Leslie Nathanson was an army officer serving in Libya. On 22nd January 1942 he and many others were captured by the Germans and became prisoners of war. After a few days they were handed over to the Italians and taken to camps at Misurata, Tarhuna and Trig Tarhuna. They were then transferred by cargo ship to Naples, by train to the prison camp in Capua, and a few days later, to the prison camp in Padula. This was an ancient Cistercian monastery, and is where Nathanson would stay for the next 17 months. In July 1943, Mussolini is overthrown, but little changes for the POWs in Padula, and in August they are moved to Camp 19 in Bologna.
This story is told in two parts due to its length. This is part 1. Note: Leslie Nathanson is often referred to as Nat or Nathan in the manuscript.
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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‘ESCAPE TO INTERNMENT’ LESLIE NATHANSON. 300 typed up pages in book form
via Padula, Bologna. Got to Switzerland.
Captured in stampede back in January 1942 in desert. 5 days in open truck to Tripoli. Scruffy little Italian as interpreter unhappy that he had visited Italy from USA when war began. At Tarhuna camp improves with other ranks allowed in as batmen. (Believed in desert Germans had British codes and so lured unit to captivity.) See surroundings of Tripoli Mussolini’s colonisation. An Italian Sergeant Major fantasises on the luxuries of P.C.s [Prison Camps] in Italy. L.N. [Leslie Nathanson] and another fantasises on meals in the luxury restaurants of the world. At Capua the camp is built for 500 POWs. There are 4,000 plus 250 officers. Officers quarters very different from O.R.s [Other Ranks]. Contents of Canadian Parcel. Padula. A Carthusian Monastery used in 1st World War as POW Camp for German Officers. 550 officers, 150 other ranks to work for them. Able to trade with farmers and so food good until an Italian General visits and there is a clamp down. Large number of books. Luxury of sun.
pp.78 to 102. Very amusing account of life in camp.
p. 104 Long Range Desert Group POWs start the tunnel that gets 8 out. 3 of them get to the Adriatic Coast, as planned, but captured while selecting boat. (See full account ?)
p. 110 With Allies in Sicily get ready to move as Mussolini falls. Half taken. Many of other half hide up but when things get rough they come out. Finally taken, by 1st class carriage to Bologna. Line broken so all spend day in field beside train. Do not try to escape as the Allies are expected to land at every point on the coasts above them. See much bombing in Foggia (as this is mentioned after ‘being near Rome’ may be a fault here). At one stop engine driver brings boiling water for tea.
p. 140 Arrive in Bologna. A new camp recently constructed for Italian officers (hinted at in other accounts.)
Admiral Beamish asks what action will be taken against the Italian Officer who procrastinated with the British Officer about opening the gates of the Camp at Bologna. Mr Law said some redress would be made. (In fact the British had received orders to stay and Italian Officer cut wire away from entrance as an escape in case the Germans arrived. Major Crockatt in Whitehall had given the order, but was, it is expected staying very quiet.)
They sleep in uniform and are woken by ‘Jerries are here’. They had taken over and many had tried to escape out the back – one killed. Fortunately one English officer with fluent German gave an order in German saying ‘Fire high, they are not armed’. Camp life settles down with new German Guards. Superfluity of food.
p. 180 Order to get ready to move. Many disappear in hiding especially roof. (See other accounts of many who did.) Taken out by lorry, soon get tarpaulin off. Roads out of Bologna in chaos. At Modena put into cattle trucks. One officer has brought his gramophone and 1 record. Page 189 a saw is improvised. The Italian chaos in 1st class compartments was better than German efficiency.
p.194 During night one man got away twice, but brought back. Allowed out one at a time for nature. Opposite the truck a hut for Italian railway men. More and more got out to ‘relieve themselves’ 195 Nathan having spied out the land, follows a man imitating violent diarrhoea. He goes deep into an area of rock garden, bushes and rabbit hutches. He is distracted by a man signalling from a footpath beside the road outside. Another POW, dressed as an Italian labourer throws him a bundle of clothes and he follows him into a hut. Nathan says he is willing to pay to get to La Spezia – railmen indicate no good, Allies not there. (Page 244 mistake. No women called up in Italy or Germany.)
Nathan is given a red flag and walks out with another railman across a busy road where, outside a gate the man who had signed to him before is waiting. Two of them are led into the sports stadium and meet the manager – a former well known rugby player and got the job though having to become an unkeen fascist. They go to his flat which is a high tower. From there the manager had seen what was happening with POWs getting out of the trucks in the goods yards and gave instructions to the railmen to give them clothes. They are royally treated but with German soldiers often coming for the hot showers or swimming pool it is decided to move them to flat of sister of boss,
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The flat is very small and Nathanson and Terry, his companion who is tall and fair, share a single bed in a room leading off the Italian couples room. It is part of a small block in a working class area. They have to be careful not to look out of the window or step heavily so neighbours do not hear or see them. Nathanson does go out once or twice but it is too dangerous. For some three weeks they are bottled up but the boss is making arrangements. Though well fed they can take no exercise.
They meet up with others for whom arrangements are being made including Tony Snell (‘The Man who would not die’ in ‘Escape or die’ by Paul Brickhill and his companion Peter Lewis – KK met.) Finally Nathanson and Terry are off by train from Modena to Milan, ticket collecting, two guides but not sitting with them. At Milan handed over. (From here on it would seem that all was arranged by the Milan network who most probably had links with Modena. At Milan they are taken for the night to the house of a prostitute as of course she often had visitors. They enjoyed the comforts but not the services.
They are taken to the station for Domodossola but the train is of cattle trucks which are packed with people in black carrying flowers for the La Festa della Morte. It is fortunate for the ticket inspector cannot examine them closely.
At Domodossola they meet the organiser and arrangements are confirmed about paying half then and the other half when across the border into Switzerland. A guide takes them outside – all three on bicycles plus suitcase. At one stage a German on a bicycle gets into their formation. Beside an off path the guide is waiting with his dog.
They sleep in barn – exhausted by the cycling after so little exercise.
269. They leave at first light on 3rd November 1943. They climb steeply until midday when it fortunately levels out. Terry with his long legs manages better than Nathan. The guide points to Monte Leone which they have to climb. Nathan begins to worry whether he will ever make it with legs so immobilised for almost two months. An Italian Alpini soldier meets them and helps them find the best paths and points down to Varzo far beneath with two German soldiers ‘who won’t dare to come up here’. When Nathan is at the end of his tether the paths become easier – the two had helped each other up when they fell in the snow. At last the two find a guard hut which their guides had pointed out for them when they left to go back all the way that night.
Without being able to light a fire they collapsed into beds of a kind. Three hours later they were woken by voices – the Swiss guards who soon got the fire going. Though Jews and other escapers had come that way they were the first British POWs they had seen.
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ESCAPE TO INTERNMENT (PART 1)
by Leslie Nathanson.
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|I||Capture. Libyan Landscape. Misurata Tarhuna. Departures from Tarhuna. Trig Tarhuna.||1|
|II||C.I.T. Prisoner of war version. We arrive at Capua.||35|
|III||Capua. Escapes. First Red Cross parcels. We move to Padula.||47|
|V||July 25th. The watch on the train. Our longest roll call.||109|
|VI||We move to Bologna. Camp 19.||132|
|VII||Armistice. The night of September 8th and after.||143|
|IX||Life in an Italian town during German occupation.||221|
|X||Italian travel talks. We go to Switzerland.||268|
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White books, blue books and other coloured and official manuscripts, together with a not inconsiderable number of war novels, have emerged from the printer since 1939. In my opinion, such publications more than fill the need of an historical survey of the war, and in these memoirs therefore I do not aspire to such heights but have merely endeavoured to give an impression of the life of a British officer as a prisoner of war in Italy, afterwards of life in northern Italy during the German occupation, and finally that of an “evade” in Switzerland.
The book is a jumble of badly written memories, and I have frequently borrowed the anecdotes and personal experiences of friends, often without their permission, and, often too, it may be that scenes are not absolutely accurately chronicled. In mitigation, I can only plead that my memory of “life in the bag” soon blurred after my return to a life of normalcy.
Nevertheless, in even reaching completion, it has achieved its primary purpose which was to be used as a buffer against, and keep satisfied, various friends, relations and acquaintances avidly questing details of the happenings recounted herein.
The other main purpose of this book is to pay tribute, to the best of my limited ability, to the bravery, self-sacrifice
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and daring of the great majority of the common Italian people who, after the Armistice, with no thought of personal gain, daily risked death in sheltering, clothing, protecting and helping Allied escaped prisoners of war, who without such help would never have been able to get through to the Allied lines or reach safety in neutral territory. Many of such escapers stayed in northern Italy where they fought with the partisans, often taking over command of partisan groups, and here again they depended to a great extent on the help of the civilian population.
Finally, in self-defence, it is right for me to point out that this book would never have been finished had it not been for the encouragement of my wife, and the insistence and help of friends – the majority also ex-POWs – who read it at varying stages of progress and used the argument that having done so much I might as well see it through to the end, if only for my personal satisfaction.
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We could see the col 400 feet above. It was just after 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and we had been climbing steadily since dawn eight hours earlier. To our left, across the valley, loomed the peaks of Monte Leone whose sheer wall reminded me of the south wall of the Eiger and looked quite insurmountable. Also on our left, about 1,000 feet below, a hut formerly used by the frontier guard, but now unoccupied – for the Fascist Militia who provided the patrols controlling the frontier preferred to do their work from the comparative security of the valleys.
We looked up again at the col, and the guide told us to trace an imaginary line across it at the highest point we could see. That was the frontier, and 150 feet above that was safety and comfort and rest and shelter in the form of a Swiss guardhouse. Terry was stretched out on the snow drawing in breath in short irregular gasps, very pale. The young guide was talking to him encouragingly, but without much effect for Terry could not understand a word and was past caring anyway. His shoes outwardly appeared to be standing up to the strain well enough, but his feet were a mass of blisters. However, he could not have had much feeling below his knees and anyway he was beyond mere pain or discomfort. It seemed to me that all he wanted was to be able to lie down somewhere, anywhere,
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even in the snow, and rest. The water he had drunk at several mountain streams on the way had had its effect and his legs had no more strength or resistance. He was completely and utterly exhausted.
Looking at him, and combining my own thoughts with the impression received, I could well understand the fate of the eight soldiers who had been found frozen to death on the mountainside. Without guides to force them on and encourage them with ropes and scourging words, it must have been the most natural thing in the world to abandon oneself to the almost indescribable desire to lie down and obtain the rest one needed so much. Perhaps the solemnity of the mountains and the height and the difference in the atmosphere from the incarceration of the past weeks all had their individual effect. But there was no doubt that the desire to surmount that col and find safety had been more than overcome by the desire for rest and to be left alone. I told the guide that we must have ten minutes rest. He agreed. We ought to reach the top in less than an hour.
We had been lucky for, apart from the weather, the snow was hard. We used steps cut by the guide, without sinking into the snow with each pace, and the ascent was made more easy.
The sky was cloudless and the sun hot, but occasionally there were gusts of wind which robbed it of its warmth and left
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us shivering. My woollen vest was soaked through with sweat and the silk shirt I was wearing had been torn almost to ribbons and was very little protection. George slipped my jacket over my shoulders. Far below I could see the springs of mineral water where we had eaten lunch. The valley was green and beautiful and it seemed incredible that fascism or Nazism might enter such a peaceful spot. All around us mountains, snowcapped and stately but somehow overpowering, and I was thankful that the col which was our objective was one of the lowest points in the range. For though the guide had estimated less than an hour, I could not help recalling my other experience on snow and ice when, feeling rather tired I had asked our guide, the famous Hans Burnet of Grindelwald, how much longer it would be before we reached the summit. His reply was “nur eine kleine Stunde.” After a good hour I had asked again, this time to be told “nur eine kleine Halbestunde.” And then it had been a “kleine Viertelstunde”, and about half an hour later we actually did get there.
My reverie was cut short by the guide signalling us to get along.
It was 5.30 p.m. when we finally reached the Swiss Guard hut which was situated a few yards on the right side of the frontier. The sun was beginning to drop over the mountains and darkness was near.
I felt very weak and was surprised that there was none of the feeling of elation that I had always expected must
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accompany a successful escape.
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CHAPTER I. Capture. Libyan Landscape. Misurata-Tarhuna. Departures from Tarhuna. Trig Tarhuna.
It all goes back to January 1942 in Libya, when the forward Fighter ‘dromes [aerodromes] in the Western Desert were moved to Antelat. January falls in the rainy season, and the new ‘dromes were placed in “baltits” – mudflats – which made beautiful landing grounds in summer, but became morasses after rainfall.
The previous Fighter ‘dromes had been on high ground overlooking the wadi at Msus where they were safe from any excesses of the elements, but at Antelat our fighters immediately became vulnerable to a new enemy: rain, bringing with it mud, sometimes twelve inches deep.
It may well be that there was some strategic necessity for bringing these ‘dromes forward another twenty five miles. Be that as it may, it had the result of keeping our fighters grounded on the Antelat field for four vital days. And so, the front line units, who were mostly reconnaissance patrols, were without the air support which counted most, the fast fighter reconnaissance.
Of course, it may all have been tactical strategy. I would not have minded so much if it had not put me in the bag.
We managed to get out of the trap the first day of the
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Afrika corps breakthrough. But there was not a lot of margin for we were shelled from positions less than two miles away as the Half-Battery vehicles moved away from their old site.
We travelled that night until we stuck in the soft ground and there was no hope of going further. And we moved off again at first light on the following day, January 22nd 1942. A date I shall always remember, for on that day in the late afternoon I became a prisoner of war.
The story of the day itself is quickly told. Column moves to Beda Fomm intending to fork right on the main Benghazi road. Two armoured cars making recce for column are fired on by three unidentified tanks dug in by Beda Fomm road junction. Column moves away. Appreciation of situation by column commander expedited by visit of low-flying ME 110. Column moves east north east towards Sceleidima. Vehicles find going too soft and the gun-towing Matadors frequently have to unhook guns and help in the rescue work, using their magnificent winch gear.
Column gets stretched out. We meet a patrol of light armoured cars from a recce squadron, and they tell us that the tanks guarding the Beda Fomm road are British. We have our own little column now. Two armoured cars, three or four soft-skinned vehicles – 3 tonners these – and a 3.7″ AA [Anti-aircraft] gun with its Matador. I bring up the rear in the fitter’s truck, coaxing in these stragglers.
To the north, flat country for as far as the eye can see:
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just brown desert with the bareness broken here and there by a scrub of camel brush. To the south the terrain undulates until it reaches the escarpment at Antelat where the track runs through a large dry wadi up and past the Fort. It was from the Fort that the enemy guns had opened up the previous night. The escarpment slopes away to the east, and the desert in front of us is quite hilly in places. But the hills are low and their main disadvantage is that they obstruct a clear view of what lies beyond.
No one takes the nearby presence of the enemy as anything to worry about. After all, it has happened before. Rommel’s raiders passed within a mile of us on November 23rd. This is just another raid. But I do wish we had one reliable up-to-date intelligence report.
Over the brow of one of the small hills, a mile and a half away to the south east, come a collection of some sixty vehicles. It’s difficult at that distance to make out what they are, but through field glasses from the roof of my truck it seems that they are mostly Dodge 8 cwts [hundredweights] with a few 3-tonners, chasing a German Opel tourer.
But they are not. It is a prelude to the now old story of Jerry using our transport. There is a brief scrap, but with unfortunate lack of foresight we have only ten rounds in each of the four rifles handy. The rest is packed inside the truck right at the front, and, as we are firing from underneath,
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there is not much future after the ten rounds go.
Lots of Nazi youths rush up to the truck firing Tommy guns from the hip. They surround us and shout “Haende hoch! Haende hoch!”
It is all over very quickly. The gun crew are already dismounted, standing by their gun which is captured in perfect working order. We are paraded before a tall, blond Aryan wearing an Iron Cross. He is the officer in charge. I ask him in French to arrange for medical aid for three men wounded in my truck. He agrees, shouts an order and an ambulance appears. My casualties are loaded aboard, and the German promises that one who has been shot through both legs will be operated on without delay.
Everything is correct, but the Iron Cross quickly takes possession of my field glasses and compass. The men are loaded into our own trucks under guard. Iron Cross invites me to join him in the Opel. It is a large car, and the occupants of the back are three Libyan Arabs wearing battle dress. The outlook for them is distinctly unsettled, for they are liable to be shot by the Italians as traitors, though their impassive faces reveal nothing.
The Opel leads the way back to the Fort, occasionally stopping while Iron Cross gets out and slashes at telephone cables with an axe. Then he talks to me through the driver who translates into French.
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“For you the war is over. Tomorrow
you will be in Berlin. You British should never have fought against Germany. We
are of the same blood. Besides, you haven’t got a chance. Look at what happened
just now. You are not soldiers, you will be annihilated. National-Socialist
Germany has no quarrel with England.”
That numb feeling. The unpleasant thought of being in Berlin the following day. The knowledge of being confronted with a situation one does not understand. The impossibility of finding a basis upon which to readjust oneself. Just complete and utter numbness.
It can’t happen to me, this can’t happen to me. I hadn’t ever reckoned on this. Death, yes; maiming, a hideous thing, but a possibility that had been considered; imprisonment, no. That simply did not enter into my calculations.
We are at the Fort. Two other officers from my unit are there: the O.C. [Officer in Command], Roger Russell, and my site commander, ‘Squire’ Bancroft. Only four 3-tonners got away.
The men are huddled round, most of them without coats or blankets. A German colonel gives permission for the Matadors to be brought up so that the men can get some kit.
An escort accompanies me to the perimeter of the camp to look for my own truck, but of course there is no trace. By now, iron crosses have been painted on the sides of all the captured vehicles and the original markings obliterated. There is so much
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transport that it is like looking for the proverbial needle. Most of the transport is British.
This is no mere raid. There are too many tanks and guns and half-tracked vehicles. This is the real thing. This is the Msus Stakes, the forerunner of the Alamein Handicap.
The escort, who is just an ordinary
private, also speaks French. He fought in Poland, and then in France where his
battalion stayed as part of the troops of occupation. He is sympathetic.
“The Third Reich has no quarrel with England. National-Socialist Germany only wishes to rectify the injustice of Versailles. The English are our cousins. You should be fighting on our side. Together we would share the world.”
They must have had a pamphlet on conversation with British prisoners, I think, but I make no comment. Instead I ask about the trip to Berlin, but I am told that it may not be Berlin after all. Apparently only R.A.F. prisoners are taken to Germany. The common or garden soldier is handed over to the Italians, still a good many kilos away behind the forward troops. It is a bad thing to be handed over to the Italians. They are bad people, bad soldiers, and it is not good to be their prisoner.
“You would be much better off if you were sent to Berlin,” is how my escort sums up the situation.
Soon we are back in the compound with the others. Another
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officer has joined us. He is Sqn. Ldr. [Squadron Leader] Jones, lately in charge of the R.A.F. armoured cars protecting Antelat. He was with our column earlier in the day. He is wearing a full length waterproof flying suit lined with fleece.
The available blankets have been shared out and we each have one. Some of the men have been fortunate in finding a haversack with toilet kit and a few cigarettes. My cigarette case is empty, but my pouch still has an ounce of tobacco and I have a pipe. My other assets, a Dunhill lighter which works, and a small whisky flask a quarter full of the appropriate liquid.
I have no sweater, nor overcoat, nor leather jerkin, having taken these off, less than an hour before being captured, but – and what a large BUT it turns out to be – I have the great good fortune to be wearing long Jaeger pants and vest, and although my shirt is thin and torn, I have a battle dress jacket and serge trousers. It may be awkward if my braces or boots are subjected to scrutiny, for the former are German officer type, and the latter are the result of a recent scrounge on an abandoned Italian quartermaster’s truck at Sidi Rezegh.
The German colonel gives an order and we are bundled into a Dodge 8 cwt [hundredweight]. There are five of us now for we have been joined by Charles Woodbridge of the Royal Sussex Regiment. A German soldier, armed with a submachine gun, joins us in the back of the truck. Another lies spreadeagled on the canvas
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roof. We move in convoy, a tank following directly behind us. All the vehicles have headlights full on.
The track is bad and we are jolted about and thrown in the air and on top of each other. The driver seems to be going out of his way to choose his route over the worst bumps. After half an hour the convoy stops. We can see out of the back of the truck. A field kitchen, travelling a couple of vehicles away, is doing a roaring trade. How hungry I am. The last meal I had was bully and biscuits twelve hours ago. I cadge a cigarette from Squire, and give Jones a pipeful of tobacco.
Then we have a visitor. Another fine
blond specimen who pokes his head into the truck and says in perfect English.
“Well, gentlemen, not quite what you have been used to, I’m afraid.”
Is there a little more than the suspicion of a sneer in his voice? Then he asks.
“Have you any food?”
Roger tells him no, and a sharp order is given by the Oberleutnant, for such is his rank, and in a very short time each of us has a bowl of noodle soup and some bread. It is very good. The German tells us that he learnt to speak English in America where he worked for some years.
The convoy moves on. From the stars we appear to be travelling south west. Soon we stop inside a large square, formed by tracked vehicles. In the distance we can see a
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British fighter diving with machine guns blazing against moving headlights in what must be the Antelat area. There is a lot of Ack Ack [Anti-Aircraft].
If only he would come over here is my last conscious thought before I give up the unequal struggle against sleep. I wake up a few hours later. My watch says 3 a.m.. My legs and back are cramped. I suddenly realise where I am and what has happened.
I look out of the tarpaulin cover which has been dropped over the rear of the truck. It is a beautiful night. Why is it that a desert sky has so many more stars than any other? The cold is really biting. The others are huddled uncomfortably over the inadequate space of the 8 cwt [hundredweight], but all are sleeping. The guard is no longer inside the truck.
I put a leg over the tailboard. Nothing happens. Then the other leg. Still nothing. I lower myself to the ground quietly and move off, but I only get a few yards. Our guards are brewing up beside the vehicle, and one comes over and shows a great interest in my movements. Nature comes to my aid, and I am able to act the explanation of my presence out of the truck. Then I am escorted back to my improvised bed.
Then everything is blurred. The following day we started our journey by road to Tripoli. We went in large open trucks with trailers for twelve or fifteen hours a day, and it rained most of the time. We ate whenever anyone provided food, usually
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a loaf of bread and some jam at midday. The trip took five days. After the first day the Germans handed us over to the Italians.
We spent one night in the urinal of the civil gaol at Sirte, and a couple of days at Misurata. There we gave our names to an Italian Red Cross officer who promised to inform the War Office through the Vatican that we were prisoners of war. Then to the interrogation cells in Misurata. But the alleged Canadian Air Force pilot who was stooged in with us was too palpably false.
The carabinieri took our valuables, and my lighter and silver cigarette case and flask disappeared forever. I didn’t mind much. There were no cigarettes in the case, the lighter was by this time out of petrol, and I had emptied the contents of the flask down the throat of one of the O.R.s [Other Ranks] whose wounds were being aggravated by the constant jostling and bumping of the journey.
Nothing seemed to matter, for I had no reaction to anything. The numb feeling was still there and acted as an anodyne against the unpleasant features of the journey. For a few days before capture I had been suffering from an attack of ‘gippy tummy’, combined with a mild dose of flu. Now, both these ailments had vanished. Even my watch had stopped, and nothing would make it go.
During those five days, everything seemed to stand still,
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though life around us went on unchanged. That period of transition from the battle area to the dejection of our first POW transit camp probably contained as much discomfort and physical unpleasantness as any other period during captivity, but we were not affected by it.
But we were drawn instinctively together. We shared out the few assets we had left. A bar of sticky chocolate, a few service biscuits, some cigarettes, a pipeful of tobacco, a tin of bully.
Then one afternoon, the convoy was parked in the main square of a small town. The local population came out to jeer. None of the prisoners took the slightest notice. The convoy moved off, driving slowly through the streets of the town. It was pouring with rain. Half an hour later we were back in the main square. Again on show for the locals, and again driven through the streets.
On our third visit to the square, a couple of bersaglieri came along to add their jeers to those of the civilians gathered around. The sight of their feathered headgear was too much for Jones who started crowing triumphantly. The crowing was taken up by the whole convoy, and the two gallant bersaglieri beat a hasty retreat.
Encouraged by his success, Jones then conducted community singing of patriotic songs, and the convoy commander must have decided that our propaganda value was being spoiled, for soon
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after we started on our way again. I saw from a signpost that we had just left Khoms.
And so for Tarhuna, a small village forty kilometres from Tripoli. A village with running water in the main building, which was an enormous barracks in which we were housed. We found that our new quarters were rooms housing between ten and twenty prisoners on double-decker canvas bunks. Concrete floors no furniture, and a small window set high in the far wall to provide light and air.
The first days there were spent in being deloused, being deprived of our warm issue blankets and receiving two small Italian army blankets in exchange, getting shaved and having our hair cut, and, finally, taking a cold shower with soap that did not lather and towels that did not dry. We also wrote our first letter home, but the Italians did not have any idea of the procedure which governed mail and we all felt that the odds were against any of our letters getting back.
Other prisoners trickled in, and then the trickle changed into a shower and the shower into a downpour. And soon there were more than five thousand in the camp. Of these, two thousand were Indian troops from the Fourth Indian Division which had had some trouble getting out of Benghazi at the end of January.
The Indians were kept in a separate compound. They spent their day squatting against the walls of the building, or in
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small groups chatting or washing out some article of clothing in a tin hat filled with water. Never did they lose their impassive dignity, and always they managed to keep spotlessly clean.
The influx of prisoners brought the total of officers up to one hundred and fifty, and after a few days in the men’s compound we were moved across to another much smaller building, constructed as a bungalow in the Moorish style.
The camp interpreter was a short, scruffy American Italian whom we called Joe. Even in the high standard of untidiness existing among the Italian guards, Joe held undisputed first place. His boots were torn, the laces always undone, his puttees used as garters and never finishing anywhere near the top of his boots, his uniform ragged and his hat in tatters. Joe was the human scarecrow straight out of the comic cartoon strips.
Everyone liked Joe. Except the Italians. He was continually in hot water for some offence or other, and was forever cursing the day in 1936 when he decided to leave his little bar in Wisconsin and visit the Mother Country for his summer holiday. He had lived in the States for many years and, he pointed out, was a respectable and respected person there. In fact, during Prohibition he maintained that his usefulness had been legion. He had his little speakeasy and made a good living. He was happy in Wisconsin. Then what happens?
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In his own words, in an incredibly
“I come over to Italy, and the bastards get me for military service. What do I want with Abyssinia? Look at my medals.” And he has, like most Italians, a very imposing collection. “Do I want medals? They can stuff their medals. I wanta get back to my bar in Wisconsin. I gotta partner there. He’s probably running off with all the dough. And what happens to me? I gotta be the stooge for a lotta bloody useless wops. And cos they’re officers, they treat me like dirt. It ain’t fair, when all I want is to get back to the States.”
Pelling, who had been shot down over Antelat on the 22nd, asked Joe what our new accommodation was like. The answer was typical.
“Well, Lewtenant, it’s better than the dump heap over here. But it ain’t exactly the Biltmore!”
He liked Pelling and whenever Joe saw Pell looking at all depressed he would go over and say comfortingly.
“Don’t let it get you down, Lewtenant. Don’t let it get you down.”
I often heard these words quoted, with the same accent and inflection, in the later days of my life as a prisoner of war.
So we moved over to our new home which wasn’t exactly the Biltmore, as Joe had said. A large bungalow set in a tiny garden which allowed sufficient space for a path between the
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building and the barbed wire which surrounded it.
There were three large rooms used as dormitories, with the same double-decker canvas bunks. A kitchen, and a toilet with two lavatories and two wash basins. It was my first experience of bad quality Italian plumbing, but unfortunately it was only coming events casting their shadows. The waste pipes were totally inadequate to cope, and the flushing system also gave up the unequal fight. It was not until we got some sapper officers on the job that the system functioned at all. To add to the difficulties, the water was turned off from the main several times daily.
We passed the day lazing in the sun and listening to the other fellow’s story of his capture. All these stories had one dominating common factor. This was the incredible absence of reliable intelligence reports from which practically all forward units appeared to have suffered. Most of the units to which these fellows belonged had had no idea of the enemy’s position, and like us imagined them to be many miles to the west.
The Jerry had apparently captured the wireless codes, for several units received coded instructions to rendezvous at given map references and await orders. These messages purported to come from a higher level than the unit concerned and seemed perfectly genuine. But in each case the time of the rendezvous was during the hours of darkness, and when daylight came the unit was surrounded by German armour.
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Then we got bored with stories of capture, and turned our minds to more fruitful subjects. An Italian class was started by Pat Crosse – Reuters’ correspondent in the Western Desert. As the main Italian scholar among the officers, he became our semi-official interpreter, and despite the annoyance and pinpricks from the Italians and the petty trifling requests which he was constantly receiving from our own chaps, he always managed to preserve an even temper and balanced perspective.
He lived on the top bunk next to mine, and we spent many an hour discussing gastronomy and meals at which we had assisted and hoped to assist again. He was a delightful person, young, extremely intelligent and possessing a keen sense of humour. He was fair-haired and tall with thin angular features and a smile that started as a twinkle somewhere in the corner of his eyes. I revised my former opinion of war correspondents, which had classified them as permanent fixtures at the bar of the Gezira Sporting Club.
I expect that many of you have read Pat’s despatches, but the best of all his cables was the one announcing liberation from a German prison camp on the Lahn River in April 1945. But that is looking too far ahead.
George Millar, of the Rifle Brigade, took a French class. His French was perfect, and after his eventual escape from Germany he was parachuted into France just before D-Day and served with the Maquis. His book “Maquis” makes fine reading.
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But, here again, I am looking ahead.
Everyone was asked to cooperate in keeping the others occupied. I started a small German class for beginners which soon grew out of all proportions. Some of the expert German linguists came along too, and it was most embarrassing to find myself having to answer questions on grammar with the inevitable, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you why that happens, but it just does!” I am sure that some of the pupils were far more capable of giving the lessons than I was.
It was through my German class that I first met Rosie Price of the Sikh Regiment. He was the possessor of one of the finest military moustaches I have ever seen. But the moustache was not amenable to discipline, and the ends, bristling fiercely, spread out in every direction. He was the tallest officer at Tarhuna, being over 6′ 4″. Inclined to be thin, his thinness was aggravated during the period of his stay in Libya and subsequently in Italy and Germany. Rosie had a wonderful sense of humour too, and it was always excellent value to listen to his anecdotes of Army experiences.
A 4 handicap at golf, a first-class bridge player, and eventually a good though unimaginative cook of custards, he became my greatest friend in the bag.
The routine at Tarhuna was pretty much the same every day.
Coffee was brought round at 8 a.m. and the five or six men
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allotted to us as batmen came over from the other compound at 9 o’clock and swept the floors and cleaned the place up. They had all volunteered for the job, but did it mainly because they had been batmen previously and to get a change of scenery from their own compound.
Classes started about an hour later, and so we whiled away the morning until noon when we had lunch. This consisted of a large bowl of macaroni and cheese, and a loaf of bread weighing about 200 grammes. Had we been eating a normal breakfast, this lunch would have been almost adequate. With no breakfast, it left us hungry.
After lunch, most people lay against the side of the building in the sun and went to sleep. One of the padres who had been captured in the latest batch of prisoners went off to the village armed with large quantities of lire – we had been told that we were entitled to 50 lire each per day in respect of pay, and the Italians had given us advances against this – and endeavoured to augment the rations by purchases of dates, oranges, lemons and any other article on sale that could be eaten. On one occasion, a purchasing commission returned with one egg each for breakfast. That was a splendid victory. But another time, they came back with nothing more edible than razor blades, and explained that foodstuffs available in the village were too expensive. It was only our much advertised British self-restraint that saved them from being lynched.
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The days were warm with a stiff breeze to take the excessive heat from the burning sun. So passed the afternoons, with the prisoners for the most part lolling in the sun or brushing up their languages, or perhaps washing out their underwear.
The evening meal was at 5 o’clock, and consisted of a bowl of ‘skilly’ – oily water that could not possibly have justified the name of ‘soup’ or even stock. In this a small cube of incredibly tough meat met a watery end. The main part of the meal was the loaf which was of the same size as that provided at lunch. Most people immediately wolfed this bread, which was quite pleasant to the taste; but some managed to keep half the loaf for ‘breakfast’ the next day.
The camp was surrounded on the north, east and west by a series of rambling hills, many of them low and little more than sand dunes. In that part of the world, in the first quarter of the year, the sun normally sets early. And robbed of its warmth in the late afternoon, as we were by the hills to the west which shaded us in, the temperature dropped rapidly after 5 p.m.. By 6 o’clock we had all been assembled inside the bungalow, and the doors locked and sentries posted outside both front and rear doors in addition to the ordinary guards on duty patrolling outside the wire.
We were all in bed by 8 p.m.. Sleeping fully clothed, except for my battledress jacket which I used as a pillow, I found it difficult to keep out the cold. In fact, the cold
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nights formed the subject of long discussions in the warmth of the morning sun. Here, at great length, the many different methods of blanket folding were investigated. Then adopted by those who had not so far tried them, and subsequently rejected after user had proved their failure.
I found that the best method was to have one of the blankets underneath and the other one covering as much of me as possible without any attempt to tuck it in. But the nights continued bitterly cold, and the coffee which constituted our entire breakfast was additionally welcome because the cooks always managed to serve it piping hot.
We also tried a method of getting warm before turning in for the night. Every orange and lemon was carefully peeled before it was eaten, and the peel deposited in special tins. This peel was then boiled up in water for fifteen minutes and the resulting concoction was not unpleasant, though rather sour. The effect however was to make the game not worth the candle, for throughout the night there was a steady stream of pedestrian traffic from the dormitories to the lavatories. And this unusual state of affairs was undoubtedly aggravated by the cold and change of diet. Aggravated too, though in a different way, by the absence of any light, and the silence of the night was frequently shattered by yelps of anguish as shins came into contact with the sharp uprights of the sleeping bunks.
We stayed in Tarhuna for three weeks. Then, on the 13th
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February 1942 a convoy of Italian transport lorries arrived at the camp. We received the order to prepare to move, and the fortunate ones among us who possessed kit started to pack. I had obtained a sweater and a pair of socks from the camp stores, and I rolled up the spare pair, put on the sweater, and was ready to move. Travelling had somehow become very simplified. No worry about tickets, or catching the train or getting to the boat in time. It was all arranged for you.
Only these were Italian arrangements, and inevitably they broke down. It was discovered that there was only room for four hundred men on the transport available, and anyway officers were being sent separately. So counter order followed order and we all unpacked again, and soon we were standing by the wire shouting farewells to any of our particular troops among those leaving.
The next day, more transport arrived and about three hundred men and forty eight officers were ordered to get ready to move off. This time it was not a false alarm, and we handed in the blankets and aluminium eating bowls that had been issued by the Italians and waited developments.
It was just after lunch when the order finally came to move. We were formed up in long lines outside the camp and counted. Then we were recounted and a third count followed for good measure. Our transport consisted of civilian buses which were quite comfortable and held about ten people in each. We were
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all mounted eventually, though the whole proceedings took well over an hour, during which time we had the inevitable spectacle of the Italian soldier telling his officers exactly what they doing wrong and why, in which arguments any N.C.O.s [Non-Commissioned Officers] who happened to be passing joined with considerable vehemence. The convoy started, each coach having its complement of guard which consisted of an officer and two soldiers. The Italian officer in our bus had accompanied some of his charges back from the front and knew George Millar to whom he gave a cigarette. This at once caused a boom in conversation with the Italian, but he proved fruitless. I think that they also suffered from the cigarette shortage in Libya, and they certainly did where we were later in Italy.
The road ran up and down an undulating countryside, mostly arid and sandy until we reached the suburbs or rather the outskirts of Tripoli, where there were abundant clusters of high palm trees grouped round what appeared to be small oases. At all these there would be a band of ragged children, some black, some white and some brown, whose principal occupation beyond watching over the goats who were watching them, was to devise better and brighter ways of annoying anyone who passed wearing Italian uniform. As a large part of the Italian army was at that time stationed around Tripoli, this was a whole time job, the reward for which was either a fleet pair of legs or a thick ear.
As we came near the town most of us had our first glimpse
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of fascist colonisation. At hundred yard intervals along the road, set back about 100 feet, and each containing a few acres of land, bungalows had been built. These comprised 4 or 5 rooms and had been constructed in the Moorish style with flat roofs. On the front wall of each bungalow was painted in large letters the fact that it formed part of the ——- colony constituted in accordance with Mussolini’s colonisation plan for the Empire. I watched some of the women who stood about in their gardens in front of their homes, for there were very few men to be seen, and I was struck by the lack of anything approaching animation on their faces. The impression I received was that of people who had to serve a term of exile abroad, and though they were obviously getting a maximum out of the ground within the limits of the possibilities available, this afforded them no satisfaction. There did not appear to be one young woman among them, or perhaps it was that the incessant sun and constant toil had aged them all prematurely.
We turned off the main coastal road seven miles from the town and soon arrived at a formidable looking fortress, which we were told had been built by the Moors during their occupation. Before the war it had been used as a civilian criminal prison. It was surrounded by barbed wire and several machine gun posts, the most dangerous of which was placed in a tower standing well above the building. The accommodation of the men was appalling as I found when later I obtained permission to visit some of my
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chaps who were there. Ours was not too bad. There were only a few beds and these were promptly requisitioned for the field officers, but the guards were considerably friendlier and more human than at Tarhuna, and this more than compensated for the added discomfort. The Commandant addressed us shortly after our arrival. He spoke good English which created a favourable impression immediately, and apologised for the accommodation which had been intended to house a maximum of ten officers while in fact we amounted to 48.
I found myself in a small cell with seven other fellows, among them Pat Crosse, Squire, and Angus Maude. The cell was about eight foot square and the only light came from a small window just beneath the ceiling some seven feet high. This window was effectively barred on the outside. There was no bedding with the exception of some rush mats which were distributed to us on the basis of four per cell, this being sufficient to cover the floor. We were then issued with one blanket each. The Italian Army blankets were about half the size of an ordinary British Army blanket. Worse than that, they were also less than half as warm being made of some ersatz woollen material which seemed to me to be mainly cotton fabric. The great trouble with these blankets was that if you spread them longways over your body it was not possible to tuck them in at either side, with the result that immediately you turned over, one side of your body became exposed to the icy draught that permeated
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through the inch space that separated the bottom of the door from the floor. In addition, the floor was of concrete and the rush matting, of perhaps a quarter of an inch thickness, did little to detract from the hardness and the cold which found its way with complete thoroughness into every single joint and nerve of your body.
We turned in immediately after our dinner, which consisted of pasta asciutta, identical to that we had been getting at Tarhuna, but here the food was supplemented by a ration of wine – the equivalent of a sherry glass. The guards came round, politely but firmly indicating that it was time to retire. Everyone trooped into their respective cells followed by a guard who pointedly removed the electric light bulb, placed two large pails by the door and informed us that we could summon the guard during the night, but only in the case of extreme necessity, by banging on the door. He then went out and we heard a lock falling into position and then the rattling of a chain. It was still very early in the evening, only about six o’clock, and we decided that it would be policy to keep awake as long as possible to avoid waking during the night when the cold would be more noticeable. During the eight days that we spent in that tiny cell at Trig Tarhuna we invented many word games which we religiously played during the two hours immediately following our being shut in for the night. One favourite that I remember was for someone to think of any given object or person
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and then have questions fired at him from the remainder of those present who were entitled to ask anything they wanted but only to receive an answer of “yes” or “no”. It is a good game, usually produces a few laughs and takes a reasonable time before the various clues enable the questioners to discover the correct answer. It can also be made into quite an effective gamble, as the questioners are only allowed three guesses. If they guess right, nothing changes hands: but if on the other hand the correct solution is not found, then they pay the person being examined some prize to be arranged. At that time cigarettes were by far our most valuable currency, there being practically none available, so cigarettes were made the prize. But nobody ever won any. Other games, popular at first, were the usual spelling bees and spelling games where the person to end a word loses a life, and in these the challenges often produced results which the editors of Webster’s had certainly never thought of.
Another popular way of spending that first two hours of the night after going to our cell was for each member of the party to relate some of his experiences during the war, or even in his civilian occupation as far as it had a direct relation to the war. The speaker would have the floor, very literally so, for as long as he could carry on, and it was his job to endeavour to keep the rest of us awake as long as possible. This was no easy task, for despite the considerable discomfort of the cell we somehow managed to doze off into a heavy sleep soon after it
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became dark. As darkness fell within half an hour of our being locked in for the night, the speaker had a difficult job on his hands, for in addition to trying to interest those remaining awake, he had to cope with repeated interruptions in the form of snores, grunts, and the several other noises which emanate from a group of tired males. In spite of everything however, these talks were a great success and I think that it was here that I learned the fundamental rule of prison life, namely, to keep one’s mind occupied to the full with subjects other than one’s own particular predicament.
Our day in Trig Tarhuna started normally with the first glimmer of light through the little window, though sleep was a very fitful thing interrupted several times during the night by visits to our two pails, or being stepped on by others on a similar mission. I had never felt really cold at night before becoming a POW, and I suddenly understood what sleeping on the Embankment meant and felt a definite comradeship with the poor devils whose only covering is paper. As soon as all the members of our little syndicate were awake we would hammer on the door for the guard, who, when he appeared was given the unenviable task of disposing of the contents of our pails. This meant also that the door became unlocked and we were able to stretch our legs in the small space between the two rows of cells. The air was fresh and good. Then an Italian soldier appeared with a pail of coffee and – on three mornings a week – a smaller pail
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of Italian brandy.
At first we all queued up long before the orderly was expected, but eventually a compromise was reached and a roster was worked out whereby each cell got an equal number of turns at the head of the queue, and afterwards the first refusal on any “seconds” there might be. I never heard of any case where the ‘refusal’ was actually exercised.
After “breakfast”, for the wise ones saved a small husk of their daily bread to eat with the morning coffee, we filled a tin hat which one of the syndicate had brought into captivity with him, and performed our ablutions for the day. We only had one razor and a couple of blades between the lot of us, but we somehow managed to present a fairly clean front. Dick Ransome, a war correspondent photographer who had been captured with Pat, had still got his comb with him, and this was solemnly passed round each day performing excellent service among the eight of us.
By the time we had all got our toilettes completed, the morning would be well advanced and the gate to the small paddock already opened. So the next item on the agenda was exercise. It was perhaps appropriate that the paddock was extremely small, being less than a hundred yards in circumference, for this happy fact enabled several officers present to pursue their usual pastime of rushing round in small circles without arriving at any conclusion except that of sheer exhaustion. Personally,
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I felt that it was particularly foolish to waste the little strength one had in trying to break speed records, and limited exercise to strolling round slowly.
It was a rotten little piece of ground, that paddock, for at the top one had to hurry to miss the smell that came from the men’s urinal just inside the wall, and at the bottom there was the wire and at least one sentry. But the view was superb. Stretching from the fort right down to the sea, some miles away, were avenues of blossoming trees. Almond, apple and cherry vied with each other for magnificence in great orchards which appeared to fill the whole countryside. And between two of these orchards, the road from the fort, lined on each side with majestic cypress trees which stood unmoving and serene.
The sea was plainly visible, but though the fort was situated on a sort of promontory, it was not possible to see the shore, which was hidden by the masses of trees that seemed to grow more abundant as they neared the water.
A slight heat haze hung over the Mediterranean, and not a single day during our stay at Trig Tarhuna was accompanied by any weather other than brilliant sunshine and considerable warmth, though it became very cold as soon as the sun went down.
Sometimes an old Savoia would fly slowly inland, and not infrequently planes would circle round in the distance before coming in to land at an airfield not far away. A watch, too, was naturally kept for signs of shipping, and, one day, smoke
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was reported rising above the treetops, and though the ship itself was invisible, it was possible for the keen-sighted to discern two masts moving slowly along. This was on our second day at the Camp.
That evening, after we had eaten our skilly and cube of horse meat, and the ration of wine had disappeared with customary rapidity, our cell was honoured by a visit from the Italian Brigadiere. He was an unusually tall, florid, Casanova type of black-haired, moustached Italian manhood, whose rank in the carabinieri was equivalent to that of Sergeant Major in the Army.
He seemed quite friendly, and probably
his visit was on official business to see what information he could get from
us. So we all took advantage of the cigarettes he offered, and with these well
alight, tried to get information out of him. He was a talkative type, and quite
happy when the limelight was centred on him, and he answered our questions
“No,” he said. “The ship you saw today is not for you, though it is full of prisoners of war. Yours will be coming within the week. How long will the trip take? A matter of thirty six hours to two days at the outside, but you need not worry, you will have plenty to eat on board and when you get to Italy you will have too much to eat.”
We pointed out that this would be a pleasant change, as we were all feeling the shortness of rations, and looked forward
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to the time when we could get our teeth
into something more substantial than macaroni, and at the same time less
leathery than the horse meat in the skilly. Pat was acting as interpreter, and
I fancy we strained his Italian a bit, but what he lacked in vocabulary and
idiom, he made up for in feeling, and the Brigadiere was left in no doubt about
our opinion of Italian rations. He tried to laugh it off, and said.
“Oh, you English, with your enormous appetites. The Duce was right when he called you a nation of five meals a day. But you need not worry. This is only a Transit Camp, and naturally things are a little disorganised. To start with, it is much too small to accommodate all of you, but when you get to Italy and reach a permanent camp, you will have everything you need.”
This produced a volume of questions.
“Where do you think we will go?” What will the accommodation be like? Will we be able to get warm clothes? Will it be possible to draw any pay? What are conditions like generally in a permanent camp?”
Our florid friend was very ready with his answers, and built up such a pleasant picture of permanent prisoner of war camps in Italy, that one might well have thought that he was getting a commission on the number of people who went there through his agency. We would be housed in small villas in and around Florence, and in other parts of the country where, before the war, there had existed large English colonies. There would
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be about six or eight of us to each of these villas, a group of which would form a village, and the village as a whole would represent a Camp. The perimeter of the Camp would be patrolled by guards, and probably surrounded by wire, but we would have a large area in which to move unmolested. Each Camp, of course, had its own cinema, and playing fields and swimming pool, and if, for some inexplicable reason, one got bored inside the Camp, it only involved a small matter of giving parole for permission to be granted to go into the local town for the day.
“What about getting in touch with one’s family? Will it be possible to send a telegram from the Camp, and how soon after we get there? How often can we write home, and is there any limit on the length of the letter? Will it be possible to get a hot bath? Do we get issued with Red Cross parcels, and if so, on what basis?”
The Brigadiere held up his hands in a laughing protest, and having duly quietened down the questioning mob, and satisfied that he was once again the central figure on the stage, he proceeded with suitable gestures to enumerate the various further advantages which Italian prisoner of war camps possessed. It would, of course, be possible for us to send telegrams home as soon as we reached a camp, he said, for each camp possessed its own postal service. As far as letters were concerned, he believed there was some restriction and that one was only allowed
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four letters a month, but there was no limitation of the amount one could write. On second thoughts though, he had heard that this restriction of four letters a month applied to other ranks, and officers were allowed two letters a week. Red Cross parcels? Oh yes, he had seen Red Cross parcels, and could vouch for the bounty of their contents, and each person received one parcel per week. There were already enormous stocks of parcels in Italy, so no delay would be experienced before our first issue. As far as the hot baths were concerned, he dismissed such a trivial matter with an airy laugh, for would not, he said, the rich English, who had previously occupied the villas that we were taking over, have equipped them with every modern convenience, and it was of course understood that a kind Italian government supplied its prisoners of war with liberal amounts of fuel in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. So there was plenty of hot water.
We were still talking when the gate of
the paddock was closed with its customary clang. This was the signal for the
night guards to come round and lock us in our cells. The Brigadiere bade us a
pleasant farewell and was about to go when I got Pat to ask him a last
“What sort of a boat will we go across on?”
He thought for a moment, and then answered.
“Officers are usually sent in our passenger liners. They occupy first-class cabins, and have the run of the ship, but in
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any event they travel under conditions
similar to those of Italian soldiers.”
And a last parting thrust.
“You need not worry. Per voi la guerra e finita. But we Italians are not barbarians. Now that the war is over for you, you will be treated as honourable men, soldiers beaten in battle by the Italy of eight million bayonets.”
He went out of the door, a comic opera figure in his fancy dress uniform, and for the first time since our capture we had a good laugh that was not in any way forced. Everyone present had been captured by the Afrika Corps.
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CHAPTER II. C.I.T. Prisoner of war version. We arrive at Capua.
The convoy turned into the Tripoli dock
area and pulled up alongside a quay. We were told to remain in the trucks. Pat
pointed out to sea and said, “That must be our ship.”
I followed the direction of his hand and saw a cargo ship of some ten thousand tons at anchor just outside the harbour. She was beautifully built with very fast lines, though appeared to have little cargo as she was high in the water and rolling sensibly in the fairly heavy Mediterranean swell.
“She looks fast enough to avoid the attentions of any well-meaning British subs,” was Angus’ comment, and someone added.
“Yes, that may be. But I doubt whether she could get away from a Sunderland!”
“You may think I’m quite potty, but I would still like to be torpedoed by our subs on the way across.”
The others looked at the speaker in surprise.
“Good God, man. You’re crackers! What the devil do you want to be torpedoed for?” To which he replied.
“Well, to start with, I’ve got every confidence in the Navy – especially since the Altmark affair – and I’m sure they would pick me up even if they did sink us. Whereas it would be difficult to get everyone into a Sunderland. And we are not going to get away by any other means. Apart from which it would
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give me enormous satisfaction to see
some of these Italian bastards drowning.”
The guards indicated that we should form up in rows along the quay, and here the inevitable counting took place. Then we were herded into a large steam launch which was tied up alongside.
Even inside the harbour the water was
choppy, and it was generally felt that this augured ill for the crossing.
Someone approached one of the Italian sailors.
“Quanto diem per Italia?” he enquired haltingly.
“Che cosa volete?” thus the sailor.
One of our Italian scholars took pity and translated, and was told that the journey across to Naples – our destination – would take about thirty six hours, although to be on the safe side we were carrying rations for four days.
The tender arrived alongside the cargo ship, but there was no gangway to get us aboard. The pitching and tossing of the two vessels made it almost impossible to establish a passageway between them, and the cargo ship loomed high above our launch. The problem was solved by a large plank being strapped to the top bridge of the launch and extended into space, and when it connected with the mother vessel it was made secure. The transfer of the prisoners was nevertheless a task requiring considerable skill and time, and each individual crossing was accompanied by shouts of encouragement from those waiting to follow, while at
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the same time some of the gamblers
present offered varying shades of odds against the starter finishing the
“Go on, chum. You can only die once.”
“To think that people pay to bathe in the Mediterranean in February.”
“It’s alright, Mike. You need a bath.”
“Hundred to ninety he makes it.”
“Six to four he loses his kit.” This in respect of one of the more fortunate officers who had managed to retain the main part of his kit after capture.
Despite these not very encouraging comments, everyone was aboard in the late afternoon.
When all the human cargo had been transferred, the officers were segregated from the men, and the two groups led off to their respective quarters. There were about eighteen hundred passengers on board, including a few Italians returning home on leave or compassionate grounds, or because the number of their children had increased to four, or perhaps even because they were the senior male member of a family which had four dependants.
Visions of comfortable cabins with blanketed berths soon vanished as we were shepherded down a wooden ladder into a gloomy cavernous hold. The only glimmer of light came from the entrance where the top of the ladder was lashed. We looked round in disgust.
“Christ! It’s cold down here. Aren’t we getting any
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“Personally, I always enjoy sleeping on bare metal. Especially in mid-winter. And without blankets.”
Further comment, and then someone suggested.
“Well let’s try to get some light at least.”
Pat was appointed liaison officer because of his linguistic qualifications, and he went off in search of one of the ship’s officers to attempt to get remedied some of the worst features of our temporary home from home. With comparatively good results as, that night, a large blue lamp was fitted in one corner of the hold, thus providing sufficient light to avoid slipping over adjoining recumbent bodies. But there were no blankets.
An announcement was made that we were to
be issued with one day’s hard rations. A buzz followed that there were four days’
rations on board. As I filed up on deck to form up in the inevitable queue, I
overheard scraps of conversation.
“I don’t like this business of four days’ rations. It looks as though we are in for a pretty unpleasant time.”
“Yes. If the Eyts have got four days’ rations on board, it means that we will be on this bloody boat for a week.”
“Anyway, they’ll have to give us decent rations to keep us alive.”
“Like hell they will!”
The issue for the day was a tin of Italian bully and two
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hard biscuits. The bully was stringy and tough, many tins blown, and it was clear that we had at last solved the mystery of the disappearance of the Italian cavalry. The biscuits were four to five inches square and very hard. It was difficult to bite through them, and many teeth were broken in the attempt. I lost half a tooth trying to make an impression on one. So thereafter I broke my issue by banging them hard on the iron deck, and then sucking the pieces until they became soft enough to chew. In this way, because of the presence of food in my mouth, I deluded myself into the belief that I was less hungry.
Our transport left Tripoli in the
evening escorted by two destroyers. Anchors were weighed, and all the prisoners
were cleared off the deck and sent down into holds which were at once battened
down by guards. Before going down, I had time to notice the four quadruple
mounted Breda anti-aircraft guns mounted two on each side of the main bridge.
And, what was far more important, to see that they were manned by Germans.
Someone else had made the same observation and remarked.
“I wonder if they can depress those Bredas to cover the holds?” As if in answer to his question, the German gunners, who were working on one of the sets of guns, swung them round in our direction and brought them to an elevation well below zero.
I said to Pat.
“That rather knocks on the head all the idle chatter of rushing the bridge and taking over the ship. There wouldn’t
[Digital page 50, original page 40]
be a chance. They’ve got four machine-guns
up there as well.”
Pat agreed. Then he pointed to one of the passing Italians. “Unless we are torpedoed,” he said, “I’m inclined to agree. I think that’s our only chance. Look at those fellows. Their boots are undone: their knee breeches are loosened, and each one has his life jacket firmly clutched to his bosom. If there was any sign of the ship sinking, they would all leave it so fast that you wouldn’t see them.”
I asked “what was the significance of the undone boots and the loosened knickerbockers?”
“Oh. That’s so that their movements in the water will be unhampered.”
I paid a mental compliment to the foresight of these Italians, but it was too cold to undo my boots, and I had not got a life jacket anyway. None of us had.
Time passed slowly. Pat went off the following morning to do some interpreting, and returned with a collection of German and Italian illustrated magazines. These we read and passed round with strict instructions to hand them back after perusal. We had already earmarked them as blankets.
The first night aboard had been very cold, and a howling draught had swept along the iron deck. We had no blankets, but Pat shared his Mackintosh with me and we slept huddled close to one another for additional warmth. My sleep had been patchy and the night was one of the longest I can remember in my life.
[Digital page 51, original page 41]
I thought that four days of this would result in a permanent undermining of my morale.
As soon as the first glimmer of light came through the tarpaulin covering the aperture at the top of the ladder, I gave up any further idea of sleep. I did not know the time, but Pat woke up and told me that it was just after 6 a.m.. We both had a few cigarettes left from the thirty five issued at Trig Tarhuna, and we each lit one. I inhaled deeply and the sharp acrid smoke made me feel dizzy, but the sensation was not unpleasant. We chatted in whispers, and I began to get some idea of the life of a war correspondent.
At 8 o’clock in the morning a small cup of ersatz coffee was ladled out to each prisoner on board. Most of us had no drinking or eating utensils, and had to get our coffee in the bully tins which still contained the remnants of the previous night’s meal. The coffee was not bad, and, above all, it was hot.
While we were on deck, we had an opportunity of a word with some of the other ranks. I asked a Battery Sergeant Major what conditions were like in his hold, the next one to ours. He said, “Conditions are frightful, Sir. There are two hundred and eighty men down there, and there is space for one hundred and fifty at the outside. There’s no room to sleep stretched out, and we all spent last night sitting doubled up. The same thing happened in the hold directly below us.”
[Digital page 52, original page 42]
“How are the men standing it?”
“Very well as far as morale goes. But about eighty per cent of them are sick. Mostly with gippy tummy or dysentery, some with seasickness, and the Eyts won’t allow them on deck more than one at a time.”
I thought of the one lavatory I had been lucky enough to get into that morning after half an hour’s wait, and asked.
“How do they manage for lats?”
“There’s a three hour wait, Sir. So you can see what’s happening. The men just can’t help themselves. The stench down there is terrible, and our doctors can’t do anything about it. They haven’t got any medicines, though the Eyts let them come down first thing this morning.”
It was not in fact until the fourth morning of the trip that the ship’s captain gave permission for the men all to come on deck together, and volunteer squads went down to try and clean up. The filth was unbelievable, and the smell filtered through to the furthest corners of the ship.
On the third morning we awoke to find that the ship was stationary, and someone returning from the deck reported that we were tied up alongside the dock in what appeared to be Palermo harbour.
We remained there for two days and during that time officer prisoners were allowed to spend the hours of daylight up on deck. The first morning I was leaning over the rail talking to Angus.
[Digital page 53, original page 43]
“What a lovely sight that hotel is, perched up there on the top of the hill.”
Angus digested this for a while, then he replied.
“It must be a lovely sight inside too. Just imagine a great dining room crowded with people eating as much as they like, even as much as they can!”
“I’m afraid that my imagination won’t stretch that far. Still I can picture the small intimate bar that is doubtless attached to that dining room and which is probably filled at this moment with all the local Palermo lovelies.”
Angus said, “Do you know, Nat, it’s a damn funny thing, but just the thought of that dining room and the bar have made me feel far less hungry. I suggest that we concentrate on food for a bit and see whether it continues to have that effect.”
Food has always been one of my pet subjects, so I readily agreed.
It was decided that we should each
submit to the other a specimen menu of a day’s meals and where each course
should be eaten, quite regardless of distance or expense or any other such
mundane difficulty. We considered the matter very seriously and after twenty
minutes Angus said.
“How are you getting on? I’m finding it’s pretty difficult to fit in everything.”
“Well, I’m not doing so badly, though I’ve nowhere near
[Digital page 54, original page 44]
finished, I replied, “but I’ll give
you some idea of my dinner if you like,” and having obtained the necessary
consent I started.
“Do you know Prague, Angus? No? That’s a pity, because there is, or was, a restaurant there where the caviar is better than I have tasted elsewhere. Served better too. It’s called Lipperts, and, if the Hun hasn’t destroyed it and you ever find yourself in Prague, you ought to get together. I’d drink vodka with the caviar; not too much, but enough to feel the warmth of it against my stomach. And then, since I have introduced a Russian flavour into this epic of meals, I would continue with some borscht with which I would drink just one small glass of Isabellita.”
Angus commented, “I would venture to suggest that Isabellita is perhaps just a shade too dry, but anyway you have an idea, so continue.”
I said, “I forgot to tell you where to get the borscht. The Poisson d’Or in Paris will turn out a pretty good brew. Are you still with me? Right. Then I’ll take you on a small trip across to Valencia. We’ll go into the dining room of the Yachting and Nautical Club and I think that we might even have time for a reflective cigarette before our langostinos are ready. And while you are inhaling the smoke from a first class Virginia cigarette deep down into your lungs, you will be able to look out of the enormous window which stretches right round the dining room and
[Digital page 55, original page 45]
see the bay from which the fish that are
being prepared for us were caught this morning.”
Angus remarked, “It sounds very attractive. How are the langostinos being prepared?”
“They are being grilled alive in plenty of butter, and we’re going to have a bottle of 1934 Rioja to wash them down. Do you know, it’s a funny thing, but I can almost taste those fish.”
“So can I. What comes next on your list, Nat?”
“Well, there must be a time in every man’s life when chicken a la broche plays a large part; let’s eat it at the Coq d’Or in London, and with it we will have pommes parisiennes and some very sweet petit pois. And quite obviously as this is an occasion, we’ll get the wine waiter to bring us one of his remaining bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1929. How are you feeling?”
“Surprisingly enough, I think that the meal is doing me good. Let’s finish it. How are you going to round it off?”
“I’m going to take you to a little mountain lake in the Italian Dolomites, and sitting on the terrace of the one small cafe there, we are going to eat wild wood strawberries with lashings of whipped cream. After which we will remove ourselves to Cairo for strong coffee at Gezira, with some Maison Fine that is out of a very special bottle kept at the Provencal Hotel in Juan.”
“Do I get a cigar?” Angus asked. Then, “Do you know, I’m
[Digital page 56, original page 46]
damn hungry. I think I’m going to ping
As we started moving toward the hold, I suggested.
“Would you like my tin of bully in exchange for your two biscuits?”
We descended the iron rungs to the hold while Angus considered the pros and cons of my proposition.
[Digital page 57, original page 47]
CHAPTER III. Capua. Escapes. First Red Cross parcels. We move to Padula.
The trip lasted six days. When land was sighted and we learnt that we were putting in at Naples, a sigh of relief went up from many of us. It seemed inconceivable that a city which we had visited in peace time, and of which happy memories still remained, could alter to any great extent even during the war. And though we would never have admitted it, deep down in our hearts was the optimistic hope that we would soon find ourselves billeted in rooms with bath at the Excelsior. Which was a little optimistic.
Disembarking was not such a terrifying business as getting on board. A gangway was placed alongside the ship in an orthodox fashion, and as we were shepherded down it it seemed that here already was an example of the better treatment which was to be meted out to us. Disillusionment was not long delayed. We were lined up in threes and counted. The count did not tally, so we formed in fives. Again the count was wrong. After an hour’s counting and recounting with varying results, the figures were made right by the addition of some sick troops who came ashore with our doctors.
The sun was terribly hot, burning down on the open quay where we were standing, and the dust that occasionally swirled
[Digital page 58, original page 48]
round did not help to alleviate the thirst from which we all suffered. At last the order was given to move off, and in a straggling file we marched through the dock area to a large building which turned out to be the municipal baths. Here we were able to get rid of some of the grime of travel in the hottest shower baths I have ever taken. The trouble was that they were so hot that it was not possible to stand under the water for more than a few seconds at a time.
While we went under the showers, our clothes were introduced to the delousing machine. This is a pernicious instrument, and, as far as I could see, the only result it achieved was to make our clothes dripping wet with steam and ruin any article of leather that might be put into it. The towels given for drying ourselves were the same cloth type as we had experienced at Tarhuna, and the ultimate result was that we finished our visit to the municipal baths with wet skins covered by even wetter clothes.
Then we were on a train in a siding not far from the docks, and spirits rose again when the Italians came round with an issue of bully and two small loaves per man. Having provided sustenance, the Italians left us to our own devices, though with guards along the corridors and patrolling on each side of the train. It was our first real taste of Italian procrastination.
Having entrained at 11 o’clock in the morning, we finally got under way about 7 o’clock in the evening. I suppose we were
[Digital page 59, original page 49]
lucky that it was seven o’clock of the same day, but at the time the delay seemed monstrous. The night passed and I found that I had enjoyed an excellent sleep. The first class carriages in which we were travelling – in batches of eight to a compartment – were so very much more comfortable than the hold of the vessel we had just left.
The train, which had spent the greater part of the night in a siding, moved off early in the morning, and soon drew into a station. We had arrived at Capua. At last the crucial moment. We would see what the future held in store. What accommodation we were to have, what food, what bedding. In fact, to test the veracity and knowledge of our informant, the Italian Brigadiere, at Trig Tarhuna.
We soon found out. Marched from the station across a field, the procession turned into a country lane. Along this, and then we saw the camp. A promiscuous sprinkling of buildings surrounded by barbed wire and arc lights, and, in the distant background, serried rows of camouflaged tents. This was Campo Prigonieri di Guerra 66 at Capua.
It did not take long to settle down there. Most of us met a few old friends who had been captured earlier in the campaign and they helped us into the routine of camp life. It was an uneventful life with no fixed hours for roll call which often did not take place for three days at a time. The main event of the day was the purchasing commission which set off
[Digital page 60, original page 50]
for the town to buy canteen stores. This commission was composed of one of our non-combatants and the Italian interpreter and its main purpose was to buy as much chocolate, biscuits, currants and other edible goods, and cigarettes, as were available for the amount of money at their disposal. Everyone had received advances of pay varying from fifty to one hundred and fifty lire and for the first two days we were all able to spend freely.
Then the realisation that we were all broke caused a demand for another advance of pay and the Italians agreed to grant this as soon as supplies of camp chits were available. It became increasingly obvious that nothing had been done to anticipate our arrival, and one of the Italian officers openly admitted that the camp had been constructed to take five hundred prisoners, whereas there were actually four thousand in it. These included more than two hundred and fifty officers, most of the South Africans captured in the fighting around Sidi Rezegh, and others taken in the early phases of the November offensive, and a large number of South African coons.
The officers were kept apart from the men who were put in separate compounds where they lived in tents, sleeping on the bare earth on groundsheets or palliasses with two blankets as their only covering. It was then February, and February in southern Italy means that the temperature at night can drop to well below zero. But the men stood it amazingly well, and on
[Digital page 61, original page 51]
the few occasions when we came into contact with them they always managed to make a joke out of their conditions.
Ours were better for we were housed in wooden huts with boarded beds, palliasses and – great joy at the time – sheets and two blankets. Those of us who had arrived with the last batch were put into the infirmary. Officially, we had to pass three weeks of quarantine there, but it was really a sinecure. The infirmary had beds with steel springs and was heated with small electric fires, and the quarantine itself was a farce as there appeared to be no restriction on our mixing with the inmates of the wooden huts. The only limitation on our movements was after the evening meal when our compound was locked up and separated from the compound containing the huts.
The food was bad and scanty. A popular contention held that it was always possible to count the grains of rice in the soup which featured at both the midday and evening meals, and which was followed by an almost equally small helping of macaroni. At lunch the day’s ration of bread was issued. This consisted of 150 grammes of dark brown mixture of flour, hay and straw, but the resulting taste was not unpleasant. At any rate, it soon became an acquired taste, and bread was eagerly sought after to help mitigate the hunger from which we all suffered.
Then, at last, came the news for which we had all been waiting. We were to receive an issue of Red Cross parcels. One parcel was to be allotted per three men and we formed up
[Digital page 62, original page 52]
once more in threes and went along to the parcel store to draw the coveted food from Canada. Wonderful parcels, the Canadian ones. So prepared that the contents of each tin could be eaten without being cooked, it weighed 10 lbs, made up of the following:
1 lb. Bully
1 lb. Canadian meat roll (rather like Spam)
4 ozs. cream cheese
1/2 lb. salmon
Small tin sardines
1 lb. marmalade, or jam
1 lb. butter
Large packet of thick butter biscuits
4-6 ozs. chocolate
4 ozs. tea
1/2 lb. currants
A bar of soap and some salt
1 packet of prunes
With each parcel we received fifty English cigarettes specially prepared for the British Red Cross.
I was sharing out a parcel with Angus and Pat when the sad news came that the Italians had refused to accept Pat as an officer and he was to be transferred to the men’s compound. An official protest was lodged. Pat, as an accredited War Correspondent, had been granted the courtesy rank of captain, and according to our interpretation of the rules was entitled to be treated as an officer. The Italians, however, read the rules differently and there was no arguing with them. It was not, in fact, until eight months later that agreement was finally reached on this point, and then the War Correspondents were all transferred back to officers’ camps. Eighteen months later I met Pat again.
[Digital page 63, original page 53]
The greater part of the day at Capua was spent lying on our beds waiting for the morning or evening meals. Once a week we received one letter card and one postcard, the former being rather like the POW letter cards that could be sent from England to prisoners in Italy and Germany. It contained twenty four lines and the authorities were most strict in limiting the letters to that length. The postcards contained ten lines and, for all practical purposes, they became regarded as telegrams. Telegrams which took anything from one to six months to get home, if not lost en route. Despite these drawbacks, the letter cards and postcards did have a definite morale value. For, as soon as the weekly letter had been posted, we felt that we, at least, had done our best to cheer up those at home. The general tone of the mail was optimistic, apart from the first few weeks before we thoroughly understood the regulations governing despatch of parcels from home. At first, practically all of us wrote home for food. I certainly did, though I was careful to ask for tobacco as well. For the first time in my life I realised what hunger really meant, and I realised too that tobacco did, in some small measure, alleviate that hunger.
The only really interesting events that occurred during the month I stayed at Capua were the escapes. These were organised in a very simple way. Among the British prisoners was a dentist who attended patients in the camp’s dental centre twice each week. The dental centre was situated outside the
[Digital page 64, original page 54]
main compound near the camp boundary. The only wire that escapers had to surmount going from the dental centre was an outer wire surrounding the whole camp. This was hardly an obstacle, being a single stranded fence about five feet high and easy to climb. Proposed escapers merely attended the dental parade which was marched round to the dental centre under one particularly stupid guard who never checked up the numbers present at the start or finish. Having reached the centre, they hid themselves in a spare room and waited until dark to get over the wire and away. Their food had been previously hidden under loose floorboards in the spare room. The main difficulty was saving sufficient food for the attempt, but this was less worrying than it might have been as most of those who did go had the intention of jumping on a train going near Switzerland, and, if successful, reckoned that their journey would be over within a week.
Thanks to the appalling slackness of the Italians in holding roll call regularly, it was a comparatively easy affair to cover up for the men who went. But when Jack Bethune-Williams was brought back after being out for five days, during which time the camp authorities did not even know that he was missing, the Italian commandant started giving stick to his staff and things were tightened up considerably. Then Rex Reynolds was recaptured, and then a small group. The commandant organised a particularly unpleasant roll call at two o’clock in the
[Digital page 65, original page 55]
morning after that, but it was a failure as far as he was concerned, for the whole parade developed into quite a hilarious affair.
Just as camp life was becoming more active and eventful, rumours that had been circulating for some time past to the effect that we were to be moved to a permanent camp, crystallised into actual fact and we were despatched by train to Padula. Padula, an ancient Cistercian monastery which had become a national monument, and which was to be our home for the next seventeen months.
The Italians are a resourceful nation in many respects, one of them being in connection with their tourist trade. And when the monks decided that, having been in occupation of the monastery since 1306, they had had a sufficiently long innings and left, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the authorities decided to capitalise its value as a monument. So a monument it became, apart from a break during the 1914-1918 War when it was used to house Austrian prisoners of war.
Being a monument, it was inevitable that
a guide book should be written about it. This took the form of the story of the
Cistercian, or Carthusian, monks who had built and lived in the monastery, and
started with a description of the building, more or less as follows:
“Nestling snugly at the foot of a conical shaped hill on which is situated the village of Padula, in the valley of San
[Digital page 66, original page 56]
Severino, lies the ancient Carthusian
monastery bearing the same name. First constructed in the year 1306, this
magnificent building is a monument to the splendour and austerity of religion
in former times”, etc. etc. at some length.
The first striking feature of the building was the inscription over the entrance doorway. This inscription, which was in Latin, advises anyone entering the monastery to abandon all hope forthwith. Although originally intended for the monks whose stay was for the duration of their lives, the message sounded a topically unpleasant note to those of us passing through the splendid portals in the year of grace 1942.
We found ourselves in a long stone corridor lined with rooms on either side. This was the part allocated to the carabinieri attached to the camp staff, and here we were searched for maps, compasses, knives and other weapons, and civilian clothes. A perfunctory search, though it took several hours to complete.
Then we were free to go to our quarters which had already been allotted by the advance party. Going into the interior of the monastery I was at once amazed by its size, and also by the detail of the architecture. You went through a small wooden door and it seemed that you were going to come out in another stone corridor, but instead the whole building lay before you. A rectangular building on two floors built round a courtyard in the middle of which was an old stone fountain. From the fountain, gravel paths led to the corners and sides of the
[Digital page 67, original page 57]
courtyard, splitting it up into the shape of a Union Jack, each section of which formed a small lawn.
The building was 125 yards long and 105 yards broad. We learned that the original building had consisted of 25 cells, spaced round three sides, the fourth side containing the kitchens and refectory. Each cell contained a suite of 2 or 3 rooms one of which had been the bedroom and the other the praying room of the occupying monk. From the larger of the two rooms a passage led to a tiny room in which a basin and lavatory had now been installed.
The ceilings were high and the floors of stone, and though a heating stove was fitted in each cell there was nothing to burn in it. The cells were very cold during the short winter, but the summer brought compensation in the shape of the miniature walled garden attached to each cell. And during the hot summer months, the cool of the lofty rooms was doubly welcome.
I believe that it was during the 16th century that the abbot and his merry men decided to add an ambulatory above the stone flagged paving running round the inside of the building and off which the cells were situated. In due course the ambulatory was built, supported by enormous stone pillars fixed at 5 yard intervals on the paving. The floor of the ambulatory rested on oak rafters below which there was a few feet of space and then the basic foundations. These formed an arch over the pavement and gave protection from rain, so that we were able to take
[Digital page 68, original page 58]
exercise around the courtyard in any weather. Windows were plentiful upstairs, and outside the windows overlooking the courtyard was a ledge 3 feet wide which ran round the whole building.
On the north side of the courtyard, a small sanctuary enclosed the graves of abbots and monks who had died in the monastery. Keen gardeners soon made this attractive, though by orders of the Italian commandant they were not allowed to dig down more than a couple of feet for fear of disturbing any monastic skeletons.
The downstairs accommodation had been reserved for field officers, each complete cell or “quarter”, as they became to be called, taking eight to twelve persons. The number of field officers was small, and the balance of the accommodation in Wing One, i.e. downstairs, was reserved for senior captains. The junior captains and the subalterns lived upstairs in the ambulatory, the long passages of which were lined with beds. The two long sides of the building became known as Wings Three and Five, while the shorter sides were Wings Two and Four. The larger held about one hundred and twenty men, the smaller a hundred. The total strength of prisoners in the camp was around five hundred and fifty officers, and one hundred and fifty other ranks who served as batmen, doing the kitchen duties and generally cleaning the living quarters. The batmen were housed in two wooden huts specially erected in the courtyard next to the
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We settled down quickly to the new camp, but our main trouble was the intense cold coupled with the lack of heating facilities and the non-arrival of Red Cross parcels. These did not turn up until a month later. The basic food was the same as at Capua, though the batmen got the same rations as the Italian soldiers.
It was not long before we discovered that the Italians could change the camp chits into money, and soon afterwards they agreed to carry out some local purchases for us. Padula, being situated in a fairly remote locality, eighty miles southeast of Naples to which it was joined by an infrequently served secondary railway line, was well supplied with local produce. It became apparent that the farmers of the district realised that they were on a good wicket selling to the camp officials who paid over the normal price, and soon we were getting large quantities of meat, potatoes, cheese, butter and eggs. Some of this went into the Mess, while often private barter took place between the guard and prisoners who were able to offer cigarettes for eggs or bread.
Then the parcels arrived, but we were eating so well that most of us stored tins of food in the Red Cross parcel tin store, though the tins of non storable food, i.e. coffee, jam and perhaps the tea and chocolate found a ready market with the guards, and the unofficial black market was increased accordingly. [4 words missing] British Officer learned that Red Cross
[Digital page 70, original page 60]
parcels were being bartered with the Italians, an order forbidding this was published, and that side of the market closed down. But the Mess continued to buy officially through the Italian camp authorities on the black market, and for three months we fed like fighting cocks.
We all knew that it was too good to last though, and one fine day we were honoured with a visit from a general from Italian command at Naples who, accompanied by his staff, made straight for the kitchens. The Messing committee showed remarkable foresight in the face of heavy odds, and one of the most amusing sights I witnessed in the bag was the General and his posse going in through the front entrance of the Mess while the kitchen orderlies came out of the rear exit carrying all our illicit food.
The general, however, was no fool. Apart from the fact that he was acting on a complaint received from the Mayor of Padula, it must have been patently clear that a certain tension had been created by his sudden arrival among us. He investigated the books showing the Messing accounts, and eventually went away apparently satisfied that we had not received anything to which we were not entitled. But within a short time, the whole of the Italian staff of the camp were replaced and a rumour spread that all the former officers including the priest and the commandant were serving sentences of imprisonment. The rumour was so strong that it became regarded as genuine “griff”, and we certainly had no reason to doubt its truth.
[Digital page 71, original page 61]
While I never saw the Mess accounts
myself, I remember one conversation with the adjutant of the British camp staff
about them. He said.
“I hope they won’t query the accounts. One or two items may look a little peculiar. There’s one in particular that I can think of.”
“What’s that, Hutch?”
“It’s an item for 1,000 lire, being ‘contribution of Allied prisoners of war in Camp 35 towards the cost of repairing and renovating Padula village church’. That was really in respect of a consignment of wine!”
“I shouldn’t worry, old boy. By the way, do you think it would be any good suggesting we put up the funds to build a synagogue in the village?”
[Digital page 72]
[Postcard with caption] Certosa di Padula.
[Digital page 73, original page 62]
CHAPTER IV. Padula. Escapes.
The Padula Boys. by Nevil Lloyd.
We’re the Padula boys of Camp 35,
All officers if not gents.
In dimly lit wings, we sit on our things,
Drinking milk that’s been condensed.
Sometimes we get together to discuss the bloody war,
But a more enthralling subject
Is our tins in the Red Cross store.
Really the war is a hell of a bore,
So we leave it all to the Russians,
‘Cos that’s what the Russians are for.
We’re the Padula boys, heigh heigh.
We’re the Padula boys of Camp 35,
All subalterns wrapped in gloom.
With a little more zip and one more pip
We’d be in a downstairs room.
For hours we stand, with mugs in hand,
For figs or ice or stew.
And when we’ve got whatever it is,
From a nut to a plate of rice,
We rush madly around all over the place
To sell it at twice the price.
We’re the Padula boys, heigh heigh.
We’re the Padula boys of Camp 35
Going rapidly round the bend.
One of our habits is digging like rabbits
At tunnels that have no end.
We lie in bed quite quietly
While the guards are on their rounds,
But directly they’ve gone, we’re at it again
With a joy that knows no bounds.
Though instead of coming up at Locarno
Disguised as Count Ciano,
We find to our amazement
We are still in the monastery grounds.
We’re the Padula boys, heigh heigh.
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The day at Padula started early. From 6.30 a.m. onwards there was a certain bustle and activity by the cold shower brigade, which from every corner of the monastery congregated upon the courtyard lawn, and there went through the breathing exercises and eurhythmic movements categorised under the Army designation of physical training.
By great enterprise and fifteen minutes of sustained effort, these hearties soon worked up a good sweat, then gently trotted off to the showers. Here, in the healthy warm odour of human bodies just finishing physical exertions, they would comment upon the feeling of well-being induced by their early morning P.T. [Physical Training]. How fresh and delightful the morning air before the sun came to warm it. They would be intoxicated by the pleasant and somewhat sensual sensation of their naked feet sinking into the dew sodden grass. And then the joy of a cold shower, with the water cold to wash away all remaining traces of sleep, and yet not too cold not to get rid of the sweat that covered their bodies.
In theory it was ideal, that early P.T. and the cold shower afterwards. I tried it myself, but each time only confirmed what I had discovered on the first occasion. I felt wonderful – no doubt about that – but I also felt ready to eat a horse. And there were no horses to eat. So after a while, and at first with some reluctance, I reverted to my former practice of lying in bed with the covers well over my head to keep off the flies, and sweating there instead of outside in the health giving air.
[Digital page 75]
[Photograph showing the village of Padula]
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Being of a naturally slothful disposition, I soon convinced myself that it was more beneficial to my general health to lie in until breakfast, for if I went to P.T. [Physical Training] I would use up more calories than would accrue to me from my morning meal.
At 8.15 a.m. a string of batmen left the Mess carrying buckets of coffee. Two men were detailed per wing, and the practice was for one batman to start at the extremity of each wing and work his way along the beds until he met his colleague in the middle. He would go from bed to bed filling with the thin black surrogate liquid the tin mugs that had been left in convenient places. Most of the beds were filled by slumbering, snoring, perspiring bodies whose sole desire was to sleep as far in to the morning as circumstances would permit.
It did not matter if the coffee was cold when they awakened, for the majority normally reheated it later in the morning and stiffened it into a reasonable drink by adding real coffee from Red Cross parcels.
Assuming that nothing untoward had happened during the early morning and that there was therefore no reason for roll call being at any unusual hour, the Italian bugle call would not ricochet round the inside walls of the monastery earlier than 9.15 a.m.. This was the result of a gentlemen’s agreement between the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] and the Italian commandant.
Prior to this agreement it had happened that on several occasions roll call had been sounded just as the coffee orderlies arrived in the various wings. The P.T. enthusiasts and the
[Digital page 77, original page 65]
shower bath brigade formed part of the large school which prepared its breakfasts to coincide with the arrival of the coffee supplied by the Mess. So that if roll call sounded while the coffee was being brought round it caused considerable havoc among the breakfasters.
Truly, there can be few things more
infuriating than being asked to leave the cooking of an omelette, prepared at
great length from egg powder, just at the very moment when you see it rising.
You have already got the smell of it well into your nostrils, you are thankful
that today – for the first time in weeks – the wind is blowing in the right
direction for your stove so that there is no necessity for you to bend down and
get tears in your eyes by blowing in great breaths to fan the flame, and
suddenly comes the
tum ti tiddly tum ti ta, ti tum ti tiddly ta,
ti tum ti tiddly tum ti ta, ti tiddly tum ti ta,
of the camp bugler. Followed by a few more notes sounding like a huntsman’s call which intimated to those in the know that they were expected on parade for roll call at the double.
This was too much for the omelette cooks who had expended so much energy and time and loving care on the preparation of this particular meal, which was a special delicacy even among the other delicacies supplied by the Red Cross. The only result bugler’s clarion call was to provoke a heap of heartfelt curses upon the heads of Mussolini, the Fascist Grand Council,
[Digital page 78]
[Photograph showing the courtyard of the Carthusian monastery in Padula, which became prison camp 35 during World War 2.]
[Digital page 79, original page 66]
the camp guard and above all the camp commandant.
At that time, Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” had found its way into the camp, and many were the infuriated cooks who expressed their desire to “obscenity in the milk of the commandant’s mother, or in the bugler’s bugle.” But apart from these condemnations, the bugle call had no other tangible effect. For after the first few roll calls in the middle of breakfast, it was unanimously decided that if there had to be any choice between the breakfast and roll call, then breakfast must inevitably win the day.
So the bugler blew, the cooks cursed and continued their cooking, and those lying in the warmth of their beds slowly surfaced and put on shorts and slippers to join their partners as soon as the morning meal was on the table. The omelettes, fried meat rolls, sausages, bacon or porridge, or perhaps only toast and marmalade were savoured and consumed slowly with the greatest possible relish.
Perhaps twenty minutes after the bugle had sounded, the first stragglers would stroll downstairs and walk round the cloisters prior to taking up their positions in the space allotted to their particular wing. The parade was eventually assembled for roll call twenty five minutes later.
The reaction of the Italians varied with the personality and frame of mind of the Italian orderly officer. The Flying Flea took it almost philosophically and spent the waiting [the following page is missing from the original.]
[Digital page 80]
[Photograph showing one of the great staircases of the Carthusian monastery in Padula, which became prison camp 35 during World War 2.]
[Digital page 81, original page 68]
Then perhaps they would be followed by Benincasa, who, sensing that his vanguard was not obtaining the necessary results, came to give them his moral support. Benincasa with his Mussolinian countenance and a temperament which even his best friend would hesitate to describe as restful. He would try to make a dramatic entrance, standing in the doorway for a while, and then shouting to attract attention if he considered that he was not yet the central figure on the stage. Then he too would become the target of the more abusive invective and would be informed in derisive and plain terms that his presence was not wanted and that he too should return to the pleasures of promiscuity and cease to bother us.
Officially, il capitano Benincasa did not speak English, but there was no doubt that – from long experience – he understood a few of the more trenchant quips and injunctions hurled at him by the inhabitants of the upstairs wings. And as the full realisation dawned upon him and a look of shocked comprehension appeared on his face, he looked so stupidly bombastic that the situation was promptly aggravated by even further jeering advice being lavishly offered to him.
Without delay the doughty warrior would then draw his .32 Beretta and wave it menacingly round the company. This only had the effect of evoking more supplications to remove himself, such requests being issued from mouths crammed with food as the breakfasters continued with their meal. At this stage, not even
[Digital page 82, original page 69]
the most euphuistic would have described the scene as either calm or orderly, but suddenly it would all change. For, from downstairs, the stentorian voice of Will Scarlett boomed out, “On parade”, and this was the signal for the general exodus from the wing. As far as Wing Two was concerned it was accomplished in a most orderly fashion, Benincasa and his satellites being swept aside by the hundred odd dwellers of the wing, who moved in a solid block down the great staircase and out in to the courtyard.
Wing One would already be in the process of being counted by one of the interpreters and the orderly sergeant, and we would get on parade just in time to be ready when they had passed the end of Wing One. The stragglers from Wing Three would appear as the Italians were finishing their count of us, and others from Wings Four and Five would also manage to time their appearance to coincide with the check of their respective communities. The gauging of arriving at the right time on roll call was brought to such a fine art eventually that the prisoners could be divided into the following categories. Those who stayed in bed until a quarter of an hour after the last bugle had been blown and then slowly put on some clothes and went downstairs, those who got out of bed after hearing the first bugle and went to wash and shave and then have breakfast, those who did likewise after the second bugle, and those who decided that it was all really not worthwhile and stayed in bed for
[Digital page 83, original page 70]
the morning having sent down word that they were sick.
It was considered to be cutting things too fine to attempt washing, shaving and breakfasting later than the second effort of the Italian horn player, but otherwise there was little barred.
So it obviously suited the camp commandant to try and reach an understanding on this rather delicate subject of roll calls during the period when the inmates were at their first meal of the day. Hence the agreement referred to above.
So normally we breakfasted undisturbed. In the upstairs quarters, the meal was cooked on our private “stufas”, each of which had its allotted position on the window sill opposite the owner’s bed. In fine weather, most of the cooking took place on the outside part of the sill with the cook taking up his position on the ledge running round the inside of the building above the courtyard.
It was truly remarkable that during the fifteen months of our stay at Padula not a single person fell off this ledge. Fortunate too, for it was thirty five feet from the ground and the gravel path below would not have made a soft landing place.
To most of us, breakfast was the main meal of the day. The food was provided entirely from Red Cross parcels, and the plat du jour varied from porridge to scrambled eggs, depending on the state of the syndicate larder. Rosie and I who shared all our resources were extremely lucky in that we had both received several food parcels from the Middle East, and some of these
[Digital page 84, original page 71]
contained – inter alia – large 2 lb. tins of porridge oats. We received 10 lbs. in all and this lasted right through the cold weather months of January, February and March of 1943. Every morning during the week we had a plate of porridge and some bread and butter or margarine and jam or marmalade for breakfast.
The bread ration varied with the state of the black market with the Italians. Sometimes it was easy to pick up a large loaf from one of the guards for a few cigarettes, or even two loaves in exchange for a cake of soap. Swapping anything obtained from the Red Cross was strictly forbidden, and one was therefore forced to rely on soap sent in next-of-kin parcels and cigarettes sent privately for the means of barter.
Thanks to this large supply of porridge, we were able to save the meat and fish tins from our parcels, and though we prepared another substantial meal at tea time, using one tin as a basis, we found that the number of tins in our private food store was soon quite considerable. This, too, had been augmented by the excellent menus provided in the Mess during the months of the great black market boom.
The best feeding we ever had in the bag was during those months of April, May and June of 1942. The summer weather had started and it was so hot that the need for food diminished, and the next meal ceased to be the one dominating thought. During this period everyone managed to store away Red Cross food against
[Digital page 85, original page 72]
a rainy day, and the work of Larry Phillips and ‘Mac’ Maclennan, who kept the ledgers of the tin store accounts, increased considerably.
After breakfast came the unpleasant task of washing the dirty plates and cutlery, and for this purpose most people heated a can of water on the embers of their breakfast fire. The Red Cross tins which had been shaped into drinking mugs were seldom washed, the popular practice being to empty the dregs of the morning brew on to the stone floor with the inevitable comment, “Well, it does settle the dust!”
Breakfast and washing-up were followed by a move towards the wash basins and lavatories at the junction of Wings Two and Five, and used by both wings. There were twelve basins and eight lavatories, used by more than two hundred men. We adopted a system of staggered washing which worked quite well as long as the system of Italian plumbing cooperated. The majority of officers heated a little water for shaving and performed this most lengthy part of their morning toilet beside their beds, subsequently using the basins for a hurried wash only.
Thus, while all the basins were in good working order all was comparatively well. The trouble began when the waste pipes got clogged up, or when someone washing his feet in a basin applied one of those feet a trifle too heavily causing a large hole or complete disintegration of the china from its supporting brackets. Accidents of this kind were frequent, and there
[Digital page 86, original page 73]
were seldom more than half of the full number of basins in working order at any one time.
Thus began the first queue of the day.
The lavatories were just as bad as the basins. Here, too, the plumbing system groaned under its overweighted burden and finally gave up the unequal struggle. But the basic solution was not as simple as with the wash basins, for nature will out and it is not easy to stagger habits acquired by twenty or thirty years constant usage. Which accounted for the second queue of the day, though a somewhat more restive queue than the first.
It was usually in the middle of this bear garden hustle and bustle that someone arrived to announce that roll call had been sounded. This announcement did not have any big immediate effect, but slowly small groups started to go downstairs and form up in the appointed place, the cloistered arch underneath our wing. Other groups came from other parts of the building and formed up on the parade ground in some sort of order. Roll call was usually over within twenty five minutes of the first bugle.
It was a slapdash affair though the Italians organised everything, except the actual counting, well enough. The wings were separated and we formed up in fives. The commander of each wing checked up his numbers and ascertained the whereabouts of absentees. Absentees were generally found in bed or in the
[Digital page 87, original page 74]
infirmary or working in the Italian office or just still washing. It was not difficult to find them, for it was most unlikely that anyone had escaped without notifying the Wing Commander who, as part of his job, arranged for replacements on roll call.
After the Wing Commander was satisfied, Hutch, our adjutant, whose red moustache curled into two large waves on each side of his mouth were one of the features of the camp, arrived accompanied by the Italian orderly officer. The Italian saluted, Hutch did a rapid count, said “cento venti” or something similar and the two passed on to the next group. Roll call was often good for a few laughs, especially when the wing had been counted and found correct and the Italian orderly officer, just about to pass on, found some late arrivals falling in in front of him.
After roll call the late risers returned upstairs to deal with breakfast, the cooking and eating of which occupied most of their morning. But for the busy bees there were a hundred and one different things to do, and the queue lovers were in their element, for a wide choice was offered them.
Immediately roll call finished, a concerted rush started towards the barbers’ shop, and here was formed the third queue of the day. Generally, about twenty competitors participated in the short sprint for this queue, and it was only a very minor event compared with the big “Private Tins Stakes” which started at the same time.
[Digital page 88, original page 75]
When the Italian bugler sounded the dismissal, a crowd of at least fifty persons milled down the cloistered arches towards the store where the privately owned tinned food was kept. There was nothing barred and speed was of the essence. Nailed army boots competed with plimsolls and bedroom slippers over the large flagstones – the plimsolls had the most success. One of the most amusing features of the race was the preliminary jostling for position.
As soon as each wing had been counted, a steady emigration would begin by prospective participants in the “Stakes”. Wing One’s stand for roll calls was on the extreme right and from this position it was a straight run down from the cloisters to the Tin Store. Consequently, this wing which started the parade with sixty or seventy odd members, found that its number had swollen to nearly double before the end of the proceedings.
Generally, the Italians turned a blind eye to these positional tactics, and indeed to the numerous individuals who left their own pitch to go and chat with someone in another wing, or stroll across the lawn or towards one of the staircases.
It was considered bad form for the starters in the “Stakes” to edge their way beyond the north west corner of the courtyard, and it was here that they jockeyed for places in the front line and behind, where the less
[Digital page 89, original page 76]
fortunate stragglers from the last wings to be counted had to be content to find a place. So the field, well strung out, waited for the official “off”. Here again, it would have been bad form for any entrant to fidget or shuffle forward unnecessarily before the bugler gave the signal.
The bugler worked on an order from the Italian Orderly officer who normally fell into the spirit of the race and waited until he was satisfied that no one was endeavouring to sidle forward unnoticed. Then he gave the order to dismiss the parade, and, with a great clatter, the booted, slippered, plimsolled field got away to a flying start. The race was usually won by the lighter weights, and it was not an uncommon practice for a syndicate of eight or ten prisoners to enter their best runner every morning.
I have never been a sprinter, so I did not participate.
The whole of Wing Two generally was
pretty lethargic and provided few entrants for this particular sporting event.
What happened as a rule was that as soon as the official queue thinned out, one
of the Store officials shouted out “Any more for tins?” and this
acted as the “off” for the wing. But it was a much more gentlemanly
“off” than the previous one, and the start took place from the wing
itself with the entrants carrying baskets and frequently pausing to consent to
or disagree with the many suggestions that:
“You might get mine, old man. Only a small tin of M.&.V.”
“Tim, I’ll get yours tomorrow if you’ll get a few for me today.”
[Digital page 90, original page 77]
“I can’t go down, Tim, I’m in the
middle of breakfast.”
“I’ve got a small salmon, a large curried beef and rice, a pound of New Zealand butter and a small cheese. Can you manage them?”
“Yes, I’ll manage them. But am I invited to tea?” and so on, but the community spirit prevailed and it worked well without anyone taking undue advantage of the system.
At this hour of the morning, the wing was busily engaged in a thousand different pursuits. The truly lazy – and I usually featured amongst this category – would strip, and clothed only in a pair of scant pants or a loincloth towel, lie out on the ledge and there pass the remainder of the day. During the summer months I seldom went down, even to lunch, preferring to bask in the glorious sunshine which continued for weeks without a break.
If one found that daydreaming turned to introspection, the library offered every variety of literature to enable one to recover a proper sense of perspective. There I found many books I had longed to read, and others I borrowed from friends. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is ideal for POW conditions. “The Oxford Book of Verse” digested from cover to cover savouring and re-savouring one’s favourites, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Sun is my Undoing”, Upton Sinclair’s “Between Two Worlds” and “World’s End”, both smuggled in
[Digital page 91, original page 78]
to the camp to help in knocking into shape one’s historical perspective of the post-war period after 1918. Spinoza, Socrates, Huxley, getting up-to-date with my Runyon – who else will ever write so well about such marvellous characters? – Cheyney, Galsworthy, Forrester and Ethel Mannin, all went into the melting pot.
The most popular were the long sagas, and this was due to the common desire to get really stuck into something and sink one’s teeth into the meat, bite, swallow and then digest for a while. Perhaps it was because, that way, the mind was more occupied than it would be after an epic by Wodehouse. For it was not difficult after reading many hundreds of pages about Tara and its mistress to invite them into a world of make-believe to share one’s daydreams.
And, of course, daydreams are encouraged by the southern Italian sun when your main occupation is to let it burn deep into your skin, until the sweat pours down your body in little rivulets and the resentment you feel against humanity and the social system which made you live in captivity is drowned and then buried in the enveloping heat.
So we sunbathed, and we read books and poetry and plays. And sometimes these plays would be the current productions on hand, and those reading them the embryonic
[Digital page 92, original page 79]
actors trying to overcome a natural lethargy in order to learn their parts.
But how easy to be lethargic and do nothing at all. Neither read nor learn parts nor even think. Just relax and feel that wonderful heat on your face and chest and legs. And if you thought at all, to think merely that you were lucky to have this sun to help out your existence. And, despite yourself, to stop despising and begin to understand the indolence of the southern Italian whose life is centred about the sun.
For the sun and the earth combine to give him his livelihood, and it is a good combination, for the fecundity of the soil is equalled only by that of his wife. She gives him his bambini, and the sun and the soil provide his vino, and the sun is his companion in his leisure hours. As he lies out in the fields, his mind is drenched by the sun’s power, and his mental stagnation has begun.
By nature indolent, he is not prepared to offer any resistance and his ideas remain static. He becomes mentally atrophied, that is, according to civilised standards. But those of us at Padula who shared his love of the sun soon felt that such a life, that of the peasant living close to the land, was that of a man who had nearly reached the nirvana of present day civilisation.
[Digital page 93, original page 80]
Untouched by war, he continues his ploughing and planting even while friend or foe passes within a hundred yards of him. And still the soil gives its yield. He is the sane man, the others are mad.
A story attributed to an Intelligence Officer is in point. Two men, dressed in the uniform of the German Todt organisation, were captured by the Allies on the Ligurian littoral in Italy. Though they chattered happily together and seemed completely unaffected by anything that befell them, they were unable to understand any questions. Addressed in every known European language, there was no response. Finally, with the assistance of an expert in Russian dialects, it was discovered that the two men came from a little village in the mountains of Mongolia. They were shepherds, and one day had been disturbed in the peace of their hilly home while looking after their flocks. Surrounded by strange warriors whose language they did not understand but whose gestures were unmistakeable, they were forced to get on to mechanical monsters such as they had never dreamed could exist. They were given food, and throughout the long journey that followed they were well treated. Then they arrived in a great city. They thought it must be the greatest in the world, there were so many buildings and so many people
[Digital page 94, original page 81]
and so much activity. Everything was speed, and there was none of the peace to which they were accustomed in the mountains.
Here, in this great city, with thousands of others they were put to work building enormous fortifications. But, while they were still working, there was great noise and thunder and lightning which lasted for many days. They learned to recognise the whine of a bullet which might mean death, and that the safest place to be when they heard this noise or a more screaming whine, was in a trench. There were bird monsters too, which flew overhead and dropped eggs which created more of the thunder and lightning they had learned to fear, and again they knew that they must dive to the ground and press their faces into the earth. Here they were at home and they felt safe, for the earth was their friend.
Then other warriors arrived and, after much fighting, drove the two shepherds – still together – back to the west. Their journey took many moons, and often they marched and often they stopped and did more work, and still nobody understood a word of their dialect. But the gestures of their new masters were easy to understand. They received food, so they worked, though they began to feel a deep nostalgia for their mountains and their flocks. But each consoled
[Digital page 95, original page 82]
the other with the teachings of the Lama.
So their odyssey continued, originating
in the Mongolian mountains, thence to Stalingrad where they served with both
the Russian and German armies, through Russia to Germany and then over the
Brenner until they finally reached the Ligurian coast. They were delighted to
speak their own language to a stranger and their story came out in great
gushes. Did they understand what it was all about, asked their questioner, and
did they know that the great peoples of the world were at war?
“Oh, no!” was the answer, “but we knew that we must expect something like this to happen if ever we left Mongolia”.
“The Lama told us that the outside world and all its peoples were mad. We found that he was right, so we were not surprised at what befell us! But why is it that the peoples of the world have to suffer fire and thunder before they can understand that the earth is their inheritance and that they must keep close to it?”
And they asked simply if they were free for they wanted to start on their trek home.
So the uneducated Mongol shepherd and the Italian peasant both understood, but the highly educated and enlightened industrialised nations must use all their infinite knowledge and research to perpetrate mass murder before they
[Digital page 96, original page 83]
too realise that all things begin and end with the soil.
To return to Padula camp on a morning in the spring or summer of 1942. Wing Two was going about its different pursuits. The sunbathers, the breakfasters, the letter writers, the novelists, the shoe cleaners, the actors learning their lines, the students preparing for lectures on subjects ranging from beekeeping to night navigation, the Home News editor going from bed to bed hoping to glean some copy for the weekly newsletter, the batmen doing their daily chores of bed making and sweeping, and the “zizzers” completely oblivious of everything that went on, but occasionally raising a languid hand to flick away an impertinent fly. The photograph frame maker, the pontoon school and the bridge four, and most numerous of all, those engaged in preparing the morning brew.
Looking down from the ledge, an observer might imagine himself in a university where modern methods of tuition were used. Scattered about the courtyard, lying on the grass, were small groups listening attentively while their instructor revealed to them the main factors which had attended the Industrial Revolution, or which affected the theological interpretation of the Bible, or conjugated French verbs, or German or Dutch or Norwegian, or any of twenty five different languages. Another bunch would be learning shorthand and another listening to expert advice on how to
[Digital page 97, original page 84]
get the best results in pig breeding.
The main trend of prisoner of war thought was however clearly illustrated by the large attendance which was always gathered for the lectures on farming and history. It seemed that we had begun to realise at last that we could no longer ignore the tendencies of economic development which had taken place in the past two centuries. People wanted to know how the production of food fitted in with the general picture, and what opportunities were offered by a life on the land. Income tax was another popular lecture, and often after hearing Derek Willis talk about tax duplication, one overheard the remark, “If only I had known I could claim a rebate for that!”
The observer might then look deeper into the recesses of the cloisters and see the several queues which have already been mentioned. The “Tin Store Stakes” finishing in single file formation headed by the lucky winner who had the privilege of drawing his tins first; though, having regard to the lack of refrigeration plant and the terrific seasonal heat, another school of thought considered it advisable to draw its tins as late in the day as possible. Much to the annoyance of the keepers of the Store.
A little to the left near the entrance to the Mess, was the queue for the barber, while almost directly beneath our ledge the poor unfortunates representing their ‘syndicates’
[Digital page 98, original page 85]
had already begun to form the inevitable single file which would in time lead them into the canteen to purchase small quantities of ink, notepaper, toilet paper and illustrated papers.
Outside in the paddock there was yet
another queue. This one was mobile. It was the escapologists queue. A long line
of men moving at comparatively high speed round the hard beaten track alongside
the wire. Here they religiously tramped their five or eight or ten miles daily,
mileage varying with the stage of their training, hoping that ultimately they
would have the satisfaction of saying.
“My feet are all right now. I have done fifteen miles a day for the last week and not a single blister to show for it.”
How sanguine they all were. I know, for during a certain period I joined that mobile queue. One day I thought I would speed up the process of hardening my feet and did five miles – twenty times round the paddock – in an hour. I was wearing borrowed plimsolls which were a trifle too large and I could feel my feet becoming tender in places; but I was determined to do the five miles and see the effect.
I saw it. An enormous water blister covered the complete ball of each foot and on my right foot the heel was chafed so badly that my sock was stained with blood. I gave up my escapologist walks for ten days after that, and then only took them in small doses.
[Digital page 99, original page 86]
Coming back from the paddock into the courtyard at about 11 o’clock the first sight that met your eyes was that of a dozen or so officers of field rank and below, often assisted by one of the Brigadiers, doing their best to cope with the intricacies of potato or onion peeling, or bean stringing, or pea or nut shelling.
They sat on assorted boxes or garden chairs with two baskets and a pile of the vegetable of the day in front of them. Into one basket went the finished article allegedly ready for cooking, into the other the cast-off peel or shell. The peas and the nuts were a success, but I gave up eating beans after a couple of attempts. Nor could any of us have asked for a reference as potato peelers and it was finally agreed, after a considerable amount of lobbying, that potatoes were far more nutritious eaten in their jackets or – at any rate – cooked in their skins.
About 11.30 the lectures finished, the peeling ceased, the walkers came inside, and the breakfasters drifted down from upstairs. The mail had arrived and was put up in some pigeonholed partitions near the orderly room. This of course called for more queues, one in front of each mail box. These were not really queues in the strict sense of the word being more of a free for all with the fellow in front getting the worst of the scrum.
But the queue lover must be appeased, so at 11.45
[Digital page 100, original page 87]
another queue, and this time a most correct and orderly one, was formed in front of the library. This lasted throughout the first sitting of lunch and completed the morning’s queuing.
The most important queues of all were on Wednesdays and Saturdays when Red Cross parcels were issued. The distribution of parcels was split up into halves to avoid long delay and as most parcels were shared by couples who had paired up for the purpose it was a most satisfactory arrangement. Early on in our prison life when parcels became a weekly issue we found that a prisoner would, on receiving a complete parcel to himself, suffer from a sort of embarras de richesse. Having lost all his kit, and experienced starvation – though perhaps only in its milder forms – he was loath to be separated from any substantial asset. And the most substantial asset he knew was food.
So instead of storing any tins against a rainy day, or even against the rest of the week, he took the whole parcel to his quarters, “pinged” a couple of large tins in one sitting and suddenly found he was getting short. The large tins contained a pound of meat or fish and were ample for two meals, but would not keep in the intense heat after the tins had been opened.
It was because of this that the practice arose whereby two prisoners combined to share the larger tins from one
[Digital page 101, original page 88]
parcel, while storing away – if only for a few days – similar tins from the second parcel.
And in order to assist such “mariages de convenance” the Red Cross parcel kings decided that there would be a bi-weekly issue on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and these days automatically became Red Letter days in the camp.
It was amusing to see the bartering that went on after a parcel issue. Some regular traders would take their entire parcel round the building calling out items that might be attractive seasonally in an attempt to exchange such dishes with large capitalists of cigarettes who would be prepared to pay exorbitant prices in terms of cigarettes while their supplies were high. These cigarette capitalists would consider it rather a bad thing to indulge in any trading on their own account, so that the original hawker was able to continue his tour of the building and, by buying back his tin from someone else who was rather hard up for smokes, finally end up with two tins in place of the single one with which he had set out.
I have seen these itinerant traders end their round with two complete parcels representing their original capital of one! And all in a very short space of time. It was just a question of knowing the market.
Others had their own individual idiosyncrasies. One friend of mine always swapped his entire parcel for tins of bacon and in a good week he finished by acquiring ten tins of
[Digital page 102, original page 89]
what, to him, was both a gastronomical luxury and necessity. In private life he was a farmer, and very keen on pig breeding but I never could figure out the moral of the story.
Another queue for which forward positions were fiercely contested was that for private parcels. These arrived in the camp at varying intervals, often as frequently as twice a week, and after they had been sorted by the private parcels staff, a list was put up on the notice board advising the lucky recipients of the time of distribution. Each page of the list contained two columns of names, and we generally reckoned that on a two page list there was a sporting chance of seeing one’s own name. Infinite joy to see it there in black and white, and even more wonderful to see a small number in brackets beside the name. For that meant you had that number of parcels.
The unkindest cut of all was in the days of acute tobacco shortage when a heavy pipe smoker saw that he was due to receive two parcels the following morning. On presenting himself to take delivery he found that each parcel contained a small tin of tomato juice – a delicacy in Portugal sometimes sent by friends in that country. Unfortunately, this dish was not such a delicacy in Padula where at that particular time we were able to buy pounds of tomatoes daily.
The private parcels queue was always good fun, and I, for one, never saw my name on the list without being very
[Digital page 103, original page 90]
The only other occasional morning queue was that for theatre tickets. This was always a mad scramble across the lawn if tickets were being sold after roll call, or a long dreary hour’s wait if the sale was later in the morning. So much depended on having seats near the stage as our Carthusian predecessors had not laid out the Refectory with much regard for acoustics. The scramble became so bad in the end that ticket distribution was organised by ballot which worked most satisfactorily.
So the morning merged into noon, and at noon the strident blast of the cooks trumpet announced first sitting of lunch.
Three quarters of an hour after first sitting the second batch went in and afterwards the tempo of camp activity lessened. An almost universal practice throughout the camp was to take siesta from after lunch until tea time, and from 1.30 p.m. until 3.15 p.m. everything was delightfully peaceful, the quiet of the wings being broken only by a cacophony of snores.
But once you have become accustomed to living in the close proximity of a hundred other men, you are not likely to be awakened or even disturbed by mere snoring, however loud.
An occasional bridge four might be seen in the wing, but most of us simply slept, either on our beds in the comparative cool or outside on the ledge in the sun’s sweltering heat.
[Digital page 104, original page 91]
With the approach of tea time the scene became a replica of the morning activity before roll call. Nor was there much difference in the meals that were prepared, for the food all came from our Red Cross parcels. A beverage that was alleged by the Messing Committee to be tea was brought round by batmen at 3.30, but it was not an unqualified success.
The Mess, naturally enough, suffered from an acute shortage of cooking utensils and the buckets in which our tea was brewed had been used in the morning for coffee and subsequently for onion soup. And though the coffee was so weak that it seldom had any effect on the onion soup, the onion soup certainly did leave a more permanent impression. The washing up fatigue, in their own defence, maintained that it was impossible to do a proper cleaning job without soda, but when they were eventually provided with soda the taste of the tea afterwards was worse than when flavoured with onion soup.
The conclusion of the afternoon meal was the signal for the opening of the camp’s sporting activities. Every afternoon between 4 o’clock and evening roll call, which took place an hour and a half later, a big baseball game was staged in the paddock.
Baseball, after a precarious debut, quickly became the most popular game played in the camp and soon there were four
[Digital page 105, original page 92]
leagues with four teams in each. Its popularity was largely due to the unflagging enthusiasm of Pelling whose appearances on the diamond were always excellent value thanks to his flair for the theatrical which quickly acquired for him the nickname of “The Dook”.
Another contribution to the game’s success was that of Tommy Gardner, a Canadian pilot, who had played in the American National League.
But the main reason that baseball became so overwhelmingly popular was because the spectators were also part of the game. The barracking and cheering and shouting provided an outlet for pent up emotions. Enthusiasms became terrific and everyone had a particular club which he supported. It was inevitable that betting started on the games and, in a short while, a bet of 1,000 lire – £13 -on one fixture was quite commonplace.
The game became very partisan too because of the international aspect of some of the fixtures. England v. Canada, England v. The Dominions, and then inter-service matches, Army v. R.A.F. and Navy, etc..
At the end of an exciting game when popular interest was tensely following a last decisive innings, the sound of the bugle summoned us to roll call, but seldom did we fail to finish the match first. And often an irate Italian officer paced up and
[Digital page 106, original page 93]
down the cloisters, while in the paddock the Red Sox sounded the death knell of the Crusaders or vice versa.
So to another roll call – a repetition of the morning parade. After being dismissed most of us went upstairs to put on uniform for dinner. Two or three times a week there was an issue of wine, usually the dregs of some local type of red wine which was extremely unpleasant though particularly potent and soon became known as “Red Biddy”. Sometimes we had an equally inferior Marsala which I considered to be the nearest approach to Cascara Evacuant, both in taste and effect, that I had ever consumed.
The ration of drink was a small wine glass full per head, but it was easy to supplement, by acquiring for cash or cigarettes or other barter, the wine of non-drinkers or those whose palates or stomachs were not equal to the strain.
I occasionally acquired a jugful of the Red Biddy and heated it up with raisins, sugar, orange juice and bay leaf and this produced a not unpleasant drink if taken warm. Cold it was hopeless.
The Marsala I had only once. On my birthday in 1943, I drank four glasses of the stuff in an endeavour to acquire a more mellow frame of mind.
The result was appalling. I went to a bridge date after dinner and fell asleep playing the second hand. Then I was very ill and had to be virtually carried back to bed, undressed
[Digital page 107, original page 94]
and stowed away for the night. The effects remained for two days and I swore never to touch the filthy stuff again. Even today I am very reluctant to tackle any sort of Marsala, however good.
The drink was served from barrels in the little sanctuary garden behind the Mess, and an excellent bar it made. The system was good, each wing having its wine representatives. No money changed hands, individual Mess accounts merely being debited.
Altogether the atmosphere was very pleasant in this small walled garden with its tiny cloistered arch, sunken fountain and flower beds, and a lot of quite abstemious people foregathered there to consume their one glass merely for the pleasure of mellowed companionship in agreeable surroundings.
From the bar to dinner. I have purposely avoided going into any details of lunch in order to set out a normal lunch and dinner side by side. Here they are:
125 grammes of bread.
Pasta – soup, watery but well flavoured, cooked with cheese or with milk.
or Rice either as a risotto or as a rice stodge.
An abundance of seasonal fruit.
Pasta or rice as at lunch
[Digital page 108, original page 95]
The daily ration which we were allowed
by the Italians was the equivalent of that given to their unemployed civilians.
And as the only unemployed civilians in Italy were old men over 70 – a special
ration being allowed to infants – we contended that our Detaining Power’s
interpretation of the Geneva Convention was hardly in accordance with the
written word which stated categorically that we should be fed on the same scale
as Italian troops.
“Ah, but no,” was the answer, “you are officers, and in our Army the officers provide their own rations!”
A somewhat strange state of affairs, we thought, it being rather difficult to find a butcher or grocer in the middle of the Western Desert, but though we protested to the Protecting Power about the total inadequacy of both the quantity and nutritive value of the food nothing was ever done about it.
I remember the first visit of the Swiss delegate very well. It was preceded by more than the customary flap attending the appearance of some magnate in the camp, and the Italians were hopping round for days trying to get everything shipshape for the inspection.
The batmen cursed, for they had to clean the dormitories thoroughly, and sweep underneath the beds, and we cursed because we had to sweep up after them. Nevertheless, we all looked forward to the visit with some hope for the Messing Committee had a trump card up its sleeve. It was going to broach the question
[Digital page 109, original page 96]
A small bread plate was used on which to set out a specimen of one day’s basic rations for one officer, and the plate was barely covered. The scale was as follows:
66 grammes of macaroni or rice.
125 grammes of bread – this was dark brown and contained a high percentage of hay and sawdust.
A small teaspoonful of tomato puree.
A few grammes of sugar and salt.
66 grammes of cheese.
In addition to the above, we received 66 grammes of meat twice weekly, but this did not go very far as bone was included in the weight allowed.
It was a good effort on the Messing Committee’s part, but unfortunately did not meet with the success it deserved, for, beyond an expression of sympathy and a promise to put in a report, the delegate from the Protecting Power could do nothing. And, in fact, nothing happened.
The general opinion about the Protecting Power was that it was quite useless from the point of view of actually improving our conditions, but that it did have some value when held up as a threat to the Italians who went into a tremendous flap immediately the magic words “Protecting Power” were used.
The greatest concrete value however was
expressed by someone in one wing who after the visit was over said:
“Well, I suppose it’s a good thing he came. I’d never
[Digital page 110, original page 97]
have swept under my bed otherwise!”
I have often read statements in the press by POWs repatriated from Germany to the effect that they would have starved had it not been for their Red Cross parcels. This was true also of Italy, or at any rate as far as officer prisoners were concerned for our other ranks did receive the same basic rations as the Italian soldiers who, though fed almost exclusively on macaroni and bread, were sufficiently well nourished to be able to do a full day’s work. Whereas the calorific value of the officers’ basic rations totalled 1,300 calories daily, this figure being calculated and cross-checked by two British doctors at Padula.
Nevertheless we were very lucky, for every POW I spoke to who had been both in Italy and Germany told me without the slightest hesitation that, compared with Germany, Italy was a paradise.
After the Lord Mayor’s Show comes the dustman. In Padula the position was reversed. From the poverty of the unemployed civilians’ rations, the dinner sittings broke up to go to the ostentation of the gambling table. Ostentation, however, only in the sums involved. The atmosphere was right for gambling and money was cheap, for however small our pay, it accumulated through our inability to spend. After a few months, when we received the back pay in respect of our captivity in Libya, everyone had credits of several hundred lire.
[Digital page 111, original page 98]
Poker schools, pontoon schools and chemin de fer parties were started to encourage circulation of these credits, but soon the games got out of their original proportions and what had been stakes of hundreds became thousands.
And as though there were not enough incentive to gamble, the games were organised on a monthly credit basis, settlement being at the end of each month. This increased the stakes even more, for the plungers went in deeper, the winners pyramided up and at the end of the month postcards to various banks in England with instructions for transfers reflected the volume of differences.
I only remember one case of a man who was posted, and that was in respect of a bet on the end of the war. The offender wrote a card to his bank authorising the transfer of £75 to the winner of the bet, and then promptly sent a further communication instructing the bank to ignore his order. As all mail was submitted to our own British camp staff censorship, before going to the Italian censor, the facts were immediately known, and he was officially “posted” on the main notice board.
The gambling peak was reached after the 25th July 1943 and the invasion of Sicily when optimism was so high that heavy odds were laid on being home by August 15th. This date was selected as being sufficiently advanced to allow a wide margin for the delays that would inevitably attach to our being released and repatriated by the British Army. Though we had
[Digital page 112, original page 99]
all been so staggered by the good news from Sicily that the form handicappers considerably cut down the normal period allowed for inefficiency.
At poker especially the play was high. It started on a modest enough scale, but rose when settlement was fixed on a monthly basis. Even then, if any player had a particularly bad month he could always find one of the big winners of the month to allow payment to stand over.
The result was that unless bets were made on the strict understanding that they should receive cash settlement on a given date, the whole system of gambling in the camp became absurd. Most of the heavy gamblers could afford to lose, but there were several who could not readily pay out two or even three hundred pounds. Large differences were left over to enable the losers to recoup. The old, old story in fact. What it ultimately boiled down to was that if you played, you were really playing your luck that the war would finish during one of your winning cycles.
It seemed to me to be heads you win, tails I lose, and I gave it up apart from an occasional rubber of bridge. I did the right thing, for the stakes became higher and higher and I subsequently heard from friends who were repatriated from Germany that in camps there it was a common occurrence for £1,000 – £1,300 to be won or lost by one man in an evening’s venture at chemin de fer. And that was in a normal session
[Digital page 113, original page 100]
from dinner to lights out at 11.30 p.m.
The whole gambling set-up became an affair of bookkeeping, and the knowledge that this was so – together with the natural optimistic resilience of the true gambler – made him almost impervious to heavy losses. But even after a heavy evening of “chemmy”, habit reasserted itself and both the winner and loser retired to their stufas to brew up before turning in.
Normally the nights were quiet without disturbances, for these mainly arose when there were night escapes. Then the bugles blew, guards came chasing down the wings with fixed bayonets, Italian officers waved their revolvers, and everyone got worked up to quite a degree. And we all went downstairs and were counted, and counted again, and recounted until the count tallied or the Italians gave it up in disgust. But as we all knew when escapes were due, nobody minded the inconvenience of the midnight roll call for we went to bed prepared for the fray. Greatcoat handy, filled with candy, was the best principle on which to work. And of course we got more experienced and took more with us on each occasion.
Apart from such abnormal disturbances the only times we were really bothered at night was when Benincasa was orderly officer. He made a point of coming round with the guard who did the midnight bed check, and wearing extra noisy hobnailed boots, which woke quite a large proportion of the community who expressed their displeasure in terms which somehow were
[Digital page 114, original page 101]
always associated with Benincasa. The usual scene followed – the waving of the revolver, the gesticulations of hands and voice and finally the removal to the camp prison of whoever happened to be laughing the loudest.
The next morning, the Wing Commander complained to the Adjutant. Hutch passed it on to the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] and on occasions he in turn protested to the Italian commandant. It became a familiar peep show which we had often seen and which we all enjoyed because we knew it so well.
This was an average day in Padula prisoner of war camp for British officers and men. Those of us who knew only the camps of Italy were indeed lucky, for we had many compensations. There were antidotes for boredom, there was comparative peace, there were no air-raids, nor sirens, nor dug-outs, nor dive-bombing attacks. And though there was flap, and flap in plenty, it was not of our own creation and therefore could be laughed at tolerantly, not in the nervous perhaps slightly hysterical way in which we mocked our own flaps.
Above all these was the sun, and for me the sun compensated for almost everything. Almost…
And when I got depressed I compared my life in Padula with my life in the desert which I had quite enjoyed. Dispassionately I could see how much better off I was as a POW. I was safe now, I was not continually subjected to the many pinpricks and annoyances which it is the lot of the British subaltern to have
[Digital page 115, original page 102]
to suffer. I had as much water as I wanted, as compared with two pints per day [handwritten insert] and, on occasions one pint. [text resumes] I slept on a comfortable bed with sheets and blankets. True, I had less to eat and I was a prisoner, but here I could play at getting away from my prison, and that I could never have done in the desert. I think too that it is a debatable point whether one is in fact more of a prisoner behind barbed wire, guarded by the enemy, than in an enormous expanse of waterless, barren rock and sand with the enemy on one side and red tape and tabs on the other.
[Digital page 116, original page 103]
Though a large number of prisoners at Padula devoted a considerable amount of thought to escaping, and many spent the greater part of their time preparing themselves for an attempt, there was not a single successful escape from the camp. Successful, that is, in getting the escaper right out of Italy.
It was in fact an achievement to get out of the camp at all. For, enclosed as we were, being virtually a camp within a camp, it was almost impossible to leave the perimeter using a route above ground. This was however tried on three occasions two of which were successful, though the third was the ill-fated attempt of George Millar and his friends referred to later. The successful escapes were through a long maze of passages inside the building leading to a small side gate away from the main building which let out into the outside world. After the second try, the Italians discovered the route and the entrance to the passages was blocked up.
The best and safest way out was therefore underground, and the tremendous volume of tunnelling that went on was ample proof that this view was shared by the Escape Committee. By the time we left the camp, the majority of the downstairs
[Digital page 117, original page 104]
quarters provided the entrances of tunnels which led outwards from under the walled gardens, through the wire up into the cornfield beyond.
It was a pity that such industry and enterprise was only rewarded by success in one case, that of the Room 6 tunnel. This quarter was occupied by several members of the Long Range Desert Group, who with the assistance of a naval engineer, started digging comparatively early on in our stay. The tunnel was finished and ready for use at the beginning of September 1942, and on the appointed night when the moon was late thirteen bodies crawled through the narrow hole in the ground to emerge in the cornfield and thence to temporary freedom.
It was the first time an escape had been planned in this way, and the Italians were caught unprepared. Nevertheless, they managed to recapture most of the escapers within a few days, and we found that the only remaining runners were Alan Hurst-Brown of the Rifle Brigade, Peter Bateman and Roy Howard, who were making for the Adriatic coast in the hope of finding a boat to enable them to reach Albania or Greece. There they proposed to join up with the partisans and through them eventually get back to the Middle East. Only sheer bad luck and overenthusiasm at the last moment beat them.
Having reached the coast after travelling exclusively by night and mostly through the mountains to lessen the risk of discovery, they found themselves looking down on a beach
[Digital page 118, original page 105]
where a collection of boats was tied up at a small jetty. The jetty did not appear to be guarded in any way, and no one was about, so they went to help themselves… and walked straight into the arms of a carab patrol which was lounging around the end of the jetty. Which was the end of that. They were however at liberty for nearly two weeks.
Shortly before we left Padula there was one final big escape attempt by means of a tunnel which was being dug in Quarter 8, the home of several senior naval officers. The tunnel, which started from underneath the quarter in the cellar, went down a considerable depth, straight under their garden, through the wire, and was due to come up in the cornfield some thirty yards away from the starting point. Everything went according to plan until they were nearing completion, and the tunnel beginning to rise to the surface.
Then disaster overtook them in the shape of some of the small children from the orphanage attached to the monastery. These kids were playing in the cornfield one day when they heard strange noises coming from beneath the ground, which they immediately reported to the authorities. The “ferret” whose time was entirely devoted to finding escape holes, was soon on the scene and did not need a long time to trace the source of the complaint. The sequel was that all the naval chaps were turned out of their room while a monumental search was instituted with divining rods and every other conceivable kind of gadget used by the Italians in such cases.
[Digital page 119, original page 106]
All the furniture in the quarter was
carried outside, and the inhabitants, who had apparently been told to stick
around, were subjected to the usual facetious enquiries about having the bums
in and difficulty with the rent and so on. They took it very well, especially
as their disappointment must have been intense in view of the almost completed
state of the tunnel. One of them when interviewed by the commandant who asked
him where they had disposed of the earth coming from the tunnel, produced the
best reply I heard in the bag.
“Oh! That was quite easy,” he said confidentially, letting the commandant into the secret as one man to another. “We just dug another hole to put it in.”
The conversation then turned to other things and it was not until nearly ten minutes later that the gallant colonel realised what had hit him. Then he got really annoyed and accused his prisoner of facetiousness, of insolence, of conduct unbecoming to an officer and presumably, though he expressed grave doubt, a gentleman. The commandant generally demonstrated that in certain matters Italian officers possessed little of what we normally call a sense of humour.
The disposal of earth always represented quite a problem, though most of the earth dug up was scattered around the garden of the quarter where the tunnel started. In this garden for some time before the work started, there would be considerable activity planting flowers and vegetables, using
[Digital page 120, original page 107]
the hose daily and moving rocks around so that the Italians would get used to the idea of that particular quarter containing, if not direct descendants of Mr. Middleton, at least near relatives and leading disciples. Gardening was popular in the camp and it was not difficult to create this impression.
As a punishment or reprisal for the Quarter 8 tunnel, the quarter was closed, and the inhabitants had to find new homes upstairs with us. This brought new life into the bridge and poker schools in the different wings and was considered a good thing, everyone preferring to take money off a wealthy senior officer rather than impoverishing further an already bankrupt subaltern.
I particularly remember one of the officers from downstairs who came and lived upstairs afterwards. He was an Australian, “Skipper” Palmer, [handwritten insert] who subsequently lost an arm as a result of battle wounds, [text resumes] a Lt. Commander D.S.C. [undefined]; he had been in command of the captured Italian Schooner “Maria Giovanna” and flying the skull and crossbones had sailed up and down the Mediterranean doing army support work and carrying supplies to Tobruk during the first siege. The ship ran aground and the “Skipper” was captured, but prison life had done nothing to subdue the ebullience of his spirits. He was always well to the fore in all camp activities, and in the sporting world he made his influence felt by getting together a baseball team which, if not remarkable for their brilliance in the field, were always
[Digital page 121, original page 108]
good for a lot of laughs and accordingly extremely well-liked.
While still living downstairs, Skipper Palmer had found a small black kitten doing sterling work among the mice which abounded there. This kitten he trained to a degree that was surprising, and it followed him about, sometimes coming to roll call, a habit which thoroughly upset the Italian orderly officer.
George Calambokidis, [handwritten insert] in 1948 a member of the Greek Olympic Team in London, [text resumes] told me a delightful but pathetic story about himself and Palmer when the two of them were transferred to Padula from Sulmona. They were told that the transfer was in connection with their repatriation and as other naval officers who had been transferred to Padula previously had already gone home, the information seemed genuine enough. Accordingly when the Skipper and George, who were travelling together, got separated from the main party during a change of trains in Foggia, they got extremely worried and instead of slipping away in the darkness as they could easily have done, they hurried after their guards. Being late at your own wedding is not so bad, but for a POW to be late at his own repatriation would be unbelievable.
Though the repatriation of that particular group did not in fact ever take place, we got indirect proof that it had been definitely intended, for George got letters readdressed to him from Sulmona for some time after marked “rimpatriato”. We never heard the full story or the reason for the breakdown.
[Digital page 122, original page 109]
CHAPTER V. July 25th. The watch on the train. Our longest roll call.
After Sicily had been invaded, Mussolini issued an official communique announcing that the whole of southern Italy had become a war zone and must be regarded as a combat area. Now, under the Geneva Convention, Detaining Powers are not allowed to establish prisoners of war camps in any combat area, and if such camps already exist then they have to be moved elsewhere.
A rumour was started that we would be transferred to the north, and this was confirmed, though unofficially, by the Orderly Room very soon afterwards. The difficulty of the Italians was one of transport, for about this time the R.A.F. got going in earnest on the network of railways in the south, and as soon as a train appeared on one of the branch lines running down from Naples or Foggia it was promptly attacked.
The moving of Camp 35 became a major problem. For the Italians, a problem of transport. For us, one of how to stay put even if the train should eventually turn up. We reckoned that with the Sicilian invasion going satisfactorily, the mainland would be the next logical stepping stone to the Festung Europas, and with typical optimism we were convinced that when the invasion did come, landings would take place both above
[Digital page 123, original page 110]
and below our valley. We would then be isolated and our release would be a matter of days if not hours.
It was therefore essential to remain where we were, and avoid any move that would put us into more direct contact with the Germans further north who, once they got their hands on us, might have little hesitation in whisking us off to the Fatherland.
As the rumours of the move grew in intensity and detail, so did the activities of would-be escapers who searched the building from top to bottom to find suitable hiding places where they could remain undiscovered when the bulk of the prisoners were transferred elsewhere. More than eighty officers and men put their names down to remain, and holes and tunnels and spaces under floorboards and under the roof which had never been used previously were brought to light. Food was collected by each party together with sufficient water to make them self-supporting for ten or twelve days.
The move grew nearer. We had more details now. The camp was to be shifted in two parties of about two hundred and sixty each. We were going to a camp, specially prepared of course and much superior in every way to Padula, near Bergamo not far from Milan.
The Italians left the preparation of the lists of each party to the British Orderly Room who arranged that anyone wanting to escape either from the train or by staying in the
[Digital page 124, original page 111]
camp should go on the list of the second party. Our heavy luggage was taken down to the station, and a British officer was sent down each day to act as guard for twenty four hours. This job was regarded as something of a sinecure, for apart from getting the occasional egg from the station master together with the inevitable bottle of vino, he was also able to listen in to the wireless and bring back the latest news to the camp. The number of officers who spoke Italian sufficiently well was limited, and a few not such brilliant linguists were added to the roster. Rumour followed rumour, and though the station master stoutly declared that it was impossible for any passenger train to get through to Padula from the north without his knowing of it long beforehand, a good deal of money changed hands on bets that the first party would be away by July 20th. Then the official movement order arrived. July 20th was the date.
But the station master was proved right. The twentieth passed, and several days after. Then one morning at about 6.30 a.m. while the camp was still asleep, a maniacal scream rose from the courtyard waking a few of the lighter sleepers who went to the window to see what was happening. It was a Sunday morning, and roll call was usually a little later to allow time for breakfast after early morning church. Being able to remain a while longer in bed, it was doubly unpleasant to be awakened so early, but I forgot my resentment as soon as
[Digital page 125, original page 112]
I was sufficiently conscious to take an interest in what was going on.
Everyone was talking at the top of their voices, and it was difficult to identify anything intelligible from what they said. For not only were their voices high and excited, but their words were accompanied by a series of gestures borrowed from the Neapolitan sentries and even exaggerated.
Then it penetrated.
“Mussolini caput! Finito! Duce! Duce! Duce!”
“Musso’s had it! He’s under arrest!”
“Badoglio’s taken over. It happened last night.”
“There is going to be a special announcement on the wireless this morning. This means the end of the war with Italy.”
“Home in 48 hours!”
“Yes. What price the move now? I’ll lay 50 to 1 we never leave.”
By this time the camp was wide awake. The space round the loudspeaker outside the Mess was soon filled, and the crowd stretched out into the middle of the courtyard as far as the fountain. We heard the official announcement:
(Author’s note – official text of broadcast follows.)[Editor’s note: broadcast text does not follow]
And the comments.
[Digital page 126, original page 113]
“So the guerra is continuing, eh? I
don’t like the sound of it.”
“Oh. Don’t be such a bloody pessimist. The whole affair must have been arranged by us. You don’t honestly think we would have let the Eyts do this all on their own, do you?”
“Well. What of it?”
“My dear old boy,” this in a tone of sarcastic tolerance, “don’t you realise that this is virtually equivalent to our having taken the whole country over?”
“You may be right. I’ll believe it when I see a few British armoured cars driving up to the front door. What about the Jerries?”
“The Jerries? You’re worse than I thought. How do you expect the Jerries to hold the whole length of the coastlines on the east and west without Italian support? And the Eyts won’t help, even if they have been told officially that the guerra continues. They’ve had it. Just look at them.”
It was true enough. There were several carabinieri inside the courtyard, and also a few soldiers of the camp guard who had come to listen to the broadcast. They were jumping around kissing each other, going up to any of the prisoners whom they knew by sight and congratulating them, and generally seemed as pleased as if they had just been told they had won the war. To them the announcement meant that they would soon be going home
[Digital page 127, original page 114]
to their wives and bambini, and if in
the subsequent peace treaty Italy should lose her African possessions, the
threat of being sent to Libya, to become a tiny cog in the vast wheel of
colonisation, would be removed from over their heads.
“Yes. It certainly does look good, but I wish we knew more about what is going on. Any rate, we can thank heaven that the R.A.F. delayed the trains. They can’t possibly send us up north now.”
August 15th became increasingly recognised as the date by which we should have arrived home. In our heart of hearts even the most pessimistic among us found it hard to conceive that the fall of Mussolini could have any immediate result other than the exit of Italy as a belligerent nation. And peace with Italy must inevitably mean that we were free.
Our minds toyed with the idea of freedom, an idea to which we had become unaccustomed. Free to be with the people you loved, to do – for a short while anyway – the things of which you had dreamed for so long. A bar where you would order twelve dry Martinis in a row and get slowly stinking in the most pleasant of company. A grocery store where you would order a dozen tins of bully, and take them away without first having to see them stuck through with an Italian bayonet. Soft lights and sweet music. The Savoy, your partner in a shimmering evening gown, the wine waiter hurrying to get another magnum of Heidsieck 1928. The return of the prodigal
[Digital page 128, original page 115]
son. The killing of the fatted calf. Golf on some lovely course where the trees would be acquiring the beautiful brown shades of late summer. Home for the shooting. An open sports car with the windscreen down tearing through leafy English lanes to draw up outside some country pub where the beer would compensate for all the salty and chlorinated water you had ever drunk in the desert. Your life would start again where it had left off and nothing would be altered.
But this was the undercurrent of thought, and on the surface camp life went on as usual. The only visible effects after the initial excitement were the attendances to hear the news broadcasts and the increased stakes at the gambling parties.
Then the bombshell burst. The first train was due to leave at the end of July. An official order had come through confirming the first movement order and giving the actual date of the move. We protested. The first order had been issued by the Mussolini regime and was therefore invalid. It was not possible to confirm an invalid order. Anyway, why shift us when it was perfectly obvious that Italy was going to sue, if she was not already suing, for peace. The Italians were adamant. The order was a perfectly genuine one, it came from the High Command in Rome and they had no alternative but to carry it out.
What was even worse was that the station master, whom we regarded by this time as an old friend, confirmed that he
[Digital page 129, original page 116]
expected our train to arrive on the prescribed date. This unusual attention to detail worried us. Not without reason, for in due course the first party was bundled off, though several of its members were openly offering fifty pounds to change places with people travelling on the second train. With no takers…
Even after the first contingent had gone, those of us who were left felt confident that we would never have to join them. The Italians had told us that we would be going about a week later as soon as the train had made the journey to the north and had returned, and it seemed impossible now that the bombing and strafing of railways was being intensified that the train would ever succeed in getting back to Padula.
Time passed in an atmosphere of rumour and counter-rumour, our first glorious hopes and thoughts of freedom slightly disturbed but not shattered. Once having reached the stage where we regarded freedom as a tangible possibility, we were loath to discard it while there was still hope. And the escapers continued tunnelling and enlarging their holes and spying out new roofs and cellars in which to hide.
The first bombshell was followed within a week by the second. Every night when the officer guard went to the station to look after the luggage that was still there, he asked the station master whether there was any news of the train returning. The officer on duty on this particular
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occasion was one of the not so brilliant linguists, and when he came back the following day with the news that the train was expected on the morrow we should perhaps have paid more attention to his linguistic deficiencies.
The effect of this second bombshell was enormous. It burst in the late afternoon, just before roll call. Immediately afterwards, those who had elected to stay went to their hiding places where, armed with the necessary quantity of hard rations, they intended to stay until the camp was cleared of Italians. The number of those staying had dropped from eighty to just over twenty. These twenty were officers and men who had put their names down originally before the 25th July, and it was reckoned that the smaller the number staying the better chance they would have. For the Italians might not bother to hold up the train for twenty missing bodies, whereas they could hardly send on the second consignment nearly one half of its number short. So anyone who had put down his name after the fall of Musso was asked to take his chance with the others on the train and make his escape after leaving the camp.
There was a cover for the hiders, but I doubt whether the Escape Committee or whoever arranged it ever seriously thought that it would work. The idea was this. Two volunteers were to go through the wire at 10 o’clock that night, leaving plenty of tracks behind them in the unlikely event of
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their getting away. If, on the other hand, they were caught, their story was to be that they were the tail end of a party of twenty which had just gone through. In this way, the Italians would think that the others had actually left the camp, and would not bother to search inside for them.
The plan botched. Something radical must have gone wrong, for the Italians, far from sending search parties out of the camp, concentrated on looking for the missing bodies inside the building. But first we had our roll call.
Just as I was getting into bed about
10-30, the old familiar
ti tum ti tiddly tum ti tum,
ti tum tee tiddly ti tum,
resounded through the cloisters. It was followed by the hunting horn notes which meant that roll call was in five minutes instead of the customary fifteen. Not that this had much effect. Bridge fours could be heard saying.
“Well, just time to finish the rubber, old boy.”From the poker school old Tank’s voice.
“The — –. I knew this would happen. The first — night I have held any — cards for three weeks. Well, just one more round of ace pots.”
I put on battle dress and a greatcoat, stuffing the pockets full of the usual necessities for such occasions. Two escaping cakes, fifty cigarettes, a pipe, a full pouch,
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and some chocolate. With me I carried a blanket and a pillow.
The last serious night roll call had been on the occasion of the Room Six tunnel escape when we were called out at 2 o’clock in the morning, and, with half an hour’s break for coffee at 0800, the roll call had gone on until lunch time, when the Italians, having only checked up the Second Lieutenants and Lieutenants, had decided to give it up as a bad job.
I also had a book, a scarf and plenty of matches.
Going down the great staircase was a wonderful experience. Like a hoard of war refugees hurrying away from the battle zone, three hundred odd British officers and gentlemen were converging on to the stairs from their various dormitories, all in different stages of undress; some in pyjamas covered with greatcoats, some in battle dress trousers and pyjama jackets, some with flying boots and Urwin jacket over pants and vests, some fully dressed in battle dress, others ceremonially turned out in service dress with regimental walking out side cap, one even in riding breeches; but all had bulging pockets, showing a disinclination to be caught the same way twice, and not a few were struggling to keep their entire bedding balanced on their heads or shoulders. And this last category comprised the wise virgins.
When I got downstairs I met Rajah Rae, who was acting temporarily as Liaison Officer.
“It’s all right old chap – they caught two blokes going
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through the wire in the paddock and this
is just a formal check-up. Orlando has assured me personally that it will only
take a quarter of an hour if everyone bucks up.”
I like to take the most charitable view of things whenever possible and I therefore always attribute it to the fact that people did not buck up, and it was in fact at least half an hour before the last heavy sleepers somnolently rolled downstairs impatiently prodded by carabinieri with bayonets – though only for effect, of course – that the roll call that started that night lasted for just over two weeks. In fact we never returned to our quarters for longer periods than half an hour at a time.
It has been said that a soldier’s life
is made up of long periods of intense boredom, relieved by occasional moments
of fierce excitement, and that is very true of the life of a prisoner of war,
although by the time the moments of excitement actually do arrive, the normal
prisoner of war is far too apathetic to take much notice of them. Usually, as
happened on this occasion, he prefers to sit down on concrete flagstone paving
and meditate over a reflective cigarette on whether he will be able to have the
Canadian meat roll as planned for breakfast the next day. Or whether this roll
call will mess things up.
“It had to come on a Saturday night – all tins out of the store this morning for tomorrow, so if we can’t use them then, all the stuff will go bad in this heat.”
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“Oh, why do those silly sods want to escape or hide when it’s quite clear that we’ll have signed a separate peace with Italy soon and will be home anyway in the next few weeks. After all, Musso has been gone four weeks now, so it’s about time something happened.” Such were the thoughts which must have passed through the minds of many on that particular night, or rather, morning.
Eventually everyone was assembled in their proper groups, pipes were lit, mattresses deposited on the lawn and a general ‘attentiste’ attitude adopted during which time a voice could be heard very audibly explaining why it had been absolutely impossible to make three no trumps playing the contract that way, while one of the poker players, not to be outdone, related to me at great length how in the final ace pot his full house – jacks up – had been beaten by four threes.
These ruminations and controversies were interrupted by the arrival of one of our hosts who had the misfortune to be Orderly Officer on that particular evening. As far as I can remember, it was the Flying Flea, who always seemed to hit the wrong evenings for duty, and invariably managed to be orderly dog when there was an escape or a search or even a false alarm, or worst of all, whenever a tunnel was discovered. He was followed by a posse of little men with fixed bayonets and fighting looks who were directed to varying strategic points around the courtyard and under the cloisters, by old Grandpa,
[Digital page 135, original page 122]
the carabinieri brigadier.
So far so good and everything would have been fine, but unfortunately our hosts counted seventeen persons short on the first check. We immediately had a recount and naturally, the figures did not tally. Which necessitated three or four more counts, in which everyone, including the medical orderly, took a hand. At the end of each count, our hosts gathered together in a small circle and went into a huddle rather after the style adopted by American football teams just before the kick-off. While they were comparing notes, the rest of us were kept amused by the antics of some of the Canadians, who had taken advantage of the fact that it had been a vino evening to celebrate some sort of national event – or it may not have been a national event, but they certainly had celebrated. And when Stewie Campbell started playing his trombone, the Italians decided this was too much of a good thing and he was dealt with summarily. I always maintained that it was neither the fact that he was playing the trombone nor that he was playing the Italian roll call, but that he was doing it so badly, that gave offence.
The meeting was called to order and the Flying Flea, in conjunction with Hutch, whose red moustache was bristling fiercely, came to the inevitable conclusion that there was an indefinable number of prisoners missing. This number was settled as being not more than twenty five nor less than seventeen. It was then decided to adjourn the meeting to
[Digital page 136, original page 123]
the Mess where we would be able to have a nice controlled check of both names and numbers.
At this stage, Orlando took over and the Flying Flea retired almost in tears. Everybody felt rather sorry that it had to be him. He was quite popular, being one of the few who was genuinely patriotic, but we all took off our hats to Orlando for the magnificent calm he managed to preserve in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. No sooner had we all assembled in the Mess and he had seated himself at a table with some 260 dossiers in front of him that Don, who had obviously been leading the Canucks celebrations, staggered over and stretched himself full-length along the table and with a deep sigh, rested his head on the pile of papers and two minutes later was giving out a melodious, though inconsistent, snore.
Nothing, or perhaps only a little deterred, Orlando informed us of the drill. As each name was called out, the proud possessor would stand up, walk across and give his mother’s and father’s name – it was not necessary to say whether they were married – and then go outside. What happened after that was not disclosed. The senior officers went first and as each walked across the room he was greeted with cheers or hisses according to his popularity.
From time to time, Don, awakened by the noise, would sit up with a start, look around, utter a loud grunt and lie down
[Digital page 137, original page 124]
again to resume his broken slumbers.
It was not until past 3 a.m. the following morning that the last person had left the Mess, and by that time Orlando was quite convinced that we were all absolutely and incurably mad.
Outside the Mess entrance, on the flagged paving under the cloistered arches, nearly 300 men were trying to make themselves comfortable for the remainder of the night. It was – to anyone unused to the vicissitudes of prison camp life – an incredible sight. To us, it seemed rather a natural sequence of events. And the news that the Italians were not allowing us to return to our quarters that night, nor, in fact, until all the missing bodies had been found, was greeted with a philosophical resignation followed immediately by an attempt to make our new home as comfortable as possible under existing circumstances. Nor was it unpleasant, for the night was warm and most of us had come fully prepared for such contingencies, provided with pillows, blankets and mattresses.
The cloister soon resembled an outdoor dormitory, and within a short time of the last man leaving the Mess, the courtyard was quiet except for the cacophony of differently toned snores. But sleep was not to be ours. The guard had been called out, the “ferret” was on the trail, and the Italians had generally set in motion the machinery for dealing with escapes.
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Swarms of little men with fixed bayonets, divining rods and a collection of other strange instruments, dashed hither and thither and to and fro, tripping over sleeping bodies, who, turning over to settle themselves in comfortable positions again, awoke sufficiently to curse the offender.
Then the first bodies were brought in. Snatched from some obscure hiding place, which had not been obscure enough, they were carted off ignominiously to the calaboose surrounded by a horde of angry dwarfs, each of whom clamoured loudly for the right to strike one or more of the offenders. Many succeeded, and the unfortunate prisoners had a rough time until they were locked away to be dealt with at some future date.
In this connection, I would like to say a word or two about the Royal Carabiniers. Whenever anyone was beaten up after an escape, and this was not an infrequent occurrence, it was always the carabinieri who were the worst offenders. It may be that we were unfortunate in the crowd that were attached to us at Padula, but some of the younger ones were particularly addicted to this kind of “sport”. These carabs received forty lire daily as compared with the pay of a private in the Italian Army, which was one lira, and were consequently able to buy themselves better class girlfriends than the ordinary Italian Tommy. They also had far greater privileges and almost unlimited authority, having the power to put any of the Italian officers under arrest. Officially, they were
[Digital page 139, original page 126]
supposed to be the King’s bodyguard and a non-political organisation, but our experience was that they were far more ill-behaved than many of the fascists with whom we came into contact.
If they had the slightest excuse to beat up anyone, they would not hesitate to do so, although first making sure that there were at least four of them to each victim. Added to this the fact that if a prisoner struck a guard he was liable to be tried and dealt with by an Italian criminal court, the odds were on the side of the carabs. Maybe there were many good ones as well as bad, but I never met any, and personally I have always regarded them as on a par with the subsequently formed Fascist Militia which comprised a pretty large proportion of the scum of Italy. And I shall never forget the look of fiendish and sadistic delight on the face of one as he drew back his hand, with claw like fingernails, to strike some poor unfortunate who had had the misfortune to be caught early on in this grown-up game of hide-and-seek.
Then the Senior British Officer stepped in, and in what was rumoured to be a stormy meeting with the Commandant, told what the consequences of such action would be after the war. The Commandant was informed that the names of two Italian officers who had been involved in a previous beating-up were already known to the War Office in London, and that the
[Digital page 140, original page 127]
necessary disciplinary action would be taken against them and any other officers or men like them when the time came. With the end of the Italian campaign obviously so near, the carab colonel had little alternative but to take heed, especially as he had himself not been over gentle on previous occasions. The following is an extract from an article by George Millar, D.S.O. [Distinguished Service Order], M.C. [Military Cross] in the Daily Express of 3rd May 1945.
“On February 10, 1943, with three
fellow officers, I was caught escaping in Italian uniform from the prison camp
in the monumental monastery of Padula in Italy’s instep.
An Italian colonel – whom we called “the Bat” because of the great black cloak which always billowed from his shoulders – wanted to kill us. Instead he smashed his white fist into our faces while his men held us. We were stripped naked to be searched, and the soldiers licked us with their eyes as the blood ran down from our faces. All night we were individually “grilled”, while the colonel himself struck at us with a metal-bound ruler two feet long.
He struck between the neck and the shoulder, and it was so cold that you did not know why you were shivering. An interpreter called Garibaldi, who said he had worked in Cardiff before the war, threatened us with the firing squad between the colonel’s blows.”
No, the carabinieri are not nice people. Nor does the Italian man in the street like them or indeed respect them. It is a body whose usefulness has gone and which should be disbanded, and it would do no harm if some of the tougher members were allowed to use their brute strength to more practical ends; rock breaking, for example.
Within a few days all but seven of the hiders had been
[Digital page 141, original page 128]
discovered, and the prison gaol was getting pretty crowded. One or two amusing stories were told about the recaptures. One lone wolf, a delightful fellow with a keen sense of humour, had found himself a small hideout near the Mess. He was a student of the German language, and when discovered was sitting cross-legged in his hole deep in the intricacies of advanced German syntax.
Surrounded by the usual screaming horde
of Italian soldiers, carabs and officers all armed with some kind of lethal
weapon and all with extremely trigger happy fingers, he continued to squat
Buddha like reading his grammar. Then the commandant arrived, greatly excited,
flinging orders right and left and eventually the prisoner was addressed by one
of the interpreters.
“And what might you be doing there?”
The student of German looked round slowly.
“Me? Oh! I’m waiting for the war to finish!”
He had a very nasty half hour afterwards.
The morning following the night in the Mess was spent in getting permission to obtain mattresses and blankets and other kit from upstairs. Needless to say, the train had not arrived, though it was not until the evening when one of the better linguists went down to the station to check up and guard the luggage that we found out that the first information had been the result of a misinterpretation of the station master’s daily
[Digital page 142, original page 129]
remark, “the train is not coming tomorrow”. The old boy had probably been eating at the time – he usually was – and the “not” had been indistinct.
The commandant was now determined to avoid any repetition of a mass hide up, or even an attempt at a mass escape, and we were accordingly informed that until the train did arrive we would be kept downstairs under the cloisters, which would be fenced in with barbed wire. It became a camp within a camp. An open air holiday camp in Padula, and on the whole quite pleasant, For the nights were warm, we had less distance to walk to the Mess for meals, the shower baths and lavatories were next to where we lived, and by the time we had brought all our beds and furniture and cooking utensils down, life in the open was preferred to our former existence upstairs.
A week passed. Still no sign of the train, and each day the station master affirmed that it would be impossible for it to get through to the north, let alone return to take us there. And still seven prisoners were missing. We knew that they were in the building, though only a few people knew exactly where. Their hideout was indeed a good one. A large flagstone had been removed from the ceiling of one of the unused downstairs quarters under the ambulatory, and the seven were hiding in the space between the ceiling of that quarter and the flooring above. The space was minute and the ventilation almost non-existent, and soon the air became foul. It seemed a miracle that they
[Digital page 143, original page 130]
were able to last a week there, for the place had originally been intended to house them for two days at the most.
The Italians came very near to discovering it. They even prodded the loose flagstone and tried to push it up, but two men sitting on the stone stopped it from moving and the Italians must have come to the conclusion that it merely looked loose. They tried to move it again the following night, but the same thing happened and there were no further attempts to dislodge it.
With the train not expected for at least a week, the lot of the hiders became increasingly precarious. By this time, their supply of water was dangerously low, the air was foul, the men were suffering from cramp, and though they were prepared to remain in the hideout for a further week if necessary it was considered that this might have a lasting effect on their health. One of them came down during the morning and put the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] au courant.
The S.B.O. therefore arranged an interview with the commandant when it was agreed that there should be a one hour’s truce inside the camp that afternoon. All Italian guards and personnel would be withdrawn and when they returned to take roll call later they would find the correct number present. There were to be no reprisals.
After lunch we were addressed by the Brigadier who explained the trend of events and told us that he had taken the responsibility of ordering the men hiding to come out.
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Then there was silence as we looked over to the quarter from which they were being helped to carry their kit. They certainly looked in a bad way. Unshaved, dirty, weak and pale, they seemed hardly able to walk steadily for more than a few yards at a time. They admitted that they would not have been able to do any reasonable march for at least two ways after they had got into the open air.
Then, one day about a week later, the train was signalled for the following morning and we were told to be ready to move at 8 a.m.. It was then the second week in August. I was loath to leave. I felt in perfect health, the weather had been marvellous apart from two sudden heavy showers, and I had spent the greater part of each day lying naked on a mattress on the lawn. For the barbed wire idea had not had much success. It was simply cut down as soon as it was put up, and we were free to go where we liked inside the courtyard and even into the paddock. Yes, I would have preferred to wait for the Armistice, which we all now regarded as inevitable, at Padula. Yet I did not consider that there was any serious danger of our trip north leading us to Germany. We should have been forewarned, for one of the Italian officers swore that such a thing was quite impossible, and if a single prisoner from Padula went to Germany he would shoot himself. I wonder whether he kept his word.
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CHAPTER VI. We move to Bologna. Camp 19
I must say this for the Italian prisoner of war administration. Whenever they moved us from one camp to another they always provided first class carriages, in each compartment of which six or seven officers travelled with one guard. Six of us travelled together this time accompanied by an inoffensive little guard who spent most of his time apologising for his presence and assuring us that the war would soon be over and nobody would be more pleased than he. We parked him in the corner of the compartment and let him go to sleep, his rifle propped up beside him and only woke him up when the roar of the Italian orderly officer’s voice could be heard approaching in the distance. This was audible more than a coach away, so there was never much risk of our little protege being caught napping.
With such a guard it was obvious that escape would have been easy enough, but by this time we were all so convinced that the end of the war in Italy was now only a question of days that it seemed absurd to risk one’s neck for the sake of getting home those few days earlier. Provided one did get through, which was no certainty. And the alternative was that if caught by Germans one would undoubtedly land up in Germany, whence there was little chance of getting away. So, despite the favourable conditions, we decided to stay put and await
[Digital page 146, original page 133]
developments. Most of the other people on the train felt the same way.
We had lots of food for the journey, having cleared all the tins out of our store at Padula. The main difficulty was water, and every time the train stopped we tried to get all our various containers filled. Usually with success, for the railwaymen or peasants who passed were very friendly.
The train went northwest, and, after reaching Naples, took the main line to Rome. Every so often it stopped, and enquiries were made about the state of the lines further north. Then we started up again, and the first night we slept while the train was chugging along at quite a good speed.
When we awoke the next day, it was to find ourselves stationary, an enquiry from the guard elicited the information that we were in Littoria station a few miles outside Rome. The line further up had been bombed and it was impossible to proceed. We were told that we should be spending the day there and were shepherded out into a field abutting on the station. Permission was given for one officer to remain in each compartment to look after kit, and each of such guardians was left with a liberal supply of cigarettes and coffee and detailed instructions of the amount of wine he should endeavour to procure.
The day was hot and the sun burnt down fiercely on us. There was no cover. We had only taken a limited amount of water with us and there was no more available after this was quickly
[Digital page 147, original page 134]
finished. We found that tomatoes were growing in the field and soon the crop was picked. The farmer chose this particular time to come visiting his allotment, and seemed rather annoyed at the speed with which his tomatoes had vanished. He attempted to remonstrate, and his voice was even louder than that of the orderly officer on the train. But he had no success. One of the sentries patrolling round the field took a dislike to him, and in one of the funniest spectacles I ever saw in Italy, bayonet charged him for several hundred yards with the farmer just managing to keep the rear part of his trousers in front of the tip of the bayonet.
I went across to talk to Derek Willis.
“Derek, can you fly an Eyt bomber?”
“Yes. I can manage a Savoia, I think. Why?”
I pointed over towards the coast a couple of miles away. A plane could be seen rising from the ground above the pampas grass. It was an old bomber, a Savoia. Derek exclaimed.
“Gosh! You’ve got something there. Do you want to have a go?”
“Certainly. I think it’s a damn good chance that way, and we’re not likely to be picked up by Jerries. Can you get a navigator?”
“Yes, I don’t think there should be any difficulty about that. The only thing is that we will have to get over there and swipe the plane during the night. It won’t be possible
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“OK. We’ll see what the form is at 9 o’clock. It’s beginning to get dark then and we can see what kind of guard they put on at the side of the train. I’ll meet you at the lat between our two coaches.”
We returned to the train soon after 6 p.m. to find the compartment full of wine. Tom Meyer, whom we had left in charge, had done a roaring trade. All the water bottles were full and in addition there was a big pail filled to the brim. We celebrated. I thought it would be a good thing if I were a little high when we left.
During the day, there had been only one or two guards on each side of the whole length of the train, but after we were back on board these were reinforced with several others until there was one man, armed with a rifle and bayonet outside each carriage. That was bad enough, but by the time I met Derek, they had further increased to two men with machine guns outside each carriage, with the riflemen doing a roving patrol further away. Derek had found a navigator, but even so we decided that it was not worth trying. I went back to the compartment and drowned my disappointment.
Each carriage was under the command of
an Italian sergeant who was responsible for the guard. He was a nice little
man, and I had several chats with him. He had one main theme.
“I don’t understand why you do not wish to go to the north.
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It is a pleasant country there, and why
not see it before you leave Italy. You know, of course, that you will be free
within a fortnight anyway.”
“What do you mean? Do you think there will be an armistice?”
“Ma che! What is your general doing in Portugal with our general. Not only looking at the women, I am sure.”
This was the first time we had heard of peace negotiations actually being in progress, though it seemed logical enough.
“How do you know these things? Nothing official has been given out, has it?”
“You do not issue official statements when you are arranging an armistice. No, nothing official has been said. But nevertheless it is common knowledge. For Badoglio to say the war continues is a farce.”
“That’s all very well. But if you know all about it and, as you say, it’s common knowledge, then the Germans must know all about it too. And they are not going to be too pleased.”
“No. They will not be pleased, but they have not enough men here to do anything about it. Otherwise they would not have tolerated the overthrow of Mussolini.”
I reported this conversation to the rest of the carriage and our spirits rose. Again we imagined ourselves at home, and began making plans about how leave should be spent. The
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wine was finished and we drifted off to sleep, the luggage racks being used as two bunks to give additional room.
The next day, the train left early and we were surprised to see from the sun that our direction was south. In the afternoon the direction changed and the train went due east until soon after 4 o’clock when we entered a network of lines leading to a main station. Only two of the lines were being used. The remainder were completely smashed, with locomotives and rolling stock lying about in grotesque patterns as though some drunken hand had swept them off their original positions and gathered then into scattered heaps. Many of the coaches were burnt out, the wreckage intertwined with a mangled railway line or the remains of a cattle truck hitched on to half a steam engine.
It was our first experience of the effectiveness of Allied heavy bombing. The guard sergeant told us that we were at Foggia which had been bombed a few months previously by the R.A.F., and it was amusing to see him point with pride to the surrounding houses which had suffered no damage and extol the accuracy of our bombing. The station had been the target and only the station had been hit. What a magnificent Air Force, he said.
Then the sirens went. Not as unpleasant as London sirens, but nevertheless not pleasant. A platoon of German parachutists, who had been sitting at the side of the railway track, moved
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out across the road into the shelter of some houses there. The train stopped. We could hear the planes overhead. Our little guard had woken up and was hopping from one leg to the other nervously clutching his rifle. I looked out of the window.
High above, at about 15,000 feet, flying in perfect formation were thirty four-engined bombers, their wings glistening like streaks of silver in the cloudless sky. They were still some distance from us and coming in our direction, and I tried a rapid calculation to work out where their line of run up would be. Then suddenly they were directly overhead and we were safe. It was not ’til then that we all fully realised what a perfect target the train had presented. The only train on one of the two good lines remaining in a station that the R.A.F. had already blitzed once, I expect that some of the pilots who passed overhead were disappointed that their briefing did not permit them to peel off and have a crack at us.
An audible sigh of relief went up as the planes vanished in the distance. Then just as we were settled down again, the sirens sounded a second time. Nobody took much notice thinking that it was the all clear, but soon the hum of engines could be heard, and looking out I saw a formation of some twenty four-engined bombers above. Lower than the first batch, these were not proceeding away from us, but seemed rather to be going round in a wide circle. It looked bad. The Italian orderly
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officer was dashing up and down the train, shouting to everyone to stay where they were and that he would shoot anyone who attempted to leave the train, and the carriage guards were struggling between fear of him and dread of the bombing that seemed inevitable. They stayed where they were.
I glanced out of the window to the side
of the track to which the Germans had returned after the first formation had
disappeared. They had gone again. Then there was the noise of a locomotive
starting, and glancing down the line that ran alongside ours I saw an old steam
engine moving slowly towards us. The driver was an old man who was leaning out
of the driving compartment, and as the engine drew alongside he called over.
“Do you want hot water to make some tea?”
He filled the containers which were passed to him, running the water off the engine, and, leaving us, drove up and down the line stopping wherever he was needed.
It was an action which impressed itself deeply on most of us, and on me particularly for it was the first individual kindness I had received from any Italian since they had been responsible for my welfare. Perhaps it impressed the bombers overhead also, for they broke off their ominous circling and departed in the distance. This time the sigh of relief was even louder, and the driver of our train must have come to the conclusion that Foggia was an unhealthy spot, for we shot forward and continued for some time at a speed far in excess
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of anything that had been attempted previously.
Another night passed, and we learnt that our destination was a camp just outside Bologna where we were due to arrive the next day. The train ran for a long time along the sea on the Adriatic coast, branching inland soon after passing the small port of Rimini. And when, the next morning, we pulled up at a tiny country station and were dismounted from what had been our home for four days, the information was passed down that the camp was only a few hundred yards away.
Camp 19 at Bologna was a very different affair from Padula. There was nothing of the ancient monument about this. It was a barracks, or rather series of bungalows all of which formed a large barracks, built since the war. It was supposed to have been built especially for officer prisoners of war, and the accommodation was certainly better than at Padula. Each bungalow was divided into a series of bays, all clean and newly painted with plenty of windows. There were perhaps six bays per bungalow, and each bay took twenty men. In addition the bungalows had a number of private rooms housing eight or ten people in each.
There were five main bungalows in the camp, with a smaller one for the Mess and another for the canteen which was also used as the bar in the evenings. About a thousand officers were in the camp with nearly two hundred and fifty other ranks.
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As soon as we had gone through the inevitable formalities of being searched and documented – the search consisted of giving the carab in charge a bar of soap and being passed through without having to open a single piece of luggage – we were allotted to bungalows, and then went off in search of friends who had travelled up in the first party. They told us that the camp had been opened a month previously when a contingent of officers had arrived from Sulmona camp, followed shortly afterwards by a further batch from the large camp at Chieti.
I had last heard of Pat at Sulmona, and asked some of the fellows from that camp for news of him. I was told that he had come with them and was in the camp.
We had a good party to celebrate meeting again. The wine supplied in the bar was very superior to that of Padula, and the distribution system seemed better too. Each man received chits which entitled him to three tots of whatever wine was available each day. It was usually possible to find non-drinkers prepared to swap their ration for chocolate or money, and by these means we were able to have a minor celebration two or three times a week.
The general atmosphere of the camp was better. The Italians seemed to be able to get things done without making a noise, the officers behaved more like officers and the men were clean and, what impressed us more than anything, they
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shaved daily and apparently took a certain pride in their appearance. But they remained Italian soldiers. Indolent and unsoldierly, their only thought being how soon they would get home.
Time passed quickly enough. There was not the same space available for games as at Padula, but a baseball diamond was built in the compound between the bungalows, and matches played daily. In the afternoons most of the camp retired to bed until tea time. It was terribly hot until then and anyone venturing outside was soon driven in again by the heat which was reflected up from the stony ground and beat down from above.
After tea, Pat or Anderson, another war correspondent, read out extracts from the Italian and German papers which they had expertly perused during the morning. The Italian papers were full of stories of Clara Petacci and her sister, the two mistresses of Mussolini. The war news was limited to the official bulletins, and no hint was given of any peace negotiations being in progress.
In the evenings the card parties continued, though roulette provided a counter attraction. So, quietly, August merged into September, and still we waited for peace.