid man on taking me over, unfastened the flap on his pistol holster and tried to make me march in front of him to the main building! I pointed out I was probably senior to him and I wouldn’t be marched in that fashion so he let it go and we walked side by side.
He ushered me into a large office and stamping his feet and saluting he told the officer that there was a prisoner to be interrogated. He then stood with his back to the door!
The Lieutenant Colonel of Intelligence was a tall skinny, sensitive person with a delicate air. Aged about twenty seven or so and obviously recruited from some university. He had a handkerchief tucked into his tunic sleeve, all he lacked was a “pouncet-box” to put to his nose.
His first words were “you are in a state” which to me was not a good start. I had spent my whole march looking after my appearance and on my arrival back with my comrades I was denied the opportunity to maintain the standards I had set myself! I tried to explain why but he was not paying attention being too busy trying to find his gold-plated pen and carefully putting his desk in order!
When every little thing was completely to his satisfaction he said “well who are you?”
I said in the prescribed fashion “6914603 Sergeant William Cooper reporting from Campo53 at Sforzacosta.”
[Digital Page 82]
‘‘Really,” he said “now where is that?” and turning to a huge map covering the entire wall behind his desk he started to search for Sforzacosta with a long pointer. I directed him up the Adriatic coast to Ancora, then to Macerata and he then spotted Sforzacosta. In the Marche he said. I was a little surprised he had not known where it was, as there were eight thousand men there as prisoners. Surely with all the planes they had this should have been common knowledge to the Colonel of Intelligence of such an important formation.
“Now just when did you start your journey?”
So I told my story about what I had seen and the roads and rivers I had crossed. All about the river bridge I had crossed at such risk. I also told him about the River Sangro not being defended. This angered him and he would not agree that the river was not defended! I told him about lying in the beet field surrounded by the German guns and about my “brother” who had shown me to the River Sangro.
All he had to say was that they would find out in due course.
I even offered to show them my track and where I had crossed the river but he was not interested. He should have been keen to follow up my story and at least check it, but we had not struck a cord so I decided it was time to shut up.
The Colonel could have learnt a lot but I had the impression the only thing he was interested in was getting to his breakfast, he obviously thought I was just a dirty soldier who had got lucky. Eventually I reasoned that the Germans, finding that we were not prepared to push on after them over the river, reoccupied the space they had left open, for it was a number of weeks before we crossed the river in force.
So after he had finished putting pen to paper he said most politely, “thank you Sergeant Cooper” and to the M.P. [Military Police], still with his back to the door, “take him to the chief clerk.” There was no well done! No good luck! Funny thing, the M.P. [Military Police] Sergeant having heard my story was then very amiable and even called me chum!!
[Digital Page 83]
Now there may be love at first sight there may not, I don’t know, but I do know that there is hate at first sight – and that chief clerk hated me! I represented a lot of work for him. He sighed and searched for a large Army form which he eventually found. We then started questions and answers. He was an Army Corps chief clerk, a real queen bee, everything revolved around him. He was a short rotund Scot with a visible hangover, badly shaven with cuts in places, his breath even at six feet was awful. At its best his face was enough to “frit the bairns.” He was a Warrant Officer 1stclass and very senior – but we still hated each other!!
So with a lot of grumbles and in a broad Scottish accent, we got down to the questions. At the end of this form-filling he asked me if I could prove all I had said. No, I told him, but I have my identity disks. He still said I could be anyone! I gave up!!
I asked if my next of kin would be informed urgently of my return. He then told me I would go on his weekly return and not before. Could I write to my mother I asked, and tell her I am safe? He tore a single sheet out of a tiny notebook and found a small brown envelope and passing them to me said with deadly sarcasm “would you like me to give you a stamp?” (soldier’s mail went free)
I scribbled a few lines, addressed the envelope and passed it back to him unsealed and thus ready to be censored. He reading the address said “London, Och, they’ve been bombing the hell out of the place” this with great glee!
My mother never received this note, I guess it went in the rubbish basket as soon as I went out of the door!
Then my luck changed for I was passed over to a young Lance-Corporal who was waiting to be sent home to England to be trained as an officer. He had time to spare, knew everyone and everyone liked him. He found me a large towel and a bar of soap and then took me around to the stables, there a groom hosed me down, all present enjoyed this sight.
[Digital Page 84]
Then the groom, using a pair of horse clippers removed some of my hair! I shaved and with the towel wrapped round me was taken to the Quarter Master – in the Army all quarter masters are old, miserable and miserly! This one could have “A” grades for being all three!! However, the Lance Corporal handled him superbly.
I got almost a full kit of new clothing made in South Africa as well as underwear and boots. Furthermore, before leaving the store he ensured the copies of this issue were destroyed so that later I was able to get almost another issue later.
I asked the Corporal what hold he had over the Q.M. [Quarter-Master] and he said “Wine!” He could get the Q.M. [Quarter-Master] and the Jock chief clerk black market wine. It was then I learned that the wine I had so generously been given by the people of the country to the north was a source of great value here behind the Allied front line. It was exchanged for food, (bully beef mainly) tobacco, clothing, coffee etc.
I told him of my brush with the chief clerk, he said that after a lunchtime session he would be far gone and that he could then send off a signal straight away to The War Office Infantry Records, rather than wait for the clerk’s regular report and ensure it was not registered on the log. This he did, and it worked because my mother then heard that I was free within quite a short time.
He then took me to the cookhouse where I got a mug of hot sweet tea and a large “doorstep” bacon sandwich made by a sympathetic cook. Finally he showed me to a small room and a sleep in a comfortable armchair.
I was awakened at dinner for Sausages and Bubble and Squeak, more sweet tea and then the Corporal appeared and told me I was to be passed on to a transit camp at Bari with instructions for them to return me to the U.K. via the port of Taranto. I was given a set of travel documents and identity papers signed by the Brigadier Chief of Staff. This I.D. [Identification] actually had a wax seal!
[Digital Page 85]
He warned me not to be surprised if someone appeared to vet me at a later date. This happened some time later when an R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] officer turned up to scare my mother to death, he also asked questions of me with the neighbours and two referees had to certify my identity!
Before I left I asked the Corporal if he knew whether they had followed up on the information that I had given them about the River Sangro? But he told me that everything that the Intelligence did was “hush hush.” I am pretty certain that they never did check up; they all seemed very comfortable in this area and I thought that they were in no rush to move.
I thanked the lad for everything that he had done for me, he said he had had an interesting day sorting out my military future!
So I got a seat in a small truck taking mail to Bari. The driver was a crazy character who drove at high speed on wet and narrow roads. Apparently he had a “friend” to see in Bari. I hope his “friend” had found another soldier by the time he got there!!
I arrived at the Bari transit centre late in the evening. This camp consisted of a number of very high class flats built on the sea front – built for the wealthy I would have thought.
Only the Italian staff were on duty when I arrived, the British staff having already left for the town! I was taken to the quarters of the Camp Commandant in a very luxurious flat. He was seated on a large settee with a bottle by his side – he was a charming Captain aged about forty. He read my travel papers and checked my I.D. [Identification] and then welcomed me. Would I like a glass of beer he asked? No thank you, I replied but I would love a glass of wine. Wine, very wise he said, very wise.
We hit it off straight away; as a young man he had served in World War One and had won the M.C. [Military Cross] After being discharged he had found it hard to find work and had not enjoyed very much luck. Eventually he had ended up selling cars at the back of Oxford St. London. He shuddered when he talked of it.
[Digital Page 86]
He had remained on the Army Reserved list and had been delighted when war was declared and he was called back to the colours. He hoped the war would go on for a few more years, or until his only relation died and he inherited.
As we talked he poured several glasses of wine for us and I noticed a ladies high heel shoe under the settee and there was a distinct whiff of expensive perfume about the place. I could understand him wanting the war to go on and on!!
Having heard my story he told me he thought that I deserved the very best of everything and that he would try and get it for me. I was to be there for two or three days so he would do everything to make it comfortable. He said I had reached “Liberty Hall” and that I only had to get anything I wanted. Here he said, take a hundred cigarettes, even if you don’t smoke its useful for trading, and also this chocolate. He also told me his orderly would fix me up with a decent room, so off I went with a civilian Italian to one of the finest apartments I had ever seen. It had a sea-view, a large bathroom with lots of hot water, a soft bed, pyjamas, slippers, soap, toilet gear, writing-paper and books!!
I had a hot bath and then went downstairs where on the ground floor was a wonderful canteen and here I had a delicious plate of Lasagne and grated cheese and an awful glass of warm beer. Using the cigarettes I purchased a bottle of Chianti and then ate the meal with white bread and real coffee. I asked about getting my haircut and the Captains orderly told me his brother would do it for me the next morning.
There were twenty or thirty chaps passing through this place. Despatch riders, couriers, lightly wounded and soldiers returning from leave. I hardly spoke to anyone, I had grown apart from my own kind and preferred my own company. I went into a lounge where there was a film show but I could not concentrate on it so I went to bed. I found I could not settle there either, so in my pyjamas I found myself walking on the beach for over an hour. It was such a beautiful night. As I walked I thanked God for my good luck.
[Digital Page 87]
I then went back to bed and this time slept well. I got up with the sun; old habits die hard. I bathed and shaved and down to the canteen where I had a double breakfast as so few soldiers came down for it. Later a barber made my hair look reasonable once more – paid for with cigarettes. A very smart young lady came and sewed my Sergeants chevrons on my tunic and pressed all my clothes, folding them very neatly. She told me the times of the church services the next day and that the church was only one kilometre away.
She was a wonderful seamstress and her English was quite good; I am sure I recognised at least one of her shoes and her perfume!!
That day I wrote a long letter to my mother and told her all my news and that I was on my way home. I began to relax and slowly got back into Army life. The Camp Commandant was a great help and filled me in (over more wine) as to what had been happening over the last few months that I had been in captivity. He was interested in my journey and my meetings with the local people, he said he was thinking of marriage and asked if the religion really mattered. No, I told him, what really mattered was kindness, the women all work very hard and are not appreciated, usually ending as household drudges. I told them that the womenfolk seemed to have stronger characters than their men, but that for some reason or other (possibly history) are treated just like women in the Middle East.
“Interesting,” he said, “very interesting, lets open another bottle of wine”
All too soon my time to leave came, I went to thank the Captain for all his kindness, he walked with me to the transport and gave me a package containing a hundred cigarettes and lots of chocolate. I don’t think I ever met a kinder natured man during the entire war.
[Digital Page 88]
Now the place I went to next was a different story. It was an embarkation camp at Taranto. It was a series of huts previously used by the Italian Navy when not at sea, (so they were well used!) they were dirty which was bad but were also bug ridden and little had been done to make them hygienic. They were being used by troops on their way home and usually only for a night or two.
Troops going home don’t make a fuss but the lot I joined were due to be staying there for about a week.
Having been bitten twice on the first night I went to the Q.M. [Quarter-Master] and asked for some bug powder. He was the usual misery and I got the usual answer – short supply! Translated, that meant he had some, but had another market for it!! I said by way of conversation, “may be the Medical Officer could help?”
His reply was to ask if I was trying to be a trouble maker.
It appeared to me as if the entire camp administration staff were suffering from the worst issues of the Italian campaign. These were adequate supplies of drink and women!! In the desert campaign these commodities were not available but here in Italy these distractions were detracting from the efficiency of the troops and the staff at this camp seemed to have gone to pieces. There was a roaring black-market and proper soldiering and helping one another was a thing of the past.
Anyway the Q.M. [Quarter-Master] must have taken my veiled threat to heart as two young Italians arrived with a spraying machine and gallons of D.D.T. They went wild and so bad was this poisonous liquid we all had to move out for forty-eight hours, but at least the bugs had gone.
The Duke of Wellington said during the Peninsular Campaign of 1812 that the British soldier could handle hard conditions, poor food and sickness but the drink always beat him!
After a few days hanging around Taranto with nothing to do the camp Adjutant sent for me and said I would have to conduct a draft of forty men back to Liverpool where they would be taken over from me.
[Digital Page 89]
Amongst this forty were the lazy, the sick, men trying to work their discharge by claiming mental illness, a cashiered officer for sexual offences, a couple of “Dear Johns” going back to wife problems and three escapees or evaders like myself. One of these last was a Sergeant “Fritz” Lawson, I could never get to the bottom of him because his stories were so weird and wonderful. He had broken out of a P.O.W. camp only twenty five miles from the British lines, yet this short journey had taken him three months. He was a married man but I always reckoned there was some woman involved, but although we became fast friends he would not admit it. When he found out I was to conduct the draft his pride was hurt, he was a little older than me and had been in the Army longer, but I was two days senior as a Sergeant! So he carried on a bit and then changed his tune and told me that it didn’t matter and that he was going to get a flight home. Short of getting a rapid promotion to General he didn’t have a chance, but he wandered around trying hard to get a travel form signed.
When we came to move he was a great help, he discovered one of the “Dear Johns” was hiding a .38 revolver. So I had to see this Corporal and tell him to hand it over. I then had a word with the mental cases and told them I could not manage with this draft if they were going to perform insane tricks so I was going to refuse to take them! They were keen to get back to the U.K. so we agreed on no nonsense until we got to Liverpool. The rest of the draft were fine.
So the big day arrived and I collected documents and checked each man’s I.D. [Identification] against his record of service and then against his I.D. [Identification] tags. The camp staff were sick of all my checking, but then they told me I had to draw a days rations for everyone of the draft. I asked why but they did not know but said they had always done it. So I drew the forty rations and packed it away in two kit bags and we then left for the troopship.
[Digital Page 90]
The ship was H.M. [His/Her Majesty’s] Troopship Staffordshire and not much bigger than a river ferry but purpose built to take soldiers. It must have been built at the turn of the century and had carried troops to the Boer War, India and the Far East Stations. We were packed in to her like commuters on the London Underground. Our two lorries unloaded us on to the quayside by the loading gangplank, this made for a stiff climb up the ships side. I noticed when the last soldier was aboard the gangplank was level!!
The berth for our draft was on E-deck only six inches away from the keel. Each soldier had a hammock and eighteen inches of space to sling it. Fourteen hundred soldiers were packed aboard the Staffordshire, what a target we must have made! The ship was well down in the water and had a very disturbing roll as we proceeded to sea. She was also very slow and we were always the last ship in the convoy. The feeling on E-deck was that if the German subs didn’t get the Staffordshire they should have their pay stopped. It took about four days to get to Gibraltar passing through the Straights about midnight, a destroyer close to us started to launch depth charges, our ship bobbed about and felt as if it was going to roll over at any time. All the Agnostics and Atheists started praying and no one got back to sleep.
As we made our way north into the Atlantic the weather got worse and the old ship made plenty of smoke as it struggled against the sea. Some wag said the smoke could be seen in Berlin. Someone from the comfort of A deck said that the weather was good for us as it kept the U-boats away, but I noticed he was wearing his life-jacket just in case. Five days after leaving Gibraltar we rounded the north of Ireland and headed for the Mersey.
Liverpool looked awful as it had been raided the night before and fires were still burning. We berthed near the centre of the city and within the hour a very new young Second Lieutenant came aboard looking for my draft.
[Digital Page 91]
He said lots of bad things about their turnout but I explained about nine days of living on E-deck and the dreadful weather, I also pointed out that the officers on A-deck weren’t looking too good! He checked the documents and off he went with my mixed crowd, I bet the “mental” cases gave him a hard time!
Then we three escapees went to the Movement Control Office and were given a leave pass for twenty-eight days and a payment of Five Pounds. The other two chaps decided that they didn’t want to take the first available train and travel overnight so they went off to a transit camp. I was keen to get back home so I went to the Rail Travel Office and got a ticket to Kings Cross station in London and a travel warrant from there to Manor Park in the East End. The Travel Officer said I had far too much kit and did I think I was a Mexican General? (This was a favourite expression at the time). Of course he did not know about the rations for forty men that hadn’t been needed and I didn’t tell him! I gave one of the travel staff twenty cigarettes and he got me transport to Lime Street Station in Liverpool and for another twenty cigarettes I secured a place in the guards van for the train was packed. Five hours later we pulled into Kings Cross. It was about five in the morning, a porter helped me to the District Line and I arrived at Manor Park in time for the first bus. The young lady conductress started to create about the amount of baggage so I gave her ten cigarettes and that did the trick.
So about three months after I dropped off the wall at Sforzacosta I arrived home at 70 Herongate Road, but it was to an anticlimax as my mother wasn’t home! A message on the gate post said she was at some house in the Aldersbrook Road and of course the door key was on a string which hung inside the letter box. I retrieved it and let myself in to the house. I left all my bags in the hall and went to find Mother.
[Digital Page 92]
It was a very dark morning and still cold. An air raid was going on toward the Thames Estuary near Tilbury docks. Gun flashes lit up the darkness and I was pleased to see that we seemed to have far more guns than when I had left three years ago.
The house in the Aldersbrook Road was very large and set back from the road, it was approached through an overgrown shrubbery and was very eerie. I hammered at the door but there was no answer, I kept hammering and added a kick or two and then in the distance I heard a small voice say “who’s there?”
I said “your son and heir.” What joy, bolts were drawn and keys turned and there was mother!!
After a while I asked her what on earth she was doing there. It turned out that the house had been owned by a very old lady who had died and the parish priest had said she should not be left alone! So there she was, laid out on the dining table, and my poor mother, guarding the body by candlelight in the back kitchen. This was all very Irish. The parish priest had arranged all this and knew mother could never refuse a request from him. The priest, the heirs, the solicitor and an undertaker were due at nine that morning. So we talked and laughed and for the first and last time someone said “you did well.” That was enough praise for me!!
Well at nine, people started to arrive, the solicitor to take an inventory of the house and contents. The undertaker arrived with a wartime coffin, (made mainly of cardboard) and a peacetime bill! The heirs were a middle-aged Irish lady, and her husband, from Dublin. Finally there was our priest.
I picked up mothers small bag and her blanket and we started to leave to go home. The new owner, pointing at the blanket, asked if it was from the house. I could have murdered her, suggesting that she was stealing it!
[Digital Page 93]
Mother was almost crying at the remark and the suggestion, the parish priest whose name was John Heenan (later to become Cardinal Arch-Bishop of Westminster) calmed it down and mother and I walked away just as the “all-clear” sounded. The Irish “lady” followed us some way down the road with a flood of apologies.
We went home to a good breakfast, I opened a tin of American bacon and a tin of dried egg, lots of tea and cigarettes for mother. She worried about the tins of goodies I had brought home but once I had reassured her she then planned who she could help out!!
I was not surprised when the priest turned up with his regrets for what had happened, and a sum of money, which she of course refused. He said he would not return it but would help the needy.
Later that morning I took tea, sugar, corned beef and cigarettes over to my mother’s sister Polly in Canning Town. What a place this was – Britain’s most bombed place! The street and alleys of my childhood were gone and there were large open spaces with rubble piled high and covered in lime, for under this rubble were bodies too torn to be recovered and removed.
My dear friend Bella and four generations of the Bailey family lay amidst that rubble!! I walked past their cul-de-sac and cried, arriving at my Aunts house with a wet face. She was a rough, feckless creature but could be surprisingly sensitive when the mood took her, she knew at once what had upset me and said “they didn’t know or feel a thing!”
Well my cousins arrived with their many babies, everyone talked and everyone smoked and I heard all the news. Having survived the intense bombing of 1940 they considered the war almost over, this was before Christmas 1943! They didn’t know they had the V- bombs still to come, but they stuck it out and if on V.E. [Victory in Europe] day they got drunk and danced in the streets, who could blame them?
[Digital Page 94]
So I was home; I had been very lucky, sometime in the mid Atlantic I had my twenty-fifth birthday but it had passed unnoticed. I received a leave extension of two weeks and a letter from the Paymaster saying I would only be paid two thirds of my pay whilst I was a prisoner. So deducting the allowance I gave to mother I did not have all that much to come. I wrote and asked for full pay from the day I had escaped but no, I would only get full pay from the time they received the report from “wee Jock” the chief clerk in Italy. But what hurt most was that no one ever wrote to say well done for having escaped.
But I was home and happy; I had left lots of bad friends in the camp and made lots of good friends amongst my old enemies!!
I can never thank the ‘Contadini’ enough for the help and friendship they had given me. I really had so much good luck and received so much help; I can still see faces of young and old people who were kind to me; people who took risks for me and assisted me. I never ever saw any of them again -I would have liked to have gone back to find and thank them but it never happened.
It took the Army about another nine months to liberate the country that I had travelled through, I do hope all my friends survived for it was a violent and cruel time.
What happened to Campo 53? Well, years later I was having a drink in “The George2” at Wanstead in London, my home town, when I met a man I recognised from the camp; he was not a nice person!! I knew him to be a crawler and a tale bearer, he also recognised and came and sat beside me. I questioned him about the camp but all he wanted was to talk about himself. I did buy him a drink and after lots of questions discovered that at some stage the Italians mostly deserted and the prisoners took over. Believing relief to be only days away they started to guard themselves; the reason being to stop people from drifting around the countryside.
[Digital Page 95]
However, early one morning the Germans arrived in large numbers, the prisoners started to panic and hide and some tried to break out. The Germans started shooting and tossing hand-grenades about, a lot of people were wounded and some were killed. They were marched to the railway station and packed on to goods wagons, sixty or more to a wagon, then north to Germany through the Brenner Pass and then Eastward to Poland, finally ending up in Loin. The journey took seven days and they were only fed twice. The wounded and sick died first, it must have been hell! In Poland the fittest were put to work in a coal mine, a dangerous and dirty job. It ruins your chest he said as he coughed. I got him another drink. Early in 1945 the Russians overran the camp but they were worse than the Germans!! Long after VE [Victory in Europe] day they were still working in the mines. They were eventually released in exchange for 100 three ton vehicles. So much for our friends and allies!!
He could not tell me about the Senior Warrant Officer, the Medical Sergeant or my awkward squad, all he wanted to do was to talk about himself. He tried in vain to borrow a few pounds and that is when I left him.
I have never seen anything published about the camp or what happened to a lot of these prisoners, after the war everyone was trying to get back to normal and the horror was forgotten – except for those mourning the loss of loved ones.
What happened to me? Well I had a good leave and then a short period of re-training and then I volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment, I was so fit that I passed the course easily. I was then posted to the 7th. Battalion, which was a Light Infantry Battalion, at Gordon Barracks in Bulford, Wiltshire. I was Platoon Sergeant, 9 platoon, C company and at 25 was the oldest man in the platoon! So different to my comrades in the desert!
The 7th Battalion was very well trained and a very efficient bunch; we jumped into Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Ardennes.
[Digital Page 96]
We entered Germany when we jumped across the Rhine during Operation Varsity and marched all the way to Weismar on the Baltic – chasing the Germans all the way. After my experiences at Dunkirk I found this to be the best part of my war. As I got older I became a good Platoon Sergeant; in the Western Desert I had been just too young and too inexperienced. I was promoted Colour Sergeant and then Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant. The Battalion spent V.E. [Victory in Europe] Day on the Baltic Sea, I drank lots of good German wine and ate lots of good pork. All in all I felt I came out of the war with Germany on the credit side.
We were quickly flown back to England and after a very short leave flew to India and then to Port Sweetenham in Malaya. Then the Japanese surrendered and World War Two had ended and I had survived! I was lucky, but my mother, who had lost her husband in The Great War, exactly one hundred days before I was born, was a great one for prayer -I have a feeling that this time her prayers had been answered.
What was hard to suffer is sweet to remember!