Tom Fairnington, Senior Troop NCO in 4th Durham Survey Regiment, was captured at Tobruk on 22 June 1942. His memoir covers from then to demobilisation in January 1946. After three days at Timini (where he sees Mussolini), he is taken to Benghazi and in November goes by ship via Corinth Canal to Taranto. Imprisoned at PG 85 Tuturano (near Brindisi) and then moved c. July 1943 to PG 53 Sforzacosta. At the Armistice in September he walks out with Charlie Phillips and goes South. From late September until June 1944 they are looked after by inhabitants of Crognaleto, in mountains west of Montório, north of L’Aquila. When the Allies reach the area, they make contact and arrive back in Liverpool August 1944. An Appendix briefly covers his subsequent war service and a return to Crognaleto and Rome in 1975.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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I STEPPED BACK A CENTURY
by Tom Fairnington
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Copyright © by Thomas Fairnington
First published 1994 in the United Kingdom
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without first obtaining permission from the copyright owner.
The right of Thomas Fairnington to be identified as Author of this narrative has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988
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Summary of the account written by Keith Killby
I Stepped Back a Century
Tom Fairnington had been one of many quiet but generous [Monte San Martino] Trust supporters.
His death we heard of from his daughter Ann. It is unfortunate that we could not have added his modest account, ‘I Stepped Back a Century’, to the archives before for its fifty-odd pages contains one of the most sincere and best-written accounts – of his indebtedness to an Italian village on the northern slopes of the Gran Sasso, which was only accessible by donkey. His description of that village life is classic.
While serving with a little-known unit, 4th Durham Survey Unit, he was captured at the fall of Tobruk and suffered the dreadful overcrowded wired-off stretches of desert called by the Italians ‘PoW Camps’ though they had not even the rudiments of a camp. Certainly in one of them the Italians were hoping to construct a hut or two, but the wood, as it was prone to do in many Italian camps, disappeared overnight and was soon going up in smoke to heat water. Fairnington was not surprised to hear that the Germans had been stopped at Alamein for in spite of Montgomery’s claim to have chosen a good stopping point, his Unit had surveyed it in Wavell’s time. (As had Jack Comyn before any Desert War – see Annual Report 2001.) Though he tried hard to stay in Benghazi, he was moved west four days before the Allies retook it.
The journey to Italy battened down in the hold with no real toilet facilities was worsened by the breaking into a store of tinned peas!
Fairnington finally reached the most eastern Camp in the Tenna Valley at Sforzacosta and remembers, of course, the clock made out of battered tins. Its maker after escape set up, behind the lines, a small watch-repairing business. An unknown officer had come into the Camp just before the Armistice and said they must stay put if it came. When it did Fairnington and his colleague Charlie Philllips decided with three Coldstreamers to walk out at four in the afternoon but as they approached the gate they found some 200 other PoWs were about rush it and, as they expected, the Italian guards made no attempt of firing or discouraging them. Their first rapid pace had to be slowed until their legs became again used to such exercise. They headed west towards Spoleto but then veered south towards the Gran Sasso. When Charlie was ill the author’s skills with fires etc. learnt from Boy Scout days were useful. When the five of them were suddenly fired on the two went one way and the three Coldstreamers another.
With Charlie ill they are alarmed at being found but by a very sympathetic Italian soldier and they are taken into the village of Crognaleto ten kilometres from and above Montorio. Clogs are made for Charlie but all agree it is safer if they go up into caves where Charlie is again ill but Tom heats stones and then with layers of leaves and a blanket and another layer on top sweats the fever out of him. Their food supply – brought up from the village – is suddenly cut off by heavy snow but they break out
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and using bundles of brushwood as stepping stones, which they picked up and put ahead of them they reached Crognaleto and food. Both the food and life in the village was very primitive for farming on the barren hills was not only restricted by the height of its position and the stoney nature of small stretches of friable land, but also by its only means of transport being a donkey or for lighter products the heads of the women on which they could balance huge pitchers from a not-too-distant fontana or carry in the meagre hay. The small-based but tall cylindric hay stacks seemed at first rather labour demanding until Fairnington found in winter they saved labour for as the base was cut away so the straw and earth-covered top slid down the central pole. Potatoes dominated their diet rather than maize and wheat, which were luxuries which those with richer land further down could grow and even wine was limited for there were no vines. Their forefathers had by poverty been forced to farm as best they could the almost barren but cheaper land.
As the snow melts the bodies of eight Yugoslavs are found – buried by the snow. At last the battle, for so long held on the Sangro, creeps nearer until they hear Montorio is liberated and joyfully go down – to be greeted in Polish and get put into a PoW camp with other unproven ex-Allied PoWs. The two soon escape that amateur PoW camp and at night bump into a Geordie RASC guarding some trucks who as soon as Fairnington confirmed there were twenty-four pubs in Gateshead High Street gave them a real welcome. They made a rapid descent to Foggia and then on to Naples where, though passed as genuine ex-PoWs, they found others were deserters and doubtful servicemen.
Five from the 4th Survey Regiment were together as they sailed into the Mersey. One was called away to be told that his wife and her parents had been killed in an air raid the night before.
In 1975 Tom and his wife and daughter Ann decided to return to find Crognaleto – Tom debating which of the two climbs on foot to reach it would be better. At Montorio he asked advice from a policeman. A road had reached Crognaleto. Obviously they were strangers as they walked through the village until a young man stared hard and then ‘Tomaso’ came from the former ten-year-old shepherd. They received the overwhelming hospitality of the village, which can only be believed by those who like the Laing and Schou families received it on the San Martino Freedom Trail at Villalago and Scontrone. The villagers of Crognaleto could now commute to work, tractors could break up the land instead of the huge arm-swinging hoe – the zapper – and their products could quickly reach local markets.
The life of Crognaleto had, after many centuries, disappeared for ever.
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This narrative ought to have been written many years ago but events were against it. First I had a one-man business to run, then it became a two-man business and like little Topsy it just grew and grew.
During this early post-war period my wife and I were week-end house guests at the home of friends at Berwick-on-Tweed. Also a guest was one of Macmillan the publishers’ managers and on hearing some of my experiences, especially relating to the almost Biblical methods of working the land then used by the mountain Contadini, he suggested I write a book. Apart from lack of time I suggested that there was a surfeit of PoW camp and escape stories. He said, ‘No, enhance that aspect with the life of the Contadini in the mountains.’ ‘Furthermore’, he said, ‘I will give you a title, “I Stepped Back a Century”’.
The title of this narrative has thus existed for nearly thirty years prior to a single word being written and I consider it is right to adopt this title. Sadly my Berwick friends are no longer with us and I cannot remember the Macmillan’s chap’s name but gratefully thank him for his interest, advice and title.
It is not my intention to write a book but rather to prepare a short narrative of the period from mid-1942 to the end of the war, in which time I had a variety of unusual experiences. My family and some friends have heard snippets of these events and shown interest. This narrative is therefore intended only to fill in the gaps between snippets for a limited group of friends and family.
I have used the word narrative in the sense of knowing, in preference to tale or story, as the latter implies an element of fiction, the introduction of which would have made the reading more interesting, but not ’as it was’. Out of these years emerged elements of boredom, disgusting conditions, infantile behaviour, bloody mindedness, a hate and finally a love of a people.
Two other factors delayed my getting into print, first had I written in longhand no one would be able to read it, ask Vic Gray, whose comments on my handwriting are pithy to say the least. Second, with my two-fingered typing ability or lack thereof it would have taken a century. So what has changed? Well, again two things, I am retired and the advent of the modern word processor.
The computer with its word-processor section is an amazing utensil having, it is said, limitless possibilities; even to the extent of thinking for itself. I have not found this to be the case but rather that it requires commands, and very accurate commands too otherwise the output can be chaotic. For an introduction to the ‘box of tricks’ and guidance in the art of being a commander, my grateful thanks Eddy Hudspeth.
In preparing a draft narrative I sometimes used the correct letters in a word but not necessarily in the correct order; I also threw in handfuls of commas, apostrophes and
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inverted commas at what I thought were appropriate intervals. When my friend Mrs Peggy Wright kindly agreed to proofread my draft she did so with the efficiency of a drill sergeant getting a squad of recruits into a semblance of order. Commas to the left, full stops to the right (no W), stand up straight that question mark etc., etc. Seriously Peggy I am very grateful to you for your time, skills, advice and help in getting this narrative into readable form. Many, many thanks.
I pay tribute to the late Charlie Phillips for his integrity and complete honesty in all matters during the years we spent together. Especially in the sharing of food where his qualities were so evident, as there can be no higher test than where real hunger exists. Also for his fortitude on the march when it cost him such agony to put one foot in front of the other to keep up on the forced march to what we hoped would be an early meeting with British forces. For his carefully calculated opinions when we had decisions to make. When things seemed impossible and I was in the ‘dumps’ his optimistic views helped me as I hoped mine did him when he was low; how fortunate I was in having a first-class ‘Mukker’.
I gratefully thank my wife, Betty, for all her help and guidance in the time spent setting down my recollections of prison camp life and Crognaleto. Particularly do I appreciate her tolerance and understanding whilst I was busy with the computer and the times when, sitting quietly, I must have seemed to be far away. Indeed, I was, 1,250 miles to be precise, in the Apennini of Italy where one recollection so often drew others from the well of the mind.
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INTO THE BAG
A Kubel Wagen bearing a very large white flag and trailing the ubiquitous cloud of dust approached us: ‘What was this?’ Were the Germans, who had smashed through the perimeter defences of the Tobruk Garrison on the previous day now offering to surrender to us, a small enclave of about 2,000 British and Indian troops located at the extreme west or Derna section of what had been The Tobruk fortress? An extreme and forlorn hope. The German Officer in the Kubel asked for the Senior British Officer and was directed to our Command Post. Within minutes the Kubel Wagen departed from our enclave carrying an additional passenger, a British Officer. An hour later the vehicle returned and after depositing the British Officer departed, all very interesting, but within minutes came the order to lay down arms in surrender. Thus at 11 a.m. on Sunday 22 June 1942 did I become a Prisoner of War.
The comings and goings had in fact been related to a humane consideration. Whilst our Commander realised that our position was untenable, he was preparing to lead us in a break-out from the enclave to the south overnight and then wheel east to rejoin our main forces. This plan was forestalled by the German commander’s offer to reveal the considerable fire power about to be released against us if surrender was not accepted. In order to avoid unnecessary and what would have been wholesale slaughter, the British Commander accepted the inevitable and ordered surrender. Whilst the cynic may say the offer meant that the German force did not have to spend time ‘wiping out’ our enclave, I prefer to think the humane aspect was the motivating factor.
The offer and acceptance was much in keeping with the Desert war which was fought with all the brutality, violence and deadliness of modern war, yet, there seemed to me to be an element of chivalry when the immediate action was over. The Desert covered a vast area in which there was negligible property at risk and no civilians other than a few wandering Bedouin. It was at times a very harsh place in which to exist and both armies had first to fight the elements of extreme heat, sand storms which have to be experienced to be believed, minimal supplies of salty water and hordes of flies which appeared out of no-where whenever one stopped travelling. It was not uncommon for a group travelling across wide-open areas as though at sea to be captured by a superior enemy force but, in turn, to be recaptured by an even larger force of one’s own troops the same day, and positions reversed.
My first reaction to surrender was to realise how very silent it had become, no crump of heavy guns, no machine-guns tearing or rattling, no transport noises; we even seemed to be speaking in hushed voices. Then came a feeling of personal failure and group humiliation, but what had we done wrong except be in the wrong place at the wrong time? This was replaced by a strange thought, namely, that the day was Race Sunday back home on Tyneside, the Sunday of the last full week in June and the Northumberland Plate would be run next Saturday at Gosforth Park. All out of context for a non-horseracing man, but
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perhaps an indication of the as yet un-realised shock to the system. Death or injury had always been a possibility, but never a prisoner, that happened to others.
The force of some 2,000 men included a Composite Battery of the 4th (Durham) Survey Regiment part of which was ‘X’ troop commanded by Captain Tommy Day supported by two Lieuts, Hank Haley and Tim Mackie. As Senior Troop NCO I was supported by Sgts Charlie Phillips, Vic Gray and Ken Robson. Together with Bombardier and Gunner Surveyors, Drivers and Cooks, we totalled 42 men, most of whom had been together from pre-war Territorial days.
Although Tommy Day informed me that there was to be no destruction of arms or equipment I considered it my duty to destroy our valuable surveying equipment and dispose of the evidence in the sea. In this way theodolites, calculators and chronometers were ‘lost’. Attention was then given to the vehicles. Oil sump plugs were removed and the engines run until they ‘stopped’, also a handful of sand in the petrol filler was thought good enough to keep the Germans busy if they hoped to use our transport. A meal was quickly prepared for the troop as we knew not from whence the next one would come. The remaining food was distributed to our chaps.
Each man was left to decide what he would take with him as personal equipment for the unknown future. I decided to wear best uniform as it would have to last for an unknown period, best boots and socks plus a spare pair, blanket and greatcoat plus toilet bag, and a pack was soon filled. All water bottles filled with that precious fluid water. By this time our officers were marched away. Prior to their leaving, I saw Tommy Day standing, head back, draining the last of his whisky from a bottle. Tommy never lost his sense of priorities.
Soon we were called into line by a German Officer and as a troop joined in a long line of prisoners almost wordless, not even a ribald remark, trudging along the dusty track leading to that insignificant little group of buildings otherwise known as Tobruk. En route we passed an enormous quantity of Panzer armour confirming the hopelessness of our earlier position.
The cage to which we were directed was on the outskirts of the town and port and was about the size of three football pitches surrounded by a mass of coiled barbed wire. Not insuperable to a determined escaper. However, a number of ‘Trigger happy’ native levies patrolled outside the wire. They were not slow to shoot at anyone who stepped over the trip wire or attempted to wriggle under the barbed wire. The bodies of men who had been shot trying to escape were left in the wire as a warning to others thinking of escape.
Inside the wire were several thousands of men of many races: South Africans Black and White, British, Indians, Australians, New Zealanders and French. The facilities were nil, no water, no food, no medical staff, no shelter, no latrines whatsoever, no organisation, just bare dusty ground. Later in the day the Germans sent into the cage a water tanker but this caused a disgraceful display of indiscipline by thirst-crazed men who rushed the tanker
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en masse brushing aside the German guard who lost his rifle in the melée. Someone picked up the rifle whilst the guard struggled out of the crowd shaking his head in disbelief whilst the fighting mass wasted more water than they were able to collect.
Those of us who had brought a ground sheet with fittings were with a partner able to create a small tent, admittedly open at the ends but if one crowded a third person into the tent his ground sheet could be used to close one end and keep out the unpleasant swirling dust. So ended Race Sunday 1942 for me and so many others, a truly miserable and despondent day.
Overnight a group of Senior Warrant Officers decided to organise the camp and first required all men to form themselves into groups of 100. As ‘X’ Troop had remained together it was quite easy to recruit others in the vicinity to join us and I registered with the warrant officer administration. I doubt whether these Warrant Officers ever received proper recognition for the excellent work they did in converting an indisciplined and unruly rabble of 15,000 men into a reasonably ordered camp.
When food and water arrived, I with two men and a blanket collected our fair share from the administration under the watchful eyes of the rest of the group. I then had the problem of dividing the allocation equally between 100 men. The bread was especially difficult as it was issued as buns about the size of a clenched fist on average. I divided our group into ten subgroups, each of ten men and they appointed a leader. I then set out ten lots of ten buns as evenly as possible. On a roster basis each leader carefully examined the lots and made his choice aided by the advice of nine supporters. He then ran a similar roster for the sub-group so that over ten days each sub-group had first pick of the lots and each man had first pick of his sub-group’s buns. Conversely each man experienced being the last of the last and got a very small bun which made for him an even more hungry day. The whole process was avidly audited by 99 eagle-eyed watchers at all stages and their comments were many and varied. The system was not only fair but was seen to be fair.
The administration managed to obtain some spades from the Italians, who had replaced the Germans as our guards overnight, and we dug open trenches to be used as latrines, a dire necessity for many men were suffering badly from dysentery. Sadly no covers could be obtained for the trenches and consequently flies were an even greater menace and health hazard than usual. Add to this the complete absence of any washing facility, a total of 15,000 men, dusty conditions, intense heat and a more demoralised situation would be difficult to imagine.
Even though some semblance of order had been created the Tobruk camp remained an unpleasant place, not only physically but mentally.
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NORTH AFRICAN CAMPS
When the Italians brought several large open-decked lorries each with a similar trailer into the camp and said these vehicles were to transport prisoners to a better camp to the west, there was no reluctancy on the part of prisoners to climb aboard even at the rate of 100 men per vehicle unit. Men were packed tightly together without room to sit down and as the vehicle bounced and swayed along rutted tracks and roads with more holes than road in them, so did the passengers. There was no shelter from the intense June sun and no stops to attend to the calls of nature. Only those on the outside of the mass of humanity could find relief over the side and had there been any observers on the road side they would have seen some odd sights. The journey took nine hours and was made in the inevitable cloud of dust created by each vehicle. It was a relief to reach our destination, even that awful hell-hole of a camp known as Timimi. This camp was every bit as bad as Tobruk but only held about 2,000 prisoners. Apart from us there were 5 million flies and a new pest, the louse. In the past I had used the expression ‘lousy’ but had never realised the full import of the word.
I had never known lice to be a problem in the time I was in the British Army but within a few weeks of captivity many chaps were infested with the pests, the result of very unhygienic conditions and overcrowding. It became a common sight to see chaps sitting on the ground with shirts and or shorts off, scrutinising the seams of their garments inch by inch; every now and again one would bring his two thumb nails together and crush one of the little bloodsuckers or a cluster of their eggs. In time I became one of the crushers.
It was at Timimi that we had a ‘Distinguished Visitor’, no less than Mussolini himself; he had apparently come to North Africa complete with white horse for his triumphal entry into Alexandria and Cairo, a dream fortunately never to be realised. As he entered the camp a way was cleared between the prisoners by Italian guards using the butts of their rifles to make prisoners stand up for Il Duce, who strutted up the pathway accompanied by his staff and a bevy of photographers. It was interesting to see how the vanity of this small man required the photographers to take their ‘shots’ of him from ground level to make him appear taller and also how he had only small officers at his sides and taller staff to the rear or well to the sides. The effect of the low level shots was to accentuate his large chin even more on his photographs. I was not impressed by him and thought his visit simply a propaganda and ego-boosting exercise.
Our stay at Timimi, which was basically a transit camp, was only three days but leaving it meant another day standing on the back of a truck jammed together like sardines being toasted by the scorching June sun. The only road from Timimi to Benghazi, which was our destination, followed the bulge of the coast line via Derna, but the trucks took the direct line west across the Cyrenaica plain following rutted tracks. En route we passed many small buildings centred around small farms and realised that this was the scene of Mussolini’s
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attempt to settle the surplus population of Italy in a North African empire. It didn’t look as though he had had much success as the land carried no crops, not even grass. After a very rough day we arrived at a large camp on the outskirts of Benghazi.
Not surprisingly this camp was more secure. It was circular in plan and surrounded by two heavy barbed wire fences and a trip wire. A patrol of guards operated outside the wire at all times and during daylight armed guards patrolled inside the sectors watching any activity. Lighter fences divided the inside of the circle into six segments. Each sector housed about 1,000 prisoners. In the centre of the camp was a fenced circle about 50 yards in diameter with a gate to each sector and also connected to the outside perimeter by a fenced lane. It was the intention of the Italians to construct an administration centre and disinfestation block in this centre area.
The Italians employed some Gurkha prisoners in their working parties and it was such a group who spent one day carrying large pre-fabricated timber building sections to the central area for erection on the following day. After the working party had withdrawn and the guards who patrolled inside the wire had gone off duty, prisoners from all sectors poured over the wire fence between their sector and the centre and smashed up the building materials for use as firewood. In a very short space of time not a single scrap of the buildings remained in the centre and none was to be seen anywhere in the camp, all evidence was buried in the sand. The operation was carried out under the cover of shouting and singing and the guards suspected nothing. It is also the case that no tools were used for the simple reason that there were none.
On the following morning guards marched the Gurkha working party up the track to the centre to commence erection of the buildings, but when they reached the centre they showed first amazement then consternation at the bare area. We couldn’t understand their language but it seemed naughty to say the least and the situation wasn’t helped by the cheers and ribald remarks of the prisoners leaning over the wire. So what was to be done? Send for the ‘Capo di Guardo’ who duly arrived and taking in the situation, metaphorically exploded, again helped by the prisoners’ cheers. When he calmed down it was the turn of the ‘Tenente’, but he quickly decided it was a matter for the ‘Colonello’, who arrived to even greater cheers. The ‘Colonello’ rightly decided on a strategic retreat and all players left the stage to applause from the appreciative audience. All this time the Gurkhas stood impassively, their faces inscrutable, or did one detect the faintest hint of a smile? We didn’t get a dis-infestation centre but had fuel for fires to ‘brew up’ for many days. It is true we lost a facility, but this was a small price to pay for the returning sense of pride and determination not to be subdued by an enemy whom we hated.
From the time we arrived in the Western Desert the supply of water had been very limited and usually it was salty, if not worse, so much so that when one returned to the Delta of Egypt and drank ‘normal’ water it tasted very brackish. Water was invariably supplied in
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pints and on occasions in the British Army a ration of only one or two pints a day had to be used to top up one’s vehicle radiator, wash clothes and person, soften hard tack biscuits for cooking and assuage thirst in a dusty area where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the benefits at Benghazi was a reasonable supply of water which enabled clothes to be rinsed and after they had hung on the wire for an hour were quite fresh and dry. To be able to ‘sponge down’ from a mess tin full of water was also a joy. It was however still a rough camp. Our source of reliable news came from new prisoners but was dismal. The Allied forces had been driven right back to Alamein where they were holding a line between the sea and the Qattara Depression.
Whilst this news was depressing to all of us it was gratifying to the men of ‘X’ Troop to know that they had had a hand in this battle though we were nearly a 1,000 miles away from the action at the time. This may seem strange but the facts were these. In 1941 General Wavell had apparently said that the last line of defence for Egypt was at Alamein and this also seemed odd to us as the battle area was at that time several hundred miles to the west. Orders given to ‘X’ Troop required us to survey the Alamein area and create a number of bearing pickets which could be readily used by our gun Regiments to form defensive positions. At the same time REs and RAOC were engaged in preparing minefield positions and burying supplies in defensive ‘boxes’. The work we did at Alamein seemed questionable at the time we sweated and surveyed the area, but in the event all our work was more than justified. More so however was the foresight of General Wavell who by this time had been moved on and others took the credit for the first phase defence of Alamein. Such is life.
Alamein was the nearest the enemy had ever been to the Delta and we knew then that relief was a long way off. At this stage escape was a pointless exercise with our forces so many hundreds of miles to the east across inhospitable desert. One could not rely on the Libyan arabs in Benghazi for help as they were offered rewards for informing on escapers by our enemy.
Whilst in the British Army conversation revolved around such interesting topics as girls and beer, now these subjects were discarded and the one and only topic was of food and more food. Our ration per day consisted of a hot drink in the morning, described as coffee, but apart from being dark brown and liquid any connection with coffee as we knew it was a fallacy: at mid-morning the issue of varying sized bread buns provided distribution problems and entertainment for the 99 auditors per group until each found how very small was his ration. In the evening a small tin of what was claimed to be meat and gravy was issued, sometimes a tin between two men but on occasions between three and that gave even more distribution problems. How do you divide a tin of gristly meat and gravy between two men each of whom could eat the whole tin without any effort? Well one man divided the tin’s contents and the other chose which he would have; I can assure you that each one, friendly
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as he was with the other did his level best to make the portions even and the other unashamedly to take what he calculated was the larger portion.
During conversations about food we remembered how we had complained about bully beef and hard-tack biscuit rations whilst serving in the desert with the British Army and also the good meals we enjoyed when stationed in the Delta base camps. We not only thought about the meals but had we really rejected some of them? refused second helpings? or sin of all sins, was it possible we had actually thrown food away? We also remembered swill bins and what had been thrown into them. It was just as well that there were no swill bins available at the time. This line of thought brought to mind the Bible parable of the prodigal son and his feelings after he had squandered his living and was reduced to working for a master: ‘He remembered the food that was given to the pigs on his father’s farm and he would fain have eaten thereof.’ The sentence now assumed a new and deeper significance. To this day waste of food or water is anathema to me and to many others who have experienced want of them.
From time to time groups of prisoners were marched from the camp to embark on lorries for transport to what was again said to be better camps in Tripoli much further west, or down to the docks for shipment to Italy. Charlie and I considered the options and rejected the better camps bait, subsequent information proving the decision right as the journey was awful and the camps no better. To be taken to Italy would mean the end of our hopes of being released by our own troops as they advanced from Egypt. We decided to use every artifice at our disposal to remain at Benghazi despite the conditions. We succeeded in dodging drafts even though it meant climbing over the internal fencing at night into a different sector but Vic and Ken were unable to avoid being transferred to Italy.
Charlie and I were at this time sharing everything we had, we were ‘Mukkers’, we mucked in together; it was necessary to have a mukker for if one had to leave our tent the other remained to guard our possessions, sadly theft was not unknown in the camp.
Medical services were now a little better but judged by what we had been used to were still crude. Dysentery was still rife and in many cases fatal. The only treatment was either to fast for three days, this to a starving man!!! or of all things a dose of Epsom salts!!! I developed a large carbuncle on each hip and attended the medical centre where an Italian doctor used a scalpel to cut off the head of each and then proceeded to use a probe to extract the core. The pain was excruciating but I felt obliged to endure it without flinching in the face of the enemy. The scars on my hips were still obvious when wearing swimming trunks after the war and if questioned about them I modestly murmured ‘Bayonet wounds’. This reduced my sister-in-law to tears until she learned the truth.
Airmen who had been shot down arrived in camp and brought the news of the Battle of Alamein and the beginning of the Allies surge westwards. Our resolution to stay on at Benghazi was strengthened.
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At the end of October diphtheria was suspected in the camp and the Italians panicked. An RAMC corporal told me he proposed to simulate the symptoms by lashing his throat with a wet handkerchief and developing a cough to get into hospital. By lashing my throat with a wet handkerchief and developing a spurious cough, I was able to attend a medical parade and be accepted as a diphtheria suspect. My friend Charlie was not so lucky or as accomplished a liar and was rejected. The Hospital was a wonderful change from camp life, a proper bed with a mattress and clean sheets, better food, opportunity for a shower and room to move around with no interference from the orderlies and for that matter no treatment either. Perhaps best of all was the flush toilet and seat after so long of using an open stinking trench with its inevitable squadrons of flies. Most of us in the ward were imposters but were able to help those in an adjoining ward who were genuinely ill. Frankly I don’t think there was ever any diphtheria in the camp.
News continued to be cheering and coming from newly captured prisoners taken in Libya reliably confirmed that the Allies would soon retake Benghazi. My hopes for recapture were high, I had only to swing the lead for a little while longer as a diphtheria suspect and believing the Italians would not want to move me either west or to Italy for fear of spreading the infection, all seemed set for release. The best-laid schemes of mice and men as the Scottish poet said ‘Gang aft aglee’ and so did mine when a German Medical officer arrived in the Hospital and all suspects lined up for his inspection. As he went along the line his verdict was ‘Nein, Nein, Nein,’ we were all imposters and quickly returned to the camp where preparations were being made to evacuate all prisoners.
How frustrating to have avoided drafts to stay at Benghazi hoping for recapture and then to be foiled at the last minute. The guards were doubled to minimise the chances of escape. In fact the Allies retook Benghazi about four days after we left. Prior to our leaving Benghazi a flight of Liberator bombers attacked Benghazi Harbour and hit several ships, one of which was an ammunition ship which first burned intensely then blew up with a devastating explosion. The pyrotechnics pleased us immensely, it was a wonderful display with hundreds of tons of explosives, signal flares, rockets etc. bursting in the air. Much cheering from the prisoners to the fury of the Italian guards. Most of us had suffered greatly from German air superiority in the Desert, Greece and Crete. I had twice seen one of our ammunition ships blown up and it was very satisfying to see the enemy suffering for a change, such is war and the depravity it creates in the minds of men.
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On the morning after my ignominious discharge from Hospital the whole of our sector, almost a thousand men, were ordered to get ready to move and by mid-day were marched down to the docks under very heavy guard; there seemed to be more of them than us. An old tramp type steamship lay alongside the jetty and this was to be our ‘Cruise’ vessel to Italy. Two lines of men were formed and one climbed up a gangway to the rear well deck and we to the front well deck. The hold hatch was almost completely covered with battens and tarpaulin except for a small area of about a square metre from which the top of a ladder protruded. It was down this ladder some 500 prisoners had to climb into a veritable Black Hole. Each man had little more space than that on which he could sit. We made ourselves as comfortable as any one can on a steel deck, the most fortunate with their backs to the hull or against the up-stand of the hatch to a lower hold.
A small allocation of food was given to each prisoner and for those who had water bottles these were filled and this had to serve us for an unknown period, Charlie and I estimated two days, remembering the time it had taken us to sail from Alexandria to Greece.
It didn’t take the inquisitive British troops long to get the covers off the hatch leading down to a lower hold and a wonderful find, several hundred cases of tinned peas. It was only a matter of minutes before cases of peas were passed up from the hold, broken open and tins passed around. Where tin openers, scissors and other forbidden tools came from no one knew or asked. Peas were consumed at a rapid rate into hungry stomachs which had not tasted the like for more than a year. The result can be imagined, men were sick or needed a toilet desperately but the Italian guards with two machine-guns mounted at the top of the ladder and with two riflemen at their sides would only allow one man at a time onto the deck where a toilet was situated. Men in the queue or on the ladder could not control themselves or get to the only other facilities provided, three 40-gallon drums with the tops cut open. These facilities were to serve 500 men, many of whom were suffering from dysentery. The hold and men became a revolting, disgusting, indescribable mess.
The ship did not move until evening and we had no means of knowing in which direction it was proceeding. We sailed all night but when dawn broke, and this we could only tell by a slight improvement in the light coming through the aperture in the hatch cover, the ship’s engines stopped. A chap allowed on deck said we were lying off what appeared to be the north Libyan coast. We did not move again until dusk and it became obvious that the ship’s officers were afraid of attack by British surface craft or submarines more than aircraft, as the latter would have had an easy target as we lay to during daylight.
We all had a vested interest in avoiding confrontations with offensive British forces who at the time were doing their level best to sink every Axis ship they could find in the Mediterranean. The prospect of a torpedo, shell or bomb into our hold or even the ship was not one to savour.
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In the course of explorations into the lower decks some men found kit belonging to deceased German Officers and in rifling through it found two Luger pistols. Foolishly they climbed the ladder to the deck aperture and tried to barter the pistols for bread. The two machine-gunners and two riflemen guards at the ladder head thought a insurrection was about to take place and screamed for help. Out came the guards plus other troops and the aperture was battened over. Thus did we relapse into complete and utter darkness. The hold became a Black Hole in every respect. Shortly after this the ship’s engines started and kept going for, as far as we could tell, two days, by which time the black hole was insufferable but it had to be endured.
When the ship’s engines stopped the aperture was opened and prisoners were ordered to climb the ladder but only one at a time. On deck each one of us was carefully searched and then ordered down the gangway past more armed guards onto a jetty where a rather frightening sight awaited. The immediate area of the jetty was clear but a large treble ring of armed Italian soldiers stood in a huge semi-circle, there must have been fully 2,000. The inner ring was kneeling and the outer two standing but all had rifles pointing toward us as we came down the gangway unarmed. At intervals of ten yards in the semi-circle were manned machine-gun posts. What a force to deal with 500 weakened prisoners and two pistols. However, when lined along the water’s edge and with the ship’s side behind us the thought did come to me, what next? the final solution? a few bursts of fire and it’s curtains for us. Thinking of an escape route if the worst came to the worst, I looked over the jetty edge to see only a gap of a couple of feet of water between jetty wall and ship and the ship moving gently in and out. So the options were a quick shot or a slow crushing? However, it was not as bad as my suspicious mind had imagined and when all had been searched without the pistols being found it was back to the ship but with a small food ration.
Whilst on the jetty I recognised the place; it was the east end of the Corinth Canal. I could even see the bridge over which we passed during the evacuation of Greece in April ’41.
After our brief spell on the jetty and the luxury of fresh air, we returned to the stench of the hold which seemed even worse than ever, that is until one got used to the conditions again. Sitting in the hold amid the stench and filth, lousy, clad in dirty clothing and unwashed for days, I contemplated my position. Incarcerated in what could at any minute become a steel coffin should the ship be hit, what were my options? Curse and scream until I was hoarse and had lost my breath? Kick the steel sides of the ship and hurt my feet? Climb the ladder and be shot? Or accept the circumstances in which I found myself and be content with my lot? Content!! Well, accept it as inevitable, relax and conserve my strength. It is amazing what extreme conditions one can survive physically and mentally especially when there is no alternative. I think that this period on the ship was for me the nadir of life.
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It took two more days to sail through the Corinth Canal and across the Adriatic before our ‘Cruise liner’ docked at Taranto. Surely one of the slowest and most uncomfortable crossings of the Mediterranean ever. To have scuttled from one safe anchorage to another and detoured via Greece to cross the Mediterranean was ironic in the light of Mussolini’s constant reference to it as ‘Mare nostrum’, our sea.
Nevertheless we were glad the ordeal of the Black Hole, or should it be Hold, was over and that we had safely crossed the sea without a British submarine scoring another success. What we of the 4th Survey Regiment fortunately did not know when we set sail was that forty of our friends had perished earlier when an Italian ship carrying prisoners from Africa to Italy had been sunk. I do not know the number of men who perished but if the ship was the same size as that on which we sailed then then number of prisoners lost must have been in the region of 1,000. What an appalling tragedy. Amazingly a few men survived, one being of our Regiment who was blown out of the hold when the ship was torpedoed, his name? What else but Danny Whale. Danny survived for nearly two days clinging to a raft on the open sea with three other men, until rescued by a British submarine.
When we learned of this disaster we had good reason to believe we had been lucky despite all the miseries of the black hole. What chance had enabled, or encouraged us to avoid the draft from Benghazi which finally finished up on that doomed ship? Providence? (which the dictionary describes as ‘The foresight and care of God over all his creatures’) but surely ‘all’ ought to include those aboard the ill-fated ship as well as ours. Food for thought.
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WELCOME TO SUNNY ITALY
The Italians had very good reason to view us with distaste when we disembarked onto a wide jetty at Taranto. Dirty, dishevelled, lousy and rebellious, we were no credit to anyone and the treatment we next received was in all the circumstances appropriate. First we were required to strip naked and then bundle all our clothing and possessions together in a blanket and these were put through a steam oven for disinfestation or, as much as was possible. Each prisoner was then called in turn, as naked as the day he was born, to two burly Italian Marines each armed with a pair of electric shears which they used to remove every single hair from our bodies. When I say every, I mean just that, head, under arms, chest, privates, the lot. Very demoralising but very sensible as lice lay their eggs on hairs.
Then we were herded into showers, cold water only and very rough soap but what a joy to get clean, we relished it though removal of dirt revealed the extent to which every one had suffered from the blood sucking of lice. Very soon we were reunited with our clothing but what a difference, the steam treatment had shrunk the material, sleeves which had formerly reached to wrists now extended only to somewhere between wrist and elbow, trouser legs also failed to reach boot level. Hairless, in damp shrunken clothes, we were less than elegant.
Once again almost 2,000 Italian soldiers arrived at the docks to provide an armed guard for these dangerous ‘Inglesi Prigionieri’, about 1,000 unarmed men. Then came the march through Taranto to the cattle trucks which awaited us at the freight yard. During the march through the town we were booed by the civilians, which was in a way pleasing as it confirmed our belief that the war was at last going our way. In any case some of our gestures to the booing crowd were less than genteel as at this stage we had no cause to love them.
On the march through Taranto, Charlie became ill with severe stomach pains. I had to carry his pack and hold him as he staggered along urged by a rifle butt from time to time as we fell to the back of the column. Before being loaded forty men to a railway van and the doors locked from outside, we were given some bread and cheese with the same old lottery as to the size of bread bun the guard issued. The train shunted around for a while then set off for where we knew not but wherever it was we arrived in the dark, detrained and formed up for a march. By this time Charlie was very ill and I indicated to the guards that he could not march, but all I got was a shouted ‘Avanti’. Had Charlie known how far he had to march that night I doubt if he would have been able to do it. The march was more than 5 miles and Charlie staggered on believing lies about getting near and just a little further. As we approached what was to be our destination Charlie was very near to collapse and lightheaded. With help from another chap I practically dragged him the last mile into what was to prove to be Tuturano PoW camp. We were then allocated 100 to a hut and in the dark had to find an unoccupied wooden bed but being last into the hut this was yet a further frustration on what had been an eventful day. We got Charlie laid on a bed and I tried to get medical help but the hut doors had been locked and the only thing to do was let him sleep.
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Tuturano, otherwise known as Campo Concentramento 85, was not a large camp. It housed only about 1,500 prisoners of British, Australian, New Zealand and South African nationalities. The prisoners’ compound was surrounded by two 10ft high wire fences with intervening space filled with coiled wire and on the inside the usual trip wire. Around the fence were six towers each with searchlight and machine-gun and manned 24 hours per day. In addition patrols operated outside the wire at night and patrols roamed the compound during the day. Outside the main gate there was a second compound for the Italian administration and guards, also surrounded with wire but not so secure. In our compound were fifteen huts each accommodating 100 men, separately an ablution block, internal administration offices, cook-house and a small medical-centre-cum-Hospital. As all huts were set on brick pillars 3ft high the guards could make an easy check of the sub-floor area and frustrate any attempt to dig a tunnel from under the hut area out to and under the wire. The countryside outside the wire was very flat and devoid of any worthwhile cover, making escape a formidable problem.
On the first morning following arrival a bugle blew at 6.30 a.m. and the doors of the hut were banged open. Guards came into the hut shouting in Italian which we understood not, but gestures and use of their rifle butts clearly indicated ‘Everyone out’. We realised the hard way that we had to parade to be counted. Once the officer in charge of the guard was satisfied he had not lost any prisoners overnight we were free to return to the huts or go to the ablutions block.
Charlie was still in severe pain and as we held him in the ranks to be counted the guards accepted our request that he be given medical attention and allowed him to be taken to the small medical centre in which there were four beds but virtually no drugs or medication. He was kept there on a water diet and recovered mainly by natural means. The general philosophy seemed to be that the weak ones die and that it is God’s will when they do. An attitude which gave one a great incentive not to be ill.
The Italian guards were generally of poor quality, many downgraded medically and not a very warlike lot, whose greatest fear was that they would be sent to the Russian front if they committed any misdemeanour. As units which had been sent to the eastern front were usually not heard of again the fear was very real. The Officers were either unfit or had friends in court who got them a cushy posting to the camp. The Colonello was quite a decent old chap who had apparently served in northern Italy with British forces in the First World War. When we experienced other camps we realised that he was very fair in his dealings with us.
Considerable aerial activity could be seen to the south and we later learned that San Pancrazio military aerodrome lay in that direction. By late November the weather changed and became very wet and windy, such a change from the sunny day which welcomed us into Italy.
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One benefit of reaching Italy was that for the very first time in five months I could send notification to my parents at home that I was still alive and kicking. A pre-printed post-card with a space for no more than five extra words was the instrument of communication and even the most uncommunicative among us felt somewhat restricted. We were required to say we were being well treated but this was no problem, for who would have said anything else and caused the folks at home unnecessary worry? Nevertheless those at home received the first intimation that we were alive since receiving the official notice that we were ‘Missing believed prisoner’. For many at home it had been a very difficult time especially as those who had been transferred to Italy very early had long since been able to assure their relatives they were well. Subsequently it was possible to write to or receive letters from home but not to carry on a correspondence due to long intervals without opportunity to write, loss of post in transit or other factors as was evidenced by gaps in the numbering systems adopted by writers and/or senders.
The day for a prisoner at Tuturano started with reveille at 6.30 a.m. announced by a long bugle call followed by the entrance of guards into the compound to unlock the huts and allow prisoners out and some fresh air in. All prisoners paraded in groups according to their hut to be counted in the first roll-call of the day. When the Officer of the guard was satisfied we could then attend to urgently needed ablutions. Over night the only facility in the huts were two large buckets set in the central gangway between the rows of beds, which buckets soon filled and overflowed creating an ‘earthy’ atmosphere.
The apology for coffee followed and was sometimes hot, usually wet, and always a horrible dark brown colour. It was said to have been made from ground roasted acorns but I think this was too kind a theory. Nevertheless it was always drunk and I cannot recollect there ever being any left. Except for a possible spot roll-call, the morning was free until mid-day when the bread bun ration was issued. The warrant officer 2 in charge of our hut adopted the same system of distribution as I had earlier used so that every one had his turn for either a large or small bun as the all-important roster dictated.
Usually about four roll-calls were called each day and were a nuisance but prisoners soon learned to confuse the situation. The roll-call required men from each hut to form up together on the parade ground and theoretically total 100 men. Men stood in ranks of five and the guard walked along chanting aloud cinque, dieci, quindici, venti; five, ten, fifteen, twenty, aided of course by prisoners chanting the same figures; thus we learned to count in Italian but only in fives and up to one hundred. When he reached a total for his group the guard reported to the officer on parade. At the same time other guards checked the huts for dodgers, the cook house, Hospital and the administrative centre for those on duty. The officer on parade then calculated a grand total to tally with the number of prisoners in camp. By movement of a man in the centre rank of five it was possible to confuse the guard
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and make him get one more or less than the true figure especially as we were helping by chanting the figure he was expecting to get. Usually we did this when a man was in hospital and instead of 99 the guard got the 100 he expected. When the guard officer of the day calculated his grand total he had one too many or one short if we had worked it the other way. Consternation reigned and much abuse for all the guards. The count was repeated till a correct figure was achieved. I would add that we never did the trick on a wet, cold or windy day. Childish? Of course, except that it implied inefficiency on the part of our captors and some degree of superiority on ours in briefly controlling the situation. It was also good practice for such time when an escapers absence needed to be concealed.
At approximately four in the afternoon it was time for the main meal of the day. Two men from each hut accompanied by the hut leader attended at the cook-house and collected a dixie containing what was known as ‘Skilly’ for 100 men. It was supposed to be a form of stew but the main constituent was hot water on the surface of which floated a few blobs of olive oil and spots of un-dissolved tomato paste, also in the water was a collection of chopped turnip tops, a few pieces of pasta, a few grains of rice, some other vegetable matter and occasionally a piece of meat, less than the size of half a man’s little finger per dixie.
The hut leader’s job was to apportion this concoction equally between 100 very hungry men. A ladle which held about a pint was used as a standard measure to issue a portion to each man, but unless the server continually stirred the mixture one could get a measure which was little more than hot water, whilst by dipping to the bottom a server could give his pal a better helping. So the issue continued to the cries of ‘Give it a stir’, until all had received his basic ration. As a very small amount remained in the bottom of the dixie a smaller container was used to issue this on a roster basis until every atom of food had been issued to the satisfaction of 99 auditors and the relief of the leader. Other than the last count of the day prisoners were left to their own devices until lock-up time at 7 p.m.
As you will have noted, events centred around food, its distribution and roll-calls. Personal hygiene, clothes washing and mending took up a further part of the day. Some of us followed a strict routine of keeping ourselves fit by walking around the compound ten times morning, afternoon and evening, partly for something to do but also to achieve fitness to escape if and when the opportunity arose. I mentioned mending and this was to maintain clothing which was deteriorating, especially after the disinfestation process at Taranto, part-worn socks were pulled out and the wool used to repair the best pair, that is if one were lucky enough to have two pairs. Eventually socks were little more than a mass of darns. Some chaps were competent enough to knit socks from pulled out wool. Other than these activities there was nothing to do and chaps tended to sit on their beds and chat or worse, lie on the beds and just bemoan their plight. This was dangerous and one could get into a depressed state by introspective and self-pitying lethargy. Two chaps in our hut died after a period in which they would take no interest in anything. A British Medical Officer was called to camp
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to examine the bodies and make enquiries. He concluded that the chaps had just ‘Given in’. The officer counselled more activity for the men, enforced if necessary.
Lethargy was a problem for many chaps who had very little self motivation. Admittedly the camp had no books, musical instruments or sports gear but it was possible to organise physical training. However, this failed for lack of support by the general mass of the prisoners and their feeling that they could not be ordered to participate. Attempts were made to organise a concert party but with only nominal success.
By far the most successful entertainment was the evening talks. Being locked up at 7 p.m. in our huts it was too early for sleep and one evening an Australian, a lawyer in peacetime, volunteered to give a talk on the legal aspects of rape. He was very interesting and the audience, captive in every respect, were absorbed in what he had to say. Questions came spontaneously and to such an extent that the Aussie agreed to give a further talk on his profession. Subsequently others realised that they could talk about home life in South Africa, New Zealand, or Britain and also about work, profession or hobbies. Most chaps had never spoken to an audience previously but in the gloom of the hut and knowing that the audience were appreciative of almost any interesting topic, most did very well. Other huts adopted the idea. Inevitably each hut ran out of speakers and an inter-change of speakers was arranged between huts. The guest speaker arrived before lock up and as it was not possible for him to return ‘home’ after giving his talk he ‘Stayed the night’ in the speaker’s bunk. He was not however given breakfast, after all there is a limit to appreciation.
Each man had a wooden bunk-bed in a block of four, two up and two down. These blocks of beds lined each side of the hut and a space of 18 ins separated each block. The centre aisle, which ran the full length of the hut, was about seven feet wide which was quite good. A later camp had triple level bunks with only 15 ins between blocks and the main aisle only two foot wide. The hut had no water supply, no heating or toilet other than the two buckets for 100 men for use overnight, a period of twelve hours.
Whilst the food was better at Tuturano than in Africa it was far from adequate and hunger was always with us. It was at Tuturano we first heard of Red Cross parcels and rumour had it they would soon arrive and contain food, but this seemed too good to be true. There had been so many rumours in the past that considerable doubt existed. However, one glorious day a lorry arrived at the compound gate and each hut sent a party to collect 50 parcels, one parcel between two. Charlie, my ‘Mukker’, and I shared a parcel about 15 ins long, 9 ins wide and 7 ins deep which when opened revealed a veritable Aladdin’s cave, things we had not seen for many months, tins of dried milk, butter, cheese, meat, fish, packets of biscuits, sugar, tea or coffee, chocolate and a piece of soap. These may now seem mundane things but then, and in those circumstances, they were indeed, manna from heaven.
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I cannot now recall definitely whether cigarettes were included in parcels in addition to the occasional cigarette issue by the Italians, but whenever we got any Charlie and I used them as bartering material as neither of us smoked. Theoretically each prisoner was due one parcel per week and such a quota was sent from England but much pilferage occurred en route and we were lucky if we got one every two weeks, some times it would be four, five or six weeks. These parcels were packed by the British Red Cross and the British Order of St John, which two organisations can never fully know what life-savers the parcels were to prisoners in Italy and I understand also in Germany.
Men’s reaction to the parcels was interesting. Some known as ‘Guzzlers’ did just that and ate the whole lot straight off and in most cases were sick, then starved till the next parcel. Others had a good meal and ate the rest in the next day or two. Charlie and I, being cautious types, enjoyed a selected item of the ‘Manna’ and rationed the parcel contents to supplement the issued food, hoping for another parcel a week later. This worked well until the parcel issue extended to one each four or more weeks; one never knew when parcels would arrive but how welcome they were. For Charlie and I a disciplined eating pattern proved to be healthy and though we were never ‘satisfied’ at least the more extreme pangs of hunger were sated. To be eating above the basic issue with the Red Cross supplement gave us encouragement that we could survive rather than suffer a slow deterioration of health. It is true to say that the Italians at Tuturano were fair and most of the time in that camp we had a parcel once each two weeks and furthermore the parcels were not opened as was the case in other camps under the guise of looking for illegal contents, weapons, escape maps etc.
Often a parcel would contain a letter from the girl who packed the parcel in England, sending a cheerful message. Those girls, or women, couldn’t know how much the parcels meant to us and how nice it was to have the personal touch of their letters. Both mentally and physically they were life-savers.
Mention has been made of the need for fuel. Our wooden bunks had a base of wooden cross slats on which a thin straw palliasse was laid. It didn’t take long to realise that by removing a slat to use for fuel one could rearrange the remaining slats with wider gaps and so have fuel and a bunk. This wasn’t too bad at first but came the time when so many slats had been removed that one slept almost like a hen on a perch.
The word blower can mean any of several things to the reader but to us in camp it meant a small cooking stove made from Klim tins. A Klim tin was the container for the dried milk in a parcel. It was about 4ins in diameter and a similar height. By cutting off the top and bottom and down the side welt the remainder was flattened and produced a sheet some 4ins by 10ins. This was the basic unit from which many ingenious things were made but the most common was the blower. It had a base of 10ins by 4ins supporting a fan chamber with a handle to rotate the fan inside. This fan forced a draught of air into a firing chamber into which fuel was
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fed and over which a container, usually a Klim tin of water was heated. The blower used a minimal amount of fuel to create an intense heat and enabled us to have hot drinks depending on what was in the Red Cross parcel, tea, coffee, chocolate or Horlicks.
The only tools available for the manufacture of the blower and other items were a pair of scissors and a basher, being a piece of wood. The noise when most men were engaged in ‘Tin Bashing’ was intense but it provided a beneficial interest and productive activity not to mention the ultimate benefit of a hot drink when we could get fuel. Bed slats, parts of the huts and any unguarded post were all regarded as fair game and each attacked to the detriment of the camp structure and the fury of the Italians.
It was quite common to see a chap lean against a timber post or the corner of a hut and surreptitiously pare away slivers of wood with a knife which had escaped detection and then pocket the precious fuel. This did not endear us to the guards patrolling the compound who quickly learned to approach any chap leaning against a post or wooden structure and remonstrate with him excitedly in Italian. This drew a crowd of prisoners around the guard who, though armed with rifle and bayonet, usually felt intimidated and withdrew. One South African who must have been at least 6ft 6in tall had a habit of picking on the smallest guard and standing beside him, looking down at the overshadowed man and jabbering away at him in Afrikaans until the guard moved away to a less threatened position. Somehow creating discomfiture for the Italians seemed to alleviate our sense of guilt at being prisoners and yet some of these same Italians or their relations would in the future show us a humbling generosity.
Being difficult with the guards caused me to have a very uncomfortable night. Whilst the guards were trying to get us men into the huts one night I realised that I hadn’t cleaned my teeth so quickly slipped out of the hut to ablutions. Whilst cleaning my teeth, no toothpaste, a guard came to me very excited and waving his rifle. I shook my head and implied that I couldn’t understand Italian. I implied he go to the nether regions and continued my toilet. Three more guards joined in the fun which by now was getting rather noisy and attracted the attention of the Officer of the guard. He came across and gave an order in Italian which I did not understand but the import of which was soon very clear. The guards fixed bayonets and approached in a semi-circle causing me to head for the hut and safety. This was not their intention and I was headed off from the hut towards the compound gate at the point of the bayonets. In this way I was directed out of the compound to a small concrete building, the door was opened and I was urged into a cell.
My private room was a cell 7ft by 6ft and about 9ft high all made of concrete with no window other than a one-foot-square opening about 8ft from the floor. The ‘bed’ was a concrete block with no blanket or pillow and as I was wearing only a pair of shorts it was a very long and chilly night. Unrepentant next morning I was given a military escort back to the
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freedom of the prisoners’ compound where I was received with many cheers. Stupid? Of course, but primarily for my lack of judgement as to how far I could go in showing them they could not push us around.
So time passed towards Christmas, our third in succession away from home. Rumour had it that Christmas was to be special, extra food from the Italians or even an extra Red Cross parcel. In the event nothing happened, just the normal routine, roll-calls and usual rations which gave us a very sad and nostalgic time remembering former Christmas Days. Our thoughts were of home and our loved ones. Not much was said between any of us.
Shortly after the New Year the Italians required men to volunteer for working parties to assist the local farmers and offered extra rations for those who did so. There was no shortage of volunteers though under the provisions of the Geneva Convention ranks below that of Sergeant could be made to work. The men were, however, not enthusiastic workers and the farmers were frequently frustrated by the slowness of the men who also took the opportunity to reconnoitre the area and report to the senior W.O. on escape-related data. Working parties also provided the men with opportunities for ‘Winning’ or otherwise appropriating whatever came within reach, fuel, extra food, items of clothing, cigarettes, etc. Not all was ‘won’, some was given but other items were obtained by barter, using soap from the Red Cross parcel if one already had sufficient soap. The Italian civilians were very keen to get hold of this soap which was of an infinitely better quality than the rough soap available to them. Some very good deals were struck by the working parties who dealt not only for themselves but also for those still in camp, usually on a commission basis.
Normally the working parties did not please the farmers, especially when tending the vines which were regularly cut wrongly or damaged in some way that could not be attributed to any one man. Toilet visits were long and frequent and tools which had lasted for years seemed to break very easily in the hands of prisoners. However, one day the men worked very enthusiastically and when the farmer, amazed by it, approached the rows of vines where the men were working they pushed him away and said he must not touch the vines as they were for Mr Churchill, who was coming to collect the grapes. How far the rumour spread among the civilians I do not know but the guard at the camp was increased.
Accurate news was by now hard to come by as few new prisoners were coming to our camp and we didn’t have a clandestine radio. The working parties were sometimes able to win or barter for a newspaper and though the contents had much propaganda and morale-boosting information, knowledge could be gleaned from the fact that the Axis forces were defending Tunisia against attacks both from the west and the east. Eventually we learned that the North African campaign had been won. This raised hopes for an attack on the Italian mainland and made escape a viable proposition if one could get out of camp.
Senior NCOs were not allowed out of camp on working parties but when the condition
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of the camp hospital beds became desperate due to men removing slats, the senior Warrant Officer asked if I had any knowledge of woodworking. I confirmed I had and he asked if I would repair the beds. I agreed to do it as it meant leaving the prisoners’ compound to work in the Italian compound joiners shop under the supervision of two guards.
Both guards were carpenters in civilian life of poor physic and suffering from some type of bronchial complaint. It was evident that neither were fit for active service. When I learned from them how poor were their rations I began to realise that the Italians were feeding us in accordance with the prescribed percentage of their soldiers’ rations per Geneva Convention. Nevertheless these two chaps managed to get me extra food each day and though they could not speak any English and I very little Italian we managed to understand each other by signs and a common knowledge of woodworking.
My Italian gradually increased and also my knowledge of the compound workings, which I duly reported to the Senior W.O. One of the guards followed me wherever I went but even if I had been able to lose him, escape from the guards’ compound in the daylight period I was allowed out of the prisoners’ compound, was not practicable. One day when my work for the hospital was nearly finished I showed the two chaps how to make a small wooden attaché case from scraps of wood and they were so impressed that I gave it to one of them. The other then asked for one and next day I made one for him in his workshop and using his timber. On the following day they asked me to make another for one of their pals and making attaché cases developed into a small business. The two guards informed their officer that they had too much work on hand and asked if I could stay and help them. This was approved and I quite enjoyed making these cases and getting extra food; as well as fuel from wood cuttings whilst my two carpenter friends were selling cases to other soldiers in the barracks. I did not feel that I was helping the Italian war effort but rather some underpaid soldiers who could not afford to buy even an attaché case. Charlie my ‘Mukker’ benefited from the extra food I was able to secret in my jacket and get into the compound. We were better off then than at any other time in captivity and better equipped to face any opportunity to escape.
Talking with the two guards and finding out something of their lives, their work and their army service, enabled me to have a better understanding of them and the Italian people. This in turn modified some of the hate I had for them following earlier experiences. The propaganda with which one is brainwashed into believing that everyone and everything of an enemy is evil, became questionable. Seeds of tolerance and understanding were taking root.
Several escapes were made and others planned, the former unsuccessful and the latter ‘blown’, possibly for a loaf of bread. After this had happened a few times we decided to confuse the issue. One of our chaps would speak to a compound patrol guard and thank him for being a good chap because he would not see him again after that night. The guard
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generally took the bait and guards would be increased overnight whilst we slept peacefully.
When letters began to arrive from home they proved to be a mixed blessing. Some married men learned of wives becoming pregnant or having had a baby to American or other soldiers and hoping the prisoner would understand. Others told of fiancées terminating engagements because they had met allegedly rich American soldiers who promised marriage when the war was over, etc. These letters, known as ‘Dear John’s, were frequently pinned up on notice boards for all to read, a rather harsh act, but it at least helped others to understand the man and his agony. The authorities in Italy did not help by issuing pamphlets which carried a picture of an American soldier getting dressed in a bedroom in which there was a scantily clad girl in bed, the text read ‘Is this your Wife?’. For those men who received Dear John letters it was very frustrating to be imprisoned and unable to do anything about their marital problems whilst the wife continued to draw on his pay and misbehave.
When the Allies made their attack on Sicily thoughts of escape intensified and so did the number of guards. The Commandant felt that the Senior NCOs were responsible for escape plans proliferating and ordered all Senior NCOs to parade with their kit for transfer to a punishment camp 400 kilometres to the north. The journey was relatively comfortable as we were taken, heavily guarded, on enclosed lorries from the camp to a railway station and shepherded into a normal railway carriage. Guards were posted at the carriage doors and toilets, the doors of which could not be closed as opposed to the windows which could not be opened. The carriage windows were blacked out so that the journey, whilst comfortable, was not interesting. So we arrived at what I knew as Macerata Campo Concentramento 53 but after the war established that the place in which we were imprisoned was near the village of Sforzacosta. Whilst this camp had a tougher regime than Tuturano it was not as bad as we had been lead to expect, perhaps the Allies’ advance into Sicily was having effect.
The camp buildings had formerly been a sugar-beet factory and prisoners were housed in two buildings, one holding about 1,500 prisoners and the other, where Charlie and I were located, held 7,500 in what was in effect one room, fortunately with a rather high roof. Beds were three-tier and very close together and as it was by now mid-summer it was very hot. Generally life was much the same as at Tuturano, roll-calls, similar food, though guards were more strict. Previously our Red Cross parcels were received intact but at Macerata one had to parade before a table on which the parcel was placed. Behind the table sat a Carabinieri who proceeded to open and remove every item from the parcel, ostensibly to check that no illicit material was hidden therein. I remember well having to stand whilst he placed a packet of tea back in the box then took up a tin of sardines, thrusting his bayonet through the tin piercing both top and bottom then placing the tin, dripping oil, on the tea. I had to remain standing until he completed his inspection and, leering at me signalled that I
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could take my parcel. How I then hated Italian Carabinieri.
‘Tin bashing’ at Tuturano had been noisy in a hut of 100 men but imagine the noise at Macerata where 7,500 bashers were at work, the noise was indescribable and the nearest equivalent I can think of is a shipyard with hundreds of men using pneumatic hammers to rivet a ship’s hull. The products of all this labour were also more sophisticated, the prime item being the equivalent of a grandfather clock, all made out of tin etc. salvaged from food parcels. The clock was a wonderful tribute to the ingenuity of its maker Leonard Burch. Many years later Des Jones, Secretary of the Army PoW Escapers Club in his News letter reported, As Julius Caesar used to say when visiting PG 53, ‘Klockus Klimus’.
Len in civvy street had been involved in radio and TV work and was the only chap in his section of the camp with a watch. He got fed up with chaps asking him the time so decided to make a clock. It had a face of about 18ins diameter, escape mechanism, pendulum and power provided by a sand-filled Klim tin suspended on a pulley to take the place of weights on a normal clock. Adjustment of the clock was by varying the amount of sand in the Klim tin and it was so accurate that guards patrolling in the compound were seen to correct their watches by the clock. The Commandant of the camp wanted to buy the clock but Len would not sell. When confusion reigned in Sept 1943 Len took the opportunity to escape and left the clock behind so doesn’t know what happened to it. Chaps who obeyed orders and remained in camp said it was accidentally dropped when the Germans arrived to transport prisoners to Germany. ‘Tin bashing’ not only produced some ingenious products but so much noise that internal orders declared a ban on tin bashing between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. so that the inhabitants of the compound could take their afternoon siesta, otherwise known as ‘Blanket creasing’.
Some of us continued our regular walks around the camp to keep ourselves fit for the time when an escape opportunity might arise, in particular Bill Graham, a regular Coldstream Guards Sergeant, his two friends ‘Kong’ and Matthews, with Charlie and I did a lot of walking and speculating on escape possibilities. From the time at Tuturano when I worked in the Joiners’ shop and earned extra food, Charlie and I saved all high concentrate foods such as Horlicks Malt tablets, chocolate, and small tins of cheese. It was very hard to do this after my supply of extra food stopped but we considered it essential to have such a reserve to sustain us outside the camp, not expecting to get food from what we believed would be enemy civilians. During our keep-fit walks we could see low hills to the west and learned that they were the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, the backbone of Italy.
News bulletins were prepared from the BBC news picked up by a prisoner on his clandestine radio which he had constructed from parts begged, borrowed, bartered for or stolen. The whereabouts of the radio was fortunately a very well-kept secret despite all the efforts made by the guards to trace the set. We were cheered by the news that three
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separate landings had been made by the Allies on the mainland and some advances; less so when the BBC referred to the defence of two beach heads against strong German attacks. It was clear that the British forces were not going to be able to rescue us for a long time and we would therefore have to help ourselves. We did, however, cheer the Italians by telling them our soldiers were already on Italian soil and when they arrived at Macerata would shoot anyone still guarding us.
Meanwhile little things amused us and one prank played by a chap called Yorkie kept men entertained for many weeks. Yorkie would gather a few chaps around him and tell them how before the war he toured the fairs in the north of England making a nominal living by guessing the weight of all who wanted to know it. Yorkie offered to guess any person’s weight and after examining the person state his estimate. The person was then weighed on scales and if Yorkie’s estimate was within 2lbs of the scales’ weight the person would pay Yorkie 6d. If Yorkie were wrong the punter got his weight for free.
Naturally many chaps were interested in how much weight they had lost and readily took up Yorkie’s offer to estimate their weights. The chap was asked to sit on a low stool, knees apart and put his arms around Yorkie’s neck to avoid overbalancing when Yorkie stood between the chap’s legs and putting his hands under the chap’s thighs, lifted him to test the weight. Unknown to the chap, Yorkie’s colleague slipped a shallow tray containing an inch of water onto the stool and when Yorkie set the chap back onto the stool it was into an inch of water and roars of laughter from the watchers. Very embarrassing but most chaps took it in good part and those who didn’t and wanted a fight were quickly subdued by onlookers. I fell for the gag as did many others but two things particularly interested me. First the reaction of the victim with wet seat when he realised he had been duped, was, ‘Just a minute. I’ll fetch my pal.’ Invariably he did just that. Some pal!! Secondly how no one split on the gag which Yorkie kept running for many weeks in such a tight-knit community.
Reference to weight reminds me of Vic Gray who, when we played rugby together in England at the beginning of the war was 6ft 5ins tall and weighed about 16 stone with no surplus fat. We met up with Vic at Macerata but found him in a very weakened condition being under 10 stone. Seen wearing only a pair of underpants he looked a suitable candidate for Belsen. Vic used to complain that food was distributed incorrectly on a per capita basis and it ought to be issued by the size of the recipient and thus serve his needs better. I did not agree with him at the time but I now see the merit and equity of his claim.
Medical services were virtually nil and dysentery was the cause of several deaths as were other ailments and the just ‘giving up’ syndrome. Worse still were the deaths due to suicide, surely an indication of the depressing effects of being confined in a cage of barbed wire. When chaps were carried out of the compound for burial, a bugle sounded the Last Post and the silence which prevailed was very emotional. No home friends or relatives to
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mourn his departure or even to know of his death, possibly for many months, if ever. To this day I still find the Last Post a very emotional sound.
Several PoW camps had a very interesting feature, namely wall newspapers. Where suitable paper could be obtained from the Italian Administration the camp Senior W.O. employed, for a little extra food, chaps who had journalistic or artistic abilities to prepare news items, articles, poems, cartoons and in some cases ‘for sale’ or ‘wanted’ items, the currency required being cigarettes. The paper was printed entirely by hand and invariably exceptionally well done, first-class setting and excellent calligraphy. The paper was then set up on a wall and chaps queued to read the paper, moving from page to page along the wall. One chap managed to save some of the papers and get them home to UK. He later donated some to the Imperial War Museum.
By the end of August 1943 the clandestine radio was still telling us that the Allies were fighting valiantly on the beach heads in southern Italy. Our chaps maintained the psychological attack on guards patrolling the compound and where we could speak to those at the gate, told them of the progress of the British forces up Italy and that when they reached Macerata it would be very serious for any Italian found holding British soldiers captive. This did not have much effect at first as far as we could tell, but when in early September news broke that Mussolini had been deposed and General Bagdolio was to reinstate the King, we learned that several desertions had occurred overnight. We called on the guards to open the gates but they refused.
On the following day an English Major arrived at the camp, or as we thought then someone purporting to be one, and he gave orders that no one was to attempt escape from the camp. He further stated that any escaping from the camp would in due course be court martialed for disobedience of his specific order. After the war I learned that a Senior Officer had in fact given instructions that all prisoners were to be ordered that they must not escape. Presumably this was to avoid many thousands of escapers roaming the countryside and possibly being a danger to civilians and be in danger themselves. I feel sure that the decision was wrong as (a) one had a duty to escape (b) thousands of escapers roving the north of Italy would engage many German troops trying to round them up and so distract them from their overall war effort. There would be danger to the escapers but it would have assisted the Allied war effort and thus be justified.
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Charlie, Bill and I with several others had a council of war and bearing in mind that the BBC were still reporting that the beach heads were being defended several hundreds of miles to the south, decided that the Allies were not going to reach us before the Germans did. Escape was therefore essential to avoid being transported to Germany. Irrespective of what the Major said, we had considerable doubt as to his validity and we decided to risk the court-martial threat and do what we believed was our primary duty. It was decided to rush the main gates at 4 p.m. when they were opened for the refuse lorry and take the chance that the Italians would not fire on us now that we were ‘On the same side’.
Five of us, three Coldstreamers and Charlie and self rushed to our beds where we sorted our kits and filled packs with what we felt we could carry relating to what we thought we would need. All the food we had in reserve, blanket, greatcoat, toilet bag, mess tin and water bottle and we were ready. As four o clock, the time decided for the rush on the gates neared, the five of us walked toward the gates and to our amazement saw about 200 chaps already rushing the gates. By the time we got to the actual gate there had been no positive action by the armed sentries who were indecisive. More important, the guards in the towers with machine-guns pointing down at the gate area were also holding fire. In what seemed an age but could only be a minute we were out of the gate and along the road to the village and free for the first time in 16 months. I felt as if a weight had fallen off my back.
Still expecting a burst of machine-gun fire at any time we ran off the road into the cornfield we had earlier decided would give us some cover and bent almost double with pack on back ran through the corn in a southerly direction. When clear of the camp we swung west towards the low hills of the Apennines. No shots came from the gate towers or indeed any of the other towers around the camp though they were still manned by machine-gunners. Many we left in the camp were too weak to face a journey into the unknown. Thus did five of us leave the sheltered life of the Italian Campo Concentramento 53 for our journey into the unknown and what we believed would be relatively hostile country.
Our plan was to march hard through the night and get as far away from Macerata as possible and how those three Coldstreamers drove on and on relentlessly. I thought that our walks around the camps had kept us reasonably fit but the first hour of freedom dispelled that illusion. After an hour we collapsed on the ground exhausted but exhilarated by our new-found freedom. Not far from where we lay we noticed some trees and thought they looked fruitful; investigation proved this correct and we soon had a plentiful supply of apples and plums to eat there and then and to fill our pockets and any space in our packs.
Whilst there was light we drove on and on, making good progress even across unknown country, keeping to cover as far as possible and avoiding habitations. We saw a German military vehicle in the distance and realised that roads were also dangerous and indeed wondered if a search had already started.
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We were of course still in uniform and though the uniform was in poor condition it represented a form of protection in the event of our being recaptured. We ought only to be returned to a PoW camp whereas if we changed into civilian clothing we believed we could be treated as spies with unpleasant consequences.
When night fell our difficulties multiplied. I never knew that there were so many dogs in Italy, they seemed to be continually raising an alarm. Nor did I realise there were so many muddy ditches or thorny hedges and shrubs. Fortunately it was a clear warm night and keeping the north star on our right provided a reliable guide to our westwards march.
We travelled all night resting only 5 mins per hour and though I could not estimate the distance we travelled obviously it was several miles. At times one simply put one foot in front of the other thinking only to get well clear of the camp. Dawn was a welcome sight and enabled us to find and follow tracks heading westwards. About 7 a.m. we saw a small isolated farm ahead and decided to trust our luck and approach the occupants for food. Charlie stayed back at the side of the track on watch and I went on ahead circumnavigating the farm house to keep watch ahead whilst the three Coldstreamers went to the farm and asked for food. They were quite well received and given bread, cheese and wine. We then made off to the south watched by the farmer and after about a mile again turned west to mislead the farmer in case he raised an alarm, evidence of our distrust of Italians.
After half an hour’s hard marching we settled down by the side of the track to enjoy our first breakfast as freemen and it really was a treat, fresh rough bread and cheese plus the fruit we had ‘found’ on the previous evening, washed down by the rough red wine. Charlie didn’t drink but was persuaded to have some to ‘Build up his strength’. After a rest we set off again the three Coldstreamers ahead and Charlie in front of me. By now the sun was well up in the sky and it was getting hot. I noticed Charlie veering a bit from side to side and thought he was getting tired very quickly; shortly afterwards he began to laugh and would not be quiet until he veered off the track and collapsed in a heap on the grass. We then realised that he was dead drunk. A combination of exhaustion, wine to which he was unaccustomed and the increasing heat from the sun just knocked him out. He lay on the grass snoring, so we all decided to pull him into cover off the track and catch-up on our sleep.
Rested by mid-day we resumed our march and pressed on all that day until sundown when we repeated the procedure of watchers before and after an isolated farm house and obtained more bread, cheese and a large bottle of wine. We again left the farm by a misleading route. At our evening meal Charlie decided to forego his share of the wine and his decision was not challenged.
Days passed in similar pattern but the terrain became more difficult as we climbed higher; there was less cover but this was counter-balanced by fewer people. It was also the case that we were now heading south believing the line of the Apennines to be north and
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south whereas the true line of the range was NW/SE and we were thus obliquely crossing the Apennines. The only map we had was my code map which covered all the Mediterranean area with Italy occupying less than 2 sq. ins, and consequently devoid of detail.
I bought two such maps in England whilst on embarkation leave and marked each with a similar grid and code letters. I gave one map to my Father and we agreed that in my letters home I would include a name in the postscript which included the code letters and where possible an anagram of the nearest town to my location. In this way my Father knew my whereabouts. The scheme depended on my guess that I was destined for the Mediterranean area which proved correct, but also depended on my being able to write home. In the escape situation it completely failed. Consequently my parents and Charlie’s wife only knew that we had escaped from Macerata, which information came to them from a letter Stan Thompson wrote to his wife after he had been taken to a German Stalag from Macerata. A good map showing the terrain would have saved us much unnecessary climbing and descent and enabled us to avoid conurbations sooner than it was possible to establish walking blind.
We still felt great being free, out in the open, sleeping under the stars on the softest piece of ground we could find and were fortunate that the weather was good. The only time that doubts crept into my mind regarding our venture was in the evening when the sun went down and it grew colder, the mountain skylines hardened and the extent of risk and danger to be faced in the unknown night ahead and on the morrow in a hostile land caused some apprehension. I never communicated these doubts to my companions in any way, nor they, if they had any, to me. We spoke only of success and the immediate practical problems. I am sure some doubts must have existed in their minds but believe I was fortunate in the quality of my companions who kept such thoughts to themselves. Doubts were dispelled by the rising sun on the following morning, a new day in which one could cope with the problems of being in a hostile land, sought by enemies but self-reliant and seeking only the way and food.
The more we met with Italians on the small farms where we begged food, the more we realised they did not regard us with hostility, but rather as persons needing help which was given as a basic charity, not out of any fear of us. The poor contadini were beginning to teach us that not all Italians were unkind. This did not stop us, however, from scratching out potatoes from fields, taking fruit from orchards or other vegetables when opportunity arose.
When we met Italian people en route it was usually because we had not seen them before they saw us and on speaking with them invariably learned there were ‘Multi Tedeschi’, many Germans, ahead. Prison camp was not the only place where rumours were rife. We also learned that there was a price on the heads of all escapees; the authorities were offering £25 for information leading to the arrest of anyone. In addition to the carrot offered, the big stick threatened that anyone helping escapees would be shot and their home destroyed by fire, yet these poor people helped us. These were not idle threats but were carried out in
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cases. Yet some of these poor contadini continued to help many escaped prisoners.
I think it was about five days after leaving the sheltered living of Macerata, that we were marching southwards along a track in the bottom of a steep-sided valley when a priest came towards us and we exchanged greetings. He advised us that the way ahead was clear, no German patrols or Carabinieri and that the village ahead was safe and we would find food and help. We thanked him and marched on for quarter of a mile when from ahead came a burst of rifle fire and bullets whizzed around our heads. The three Coldstreamers dived off the track to the left and Charlie and I to the right through some scrub bushes and without pause ran uphill as fast as we could carrying greatcoat and pack. The hillside was very steep but with the stimulation of the odd bullet whizzing around us the climb was speedy. Using available cover and darting from side to side in an irregular fashion we kept on up the hill till our lungs were almost bursting as we gasped for breath, legs becoming so weary that it was an agony to get one foot in front of the other. Eventually we got up to and over the ridge and down into a parallel valley. After a quick visual check of the valley for any sign of enemy we crawled into some dense shrubs and lay exhausted. I now knew what it felt like to be a rabbit.
Neither Charlie nor I had been hit and our next thought was for our friends, had they escaped or been hit? I was not to find an answer to that question for forty-eight years. Who were our attackers? They could not have been very astute otherwise they would have held fire until we were a sitting target, especially as their marksmanship was not very good. We concluded that as we were in uniform the assailants may have been partisans who assumed we were Germans. We could not imagine German soldiers making such basic errors or being such inaccurate shots. We put the incident down to what is now called ‘Friendly’ fire but it forcibly reminded us that one can be just as dead from a ‘Friendly’ bullet as from an enemy one. We also considered the ‘Priest’ and concluded that he was a fraud, possibly an advance guard for a group of trigger-happy partisans, none of whom knew the difference between an Englishman and a German.
When we had sufficiently recovered we continued on our way southwards at a slower pace partly because we were not naturally as fast walkers as the Coldstreamers and partly because Charlie’s boots were coming apart and his feet were swollen and very painful. It was a depressing day. In the early evening we unexpectedly came across a farmer digging potatoes in a small field, ‘Inglesi?’ he said and we agreed, not able to do otherwise wearing British uniforms. He offered us some potatoes and said if we would come to his home he would give us bread. Rather suspiciously we accompanied him but our fears were unfounded and at his tumbledown home he gave us bread and cheese. We explained that we had no money, ‘Have you hunger?’ he said and on our agreeing he said ‘No money’. When we left him we did not go in a misleading direction, trust was developing.
Next day we met a number of partisans in small groups rushing northwards and each
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group stopped only briefly to advise us of a great battle they had fought on the Amatrice plateau. The partisans had established a unit of some strength in that remote area and in a series of raids on German posts and installations had become a nuisance. The Germans sent a punitive force to clear the area and the partisans had courageously but rashly given battle and had been defeated. The partisans ought to have adopted guerilla tactics and dispersed at the first hint of German reaction and later reformed to cause more trouble for the enemy. It would have been foolish for us to go to the Amatrice area where the Germans would be engaged in mopping up operations so we headed towards Spoleto on the west slopes of the Apennines.
It was a slow and tortuous trek at first but after passing Spoleto the terrain levelled and we turned south. As we approached the Rieti area the number of German camps and amount of transport on the roads increased and it was prudent to divert our line of march more to the south-east. After a couple of days the German troop concentrations in the Campodosta [Campotosto] area forced us further east parallel to a deep pass cutting through the Apennines. At this stage Charlie’s feet were giving him an awful lot of pain and our stops were frequent. A shepherd we met gave us bread and cheese which he explained was made from milk taken from the ewes. He also gave us what he called prosciutto, a form of ham which at that stage we did not know was raw only having been hung in an open fire place and smoked. He also told us that a large amount of German traffic used the pass and patrols operated on each side of the pass road to guard it. We could see a high range of mountains to the south of the pass and this was, he said, the Gran Sasso range with many peaks over 10,000ft. To the west of the Gran Sasso the ground was very open and lack of cover would not suit us. We decided to work our way east though it was at least twenty-five miles to get past the range. We thanked the shepherd and I asked him why he helped us when it was dangerous for him to do so and he replied that we were now friends. We shook his hand and proceeded east at a painfully slow pace due to Charlie’s swollen feet and an increasingly painful stomach upset.
The altitude was over 6,000ft and our route took us up and down another 1,000ft as we crossed ridges and valleys. On the high ground the views were magnificent, especially the Gran Sasso range which was a light grey colour so presumably the rock was a limestone or dolomite. In some of the north-facing corries it was possible to see snow. Were our circumstances different it would have been wonderful to have been there in the glorious weather of late September. After two more days of trudging east during which we again received bread and prosciutto from a shepherd I realised that we must find some place to lay up whilst Charlie’s boots were repaired but he pre-empted the situation by becoming very ill with cramping stomach pains, sickness and diarrhoea. I found a ravine well protected with shrubbery and and overhanging rock under which we could shelter. A small clear stream
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nearby provided an adequate supply of water. It was evident that Charlie was suffering from food poisoning and we concluded that it may have been due to the prosciutto even though we had both eaten an equal amount. Either Charlie had got the bit with the ‘Bugs’ in or I had the stomach of an ostrich. The only treatment we could think of was not to eat and take sips of water which I warmed on a small fire of very dry sticks. Oh for a Klim-tin blower, but how grateful I was for the days spent in my youth as a Boy Scout on woodcraft courses. These had seemed just games at the time but many things I learned now became invaluable. The lighting of a fire without creating smoke, movement across ground without making a noise, taking cover so as to see yet not be seen, recognising stars from which to maintain bearings, sleeping rough, even the first-aid course and of course the cooking when we had the wherewithal. All these things fulfilled Baden Powell’s intention of teaching youngsters self-reliance and how we needed it in the circumstances in which we now found ourselves! All the concentrated food we had accumulated by self denial in prison camp had by now been used, other than the army tin of emergency rations in our trouser patch pockets. That night we felt very lonely and not much was said. There were times when it was better not to talk and following this policy we never got to serious cross purposes in the whole of the time we were together in prison camp or on the loose. Other times we could disagree but be able to talk it out and reach a decision to our mutual satisfaction.
After a difficult night, a bright new dawn and I set off down the ravine towards a track I had seen the previous evening, but about 50 yards short I heard voices and froze into some light bush cover. Four women each carrying a pitcher on her head and five young children came into the ravine to the stream edge and began to fill the pitchers. The children played around whilst the women chattered but one youngster came up stream and though I kept very still he obviously spotted me and ran back to tell them some one was in the bushes. The women looked up but couldn’t see me and put the pitchers on their heads and with the children moved off quicker than they came.
What now? Charlie was in no condition to be moved and the alarm was about to be raised. Keeping cover I moved down stream to the track and spotted the party about a hundred yards along the track. Under cover I followed until they disappeared around a curve which followed the contour in a series of curves but saw no sign of any habitation. I sat a while considering my next move until I saw a soldier in field grey uniform hurrying along the track towards me; how could they have got a German soldier so quickly? But as I looked I realised that he was not wearing a helmet nor did he appear to be carrying any weapon. As he got nearer I could see he was not blond or Germanic but rather short and swarthy. Whatever he was I had to head him off so when he was about ten yards away I stepped out of cover and said ‘Buon Giorno’. He just about collapsed but managed to reply to my greeting. ‘Inglesi?’ he asked and I replied that I was and we shook hands. He said he was
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Marcello and I admitted to being Tomaso.
Marcello told me he had deserted from the Italian Army when Italy surrendered, not wishing to be drafted into the German army as many of his friends had been forced to do and serve on the Russian front. His field grey uniform was that of Italian Alpine Artillery and very similar to that of a German soldier, hence my shock when I first saw him. Marcello’s home was in Rome but as he would be arrested if he returned there he had come to the village of Crognaleto just a kilometre along the track where he had several relatives who had given him shelter. He invited me to go with him to the village for food and shelter. I felt I could trust Marcello especially as he too was on the run and my confidence in Italians generally was rising. I went with him and thus arrived in Crognaleto, little realising how much this place and its people would eventually mean to me.
Watched by a few poorly clad men, women and children we walked through the village to a small stone building and entered the Ridolfi residence. Marcello introduced me to the Padrone, head of the house, an elderly unshaven Italian by the name of Divinangelo, divine angel, any one looking less like such an angel would be difficult to imagine. His wife was then introduced, Santina or female saint, no beauty but like her husband, she had a heart of gold. ‘Avete fame?’ have you hunger they asked and I agreed I had. In a few minutes I was set down to a large bowl of pasta and black beans. Wonderful meal. I then felt it safe to admit to the fact that I had a sick friend. Carlo hidden in the ravine suffering from ‘Mal di stomachio’. When in doubt as to what the Italian word ought to be just take the English word and add ‘io’. It may not be understood but it sounds better than being dumb and one never knows, it may even work as in the case of stomach.
The Ridolfis wanted Charlie brought to their house for shelter and treatment but I explained that whilst Charlie and I very much appreciated the kind offer, we were not prepared to put the village and people at risk of the terrible consequences they would suffer in the event that a German patrol caught us in the village.
Suitable food was prepared for Charlie and accompanied by Divinangelo and Marcello, I returned to the ravine. He was very relieved at my return as I had been away so long, but a little apprehensive of my companions. After introductions he was assured of their genuine wish to help us but wondered about others in the village. Marcello admitted that there was a Fascist in the village whose job it was to report on everything that happened in the village to the head of the Commune or district. Marcello thought that they could persuade the Fascist not to report us as he was a Crognaleto man and had been compelled to take the job otherwise an outsider would have been appointed and been a more zealous type.
We sat and talked especially with Divinangelo who wanted to air his ‘English’ which was even worse than my Italian. He with several other men from the village had emigrated to America just before the First World War to earn some money as there was
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no work to be had locally and the small area of workable land in the area would not support larger families. These men represented cheap labour in America and they were unquestionably exploited, but as they were used to hard work and as single men were prepared to work all hours they made a comparatively good living. They also lived very cheaply. As Divinangelo explained, one would rent a large cheap house then sublet to nine of his friends. They bought flour by the sackful and made their own bread and pasta, other foods were bought in bulk and all meals prepared by themselves on a communal basis. In this way they were able to make good savings and remit money home. When America came into the war earnings shot up and the men did very well.
After the war some of the men especially those who had married in America stayed there but others returned home comparatively rich men for they were able to buy some workable land, tools, animals, materials with which to build a house and have enough money left to take a wife, I think in that order of priority.
The offer for us to stay in the village was repeated to Charlie but he entirely agreed with my view that we could not risk putting the people in danger even though it meant foregoing the benefits to ourselves. These sentiments were appreciated by the men, though Marcello said that the English soldiers would arrive in the area next week. We questioned them on the regularity of German foot patrols in the area and learned that whilst there were many patrols on either side of the road through the pass to safeguard the road for German military traffic, these patrols were not on a regular basis. This irregularity supported our decision not to stay in the village. It was agreed that either I or both of us would come to Divinangelo’s house on the following evening for a supply of food.
After our two new friends had gone I spent the rest of the day scouting around the area looking for alternative camp sites. I found three reasonable caves where we could spend a night so that if the Fascist did report us and Germans or Carabinieri came to the ravine they would find that the birds had flown. So for some time no one knew we had other caves and when the eagle-eyed shepherd boys eventually found us in a different cave we varied the cave usage and no one knew which cave we would use on a particular night. Ultra-cautious? Yes, but only by such attention to detail at all times would we succeed in avoiding re-capture.
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The villagers described Crognaleto as a ‘Piccolo Paese’ which is rather like our term hamlet for a very small place, as indeed it was. Located at the head of a valley running north and south with 200ft high rocky crags rising above and behind, the village looked south down a steeply falling valley, the sides of which were correspondingly steep. The houses followed a contour and formed thereby a roughly crescent-shaped single street. On either side of the valley was a ridge and over each ridge the ground fell steeply into parallel valleys. About 20 kilometres to the south the Gran Sasso range stood in all its glory, magnificent crags and peaks rising to 10,000ft plus, with snow still lying in north-facing conies even in October.
I never counted the houses but there would not be more than twenty-five and the population about 150 men, women and children. Most were related and called Ridolfi or Di Fillipo; as Charlie’s surname was Phillips he referred to the Di Fillipos as his cousins.
All the houses were built of stone collected from the crags and bonded with a rough lime mortar, the roofs were rough timber-framed and covered with flat stone slabs each having two holes drilled through to enable a piece of wood or sheep’s bone to be inserted to hook onto roof battens. To protect roofs against the violent winds which swept up the valley in winter, heavy stones were also laid on the roof. This seemed like a belt and braces job until we experienced the winter winds at 6,000ft and realised that bitter experience had dictated the precaution. Most houses were of three storeys and inevitably located on a steep slope. The ground floor entered from the lower side of the house was used for storage or to house animals. The next floor was also the ground floor entered from the higher side of the house and used as living room by all the family and often the hens. As the floor boards of the living room were not close fitted one was never far from the animals. The top floor was used as sleeping quarters and reached by an ordinary ladder from the living room. Neither Charlie or I were ever in the top floor and often wondered at the sleeping arrangements as the household often consisted of three generations.
None of the houses we visited had any toilet facilities and as far as we could gather the women used the animal stalls in the basement and the men the fields, very chilly in winter. All cooking was done in an open fire place on a wood fire using a small trivet for small pots but a chain secured up the chimney and terminating in a hook held larger pots suspended over the fire. Some water was obtained from the stream in the valley of which the village was the head but all drinking and cooking water was carried from the ravine where Charlie and I had rested, all sought and carried in urns on the heads of the women. No wonder most of the carriers, usually the younger women, had smart figures and excellent deportment.
There were no roads to or from the village in any direction, only tracks and these very rough, only useful for walking or for the donkeys the more wealthy owned. Consequently there were no wheeled vehicles in the village, not even a wheelbarrow. In fact the only
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wheels were in the small water mill used to grind flour and were of wood with cogs.
It took Charlie almost two weeks to recover from his stomach and feet problems and be fit enough to march. During this time one of the villagers took Charlie’s boots and removed the defective soles. He then carved two new wooden soles and attached the uppers to them. The resultant clogs were clumsy but proved to be warmer in winter.
We were now in a position to resume our march south but news received was that British troops were driving up Italy very quickly and would soon reach us. We had a long discussion on the best plan of action. Our options were (a) to march on to the east and lower ground turn south towards the front lines, wherever they were, pass through the German front and meet up with the Allies. The main disadvantages of this plan was that we were still in uniform and would easily be recognised. If the front had stabilised, crossing through both German and British lines would be hazardous to say the least as in frontline areas both sides tend to shoot first then apologise; (b) accept that it was unlikely there would be any fighting in our mountainous area other than foot patrol activity, and stay waiting for the battles to pass us by on lower ground. We opted for the latter course as being the more likely to succeed. Several chaps who decided to go on were caught in the front-line areas.
For a change, accurate news came that the Allies were fighting on the river Sangro about 200 kilometres to the south and we thus fully expected to rejoin our forces by Christmas. What we did not know was that they were held up by the Sangro, bad weather and a German defence line having its key at Cassino, which was not to fall for many months.
Having reached a decision to stay in the area we set about making our most remote and safe cave more comfortable as the weather was getting cold and very wet. The cave was not the usual tunnel into a rock strata but rather a space under an over hanging rock strata with a gap 2ft high, about 6ft wide and 4ft deep. We built a dry stone wall under the strata to narrow the entrance and then using branches made a woven screen across the front for concealment and shelter. The screen was daubed with mud and clay to make the shelter light proof in order that we could light a fire inside the cave.
We wrongly thought we were hidden from all but it did not take the little shepherd boys and girls long to find us. These children aged between five and ten were sent out early each morning with the family animals, usually about six or seven sheep and a couple of goats, and they had to keep the animals moving all day to find ‘herbage’, grass to us. They were not allowed home until evening for the animals to be milked. It had to be very bad weather for the children not to be sent out. Consequently they were tough little characters, eagle-eyed and very country wise. I never knew of any of them attending school and I doubt if any of their parents had any schooling, or could read or write. No protective clothing was provided for the children other than an old jute sack worn over head and draped down the
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back in the old fashioned way of labourers. The shepherd children were expert at spotting any change in the countryside and were helpful to us when a German foot patrol came into the area on a search. They didn’t shout a warning or give the impression they knew the patrol was there but would move away from our vicinity or if they saw a patrol in the next valley one would come to a point overlooking our area and slowly moving his sheep would sing. Often the children came to the area of our cave to talk and this helped us with our Italian even though it was a very rough sort of dialect they spoke. One day a little bright-eyed nine-year-old Enrico asked us what we would do when the snow came. Charlie answered ‘Perhaps it will not come this year’. I shall never forget the amazement on that boy’s face as he answered ‘But the snow always comes’. How very right he was, as we were to find out in due course.
Despite the lack of any formal education the children were bright and it was a pleasure to talk with, learn from and teach them. That the parents had little tuition was evidenced when I once asked Santina if she had ever heard a radio. She replied that she had when was in the big town of Montorio. I suggested it was a wonderful thing to hear a man in Rome speak and her to hear him in Montorio but Santina said ‘No I couldn’t understand him, he didn’t speak Crognaleto’. Montorio was a ten-kilometre walk across rough terrain and had a population of no more than two thousand. This was the big town Santina visited on two occasions in her life. Such was the isolation of the Crognaleto people at that time.
The time passed very slowly for us especially as it became evident that the Allies would not be able to push further up the leg of Italy in the prevailing very wet conditions. We still made the trip of one and a half kilometres from our cave via what were little more than sheep tracks to the village to collect food in the evening. The return walk was not too difficult on a moonlit night but was hazardous when the weather was bad and there were no stars. I got to know almost every stone and rock on that journey as well as I knew the back of my own hand. Christmas came and went almost as any other day; the people did not have sufficient food to make a fiesta as they would have done pre-war. Other than wishing each other ‘Buon Natale’ and a Happy New Year when the time came that was it. For us it was our fourth Christmas away from home. Our thoughts were of home and our people who could have no knowledge of our comparative safety but plenty of doubts as to whether we were surviving. Indeed, when I got home I learned from my Father that after a time friends stopped asking if there was any word of us. How it must have hurt him when his cousin John, a kindly but forthright farmer, said, ‘I doubt the poor B… is dead’. When I did eventually get home and met the chap he was overcome with emotion and wept openly.
Early in the new year Charlie developed a severe cold which did not surprise him as he told me that at home he used to go down with severe cold or influenza five or six times each winter. He was pleased not to have had a cold earlier considering that he had slept
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rough since the day we escaped. We had no medical supplies nor were any available in the village. We decided to sweat the cold out and I selected four large flat stones and set them over a fire to get really heated. I laid dried branches and leaves on the floor of our cave and put two of the stones on the branches and covered them with more branches and leaves. Charlie then lay on the branches wrapped in his greatcoat and a blanket, more branches, remaining two stones and a final layer of branches, straw etc. to keep the heap hot. Charlie sweated like the proverbial pig but recovered. It is an interesting fact that he never again had a cold whilst we were in the mountains but whether this was due to the wonderful fresh air at 6,000ft, lack of infection or fear of the treatment will never be known.
In mid-January the weather became very cold and as we left the village in the dark one night it began to snow and very soon the track was obliterated. Fortunately my sense of direction and knowledge of the terrain helped us roughly to follow the track back to our cave. By the following morning there was almost 18ins of snow lying and more falling thick and fast. We decided to leave our cave and make our way to a stone barn about half a kilometre towards the village. Whilst trudging through the snow the wind developed into a howling blizzard and at times a whiteout. Struggling against the snow, wind and the climb we finally reached the barn absolutely exhausted. The barn was only 8ft square and contained dried branches and leaves for animal fodder. Although draughty it was less so than the cave. We burrowed into the dried leaves to try and keep warm. I lit a small fire to melt snow and have a drink of hot water which with a small piece of rough whole meal bread was the only food we had. It was a very long day and the night even longer.
Dawn indicated by a slight lightening of the gloom, gave no hope of respite. The blizzard continued relentlessly and the wind noise was quite frightening. More hot water but no bread so we decided that the time had come to use our tin of emergency rations. It consisted of chocolate with extra vitamins. How thankful we were to have resisted the urge to break into this ration in our earlier states of hunger. It seemed as if we had known that a time of greater need was to come. We rationed my tin to last the day and kept Charlie’s for the next day as Enrico the shepherd boy had earlier warned that blizzards could blow for four or five days, which would be disastrous for us. Keeping warm was difficult and it was again a very unpleasant day and night with no respite on the third dawn. No let up of the blizzard on the third day as we shared the last of the chocolate, we knew we were in deep trouble. Awakening on the fourth dawn something was different, there was no wind noise.
Struggling to get the door open against the mass of snow banked up against it I stepped out into a fantastic scene. Not a cloud in a sky of the most wonderful blue, sun shining gloriously though not warm. The mountains were blanketed in snow and there was a perfect silence in a gleaming white world, what beauty untouched by man or any of his works.
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Admiration of the beauty around us was one thing but action was more important as it was essential that we get to the village for food. Quickly we packed up and set off in about two feet of snow, within 50 yards I was struggling in the lead into five feet of snow. It was impossible to make any significant progress and we returned to the barn to consider this new crisis. If we could not go through the snow then could we go over it? I got some branches from the barn and roughly fashioned a pair of snow shoes which I tied to my feet. For the first twenty yards they worked well but gradually more snow adhered to the branches and the weight became so great it was impossible to lift my feet. Back to the drawing board is easily said but the situation was serious. To be marooned a kilometre from food and shelter meant slow starvation as we hadn’t a crumb of food between us and had eaten little for three days.
It occurred to me that a tank could traverse very soft ground on its tracks which continually placed themselves in front of the vehicle and then picked them up for reuse after the vehicle passed over them. Making eight bundles of brushwood each about three feet long and one foot diameter we set out again, me laying the bundles ahead, Charlie picking them up at the back and handing them to me to move forward to lay ahead. Exhausting work but it was successful if slow. We slaved away up the steep slope for nearly half a kilometre mechanically laying a path ahead then picking it up for reuse knowing we had to succeed as there was no going back. As we approached the ridge the bundles began to disintegrate but despondency was changed to joy when we heard a shout from the ridge and saw Marcello with two more men. The villagers had dug a path from the village to the ridge where the force of the wind had swept the ground bare of snow. We met on the ridge like long-lost explorers and were escorted in triumph to the village to a great reception, food and rest. The village people had feared we would not survive the Arctic conditions and I admit that they were not the only ones. Several days later we learned that out of a band of ten escaped Yugo-Slavs working their way south towards the Allies, eight had perished in the blizzard less than three miles from where we were. A very sobering fact.
After three days with Divinangelo and Santina Ridolfi and their two children, Maria, a girl of sixteen, and Dante, a boy of ten, one of the village men came from a visit to Cervaro, a village two miles down the valley with a report that a German patrol travelling on skis had arrived in that village to deal with the dead Yugo-Slavs and check for other escapees. This caused fear among the people who thought they were safe isolated by the snow but we said we would not endanger the village or its people but would return to our cave. This we did with great difficulty but a supply of food to last us nearly a week if rationed carefully.
About this time we learned that the reward for information enabling the German forces or the Carabinieri to recapture an escapee had gone up to £50 per head, so just a word from any one in Crognaleto to the right person would net them £100. Not an inconsiderable sum
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to a poor person as were most people in the village. In addition the risk of retribution wasn’t without foundation for the threat of shooting and house burning was carried out in several cases in the Montorio area. Many years later I learned of a dreadful case in northern Italy where a man who had helped escapees had his seven sons taken hostage and each one was subsequently shot by the Germans. His wife died of grief. An extreme case but to varying degrees this sort of brutality kept the population under strict control.
The Fascist still lived in the village but had not denounced us, partly I think because the other men of the village had threatened him and I believe partly because we were not living in the village and had consistently taken every care not to risk being caught in a position where it would have rebounded on the villagers and himself. This carefulness was as much for our own sakes as for the villagers; we could not have had it on our consciences to cause injury to the people who had helped us. One great evil of the Fascist system or police state was revealed to us at this time. When in one of the houses for a meal we were aware that the people of the house were in fear of their neighbours hearing of our visit and denouncing us and them. Two nights later we were in the neighbours’ house and they were in similar fear that the first household would denounce us and them. Both families were related. We who live in an open democracy are out of touch when we say that people in a Fascist state should rise up against a brutal dictator. Who could one trust even amongst families where this vile informer system prevailed? We certainly felt the evil fear it could create among people whose only wish was to live peacefully in their mountain village.
News and rumours continued to be variable and the villagers’ fears were heightened when word came that the Allies had been defeated in a great battle and were retreating. The next rumour however reversed the outcome of the battle and the Allies would be with us ‘Next week’. In fact the position was that a stalemate continued whilst the Germans held their line from Monte Cassino to the river Sangro to the south of us.
As with Christmas, Easter, Pasquale, came and went without any extraordinary event other than an improvement in the weather which stimulated the men of the village to consider tilling the fields. This did not involve getting out a powerful tractor and four-furrow plough, not even a horse and single-furrow plough, it only required a zapper. A what? A zapper, a seven-foot-long, one-and-a-half-inch-diameter wooden handle with a metal head comprising three wide prongs at right angles in both planes to the handle, almost like a dutch hoe. A tractor would have been useless even if it could have reached the area for the slopes were much too steep and the small pieces of fertile ground the village called fields too small. Some were nearly an acre, not very large but big enough to till by hand.
The ploughman started at the bottom of the field and facing uphill raised the zapper vertically in a two-handed grip above his head and then swung the prong end to the ground driving the prongs nine or ten inches into the ground, he then lifted the handle at the operators end to lever up a clod of earth, which he then drew to him turning it over.
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The clod was then broken up with the zapper in a hoe-like action. At first I thought the zapper an unwieldy tool with such a long handle but watching the operation realised the long handle enabled a greater force to be exerted to drive the prongs into the ground and also to exert a greater leverage to break away the clod of earth. This work went on all day, clod by clod advancing in an arrowhead line which meant that only two sides of the clod had to be levered away. It was heavy work which Charlie and I offered to share but the villagers were in fear of a patrol spotting us still in uniform albeit tattered and torn, with resultant danger to them. It would have made us feel better to be helping but we had to respect their fears.
Despite all the work to be done in the fields, on Saints and feast days no work was permitted and the men simply gathered in the piazza to smoke and talk. I never knew that there were so many Saints days in the Roman Catholic calendar or that the men would honour the Saints so assiduously. This meant working days were very long and when the weather was suitable the men were at work at 5 a.m. Except for a two-hour siesta from mid-day to 2 p.m. they never stopped until sundown about 7 p.m. During the siesta break the women would arrive with containers of pasta and bottles of water. I never saw any wine drunk when men were working; the area was too high to grow the vine and any wine in the village came from lower ground. I believe there was a tavern room in one of the houses but I never saw it nor were we ever offered wine, it was clearly a luxury.
Sowing time followed and seed corn carried to the field in a sack on the back of the man or if he was rich on the back of his donkey. The sower donned an apron with a large pouch at the front which was filled with corn and the man proceeded to walk forward and back across the field spreading the corn in handfuls to the right and left. Truly the sower went forth sowing. When the supply of corn was spread the ubiquitous zapper came in to use again to work the soil surface and cover the grain. I wondered if a rake with shorter and lighter tines would have made the work of covering the grain with a tilth easier but the men said the zapper was best and further more it saved the cost of another tool. The Italians have often been criticised as poor workers but watching these men labour gave lie to that theory.
I never saw any evidence of fertiliser being used on the fields other than manure dug out of house basements. This was used only on the potato plots which were usually near the village. Nor did I see any evidence of crop rotation and yet they seemed satisfied with the yield, well as satisfied as any farmer ever is with his crops. Once the grain was planted the men could sit in the piazza smoking and talking until the weeds began to grow in the corn. Then it was time to get the women out into the fields to clean the crops by hand weeding usually with the sun blazing overhead. I can recollect seeing a heavily pregnant woman working in the field, bent double pulling out weeds whilst her husband lay in the shade of a tree contemplating the world. Neither thought anything of it but to us it was an appalling throw back to the days when a woman was simply a chattel and/or unpaid servant.
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When the grain was ripe and time for harvest, sickles, not even scythes, were brought out and sharpened. The men worked up the field cutting the corn with the sickle in the right hand and gathering it with the left hand in one action. It was then handed to the wife following behind and she bound it into a small sheaf with some of the straw and laid it on the ground. The sheaves were not stooked as the heat of the sun completed the drying very quickly. I mentioned earlier the village was wheel-less so when the time came to transport corn to the village the family arrived at the corn field en masse. The farmer, his wife and daughters, one of them leading a donkey, that is if it were a rich family. On the donkey’s back were a number of nets from 6ft square to 10ft square each with poles on opposite sides. Laying the smallest net on the ground the farmer laid sheaves of corn on the net down the middle to the cries of the youngest daughter ‘Basta Basta’. She was not questioning whether her grandparents were properly married but using an abbreviation of ‘Abbastanza’, enough. When satisfied that the load was appropriate the farmer drew the two poles together and fastened them to make what in effect was a cylinder of corn in the net.
The young daughter had this load hoisted onto her head and she was set off for the village sometimes more than a kilometre away over a very rough and stoney track. No wonder the women developed an erect carriage. Each of the remaining daughters and the wife then got her load sized to what the farmer thought she could carry despite more ‘Bastas’. When the family had all set off for home the farmer made two more netted cylinders of corn sheaves and hung one on each side of the donkey which he lead, possibly assisted by a son, back to the village. Bringing in the harvest was certainly not a joyous time for the women of Crognaleto, but apart from protestations of enough, they accepted it.
As old Santina once said of life in Crognaleto, ‘Brutta Vita’, and one does not need to know any Italian to interpret that. Being of farming stock the agricultural activities were of great interest to me and I recalled reading of similar methods of farming prevailing in England a century or more prior to the time I was in Italy. The final act in the fields was for the woman, who else, to bring her hens to the harvest field to pick the fields for insects, grubs and grain that had fallen from the sheaves.
The next act in the grain treatment was of course threshing. Did this involve a huge threshing machine and tractor? No, not even a hand thresher carried on the back of a donkey as I had seen at farms on lower ground; it was back to Biblical times. A small piece of ground in the village was paved with stone to give a very smooth surface and the joints made level with mortar. Sheaves of corn were laid on the paved area and a donkey lead around and round the area treading the corn which was continually being moved into its path until it was estimated that practically all the grain had been trodden out of the heads. Threshing day had not only to be dry but also windy for the next phase of winnowing required the straw, corn and chaff to be thrown up into the air to allow the chaff to be blown away.
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Straw was lifted, shaken and carried away to be picked over by the hens before finishing up in the house basement as bedding for the animals.
The grain was taken to the house to be cleaned and divided into two equal portions. One portion had to be paid to the commune in lieu of taxes and this is where the Fascist in the village played his part in ensuring that the Commune got its proper share. To add insult to injury the farmer had to carry the commune’s portion to the commune warehouse four kilometres and 2,000ft down to the main road through the pass. It seemed that the Fascist had all the unpopular work to do. If a pig was killed, the commune had to have half and the Fascist had to know about it, indeed all produce from the land required him to ensure that half was taken to the Commune. The remaining grain was stored in the family grain box to be taken to the miller as required and ground into flour for making pasta and baking the family very rough whole meal bread, the original bread with ‘Nowt taken out’.
The flour produced was of good quality and truly organic, no pesticides or chemicals whatsoever. It made wonderful bread and pasta and sustained us as a staple diet for nine months supplemented by small amounts of black beans, cheese and prosciutto. Occasionally we had a bread called Gran Turco which was made from ground maize, it was a wonderful golden colour and tasted sweet but it gave one a griping stomach pain. Finally we sometimes were given Polenta which was a form of porridge the origin of which I neither knew or thought it prudent to enquire. I am sure a nutritionist would not be impressed with such a diet but we survived on it and I attribute much to the quality of the flour.
The miller had the only wheels in the village being a rough wooden water wheel turning a cogged wooden driver to a cogged wheel on the shaft driving the milling stone. Unlike most water millers in the UK he had no reservoir of water to enable milling to be done to order and could thus only work when a sufficient flow of water came down the stream from higher ground.
The growing of grass, or as the locals tended to call it, Trefoil, for hay to provide winter feed was quite normal except for the lack of any fertiliser or dressing. Grass was cut by sickle and laid to dry quickly in the hot sun. Women, yes again, turned the grass and later raked it into rows then heaps. No prizes will be given to those who guess correctly how some of the hay was transported to the homestead, yes, in net bundles on the heads of the female side of the family. However, it must be said that the farmer and his son did walk beside the donkey when it was carrying two large netfuls of hay. Fortunately for the ‘Girls’ some of the hay was kept in the field remote from the village and was stacked in what I at first considered to be an incompetent fashion.
A 2ft diameter hole was dug where the new stack was to be built and a tree trunk about 20ft high set base into the hole and wedged vertical before the earth was back-filled. Hay was laid around the base of the pole in a circle about 8ft diameter
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and built up to about 15ft by which height the stack had gained to about 11ft diameter. The stack was then drawn to a point at the top of the pole and thatched with straw or reeds. What a hopeless lot I thought, they cannot even build a stack without some support, but, when winter came and the snow was anything up to 4ft deep, all was revealed. The farmer started to cut his hay at the very bottom of the stack and worked his way around the base cutting at an angle towards the pole. When he had removed sufficient hay from around the base, the remainder having insufficient support slid down the pole for a couple of feet. The thatching and layer of snow thereon remained intact and continued so until the whole stack had been cut and removed from ground level and there remained only some thatching at the pole base. I had to admit having misjudged the farmers; for the method adopted had not only kept the hay protected from adverse weather but had avoided the need to climb up the stack to obtain hay. The idea would not be of much use to a farmer in the UK as the quantity of hay he would store in a stack would be many times that which the Italian hill farmer stored.
Crognaleto was too high for crops grown at lower levels such as maize, vines, tomatoes, olives, etc. but potatoes and vegetables were grown, always, however, near the village to avoid carrying the manure too far and be convenient for harvesting heavier crops.
Practically every family in the village had a few sheep and or a couple of goats which provided milk when alive and meat when dead. The milk was used only to make cheese, a very hard cheese with a very strong taste. Every evening when the little shepherds brought the animals home the sheep and the goats were milked and the milk heated in a pan. When the right temperature was reached a pinch of rennet was added to the milk which was stirred till the cheese curds had made. It was then put into small wicker baskets and pressed to remove surplus moisture. The cheese was later taken out of the basket and dried in the sun for several days until it was as hard as a piece of wood. Occasionally one was given a piece of cheese with bread but mainly the cheese was grated onto pasta.
Theoretically half the cheese and half the dead sheep or goat had to be taken to the commune but if the locals could deceive the Fascist it was considered fair game, rather like beating the Inland Revenue at home.
The pig was the other source of food and I remember well an observation of Santina who said, usually at the meal table, ‘Think of the pig and the pig will think of you’. In other words leave a little to feed the pig and one day you will have pig meat. All that could be preserved of the pig was preserved to make the meat last as long as possible. That which could not be preserved was shared with other families on the basis that when the other family killed their pig the first family would get a similar portion of pig. Almost as good as a deep freeze. The principal preservation process for the half pig retained by the family after the commune had taken its share was to make Prosciutto. The bulky meat parts usually hams
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and the like were immersed in a strong brine solution for a period and when removed then hung in the fireplace where they dried and became smoked, the latter intermittently and depending from which direction the wind blew. The resultant product was a raw meat, salty and smoked; it had therefore to be cut very thin and it certainly was at Crognaleto to make it last. With the wonderful bread made from home-grown wheat baked in a communal stone oven it was a rare treat, rare in every respect.
Mention of Prosciutto recalls for me a day when Enrico di Fillipo, he must have been nearly ten years old at the time, brought his sheep and goats to graze near where I was sitting looking down into the pass watching German traffic passing in both directions. After passing the time of day and the usual trivialities with which all farmers the world over adopt as a preamble to getting to the point, he asked ‘Do you have hunger?’ I replied that I had and he then produced some bread and Prosciutto. Thinking it was his mid-day meal I thanked him but declined but he said his mother had given him extra to share with Charlie and me. I thanked Enrico and asked him to convey our thanks to his Mother. Charlie was duly called and we shared the food in the usual way of one dividing the items and the other choosing, Enrico watched the ceremony with great interest and no doubt related the events to his family.
That evening we were in the home of Santina and she asked among other things had we eaten today. ‘Yes’, I replied airing my linguistic skills, ‘We had some Pane (bread) and Prostituto’. I thought she would never stop laughing but when she did it was evident that the word I had used for some raw meat was equivalent to a lady of easy virtue. The mind boggles to think of such an act performed in the presence of a child, eight sheep, two goats and with the best part of a German division passing along the road below.
By the beginning of May it was quite common to see RAF Spitfires flying down the pass. I spent quite a lot of time watching the pass from a vantage point and could look down upon the planes as they searched for targets. At first the pilots had rich pickings but later the Germans made their major transport movements by night and traffic during daylight was limited. Nevertheless the pilots flew very low to strafe any German vehicle on the road, a dangerous procedure having regard to the steep sides of the pass and twisting road. After the war I met my wife’s cousin who was an RAF Squadron Leader and had operated over the pass on several occasions. He described the activity as shooting up old ladies on bicycles, he omitted to say how very dangerous it was even to just fly down the pass, let alone look for old ladies on or off bicycles. Whilst it was cheering to see the RAF controlling the skies in the area and probably spearheading an Allied advance, it was frustrating to have them so close and not be able to hitch a lift back to their base.
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When contemplating the village of Crognaleto and its people I wondered why it was that the village was there. I could see no raison d’etre for the village, the area had no minerals available for economic extraction, no economic stocks of timber, very limited amount of fertile land for food production; such land as existed hardly supported the people’s needs especially when the commune took half of the food produced. There was no factory in the area for paid work and the distance and lack of transport such that men could not get to any work and continue to live in the village. The people tried to be self sufficient but obviously this could never be achieved. Some men had left the village to look for work in America in the past but in later years work permits could not be obtained. Others had gone to Rome and taken unskilled jobs but when they had saved enough to buy some land, animals, tools and materials for a house they like most of the men who had gone to America returned to the village. Why? I wondered when life would probably have been so much easier and more comfortable where they worked. I concluded that in the first instance when Italy became over-populated and demand for land so great that the poorer people had been forced further and further up into the mountains until they reached Crogneleto as being the best available to them. Subsequently it became home with all that can mean and it drew the wanderers back to their roots.
The people were surrounded by their friends and relations but had a hard life with few luxuries as was evidenced by the Ridolfi house, which I best knew. Typical rough stone-built walls with flat stone roof. Floors of rough timber with ill-fitting joints meant that the basement and attic activities were never far from one, communal living indeed. There seemed to be no private place where one could escape the rest of the family at any time. The basement housed the family’s animals and also served as a store for implements, animal and human feeds.
The living room, or kitchen would be a better term, was quite bare, a large table surrounded by chairs, stools or forms served for dining, a second table was used for food preparation, drinking water was held in an urn used to bring the water from a stream one and a half kilometres distant. The main feature was the fireplace a 5ft by 6ft opening in one wall and about 3ft deep and stone flagged; a chain and hook hung down from the flue and a small trivet on the hearth completed the cooking facilities over a wood fire.
As there was no heating in the house apart from that given off by the animals 9ft below, the hearth fire was the target for everyone trying to get warm as well as for cooking. When the front door was opened snow as well as cold air entered and heaven help anyone who kept the door opened for a second more than was necessary. Apart from warming the family and cooking, the fireplace held other interesting things such as Prosciutto and a sort of bladder. I enquired the purpose of this latter item and was told it held rennet for
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making cheese but even more interesting was the way in which it was made. When lambs were born in the spring the weakest of the crop was selected and given all the milk it could possibly drink. It was then killed and the stomach removed and hung in the fireplace. When the stomach contents had dried to a powder it became the rennet used to make cheese. Who ever first thought of that?
The only light in the living room during the day was from two very small windows and and at night the light from the fire in the hearth plus a small oil lamp, the ancient type rather like a gravy boat containing oil and with a wick hanging over the spout sustaining a small flame. The family crowded around the fireplace at night, the male side talking with any visitor and the female side engaged in various tasks, clothes mending or spinning wool.
Whilst half of the wool obtained when the sheep were shorn had to go to the Commune, or as much as the villagers thought would satisfy them, the remainder plus what was gathered from fields or caught on bushes, was washed, dried and spun. Here we think of a spinning wheel as being an ancient tool but in Crognaleto there was no such modern tool. A mass of wool was held in the left hand and strands pulled out with the right and twisted until a length of say 9ins of knitting wool was made; this end was then tied around a stick, one foot long and weighted at the lower end. The worker then teased out further strands till she had a length of say two foot which she held vertically and with her fingers spun the stick which as it twirled twisted the strands into wool which was then wrapped around the stick and secured with a hitch. The process was repeated until the stick was full and the wool then unreeled into a ball. Much of this work was done at night with only the flickering light of the oil lamp. On rare occasions I even saw one of the males hold the stick whilst the female balled the wool. He usually looked suitably embarrassed little knowing that I had held many a hank of wool whilst Mother converted it into balls of knitting wool.
Santina worked on many nights making a blanket with the home-spun wool but not as I expected by knitting, no, she used only a crochet hook. Hour after hour in that dim light sitting on a hard stool working away with the hook on what must at the beginning have seemed like an acre of work to do rather than a blanket. The finished product was rather like a cellular blanket material and would I imagine have good insulating properties.
In the living room was an item of furniture which intrigued me: it was a grain box though it stored flour. The box which stood on legs one foot high was made of oak and had a lid which lifted up from the front, hinged at the back, very well made but the significant point was that it had been constructed without the use of a single piece of metal, not a nail, not a screw, not a hinge or a fastener of any sort. It was held together by woodwork joints. Maybe a little glue here and there but glue which the carpenter had made himself from the hoofs of dead animals. On showing my interest and admiration of the carpenter’s skill, Divinangelo told me that the Falignamo was his brother Gasperi who lived in the village.
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I later met Gaspari who confirmed that nails and screws were too expensive for him to use as the villagers would not be able to afford the finished product. The main frame of the unit was held together by tusk tenon joints and the lesser by mortise and tenon joints with a dowel through the tenon; the panels were made up from narrow widths tongued and grooved with ends set into grooves run in the frame; the lid was hinged by use of dowels. Every process of the manufacture was entirely by hand and a credit to the craftsman and I told him so as well as the fact that I had been trained as a woodworker pre-war.
I found out that Gaspari had processed the wood used from tree to finished product, felling a tree, cutting to lengths suitable for transport to the village where he had a saw pit, a thing I had read of in England but never seen. A platform was constructed at ground level over a pit 6ft deep, 2-6 wide and 6ft long, the section of tree trunk to be sliced into various sizes of timber was laid on the platform and secured. The bottom sawyer then crawled into the pit whilst the upper man stood on the platform and fed a two-handed saw down through the cutting slit to his mate. The saw was made to bite and then sheer hard work as the top man lifted the saw up then the lower man pulled it down to cut into the wood and shower himself with sawdust. The upper man’s job was not easy as he had to lift the heavy saw and make as much cut as he could but lower man sweated in his pit covered in sawdust as he pulled the saw down to make a strong cut. This work went on relentlessly hour after hour.
When the timber was sliced as required it was laid with separators to allow the air to circulate around the timber and slowly season it. During the seasoning period, which could be up to two years, the timber was kept in an open-sided shed. One did not have to be in a hurry for the finished product except that Gasperi used that which he laid down previously. No wonder furniture made by Gasperi lasted, no kiln-dried timber or particle board for him.
Gaspari’s tools were largely home-made except for the metal cutting edges which like screws and nails were very expensive hence the more labour-intensive joints he made as being cheaper than buying metal. The adhesives and metal fastenings which have been used in the UK and the high cost of labour for the past four or five decades have both contributed to the lack of skill and craftsmanship in today’s woodworking.
Despite his skill and personality Gaspari was a joke in the village; he was the father of five daughters and eventually one weakly son. The five girts were all smart, good looking and after years of carrying loads on their heads, of excellent deportment. Charlie was married but it was known that I was not and there was more than one suggestion that I ought to pay court to a village girl. The idea had attractions but any such move on my part would have endangered our position as an Italian lad who had designs on the girl and saw me as a rival could very quickly dispose of the opposition and pick up a cash bonus by informing on me. I therefore invented a fiancée who waited longingly for me at home and it thus appeared that I also was reserved. The prospect of a wealthy Englishman could have
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appealed to some of the girls and I may say their mothers who would have liked a ‘Molto Rico Inglesi’ son-in-law. That we were considered wealthy was evidenced one day when Santina was feeding us boiled potatoes in their jackets and began to cry. ‘Why’ we asked and her explanation was ‘It’s dreadful that you should have to eat potatoes’ and would not be convinced that we ate potatoes at home. Eventually I said ‘Well what do you think we eat at home?’ and in all seriousness she replied ’Chocolata e caramello’. Such was the reputation of the wealthy English and their eating habits.
Crognaleto did not have any medical facilities and the nearest Doctor was at Montorio, some ten kilometres across rough tracks or four kilometres and a 2,000ft drop to the pass road and then a further twelve kilometres to Montorio. It was therefore better not to be ill. Earlier in the year when we were snowbound in the village we were in the house of Adino and his wife and I asked them how many children they had. Nine was the answer. Knowing that we had only seen three around the house we asked if the others were staying elsewhere but the wife replied that they had all died, then as an afterthought said ‘They were weak.’ At that moment one of the children aged about eighteen months was crawling out of the front door into snow wearing only a little shift down to its navel. The weak ones die!!!
We later learned that each time Adino’s wife had been pregnant she had suffered complications and needed medical care. To get such care she had to be transported to Montorio and to do this she was laid on a sheep hurdle which was carried by two teams of four men down to the main road and thence by hitched lift to Montorio. It was incredible that she survived the journey and even more so that after the first experiences no preparation was made before she was in trouble with subsequent pregnancies. That the weak ones died and it was the will of God seemed to be the general acceptance of life.
In May the weather was delightful and I spent much time perched on part of the cliff edge looking down into the pass and was cheered by the increased number of Spitfire patrols which gave hope for early contact with advancing Allied forces. When there were no patrols it was serenely peaceful, stimulating a feeling of unworldliness, of being above man and his works. Those words in the New Testament ‘He went up into an high mountain’ came to mind and I thought this is the ideal place for deeper thinking. I still carried my Army prayer book which contained services, prayers, hymns and the New Testament, which I had read regularly. In that isolated and peaceful place looking down on the world I felt a spiritual uplift, felt I could consider life untrammelled by normal living irrelevancies, see life in a greater perspective. Sadly when one comes down from the mountain, work and activities of daily life dull the qualities and thoughts one has found in the heights.
At the beginning of June came the wonderful news that the Allies had landed in France, and we felt we were on the last phase of the war and surely the forces in Italy would now push forward and we could come down from our mountain to meet them. What we did
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not know was that some of our Regiment were on the beaches of Normandy by eight o’clock on ‘D’ Day. Had it not been for Tobruk it could have been us on the beach and to what end? By the merest chances we go down one road or another to such different ends.
By mid-June we could hear gunfire rumbling to the south-east and air activity increased tremendously; things were hotting up. By the end of June came word to the village that British troops were in Montorio, ten kilometres away. We spent the last night in the village visiting house after house in an atmosphere free of fear and making our farewells to so many friends who, despite having so little were prepared to share it with us, and furthermore to do so at risk to themselves. Truly we had moved from doubt and suspicion of Italians to affection. A tremendous transition, but it was accomplished by these poor uneducated people who had taught us values we didn’t believe existed.
The villagers wanted us to stay longer but the desire to start on the homeward trail was too strong. We shook hands with the ladies and children but were kissed on both cheeks by the men, all unshaven, it certainly stimulated the cheeks. Our Italian ‘Mother’ as Santina called herself, as indeed she was, was broken-hearted bemoaning the fact that she would never see us again. She was right as I found out when, many years later, I returned to Crognaleto to learn from Dante, her son, that both Santina and Divinangelo had died only three or four years previously and had always looked for our return.
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Divinangelo, Marcello and Luigi di Fillipo said they would accompany Charlie and me to Montorio to meet the British troops. It was a light-hearted march and we were introduced to everyone we met along the way; it was evident that the Crognaleto men were very proud of their association with us. What a surprise then when we got to Montorio and found that there were no British troops, only Poles who could not speak English. Eventually I found a chap who said he was the interpreter but he could not or was unwilling to understand my request for money and food to give to my friends. He could swear in English quite well and being upset I matched him, but other than getting two hundred cigarettes from him, nothing else.
Whilst I was giving the cigarettes to our friends the interpreter spoke to one of the Polish Officers. Charlie said ‘I don’t like the way they are looking at us’ and his fears were justified when the Officer called four armed soldiers who hurried to take up positions around the pair of us. When the Officer came up to us I protested that he had no right to put a guard on British soldiers unless we had committed an offence. I produced my AB 64, the soldiers’ identity book, he refused to look at it, waved me away and he gave an order to the soldiers who indicated we move along the road. Both Charlie and I stood firm despite being pushed; the soldiers fixed bayonets and the Officer drew his revolver and pointed it at us. Live discretion seemed better than dead valour so we went, seething at our treatment. After twenty minutes march eastwards along a road we turned off into a field and saw our destination, believe it or not, a barbed-wire PoW cage!!! Welcome home.
Our companions in the cage numbered about twenty and seemed to consist of tramps, rogues and vagabonds, not that our dress suggested we were any different. We were both almost speechless with indignation, all our efforts and we were prisoners of our own people. It was a very small compound with two fences of simple post and barbed wire and as we surveyed the compound and we saw that the wire at one point was not taut over a slight depression. We also noted that one guard stood at the gate and the other did a patrol outside the wire. We looked at each other, smiled and without a word both reached the same conclusion, we will be out of this lot tonight or bust. Food was brought into the cage by Polish soldiers and Charlie tried to engage them in conversation but if they understood him they refused to answer, much to his indignation. The food was more than adequate so it was clear that they did not intend to starve us.
When darkness fell we lay on the ground but not too near the point where there appeared to be slackness of the barbed wire. We carefully checked the timing of the sentry’s patrols and noticed that after four circuits he rested beside the gate sentry. The fact that light cloud dimmed the moonlight from time to time was an added bonus. As a cloud approached the moon and the sentry passed us on his route to a rest we moved crouched and silently to the wire which I lifted enough for Charlie to crawl under. I passed our two packs and while he held the wire I crawled, with some damage to my clothing, into the space
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between the two fences. The moon was now dimmed and no shout or shot alarmed us so I heaved up the second wire and Charlie wriggled out and held the wire for me to push out two packs and then struggle under the wire tearing bits off the clothes on my back. Still wondering if a shot, warning or otherwise was about to happen we moved bent double, silently but quickly to the shelter of some scrub bushes and lay there in shadow until the sentry had completed another round, then we moved off silently and keeping to shadows as far as possible. The feeling of elation was tremendous and I wanted to shout with joy.
I have since wondered however if the sentry would have fired had he seen us and if so would it have been with deadly intent. Obviously we took a risk which could have had serious consequences but we were so inflamed at the treatment we had received from Allied forces that the risk was not seriously considered until later when we learned why we had been put back behind barbed wire. After about half a kilometre across country we came to a road running roughly north and south and turned south. For more than two hours we marched with the lightest of steps and feeling as free as a couple of birds, not I would add jail birds but those with wings as we were winging our way home after nearly four years abroad.
Our euphoria was shattered when a blinding light shone on our faces accompanied by a harsh voice ‘Halt, who goes there?’ I gave quick response ‘Two British soldiers’ but next came the discourteous observation ‘You don’t ******* well look like British soldiers to me’, which gave me the clue to answer ‘Maybe not, but we both come from Gateshead and that is not far from your home’. Pause. ‘How many pubs in the High Street?’ As my knowledge of pubs was greater than Charlie’s, I replied ‘Twenty-four between Tot Andersons and the Empire’. ‘Howway in lads.’ The sentry was ecstatic. His home was in East Street, a very poor area of Gateshead. He called out the Sergeant in charge of the detachment of RASC and told him we were his neighbours and look after us till his guard duty was over.
We gave the Sergeant a very brief resume of how we came to be there and he was amazed but responded practically. He led us to a large tent, a tin bath was produced, warm water and soap, two clean uniforms, underwear, shirts, boots and socks, the lot. We then met the detachment of about thirty RASC who were a staging post, hence the ability to provide clean outfits. Food was produced and the offer of cigarettes and a bottle of beer. I declined the cigarettes but the beer, the first for more than two years, did go down well. ‘Do your folks know where you are?’ we were asked and on getting the answer ‘no’ they produced aerographs and letter forms. We now felt we had been truly welcomed back into the British Army.
The Sergeant explained that any one picked up on the loose behind the front line was put into a security camp until identified and if we walked on south we would almost certainly be caught and put in another camp. He said that his unit had ‘won’ a fire-brigade tender and were to deliver it next day to Foggia some hundred and forty miles to the south. We accepted his offer of a lift on the tender to keep clear of security checks.
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Our journey on the fire tender was comfortable and it was interesting to see the considerable forces moving towards the front. I confess that when we drew up at checkpoints and were waved through I could not resist a smile. We left our RASC friends in the centre of Foggia and made our way to the Town Major’s office and reported to a sergeant as escaped prisoners returning to British forces. He took us to a Major who greeted us with ‘How the hell have you got this far south without being picked up by security?’ on advising him he said ‘Did you not like our cage hospitality?’ On receiving our clear cut no he said he didn’t blame us. He promised we would have quick and comfortable transport to Naples on the next day and said ‘You have earned it’. He fulfilled his promise.
Rosina camp was in the grounds of an old mansion house and located on the south shore of the Bay of Naples. We were not called on for any parades but just attended meals or the administration office if needed. Charlie and I were each separately required to write a detailed account of our movements since capture and also to name our Colonel and various senior members of our Regiment. I sent a cable home to my parents advising my wellbeing and received a reply which relieved my anxiety on hearing all my family were well. The first such news we had had of each other for more than a year.
Charlie in his scouting around the camp made friends with the South African Padre and obtained a couple of free tickets for the opera at the San Carlo Teatro in Naples. The opera that day was ‘The Barber of Seville’ and we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon amid the enthusiastic Italians. Italian opera in Italy, where better? Next morning Charlie sought out his friend to see if he had any more tickets to spare but the Padre explained the tickets were comforts for South African troops; he admitted however that the troops were in the main looking for other ‘comforts’ in Naples and if Charlie called on him at mid-day and the troops had not collected the tickets we could have them. We heard ‘Rigoletto’, ‘Traviata’, ‘Il Trovatore’, ‘Pagliacci’ and ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ on subsequent days which helped to satisfy our artistic hunger. Life was getting better.
One of the things I had to do was visit the Medical Officer for a check-up and duly attended at his tent at the appointed time. I explained who I was and my mission, ‘Oh, so we have a Tynesider do we?’ he commented and I replied ‘Yes, my home is in Gateshead and I think yours is not so far away from there’. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘You have heard of the Christmas carol?’ I not only was puzzled but must have looked it for he then said ‘Ye knaa man. Hail the New Born King’. His home was in Newburn. I only saw that Major for a matter of ten minutes but whenever thereafter I drove near or through Newburn I remembered him. Also whenever I have heard the carol sung and Betty is with me we exchange a smile for she knows the story well; if she is in the choir she looks down the church and I up to the choir stalls and we pass a smile. I wonder if the Major is still alive and if so whether he realises how many smiles he has created in the past fifty years.
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Sitting in the Sergeants’ Mess one day at Rosina camp I was next to the RSM and said to him ‘This is a funny camp’. ‘What’s wrong with it’ he questioned and I went on to say ‘Everything, there is an undertone to the whole place, no one talks much. Military Police come into camp at night and men disappear leaving no trace’. He smiled and said ‘Yes, but you and your friend are OK, your clearance came through this morning from London’. He explained that the report we were asked to write had been passed to London and records had confirmed that we were who we said we were. He further added that several men in the camp would also disappear because they were either deserters from the front or had come through the lines as fifth columnists or the like. So that was why the Poles had put us into a prison cage instead of giving us a welcome. I must offer a belated apology to the Poles who were simply rounding up all the odds and sods for security reasons.
The RSM told me that there was no suitable boat due to sail for the UK for about three weeks and if Charlie and I would like it he would arrange for us to go to a rest camp at Bari on the Adriatic coast. He recommended we go and promised we could draw what money we wanted within reason, there would be no parades, we could eat to our hearts’ content, lie in the sun, play games, drink till it came out of the ears, attend ENSA shows etc., etc. He was right. It was a wonderful couple of weeks but what we really wanted was to be on our way home and this camp savoured of being fattened up to be presentable for arrival in the UK.
Soon we were back in Naples getting ready for embarkation on one of the ‘Empress’ boats the name of which escapes me. In due course we sailed with only the danger of an enemy torpedo between us and home after nearly four years abroad. As we sailed into the river Mersey full of joy I experienced what was I think the saddest event of all. Five of us from the 4th Survey Regt who had escaped from PoW camps were together, Charlie Phillips, Alan Dingwall, Tommy Dickson, Sid Garrard and myself. As we watched Liverpool get nearer, Sid was called by Tannoy to attend the Ships OC troops office. He returned to us devastated, he had been informed of an air raid on the previous night in which his wife, her mother and father had all been killed. What can you say to a man in such circumstances? We put our arms around him and just held him tight. Our hearts bled for him and our joy of seeing England was dimmed. After four years away and having endured so much he was within hours of reunion with his wife and her with him when, bang, all joy gone, hopes destroyed. What a dreadful homecoming.
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By mid-Sept ’44 my four-weeks’ disembarkation leave was over and I reported to Headingly, Leeds, for a severe dose of basic training, square bashing, rifle drill and regimental discipline, which appeared designed to remove the individuality and self-reliance we had developed behind German lines. The general attitude appeared to be that these chaps need to be taught a lesson, they must do exactly what they are told and not think for themselves. All were treated as gunners or privates especially by the drill sergeants, none of whom had been abroad or seen active service but took especial delight in finding fault on pointless detail on parade or of kit and its lay-out.
One of the delights was a five-mile cross country run wearing only singlet, shorts, army boots and socks in company with five hundred plus other runners. Charlie had been a been a runner pre-war and warned that there would be an awful crush of runners at the gate on the opposite side of the field from the starting line. We agreed to go very fast across the field and avoid being jammed in the gateway by the mass of runners. I set off fast and got an early turn through the gate but could not see Charlie and ran steadily on. Four miles from the start a long climb of three quarters of a mile up through woods lead to the finishing straight. The climb was a killer but I pounded on without a stop and was making for the finish when Charlie passed me to finish 21st and put me 22nd. He admitted he had used me all the way as a pace maker and would never have got up the long climb had I not kept on running. My first lesson on running tactics learned the hard way.
A month later Charlie and I were posted to an Army Selection Unit at Matlock Bath. For three days we were subjected to a series of aptitude and written tests which included inter alia putting shaped pieces of wood into appropriately shaped holes in a board, simple arithmetical processes, absurdly easy crossword puzzles and putting a bicycle pump together from a selection of parts.
At a subsequent interview with the Colonel he said he had read my records and the result of my tests was 99.5 per cent. He then offered to recommend that I be sent on an OCTU course and if successful be commissioned as a 2nd Lieut. I asked if, in the event that I were successful, would I be posted to a Survey or Artillery Regt. but he could not promise either so I declined his offer. Charlie was waiting his turn and I quickly told him what had transpired and he was made a similar offer but he also declined. Two days later we were both posted to Canterbury to join a Battery of the 11th Survey Regt., which was accommodated in the King’s School forming part of the Cathedral grounds.
This Battery did the field work for the Special Defence of Great Britain Force, which force consisted of a group of Boffins whose task it was to combat the V1 weapon being deployed by the enemy against London. The battery had five observation posts along the south coast and using flash spotting theodolites, repeatedly and simultaneously recorded the position of a V bomb until sufficient data had been acquired from which to calculate its line
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of track. By similarly plotting the trajectory before the bomb reached its flying level we could calculate the point of origin. Whilst the Allies did not have artillery capable of reaching the launching sites the information was given to the RAF who bombed the sites in the Pas du Calais with a fair degree of success. Our work was thus a very satisfying operation but our later anti V2 operations proved not to be satisfactory.
When the Boffins decided they wanted information on the sub-stratosphere air movements the first problem was how to get something in the air at 100,000ft. This was solved using a special gun sited at St Margarets Bay. The gun, a 13.5 naval gun, was built down with liners to fire an 8in smoke shell and had a slant range of 75 miles. The shell burst over Boulogne and was observed by our chaps from five posts on the Kent coast using Flash Spotting theodolites. They took simultaneous readings of the smoke movement, expansion sizes and between observations sketched the smoke shape. We then completed calculations as required by the Boffins. Very shrewd chaps but carrying the enormous responsibility of trying to find a defence to the V2s then hitting London. For reasons unknown to me the gun was allocated only two shells twice a week and as we needed clear weather to observe the smoke there were many days when no work could to be done. My ability to solve crossword puzzles and table-tennis skills improved immensely.
As Christmas neared I fell foul of authority in the form of the Battery Major when I protested that I had not been allocated leave for Christmas. He informed me that this was because I had had four weeks leave in August. Despite explaining that it was for four years overseas service, he, who had never been on active service overseas, went on leave with others who had spent the war in the UK and had regular leaves. My protestations did bear some fruit for in February the Major gave me a Privilege leave.
Being stationed in the Cathedral grounds and attending Sunday morning communion services I frequently met and was on speaking terms with the Red Dean who was quite a character, long flowing white hair and an ardent communist who never minced his words. Quite an embarrassment to the establishment. The Dean invited me to be a sidesman at the main Christmas service together with the head Verger, a Naval Commander and an RAF squadron Leader. I felt it was quite an honour.
Being an escaped PoW I was not allowed to go abroad on active service again for at least six months, which period was completed early Feb. ’45. By the end of that month the Major ‘Honoured’ me with the task of taking 50 reinforcements and a three-ton truck to the Regt, now stationed at Malines in Belgium, also ten Kini-theodolites for delivery to ATS sites at Breda and Eindhoven in Holland. We sailed from Tilbury in a tank-landing ship and rolled our way to Ostend, landing on ‘D’ Day plus 293, not a distinguished attack on Fortress Europe. I sent the men off by train to Malines and told a Bombardier that I was off to Holland to deliver the theodolites. He evidently forgot to report this and when I eventually arrived at
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Malines it was to learn that I was posted AWOL. After giving my story to the Adjutant I secured three days leave in Brussels, obviously visiting ATS sites near the front for a week was considered hazardous work. It really was a different war.
As all survey posts were filled I was detailed to look after the ‘Odds and Sods’; their trivial complaints appalled me. One chap didn’t like Craven A cigarettes and I expounded to him the virtues of weevil infested Teddy Bear and Victory V cigarettes which my smoker friends assured me were the world’s worst; the chap went off feeling he had wasted his time on an unsympathetic ear. The second complained that a letter had taken a week to reach him from UK and a third that the bread was dry; my observations were forthright and to the point, suffice to say I never had another complaint. Malines or Mechlen in Flemish was a very comfortable posting considering one was supposed to be on active service, trams were running in the town and cinemas open. My main complaint was the Cathedral clock. I was billeted in ‘The Green Man’, a pub opposite the Cathedral and the clock struck each hour preceded by hour chimes, then respective chimes for the half, quarter and every seven and a half minutes, it had hardly finished twelve o’clock chimes and strokes before it started the next chime. What a complaint!!!
When the battle to cross the Rhine began I was detailed to take a couple of men and a truck up to the Remagen area, get over the Rhine and hunt for V2 sites. We managed to get over the bridge the Americans had captured intact but it was destroyed the day after we crossed over. We found several sites in the forests east of the Rhine but the information was of little value. It had been imagined the sites would be complex affairs but in the event they were no more than clearings in the forest concreted sufficiently to bear a launching vehicle which launched the rocket bomb and departed. Our Boffins’ ideas of tracing and neutralising launching sites was of no value. What a waste of time and effort.
When VE day came my Regiment was quickly returned to the UK and I was posted to the School of Survey at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain to help train young Surveyors for the Far East war. Fortunately it was only a few months to the Atom bomb solving the Far East problem and Demob was the next major event. This occurred for me at Taunton in Somerset on 7 January 1946. I travelled home on the same day arriving at 8 p.m. and after a very short holiday started work as a trainee Loss Adjuster with my Father on the following morning at 9 a.m.!!!!!
I had enlisted as a Territorial Army soldier on 2 February 1939 and been mobilised on 14 August ’39 as a member of the 10 per cent essential part of the Regiment, this because I was capable of putting up black-out screens!!! Almost seven years service at a time when I ought to have been developing my career, yet, in that service I had learned much of life, had seen and experienced much that I would otherwise not have known, some good, some bad, but from which lessons were there to be learned. I had met many fine people some of whom are today still valued friends.
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Charlie Phillips was not required to go abroad again but we met up at Larkhill where he also was employed in training young soldiers for the Far East. After demob Charlie was dissatisfied with local authority service and took the opportunity offered by an ex-service teacher-training scheme and became a teacher. Always a very conscientious chap Charlie brought the same quality to his teaching and I believe did a very good job of work. He did however experience some frustration in his attempts to educate some of the material he had to tutor. I am sure this caused him undue stress. Sadly he died in about 1984.
Vic Grey with many others who were too weak to tackle the break out from Macerata were taken to Stalags in Germany until released by Allied forces at the end of the war. Vic also turned to teaching and contributed much to education during his working life and later when retired, to the Northern Examinations Board. His service to education was in due course honoured by the award of an MBE.
Earlier in this narrative I mentioned not getting an answer to a question for forty-eight years and that related to how our companions had fared in the shooting incident a few days after escape. I was playing golf at Brampton with two companions in 1992 having been fortuitously drawn together. As we walked along a fairway Graham Carrick said ‘It’s strange that three Tynesiders should be drawn to play together’. I replied, ‘I know you are, but Eddy comes from Poole.’ ‘No,’ said Eddy Graham, ‘I worked there but come from Seghill.’ Despite the passage of time the possibility hit me like a sledge-hammer, ‘You have a brother Bill’, ‘Yes,’ said Eddy,’ ‘But…’ I cut him off, ‘He was in the 3rd Battallion the Coldstream Guards’, ‘But…’ again I cut Eddy off. ‘He was taken prisoner in Africa and spent time in camps 85 and 53 in Italy.’ ‘That’s right but…’ again I did not let him in and said, ‘Bill escaped from campo 53 in September 1943.’ Quicker this time Eddy said ‘How the hell do you know that?’ Answer, ‘I was three feet behind him when he escaped’. What an incredible coincidence or series of coincidences had brought us together that morning. After such a lapse of time I feared my next question so I made it positive and asked ‘How is Bill?’ I was delighted to learn that Bill was well and living in the Isle of Man. We spoke by telephone that evening and met the following year.
In 1975 I had a strong urge to return to Crognaleto and mentioned this to Charlie but he felt it would be a mistake as the people would probably have forgotten us and it was never a good plan to go back to any place expecting things to be as they were. I accepted the points he made yet had this strong urge and Betty supported me on the grounds that if I didn’t play my hunch I would always regret not having done so. How right she was. Betty, Ann and I travelled by car to Hull and crossed by ferry to Rotterdam thence though Holland, Germany and Austria into Italy, eventually reaching the small town of Montorio.
When I left Montorio in 1944 there were two ways to get to Crognaleto, one by foot across country for 10 kilometres with a net climb of 2,000ft or the second by following the
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road for 12 kilometres then crossing a deep gorge in which the river Vomano flowed in a torrent before a 4-kilometre climb rising 2,000ft. Both ways were daunting and we had come prepared with a tent, walking boots, etc. Whilst in Montorio I spoke to a policeman and asked which of the two routes he could recommend. He laughed and said things had changed and that as a result of a new bridge over the Vomano gorge and river, a road, rough but passable for a car existed almost to the edge of the village. This was a great relief and we duly arrived on the outskirts of Crognaleto with no more effort than driving the car up a tortuous unmade road. En route we passed through a small village two kilometres from Crognaleto by name of Cervaro, which we had heard of quite often but never once seen in all the time we spent in the area. Our villagers looked upon Cervaro folk as being foreigners.
It was a rather cold dull day as we set off walking along the cobbled path through the village with not a soul in sight. After passing several houses a young man came out of a house ahead of us and realising we were strangers gave us a hard look but didn’t recognise me nor I him as I thought him too young. About six or seven steps after passing us I heard the sound of his footsteps on the cobbles stop. I turned to see that he too had turned. He then said, ‘Tomaso’. I answered, ‘Si’ and he rushed up to me, flung his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. It was Enrico di Fillipo, a ten year old shepherd-boy when I left the village but now a forty-year-old man. The noise he made brought others from their homes and in minutes we were surrounded by villagers inviting us to their homes for coffee, brandy, meals and talk. What a welcome!!! I had taken presents but they were more interested in what they could give us and kept repeating ‘You haven’t forgotten us.’ Our long journey was completely justified and I felt very happy to be there as they did that we had come to see them.
The passage of time had however taken its toll. I was saddened to learn of the death of Divinangelo and his wife Santina, Gasperi, Giulio and several others. Dante was now head of the Ridolfi household and had a wife, Rosa, as well as three young children. The two days we stayed in Crognaleto were not official feast days but that is what they amounted to and even a dance was organised in one of the larger newly built houses. The generosity and friendliness had not changed but the life-style had moved up a century with the coming of the road. Transport now enabled the villagers to get to paid work and even though the work in most cases was unskilled the money earned was infinitely better than that which could be earned from the old style of living. Very few villagers kept animals any more, therefore the need for hay had gone, flour could be bought relatively cheaply and no corn was grown, so much of the land which had been tilled by hand had fallen into disuse. Surely an answer to the womens’ prayers for relief from bringing the harvest home on their heads. Even better from their point of view was the piped water from the spring to the village though admittedly this was only to a single stand tap.
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The wonderful bread I remembered so well was no longer baked but rather were the people proud of their new ’Pane Bianca’, white bread, and to my horror I found that this was sliced and in a plastic wrapper!!! Dante’s house now had a bathroom complete with toilet and bath but no running water. One had to take a bucket of water to flush the toilet and several buckets of hot water for a bath, still, some progress. There were a few television sets and several houses had bottled gas cookers since such weighty items could now be brought by road to the outskirts of the village. Electricity had also arrived and with it power tools for a variety of benefits. The lighting in Dante’s house kitchen consisted of a single unshaded bulb of the screw-in type. As we were having a meal one evening at dusk Dante stood up and gave the bulb half a turn and on came the light, the switch must have been no more than six feet away, so much for electrical designs for safety.
As modern roof tiles could also be transported to the village several houses had been re-roofed which with four new brick-built houses changed the appearance of the village, as did the ancient cars parked at the edge of the village. Each car seemed to be run on a communal basis to take five or six men and or women to their work and children to school daily. The latter benefit to the village pleased me most of all.
My centuries old village had gone, swept away metaphorically speaking by a bridge and a road bringing the people into the present time with all its ‘Benefits’. Certainly life was not so hard for the people as it had been in the past and they were in the main happy with the benefits, but I felt that the people had lost something in the process, or had my memories of the old life been sentimentalised by the passage of time?
One of the benefits was a telephone, singular, and news of our arrival soon reached Rome and Marcello. He requested that we visit Rome as early as ever possible to meet him, his family and several others now working and living in Rome. After two days of fiesta, we said our farewells to Crognaleto friends, many with tears streaming down their cheeks and we set off for Rome.
On arrival at Rome we found Marcello had allocated us a fully-furnished flat above his flat. The flat was his daughter’s who with her family was on holiday. Marcello said we were not to prepare any meals as his wife Olga would supply all our meals which indeed she did. Marcello, now retired, had been employed as a telephone engineer but he had also shrewdly purchased land and built a three-storey block of flats. Subsequently he built second and third blocks. We were wonderfully received by the expatriate community and taken around Rome by the locals especially Marcello’s son who was a very skilled driver but had little regard for Highway Code, Italian or English; quite an exhilarating experience, especially when he reversed his car at speed the wrong way up a one-way street to park it.
Whilst the Romans were more sophisticated than their country cousins in Crognaleto some things had not changed. Behind his flat Marcello had a very large garden in which he had many fruit trees and a large vegetable-growing area. Marcello and I were
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sitting the garden talking when Ann came to me and said, ‘Dad, look at these green figs.’ Marcello asked if she liked them and on being assured that she did, he sat back on his seat and bellowed, ‘Olga’. His wife came on to the first floor balcony and bellowed back, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Come here’ was the order. Olga, just a slip of a woman, went back through the flat, down the stairs, out of the front door and came over the garden to where Marcello and I sat and was instructed to pick Ann some figs. Either Ann or I could have easily reached up and got the figs which were less than six feet away, but no, some things do not change. Shades of the women bringing the harvest home at Crognaleto.
Whilst in Rome Adino invited Betty, Ann and me, Marcello and his family to join him and his family to a luncheon party at his home. What a party! First course Polenta brought in by Adino’s wife, five foot tall and similar width, her arms hardly long enough to reach around an enormous bowl. She served me first putting a large ladle full on my plate for which I said ‘Basta Basta,’ and thanked her, ‘Don’t you like it?’ she questioned. I assured her I did and was rewarded with another huge dollop of Polenta. So it continued through spaghetti, roast rabbit, steak covering a large plate but fortunately very thin, salads, breads, fruit, cheese and from the outset large carboys of wine kept appearing on the table and I must say disappearing at a regular rate. The noise level and ‘bonhomie’ increased with the disappearance of the wine at this typical Italian family event, which it was an honour to be permitted to share.
I managed to get Betty excused large helpings on the grounds of ‘Mai di stomachio’ but daughter Ann got the full treatment and claimed afterwards she has never been so distended with food in her life. After taking Betty and Ann back to the flat to lie down and recover I returned to have a quiet chat with Adino. As I entered the flat Adino’s wife wanted to know what I wanted to eat and drink!!!
Divinangelo’s daughter Maria had married in Rome and had two sons in their late teens but sadly her husband had died. She was running a small wine-bar and I invited all the Crognaleto expatriates to join Betty, Ann and me at the wine-bar for food and drink as a thank you. They turned up and all politely had a nominal drink or two and a little food but nothing like as much as I intended them to have. When at the end of the evening I went to see Maria she said ‘no bill’ and I just could not get her to change her mind. It became obvious why the guests had been so very modest in accepting hospitality. I had a large denomination Lire note and without Maria knowing got her helper to put it in the till. When we got back to the flat the note was on my bedside table. What does one do with such people?