Leslie Nathanson was in Camp 19 at Bologna, when on 8th September 1943, it was announced that the Italians had signed an armistice agreement. The following day the Germans took over the camp. A couple of days later they were moved on from there, departing in a convoy of lorries, and taken to a train to continue their journey.
When the train made a stop in Modena, Nathanson took the opportunity to escape. Italians helped him and a few others exit the station. Nathanson and Terry Muirhead spent the next fortnight in the apartment of Darco, Maria and their young son Mario. Towards the end of October, an escape plan was hatched. Aided by Joris Franciosi and Luciano Vezzani, Nathanson and Muirhead travelled by train to Milan, and then by train to Domodossola. They then cycled to Varzo with another local guide, and then another guide, “George”, led them on a climb through the mountains. On 3rd November 1945, Nathanson and Muirhead crossed the frontier and reached safety in Switzerland. This is the second part of his story from Chapter 7 onwards. This part recounts the night of 8th September 1943 onwards. Read 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 (PART 2)
CHAPTER VII. Armistice. The night of September 8th and after.
We came out of the Mess after dinner and strolled slowly across the courtyard. Suddenly we saw the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer], who was accompanied by Brig. Stebbings and having his usual evening walk, being approached by two of the Italian interpreters who had entered the courtyard with unaccustomed speed and, contrary to their usual practice, were wearing neither Sam Brownes nor hats. An animated conversation took place, and it became increasingly clear that something unusual had happened. An excited group soon formed round them and within a few minutes, people could be seen pouring out of the different bungalows and streaming across to where the conversation was taking place.
Not to be outdone, Rosie, John and I joined the circle and waited for
the S.B.O. to make some announcement. There were now some hundreds of people
round him. It was not long in coming, and when it did it was a fine exhibition
of restraint and foresight. There was complete silence, and then he spoke.
“I have just been informed that the Italian wireless announced a few minutes ago that an Armistice had been signed on September 3rd between Italy and the Allies. The news of that Armistice has been published this evening for the first time. Now, gentlemen, before celebrating unduly you should bear in mind several things. We do not yet know what the
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German reaction will be, nor do we know the exact terms of the
Armistice. I have requested an interview with the Commandant and will be seeing
him shortly, after which I hope to be in a position to give you further
information through your House Commanders. Meanwhile, I would stress the necessity
of being in a state of complete preparedness to move at a moment’s
We went over and sat on the steps of our bungalow and tried to let the first shock subside in a comparative silence, each of us being occupied with his own thoughts. Then after a little while we started to express our thoughts aloud. I said.
“Of course, we knew that it had to happen, but it seems incredible that it actually has. I feel most peculiar inside, and there’s a sort of empty racing feeling in the pit of my stomach. Especially when I think that we will probably be home in a fortnight.”
Rosie was not so optimistic.
“The Brig. was right about not knowing what the Jerry will get up to, and they may well breeze in here this evening and take us on a little trip. At the best, I can’t see us getting home in under two months. We’ll go up to the men’s camps and take them over, and it’s not going to be an easy job.” John was inclined to support that view also, and added, “No, and I don’t suppose they will be in any mood for discipline.” I
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impatiently accused them both of undue pessimism and exclaimed.
“We are much too prone to over-estimate our own importance as prisoners of war. After all, most of the blokes here have been in the bag for at least a year, and a good few – like ourselves – much nearer two years. What good would we be to anyone without a hell of a lot of training in modern warfare? Then again, we are all pretty unfit and I reckon we would need quite two months to get properly in shape again. Jerry is going to take all that into account, and anyway he will probably be so busy moving out himself that he won’t worry about a lot of useless wrecks like us.”
At this point someone arrived from a crowd that had gathered round the wire where one of our Italian scholars was trying to pump a sentry. He was full of “griff”, and bursting to let us have it.
“We’ve landed at Spezia, Ancona, Trieste and Genoa,” he said.
“Anywhere else?” asked someone, perhaps a trifle doubtfully.
“My dear old boy, Livorno, Rimini, Pescara – I could go on indefinitely. It really looks as though the big shots have pulled their fingers out this time.”
“My God! – they may be here in a few hours.”
“I suppose Rimini is about the nearest. I wonder how long it will take them to get here.”
No one voiced any doubts as to the truth of this ‘gen’ for
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the excitement of the moment had produced a mass hysteria which
overcame all thoughts of unpleasant contingencies.
“Jerry is getting out, you know! Those Eyts say that large columns have been seen going along the road, apparently north.”
“Jerry columns are streaming up the Brenner as fast as they can go.”
“The Hun is pulling out everything and going flat out for home.”
And so on ad infinitum.
We saw the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] go to the Commandant’s
office. Then John said.
“Well, I refuse to get worked up until I actually get back to England. Though it might be a good idea to get a haversack packed. It’s funny to think that our fate will be more or less decided in the next twenty four hours. Until that’s over, we might as well try and keep ourselves fully occupied.”
We both packed haversacks, filling them with a mixture of food and clothing, and then went in search of Clid and Scatt whom we found in a state of blissful ecstasy in their room. So, of course, the discussion started all over again, and some of their room mates were extremely optimistic while others took the opposite view. The curious thing was that no one was inclined to take a middle view.
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Finally, we convinced the others that the best thing would be to carry on as though nothing had happened, and fulfil our original engagement for bridge. The effect on Clid, whose spirits were always fairly exuberant, was tremendous. Grand and small slams, nothing ever less than a game contract, with the penalties good and fat, were the order of the evening. But the game was broken up by our being recalled to our respective quarters for a room commanders’ conference.
Smithy was in good form.
“Gather round, you crows. It’s genuine stuff… there really has been an Armistice, which was apparently signed on the 3rd. We have got someone listening to the wireless all through the night to see whether any instructions come over for us, and the Italians have put out patrols around the camp to see whether there are any Jerries in the vicinity. The Commandant has refused to allow anyone out of the camp and the sentries have orders to shoot at any person trying to get through the wire. But he has agreed to cut the wire at four points, two at each end of the courtyard, and to open the main gate in the event of Germans being sighted approaching the camp with a hostile look. We have got someone posted at the main gate and, if he sees any Jerries, he will sound the alarm. Then it’s a case of every man for himself, though the powers that be recommend making for ……..” and he mentioned the name of a small fishing resort on the Adriatic coast within
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fifty miles of the camp.
“Finally the Brig. asked to see the General commanding the Italian troops in Bologna, but was told that this bloke was far too busy to see him tonight, but would try to fix a meeting in the morning. The camp authorities have asked for reinforcements in the form of men and anti-tank guns, and these have been promised immediately. The orders for tonight are that everyone will sleep fully clothed with a packed haversack or kitbag ready beside him. In half an hour’s time there will be an issue of one Canadian Red Cross parcel per man from the stores, and John will let you know later about drawing out any other tins you may have in the private store. Each room in the bungalow will draw lots to provide duty personnel to act as runner between the bungalow and the orderly room throughout the night for hourly stretches… Any questions?”
“What’s the best way to …….., Smithy?”
Detailed instructions were given and laboriously copied down.
There were a lot of other questions, but almost all were fatuous.
“What’s all the buzz about orders coming by air?”
“Is it true that we are going to get Tommy guns by parachute?”
“Well, if we do, I won’t know how the damned things work. They are after my time. I suppose they have forgotten at home
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that most of us have been in the bag for years.”
“Do you think I’ll have time to put on my trousers if I take a chance and sleep in my pyjamas?”
“What’s the form about these parcels we’re getting? Have we got to leave all the stuff intact, or can we eat some of it?”
John and I went off in search of Clid, this time to organise the distribution of parcels. When we arrived at the garage from which the parcels were to be issued, we found that the place was almost in darkness, relieved only by a couple of lanterns hanging from the walls. But the organisation was complete, and the parcels had been stacked along the side of the garage ready to be handed out to the files of men waiting outside.
Though no check was kept of the parcels distributed, a sense of honesty must have been induced by our impending doom, for half an hour later when our task had been completed, each man in the camp having received a Red Cross parcel, the number issued corresponded exactly with the number of prisoners. Under normal circumstances there would undoubtedly have been a small minority who would have taken advantage of parcels being issued unchecked to have grabbed an extra one.
We were walking back to the bungalow. Clid voiced my thoughts. “What a hell of an evening. Thank God we have had something to do so far. Otherwise the suspense of waiting would have been pretty foul.”
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Others joined us as we walked along.
“It’s not the waiting so much. It’s not knowing what we’re waiting for. It seems to me that it’s either a Lizzie [Lysander] with orders or alternatively an influx of Jerries.”
“And even if the Lizzie does get here first, there are still the Jerries to cope with.”
“It’s no good, old boy. I don’t suppose that anyone at home even knows where Campo 19 is situated, let alone a Lizzie finding it at night.”
“Well, there is one redeeming feature. Prisoners of war are supposed to be priority one. We have got a certain publicity value.”
“Yes. That’s all very well. But once you get home and cease being a POW, you lose your publicity value. You’ll get just as much “Bull” as ever, and it will seem worse, because you’ve got out of the habit of it.”
“I doubt whether that will apply. After all, when we get back there will only be the Japs left for us to fight against. They can’t send us back over here, and the second front is pretty mythical; and anyway, most of us were captured by Germans, which washes us out of it as far as they are concerned. I don’t somehow think they’ll shoot us off to Japan.”
“Listen to the incurable optimist!” I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be a good thing to go there. If you get a job in
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the War House, or some other staff affair, you will probably find
yourself taking orders from some complete twerp who has only been in the army a
few months, and has spent those few months firmly established on his fat
backside at home.”
The debate continued.
When we got back to our room, we found a message from the private parcels representative telling us that a few bags of private parcels had arrived during the evening, and asking us to go and assist in the sorting. Once again we trotted down to the garage, and having acquired the parcels belonging to the members of our bungalow, went back there to distribute them. By this time, most people had done some packing and were horrified to find how much surplus kit they had. The immediate result of this was that it was only necessary to walk up and down the various rooms to be offered a variety of articles ranging from silk nightshirts to desert boots. Smithy got rid of nearly a thousand cigarettes to the rest of the room, and it was a common sight to see several tins of food being handed about. At the time, everyone seemed to take it all as a matter of course, but looking back now I realise that there was a strain of hysteria running through the whole evening. Which was not really very surprising, for some of the members of my room had been waiting for that particular evening for more than three years.
Gordon Johnstone came in. He announced: “Hutch has shaved his
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moustache off, and it’s stuck on a caricature outside the orderly
This being too good to miss, most of us went over and sure enough there was the magnificent specimen, bristling and carroty, and though removed from its former place of honour as an adornment of our adjutant’s upper lip, still occupying that place on the caricature.
I had drawn one of the tickets for duty as bungalow runner, and went on duty at 0100 hours. Apart from occasional movement of other runners across the courtyard, nothing happened during my period of duty and I thankfully retired to bed at 0200 hours after handing over to Angus. Even at that time there were a lot of fellows moving about, making last minute preparations for a quick getaway. Some of them were in what might well have passed for civilian clothes; Air Force serge trousers and sports shirts over which a coloured sweater or cardigan or even leather golf jacket. Some had displayed remarkable skill in converting naval reefers and trousers into quite presentable lounge suits, while others were wearing corduroy slacks, overalls and khaki drill.
From the bathroom came sounds of intense bricklaying and brick removing activity, for there Gordon and his merry men – who succeeded in reaching our lines some time after – were forcing an entrance into the roof where they proposed to hide until the situation became slightly less confused.
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Rosie and John were both asleep. So was I within a minute of my head touching the pillow.
I was awakened by John shaking my shoulder vigorously. “Wake up, Nat! The Jerries are here! The alarm went a few minutes ago,” he told me. I jumped out of bed and hurriedly put on my boots. Then I grabbed the haversack which I had packed earlier and my Red Cross parcel, and dashed outside the bungalow to join Rosie and John who were waiting for me. I have never been more scared in all my life than I was then after having a quick glance round the courtyard, and out towards the main gate. On the other side of the wire, between our enclosure and the main entrance to the camp, shadowy figures in full battle order were moving rapidly about, but with obvious pre-arranged precision, for within a moment of their entry into the camp they had occupied the positions which afforded the best cover. In this way they had established fields of fire which covered the entrances to each bungalow, and it was not long before we heard bursts of machine gun fire, followed shortly after by what sounded like the bursting of hand grenades. But nothing appeared to have landed near us. We had already started, moving off in the direction of the gaps in the wire near the Mess, following like sheep in the wake of an enormous crowd of POWs who had emerged in large groups from the bungalows, when suddenly a sound that started almost as a sigh and then increased in
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volume until it became the shouts of several hundred men, translated itself into a warning that Germans were outside the exits. As the crowd flung itself from side to side up and down the courtyard in a vain endeavour to find a gap in the surrounding cordon, there were more bursts of machine gun fire, which continued while a platoon of infantry, each man carrying a Tommy gun and a liberal quantity of “potato mashers”, doubled in through the gate leading to our enclosure.
It was at that moment that I hit my lowest point of fear and depression. I told John as much. “I’ve had this, John. We are only targets here. I’m going back to bed to await developments in comfort.” John thought this was an excellent idea and we duly re-entered the bungalow and lay down on our beds. I had the irreverent thought of offering to have a game of backgammon, but refrained from doing so as I considered that John might imagine I was trying to take advantage of the situation to mulct him.
We did not have long to wait. Some of our roommates came into the dormitory looking as though they were being followed – “but don’t look now, old man” – and sure enough there was a German officer with two German other ranks behind him. The officer was polite but firm. “Please to come outside. There is no need to take any equipment. No one will be hurt. I give my word as a German officer that no one will be hurt.”
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Some of us were by way of being unconvinced, but the argument of the Tommy guns and the grenades was strong enough to propel us all outside at a high rate of knots.
When we got outside, we found that all the bungalows had been treated
in the same way, and flocks of human sheep were herded in front of each of the
five houses. In due course these were shepherded along to the main gates.
Someone from our bungalow commented.
“All those other beggars have got their kit.” And another remarked, “I suppose some trucks will draw up now and we’ll get shot off to Germany without even a spare pair of socks.”
“Yes. These bloody Jerries mean business all right. They wouldn’t have come in at this time of night unless they intended moving us somewhere.”
“That means five next of kin parcels down the drain. I suppose I’ll have to wait twenty months again for another pair of slippers.”
And then I got a full understanding of a prisoner of war’s primary and cardinal rule. “A POW and his kit should never be separated.” For if you do get separated from your kit, no matter what promise of restitution or reunion has been made, the worry is such that, by the time the stuff eventually does turn up, you have lost a considerable amount of weight that you can ill afford. And as for calories… well…
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At first, it seemed that we were being driven out of the camp, but as our eyes became accustomed to the dark, we saw that the Boche were marshalling everyone in the space between the two sets of wire surrounding our compound. This space, 6-8 feet wide, became rapidly crowded, and people were bunched together standing up. All were very silent at first, depressed and full of thoughts of what might have been. I thought about the Lysander that was supposed to be dropping our orders.
During this time, machine gun activity was still brisk, the main bursts appearing to come from the grounds of the estate adjoining the camp. This estate belonged to an Italian nobleman, the Marquis of Medici I believe, and it was common knowledge in the camp that he spoke perfect English. It seemed probable that he had had some visitors from the camp who hoped to hide on the estate until the storm blew over.
Finally everyone was housed between the two sets of wire, and, with customary adaptability, began to settle down to this new phase of their existences. It was a motley gathering indeed. Fortunately, everyone had obeyed the order to sleep fully clothed, for the night was bitterly cold. A few lucky ones had greatcoats and haversacks, but the majority possessed only what they stood up in, and perhaps a Red Cross parcel to which they had clung as a last desperate straw when being
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driven out of their bungalows.
One group in particular was showing distinct signs of wear. This was a birthday party of the previous night, who had taken the opportunity of combining the anniversary celebrations with that of the signing of the Armistice. Their consumption of wine had been more plentiful than wise, and in the first light of dawn they certainly showed it. With faces unusually haggard, they seemed completely bewildered by what was taking place. But then we all were. Everyone was looking slightly apprehensive regarding the future.
The rattle of machine gun fire, an occasional hand grenade bursting, and various orders being shouted in guttural and very menacing German, sounded extremely unpleasant from the inside of our wire home: and everyone that I spoke to afterwards agreed that they had experienced exactly the same sensation as I. Namely, that we would shortly be receiving an issue of picks and shovels with the order to start digging; and what we would dig would inevitably turn out to be our own graves.
It says much for the British sense of humour that under such circumstances I heard some of the best spontaneous cracks for a long time. One friend, to whom I went to pass the time of day around six o’clock in the morning, kept me vastly amused for the next hour, and made me forget the trouble we were in. His long face seemed even longer than usual and he spent a considerable time telling me all the misfortunes that had
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figured in his life, coming to the conclusion that the one which had
brought him to this particular prison camp was well up in the list.
“You know, Nat, I am undoubtedly the unluckiest beggar alive. Things happen without any consideration for me or my wishes. There I am at Chieti, on the sunny shores of the Adriatic, reasonably well off, a nice little tunnel to dig, centre field in a good baseball team, parcels coming in regularly, mail all right, and what happens?”
“Well, what happens?” I asked.
“It’s quite simple. I get picked out of eleven hundred blokes to come to this dump. Oh! I forgot the two dance bands, and that I even got on the stage there. And made money at bridge!”
“You’ll never find another camp like that, old man. Not even if you finish up in Poland!”
“Of course I won’t. What’s more, I don’t want to. I’ve had prison camps. I don’t ask much of life; only a nice roaring fire, a pint of beer, the love of a good woman, a living wage and no bayonet up my rectal orifice! I’m sick of roll calls and being counted by ten different Eyts who all get a different result. And these unpleasant Germans, who fire off Tommy guns just to show willing… and sling grenades…
“No, no, no,” he concluded, “prison life is obviously not meant for a passive, peace-loving fellow like myself.”
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He said his piece so delightfully that soon a group was clustered round him, and the spirits of all those in the immediate neighbourhood were partially restored.
Then the lucky ones who had had the foresight to bring their parcels with them, opened a few tins and an early improvised breakfast ensued. Neither John, Rosie nor I had brought anything, but one of us found some chocolate in a pocket so we ate that.
The stretch of wire in which we were parked was opposite the infirmary, and during the first hour we were there, I thought I heard the sound of agonised groaning coming from over the wire. Later it transpired that I had not been mistaken, for it was one of the wounded on whom Dr. Gottlieb was operating. The groaning was understandable, for naturally enough there was no anaesthetic, and the operation, which was an amputation, had to be done while the patient was quite conscious.
Shortly after 6 a.m., Brigadier Stebbings came along and announced that we would soon be allowed back to our bungalows, after which the order would be camp life as usual, until further notice. The general morale rose enormously at this news, and hopes began to revive of the Germans moving out and leaving us with a minimum rearguard to ensure that we did not resume activity as belligerents until the main body had got away; although what they thought
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we could do was beyond me.
But at that time rumours were so rife regarding the presence of Allied troops at Genoa and La Spezia, on either coast of the Peninsula at Leghorn and Ancona, that we were willing to believe anything, and in fact jumped at the chance of doing so. And the theory of the Germans merely having taken over the camp as a protective measure received increasing support until it became almost universally upheld. A typical example of wishful thinking in a prisoner of war camp.
By the time we returned to our bungalows at 7 a.m., everyone firmly believed that we would be walking out of the camp later in the day as free men. It only needed the departure of the Germans. A few small pointers during the day supported the idea, for the officer in charge of the party which had taken over the camp, told one of our linguists that we were really a damn nuisance for we had held up a whole German division in Bologna. To which the reply was: “Please carry on, and don’t mind us. We will manage to get along somehow without you!”
The most satisfactory sight during the following morning was the departure of our former Italian guards, who were marched out on foot and on bicycles escorted by a small Wehrmacht guard. They carried as much of their kit as possible and seemed quite cheerful, apparently thinking that they were going to a transit camp to be demobilised, and
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little suspecting that they were about to assume the lot of their former captives. Far worse, in fact, for they were not treated as prisoners of war, but as traitors, and the conditions under which they were kept before their transfer to Germany, and the life in their camps when they got there after a five or six day journey were simply appalling. And during the journey fifty and sometimes sixty of them were huddled together without food or water in cattle trucks from which they were never allowed out until they reached Germany. However, their going as prisoners failed to arouse any sympathy on the part of the inhabitants of Campo PG 19, a large number of whom lined the wire leading to the front gate and cheered long and loud as their late guards were marched unceremoniously away.
Gradually camp life resumed its normal course. Most people drifted back
to bed after being released from the wire, and so failed to see the car which
took off the body of the one officer who had been killed the previous night.
But the departure was not entirely unobserved. I overheard a conversation
between two batmen standing in front of my bungalow.
“Poor devil. Well anyway, he won’t be beggared about with roll calls and false alarms about the end of the war anymore.”
“How did it happen, Alf?”
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“Well, he was in front of the crowd that rushed one of the gaps in
the wire near the Mess last night. As soon as he got through, the Jerries
opened up with machine guns.”
“How the devil did they know where the gaps were?”
“Oh, an Eyt told them about three of the gaps and they covered them with fixed lines.”
“Couldn’t he get back, Alf?” asked the first, jerking his head in the direction taken by the improvised hearse.
“No. The poor sod never had a chance. There were dozens of people shoving up behind him, and when they tried to get back they found themselves wedged in.”
“Why? How many people were there by the wire?”
“I should think that there must have been several hundred by the three gaps behind the Mess. It was damned lucky there weren’t a large number of casualties.”
A pause while the first batman tried to figure things out, and then he said.
“Well. How did it turn out that way? I should have thought that if they were stuck in the open unable to get back, and being machine gunned all the time, not many would have got out alive.”
“They wouldn’t have done,” said Alf, “if it hadn’t been for one of the officers.”
“Why? How did he help?”
“How did he help? Well. This chap speaks German like
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a native, and as soon as the firing started, he dashed out to the most
prominent place and shouted to the machine gunners in German to “fire
high, they are not armed.” The Boche thought it was one of their own
officers shouting, and obeyed the order. Just as well they did, too. There were
three wounded apart from the fellow who was killed, and as there was absolutely
Fanny Adams in the way of cover there, at least two to three hundred would have
been killed if the firing had continued.”
Later that morning, just before we went into lunch, we saw a group of men being marched in through the main gate. Everyone in the vicinity gathered round, and soon we were shooting dozens of questions at the forty odd chaps who had managed to break out the previous evening despite the shooting.
“How far did you get?”
“Where did they pick you up?”
“Did you see many boche in the area?”
“Are there any the other side of the railway?”
“Any signs of them clearing out?”
But it transpired that most of those who had got out had spent the night in different hiding places, and knew nothing of the general situation.
Pat Crosse was among the crowd who had been brought back and had quite an amusing story to tell. He had managed to get out of the main gate before the Germans came in and had
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made for the Marquis’ estate as fast as he could go. After climbing over a high wall he had found himself in a big park where many different kinds of tree offered him cover. This was about the time that the machine guns were loosing off right, left and centre, and as it was pitch black in the park he reckoned that his best plan was to find a good hiding place and stay put until he could judge better his chances of making a more permanent getaway. He accordingly found a conveniently shaped laurel bush into which he crept. Then he settled down to make himself as comfortable as possible.
Soon a German patrol came through looking for anyone who might have succeeded in getting into the park. But his hiding place withstood their scrutiny and he thought he was safe. However, with Teuton thoroughness, four more patrols came through in the course of the night. The last one was his undoing. It went past his laurel bush and he was just breathing a sigh of relief when the sergeant in charge of the party turned and stared straight at him. Pat looked away, at the same time repressing an almost irresistible desire to burst out laughing. The sergeant seemed satisfied, moved off a few yards, and then his curiosity got the better of him and he came back, went over to the bush and opened the branches. This brought him face to face with Pat, who now that he had been discovered and need no longer keep silent let out a roar of laughter. The sergeant seemed a bit perplexed at first,
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but he too saw the funny side of the picture, and soon he was escorting Pat back to the assembly point for recaptured prisoners, both of them still laughing as though they had just heard the year’s funniest story.
Another two would-be escapers who got into the park found an old well
which appeared to be disused. A ladder made of iron rungs was fitted into the
side, and down they climbed. They had been there some time when they heard
voices above, then a stone was thrown down, and then finally a voice which said
“In thirty seconds I am going to throw down a hand grenade to see if there really is anyone down there.”
Fortunately the speaker spoke good English. They did not wait for the thirty seconds.
Then others found themselves in front of the Marquis’ house. In the
drive not fifty yards away from them was a handsome car, and they went over and
sat down inside smoking a reflective cigarette the while. It seemed a good
hiding place, and none of the German patrols bothered them. Then a voice was heard
to say in perfect English.
“I don’t mind you sitting in my car, but you won’t drive it away, will you? And anyway, wouldn’t you prefer to come in and have a drink?” An offer they willingly accepted, though the Marquis – for it was he who had invited them inside – made it clear that if the Germans were seen to approach the house
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they would have to go out and give themselves up. Which happened a short time afterwards.
Ronnie Hardy and Larry Phillips got away that night, and the next time I saw them was in Switzerland when they arrived at Wil station looking extremely bedraggled and limping badly. They had spent several weeks near Rimini in the tiny Republic of San Marino, where Larry in his exalted rank of Captain had constituted himself Senior British Officer over Ronnie who was only a Lieutenant, though as he always claimed, the oldest one in the British Army. They spent that particular night in a field of cabbages outside the Medici estate, and somehow the patrols, which had been fewer there, had missed them. Getting away in the early morning, they reached a farmhouse where they were given clothes and food. This was the starting point of their journey east to the coast. Finally arriving near the sea, they found that the possibility of getting south by boat was more than remote. Then their difficulties were solved by contacting a communist organisation which helped them to reach Switzerland.
The system used by this organisation was to hand over the people they were helping from one guide to another along different stages of the journey. Each guide might do a stretch varying from thirty to fifty miles, depending on whether they were walking or going by train or bus, or on bicycle. On the penultimate lap of their trip to Switzerland,
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they had to go by train to a station within marching distance of the frontier. Their guide put them into a carriage having first given them their tickets and warned them that they must alight after so much time in the train. The guide was not travelling with them and in order to make sure that they would not mistake the station, he arranged to come along when they reached their destination and whistle a tune as he passed through the compartment. Then he proceeded to give them a sample of the tune and his rendering of same, and they embarked upon their train journey.
When they settled down in their compartment, which was full, they were amazed at the silence which prevailed. For unlike most Italians, their fellow travellers all seemed to be occupied otherwise than in conversation. Of the six others in the compartment, the two occupying the window seats were staring out of the windows intent upon watching the countryside. The two men – all six were males – sitting next to them were enjoying a long and unbroken nap, while the remaining two were busily reading the city and sporting news of the “Corriere della Sera” and “La Stampa” respectively. Ronnie and Larry pretended to go to sleep, considering this to be the best method of avoiding any awkward questions if the others decided to get talkative, and in this way the company continued until the guide finally came into the carriage. He was whistling loudly and as it vaguely resembled
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the sample he had favoured them with previously, Larry and Ronnie got up and went out. So did the other six. Eventually all eight of them came across the frontier together, or anyway by the same route, for they were all escaped war prisoners.
As soon as we got back to our own bungalows again, we were able to check up on the activity of the Germans while we had been outside. Several inmates of my house had hidden up in the roof above the lavatories, where they had remained concealed and watched the Germans who had instituted a not very thorough search of each bungalow. Everyone at once went to his private food store in his cupboard or suitcase to see what had been rifled, but apart from chocolate which had gone from several parcels, and coffee and soap, there was not a great deal missing.
The search of the five bungalows during the night had produced a few stragglers who had slept through the whole affair, in addition to one or two fellows whose hiding places were not sufficiently well-chosen. And those of us who were outside had been counted as we returned from the wire, passing one at a time through a small gateway that the guards had arranged. The Germans therefore had only a very approximate idea of the number of prisoners in the camp; for although they had taken all the records off the Italians, which showed the exact numbers, the result of their own rough check showed a considerable reduction, and not finding those missing when they searched they probably assumed that these chaps had managed to
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get out and away before the camp had been taken over.
Anyway they seemed quite satisfied, and during the three days we remained in the camp there was not a single roll call. Which admirably suited the young Prince Charlies who were hiding in their lavatory roof bowers, for it enabled them to come down from time to time for meals, to hear the latest news, have a game of baseball and, in fact, carry on a perfectly normal camp life, with the rider that they always retired around noon and early evening. These were considered to be the danger periods when the Germans were most likely to move us.
Three of the members of my room were hiding in our roof. Pioneers of our theatrical development, they were Gordon Johnstone, who had written the music for our two shows “Be Brazen” and “No Nature”; Teddy Key who used to be front of the house manager at all our productions; and Ken Kennedy who stage managed several of the productions at Padula. They stayed behind when the Germans eventually carted us off to colder climes, and the next I heard of them was that they had got through to the Allied lines and were safely home in England.
During the whole of the 9th, 10th and on the morning of the 11th, there was considerable activity by those who were commonly known as the “escapologists”, many of whom had been protesting their desire to escape since arriving in
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the bag, though without ever having made any serious effort to achieve that desire. This activity manifested itself in digging different sized and shaped holes in different directions in different parts of the camp, and trying to increase the size of the drain pipes and sewerage pipes in order to establish a quiet pied-a-terre where they could remain undisturbed for a few days even though the Germans might express a wish to have them among the company. The Hun must have been perfectly well aware of what was going on, for the noise was intense. Great hammers and mallets were being freely used to knock down walls that happened to be in the way of any particular architectural project, while the presence of one person on a chair, in front of each bungalow, who was relieved after two hours by another member of his gang, gave the right conspiratorial air to the whole affair. But the Germans did not seem to mind and the hammering and shovelling and watching went on undisturbed and everyone was happy.
However, one enterprising sewerage pipe merchant must have been too enterprising, for during the course of the 10th, the orderly room received a polite message from the German commandant to our adjutant to be kind enough to inform us that anyone emerging from a drainpipe outside the wire would be considered as attempting to escape and would be liable to be regarded as target practice for his soldiers. Similarly,
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he wished to discourage anyone from entering drainpipes even our own side of the wire, and would take steps accordingly against anyone found contravening his order. As these pipes were considered by one and all to be somewhat unhealthy, nobody felt it was any great loss not to be able to play in them anymore, and those who had intended hiding there sought fresh fields.
The greater majority of prisoners, however, took the view that we would be released by our own forces within a short time and that the Germans had far too much on their hands to worry about a lot of played out officers who had been out of touch with the war for periods varying up to three years. In fact, most of us thought that if the Boche had any sense he would allow us to go free, for we would prove of far more value to him as officers in the field than in a concentration camp in Germany where we could not do him any good at all, and would necessitate the presence of a certain number of guards. For the effect of prison life is such that after a certain time even the meekest worm will turn and thoughts of escape occupy the minds of all. While the escapologist does nothing but talk of the way he is going to escape, the route which he is going to take and so on, the more serious-minded person will maintain a stubborn silence regarding his intentions, and if taxed with questions will merely reply that nothing is further from his mind, and that even if he did intend to try and leave he would not
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broadcast his programme. Of all the escapes which I remember while I was a prisoner of war, the nearest to success were achieved by men who went quietly, without fuss or previous trumpetings. And consequently they were by far the most respected.
The carabinieri colonel who was our commandant at Padula showed that he was no fool when he suggested that any prisoner who wanted “P” put after his name on his private file, indicating that he was a “pericoloso” who had tried to escape, merely had to go to the office and see one of the Italian interpreters who would be only too willing to oblige. The fact that it is the duty of every British prisoner of war to use his best endeavours to escape was unfortunately interpreted by many as meaning that they should work out the best method of escaping, discussing this method at great length and much volume in public, and leave the matter there.
At Padula in the early days it would have been comparatively easy to get out of the camp, for the wire surrounding the paddock was only a single fence with a very small amount of aproning inside, and the only lamps outside were in each corner of the field and very dim. But it was then early spring, still very cold and we had not got enough food for one meal a day, let alone to provide two or three weeks emergency rations. Afterwards when the Italians had realised the possibilities, and had established machine guns
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at each corner with searchlights on high raised platforms, ordinary arc lamps every fifteen yards and sentries all over the place, the only good bet of getting through the wire was by means of a tunnel which passed underneath it.
The Escape Committee were always investing in some new excavating
enterprise and the shareholders were generally people who were considered by
the committee to have a fair chance of getting through once they were out of
the camp. While no one apart from the committee and those actually working on
the tunnel were supposed to know its whereabouts, all the prospective
travellers had to be warned as soon as the work reached anything approaching
completion. And it was generally not over difficult for them to figure out the
exact location of the tunnel which then formed their main topic of
“I say, old boy. Don’t tell anyone, but there’s a tunnel being prepared in Quarter x which they expect to finish within the next fortnight. If you want to have a crack, you had better put your name down with the committee,” and so on ad nauseam. It was not surprising that only the first of all the series of “galerie” met with any degree of success. This was the one in Room 6, but even that was partially spoilt by only thirteen men being allowed to go on the first night.
On September 10th and 11th, several of our German
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speaking specialists conversed with the guard on the other side of the wire. This guard was composed of Wehrmacht soldiers who seemed quite ready to talk about themselves and their families, though concerning the war situation, they had either been warned to say nothing or alternatively to spread really wild rumours. Whichever the case may have been, the result was the same, for even when they said nothing the rumour-mongers were only too ready to read something sensational into their silence. Rumours about the British having landed at many different points on both coasts of the Peninsula abounded in the camp, and soon reached such heights of detail that one could find out the actual regiments taking part in the operations merely for the asking, provided one got hold of a confirmed “buzz” distributor.
These rumours kept the camp in a state of total effervescence, though this was mainly below the surface, and superficially things went on in accordance with the old routine. But as POWs always believe that exactly what they want to think is true, there were only a very few of the more sober-minded of the community who thought that we might not be relieved by our own troops within the next few days. The general opinion was that things had changed considerably since we had had anything to do with the war, and the landings in North Africa and in Sicily had shown that the people in
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charge knew what they were doing, and had the effectives to back up their actions. So that we reckoned that if it had been considered necessary to withhold the news of the Armistice for nearly a week, that must have been in order to enable preparations for taking over the country to be completed. Otherwise it meant that a monumental bog up was about to be perpetrated, and we could not believe that the time of the monumental bog up had not passed. We soon found out how wrong we were.
One interesting thing which the Germans let out in the course of the various conversations held with them over the wire, was that they formed part of the division which was now stationed round Bologna, where they had arrived three days before the publication of the news about the Armistice. They had come from the south of France, and it was obvious that the Germans had had, if not precise information, at least serious suspicion of what was going on. Not that there was anything particularly meritorious in that, as the whole of Italy knew that peace talks were taking place in Portugal during the month of August, and I remembered the sergeant of the guard in our carriage coming from Padula to Bologna who had pointed out the superfluity of attempting to escape, as peace negotiations were in progress in Lisbon and we would all be free anyway within a few weeks.
From the German guards we also got some idea of what
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had been happening in the district. The Italians had had orders to resist the Germans should the latter show any hostile intentions, and in fact one of the terms of the Armistice was that German troops in Italy should be immediately disarmed. What actually took place was of a very different character, for the Germans needed only one or two companies of infantry supported by a few tanks to enable them to take over even the largest towns. The town of Bologna itself had been occupied by a few hundred German troops, and ten thousand Italian troops comprising the garrison had been disarmed and led away to prison camp without any resistance except for a few stray bullets. At another station, a little further up the line, a train carrying Italian troops all armed with rifles and machine guns had been stopped by a section of German infantry, not more than forty men in all, who had disarmed the six hundred odd Italians without any fight whatsoever.
In most of the big towns it seemed that the Italian soldiers had been told by their officers that it was useless for them to attempt to offer resistance to the Germans who would undoubtedly annihilate them, and that the best thing to do was to change into civilian clothing as quickly as possible and go home. Which advice was followed in a great many cases.
Our camp guard did not know whether there was any
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intention of moving us, but on the whole gave the impression that we should be left alone or perhaps removed to another camp a little further north, as Bologna was considered to be a potential battleground. And, naturally enough, they seemed far more concerned with what was going to happen to them than with the future possibilities of our fate.
The general impression in the camp therefore became one of quiet confidence, and the feeling prevailed that, after all, we would have our happy ending. It seemed then that the chances of our being taken off to Germany were small. This was confirmed indirectly by the guards who assured us that they had heard, and believed, a threat that reprisals would be taken in respect of every Allied prisoner who was transferred from Italy to Germany.
It did not take long for camp life to resume its normal course, and by the afternoon of the 9th a baseball game was in full swing in the middle of the compound. At the start of the game there was a minute’s silence in honour of the officer who had lost his life the previous night, and then the spectators settled down to watch nine innings of some of the best baseball the camp had ever seen. It was a needle match and betting was high and applause and comment and barracking accordingly fierce and partisan. The guard gathered along the outside of the wire to watch the mad Englishmen going out in the afternoon sun and shouting and laughing and applauding
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and behaving generally as though they did not have another care in the world beyond the victory of the particular team they had backed that afternoon. The guard could not understand it at all, and some of them regarded us most suspiciously, doubtless thinking that this was some new escape drill being perfected for use after dark.
The game over, we adjourned to the bar. I was with John, when Clid came over and suggested that we might run the roulette that evening. This was agreed and we pushed the news around. From the enthusiastic comments it was obvious that we were in for a big evening. We got the tables ready immediately after dinner and a large crowd soon gathered round. Play was higher than usual, everyone deciding to get rid of their remaining chits or go away with a big credit in the bank.
On the 10th the majority of the guard were withdrawn and the total number of Germans remaining round the camp was under thirty. This information was volunteered by their officer, who added that in view of the small number of men at his disposal and the large amount of ground which each one had to cover, he had given them orders to fire immediately on anyone seen attempting to escape.
The withdrawal of the guard was generally assumed to indicate a full-scale retreat of the Germans from Italy and was regarded as still another sign that British troops would
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soon be arriving to release us. I often heard the opinion expressed that we would probably wake up the next day to find that all the Germans had disappeared during the night.
From one of the bungalows it was possible to see the main road from Bologna which ran north and south, and each room had to provide watchers for hourly duty to report on traffic on the road. This provided yet another indication of withdrawal, for the vast majority of the transport was moving north. So another day passed, but this sketchy memory would be even more incomplete if I failed to mention that the digging and the hammering and the keeping “cave” in front of each bungalow in which excavations were taking place continued as before.
There had been one beautiful escape during the day. The rations had arrived as usual around lunchtime, but on a large German lorry in charge of which was an N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] accompanied by one of the Italian interpreters. These two men were surrounded by prisoners hurling every conceivable kind of question at them, and consequently kept busy. Then they were drawn slowly but inevitably around to the front of the lorry, while one POW crawled under the back of the vehicle, settled himself on the back axle and waited for the lorry to be driven out of the camp. Which duly happened, and, as he was not brought back subsequently, it was considered that he must have got away. This same method was used again the following day, also with success, but though efficient as an ideal route
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for individuals, it could not fall into the category of the mass producer.
In the late morning of the 11th, we were told to be prepared to move at 1300 hours that afternoon. We were going to be transferred to another camp out of the danger area which Bologna constituted. This new camp was situated near Modena, a town some forty kilometres to the north of Bologna, along the main national road through Emilia. Each person could take what kit he was able to carry.
The news that we were going to move had several immediate results. The first was that food came on offer in large quantities to whoever liked to accept and had room to carry it, and the wise virgins were clearly shown to be those who had never saved anything in the tin store. For they had had the benefit of eating all their cake and were now getting the opportunity of having it as well. Put not thy trust in princes nor in proverb makers; complacent people these, without much real experience of life.
A good deal of food remained on offer, but there was such an abundance that it was far more than could be carried. Every man had a practically untouched Red Cross parcel and it was rumoured that we would be taking another one with us. Our little syndicate gave away a few tins, but found ourselves left with a good quantity of margarine, biscuits and cocoa. This was not difficult to deal with, and after putting ink into the margarine, the cocoa down the lavatory, closely [next line is missing from the original]
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we had left behind would not be of much value to any hungry Germans or Italians.
Italian plumbing was never very efficient and the effect of hundreds of tins in the lavatories and urinals must certainly have destroyed the whole system in the camp for good and all. Everyone was doing the same thing and, with the exception of tins that were left behind in the Mess store, there was no edible food to be found in the camp.
Another result of the movement order was that all the cave dwellers and roof riders and hole hiders returned to their respective places of secretion where they remained until the camp had been abandoned.
At 1300 hours we were assembled outside our bungalows; complete with kit, and allowed to wait in the burning sun until the arrival of a convoy of German lorries. These looked like three-tonners. We were given the order to mount, each lorry taking thirty men and their kit. The lorries were covered with a canvas tarpaulin fastened down on both sides by a long chain.
By some miracle it was possible to get all thirty aboard, but we were all crammed so tight that the air became impossible. Matters were made worse by the driver of the truck battening down the rear flaps of the tarpaulin cover, stopping any air from entering. We remained like this for some time, until we finally managed to get the rear flap open.
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We were still in the camp waiting for the other lorries to finish their loading, and it was not until another half hour had passed that we started to move. By that time we were completely soaked with sweat and many of us were in a state near collapse.
The convoy stopped again after a short stretch of a mile, and we succeeded in getting the canvas cover clear of the rear part of the truck. Looking back along the long line of trucks we could see that all the others had done the same thing, and it was quite useless for the Germans to try and replace the canvas. Two minutes later it was off again, despite all their menaces. In the end, a German officer gave the order for the tarpaulins to be removed altogether, and at last we got some degree of comfort by sitting on the tailboard and the sideboards and allowing more room to those in the middle.
For the first time it became possible to weigh up the chances of jumping off the truck. The convoy had stopped in a narrow lane joining the main Bologna road which we could see ahead of us. This road was thronged with people on foot, on bicycles, on horses and carts, on buses and on cars. Every kind of locomotion was being used to get away from Bologna and go south, and every car that passed had at least ten passengers besides the driver. Here was yet another indirect confirmation that the Bologna area was about to become a
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Many of us were dressed in makeshift civilian clothes and if only we could get away from the convoy there would be nothing to stop us making a successful escape, for there did not appear to be any German control on the road. The difficulty was to get off the truck without being seen. Each truck had its complement of driver, guard who sat with the driver, and machine gunner who sat on the offside front mudguard and was armed with a Tommy gun. The trucks were closed in to a distance of five yards apart, and each machine gunner was in this way easily able to cover the truck ahead of him. We were parked on the right side of the road which abutted on to an open field offering no cover, though opposite to us there was a large private house with big grounds containing plenty of hedges and other possibilities of concealment. I had my eye on that house for some time, but we moved off before there was any possible chance of getting away.
The convoy proceeded down the main road towards the north, in the opposite direction to the stream of refugees. Our trucks kept at a distance of less than ten yards apart, and from time to time the guard with the Tommy gun who was sitting on the mudguard of the truck behind, shifted his little toy from the position where it nestled across his knees, put it in the firing position and acted the part of a tough young man firing a Tommy gun. All most unnecessary as we were quite
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prepared to believe that he would fire on the slightest provocation. But this did not prevent several of us having our feet on the board at the side of the truck ready to jump should there be a sharp bend with a hedge offering protection before the truck behind us had turned the corner. We went through Bologna and some of the people cheered and some jeered.
I never found out whether it was us they were cheering and jeering or whether it was the Jerries, but I rather fancy it was us, as I heard the word “inglesi” mentioned on several occasions. There were crowds gathered throughout the town, for it was Saturday and news of our arrival must have been announced. Everyone had turned out to see the show. They were not disappointed either, as we presented a pretty gruesome spectacle.
Cramped into a very restricted space, and, despite the assurances of the Germans, not convinced that we were being taken to something as innocuous as another camp. All very hot and sweaty, miserable, fed up and far from home. Though I doubt whether that was the impression which the Italians in Bologna received, for most of the trucks managed to achieve a riotous cheer as they passed any group that seemed particularly hostile.
I tried to analyse my own feelings. They were chiefly of utter contempt for all Italians, who had been so valiant in
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trying to save us from the Germans that not a single shot had been fired. Not only that, but they had even told the Germans where the escape gates were, and the fact that these had been covered had prevented countless escapes from the camp. I hated the Italians for their duplicity, and occupied my time thinking about the various ways in which I could make them suffer though I thought of specific people and not the race in general. It was nice to think of heating a poker until it was red hot and applying the cold end to a certain part of the body of one Benincasa, and I was so delighted with the thought that I mentioned it to someone standing next to me. He thought it was an excellent place to put a poker, but enquired why, after I had taken the trouble to heat it red hot, I would apply the cold end. I explained that it was because our dear Benincasa would have difficulty in extracting it, as he would not be able to hold the red hot end, and the explanation seemed to cheer up my neighbour.
But all the time that my thoughts were filled with sweet vengeance I knew that, if events had not been subject to this most monumental mess up, I might have been back in London, and my eyes were very wide open for the corner which would provide the cover I needed to enable me to jump. All the time I was looking for this corner, and at the same time I was wondering whether I would have sufficient guts to jump should the opportunity occur. Once it very nearly did.
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We were passing through a narrow street in the middle of the town and I saw a large group of people gathered across the other side of the street away from us about ten yards. Between us there was the open space of half the road and I quickly weighed up the chances of the guard not firing for fear of hurting the crowd. I decided that this could be very cheaply discounted, and, very relieved that my decision had allowed me to postpone any definite action, I settled down once more to watch the road.
Soon we came into the outskirts of the town and then into open country, through which the road ran long and straight and about ninety per cent of the way quite wide. It only narrowed at a few points where there might be the entrance to a village or a little bridge over a stream. On either side of the road there were fields in deep series stretching back into the distance, but none of them providing the slightest hope of any shelter or hiding place. The countryside was in fact very much like that at home, only there were fewer hedges, and the fields were separated from each other by fences made up of wooden posts or in some places small trees.
Once, after crossing a little bridge running over a stream, we saw fairly large bomb craters in a field at the side of the road. There were about six craters in all, grouped within an area of four hundred yards, but look as we might, we could not find what the objective must have been, and had finally
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to assume that it was the tiny bridge we had just passed over.
There was a fair amount of traffic on the road, but it was mainly military and German and travelling in the opposite direction. Which provided food for thought for some of the more intelligent among the company, and for the pessimists, but even then the units which we saw going south were taken to be merely small detachments who had received orders to go and fight a suicide rearguard action in order to let the main body get away. Another illustration of the fecundity of the soil of a camp of POWs for the birth and evolution of rumours in any shape or form. And all the time the gentleman with the Tommy gun was just as vigilant as ever.
Then the country began to change and there were more houses, and suddenly we were in a town. The convoy drove through the outskirts and pulled up in a wide street outside the station, where we waited while an officer from the escort went off for orders. I got a certain satisfaction from seeing that even the famous Wehrmacht did not have everything completely taped, for I assumed that either the officer did not know the whereabouts of the camp where we were going or alternatively he had not received information that the camp was ready to take us.
Needless to say, I was wrong in both my surmises, for as soon as he came back the convoy started up again and drove into the station, past the ordinary passenger platforms and out into the goods yard where two long rows of cattle trucks were drawn
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up. We were ordered to remain on our lorries and there we stayed, one lorry drawn up behind the other almost touching, until all had arrived. Then the order was given to dismount and the human cargo from each lorry was unceremoniously bundled lock, stock and barrel into the cattle truck opposite.
This all took some time and confusion and John seized the opportunity of showing remarkable foresight. Pulling Rosie and me away from the first coach into which we were being propelled, he pushed us into the group that was already waiting to mount into the second wagon. I did not offer any objection, and soon he volunteered the information that he had chosen that particular truck because of the ventilator openings on both sides, which the first wagon lacked.
It took some time for everyone to get accustomed to their new environment, and above all to get sorted out into some kind of order which would give enough space to allow seating room for all. Despite prolonged experiments, it proved impossible to obtain anything like lying room, so that when the time came for sleeping, it was a question of getting as comfortable as possible and, if a large size in boots was thrust into one’s face, to take it as stoically and philosophically as possible in the knowledge that one’s own foot was probably tickling somebody else’s nose. But that was later. At first we got ourselves into some sort of order, and tried to achieve the maximum amount of comfort under the
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circumstances. This was not great. The floor was of wood, very old and rather rotten in most places, but the majority of us had rugs or blankets and these we spread over the pitch we had chosen.
There must have been about thirty of us in the truck altogether. We were a motley crowd too. One fellow sitting opposite me, whose name I forget, had a guitar, and from time to time would start to knock out some old favourite to the delight of some and the annoyance of other of his fellow travellers. This musical entertainment was varied a little while later by the proprietor of a gramophone which, at the sacrifice of other useful kit, he had brought with him. Unfortunately the gramophone only had one record, though appropriately enough this was Strauss’ “Tales from the Vienna Woods”. I wondered how well-chosen it really was, and whether we would end up anywhere near Vienna, or whether we would finish in Germany, and I decided that the latter was by far the most likely.
The Strauss melody was played over and over again. It had the happy result of making some of the audience restive, and one or two chaps sitting immediately next to the gramophone started looking around the wagon and found that some of the floorboards beneath their feet were almost ripe for removal. An improvised saw was made out of a long biscuit tin into which the necessary ridges were cut by
[Digital page 48, original page 190]
scissors, and it proved most efficient.
The actual work could not be started until later as the two guards to our coach kept poking their heads inside to see what was happening. The train escort was composed of the S.S. “Adolf Hitler” division, and all the soldiers were extremely young, the average age being under twenty. One of the guards who was walking outside was asked by one of our German students how long he had been in the army. He replied that he had been in the Hitler Jugend from the age of 10 until he was 16, when he had been sent to Russia. There he had spent eighteen months at the front. Then his division had gone to France for a rest and after three months there it had been sent to Italy, arriving in the Bologna area a few days before the announcement of the Armistice. This particular youth was not yet 18, but the familiarity with which he clutched his Tommy gun indicated that this toy had taken the place of the usual ones in the makeup of his education, and presumably also that of the remainder of the Hitler Youth. He did not remain long idly chatting, and suddenly left as if realising that his position would be prejudiced if he were seen talking to the prisoners. He returned within a short while accompanied by another guard carrying a length of wire and a large hammer. The wire was used with some effect to bar in the four ventilators which might have been just large enough for a very thin man to squeeze through.
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The hammering and the wire had a dampening effect on the spirits of the majority who commented on the difference in this particular excursion from those previously arranged for us by the Italians. For while the latter were appallingly inefficient in arranging for transport to be provided at the right time, they nevertheless did organise first or second class carriages whenever a long journey had to be undertaken. A popular grouse among POWs in Italy had always been the gross inefficiency of the Italians and their complete inability to organise anything properly, but we were now beginning to wonder whether it was not preferable to the particular brand of German efficiency with its stark brutal ruthlessness which we had experienced since the camp had been taken over.
With the Italians it was always possible to procrastinate and if this were ineffective one could always threaten reprisals or a report to the Protecting Power. Curiously enough, though the Italians knew perfectly well that it would take ages for any useful action to be taken as the result of anything the Protecting Power was told, and anyway the representative only visited us officially twice a year, the threat did succeed in obtaining certain concessions from time to time. These we would never have got otherwise. From the short experience we had had of the Germans it seemed foolhardy to expect that they would be prepared to do anything that did not coincide one hundred per cent with their own programme.
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Eventually we settled down for the night and everyone slept surprisingly well. In the morning we were allowed off to the side of the track to perform our ablutions, after which breakfast became the order of the day. Each cattle truck had four guards armed with submachine guns, two guards patrolling on either side of the truck to stop people moving away to another truck or attempting to escape. Despite these precautions the events of the night became common news throughout the train and we soon learnt that someone from the next coach had made two attempts to escape during the night. On the first occasion, caught while getting out of the truck through the sliding doors which had not been secured from the outside, he had been told politely but firmly to return to the inside of the coach. About an hour later he tried again and succeeded in getting under the truck and crawling underneath the train to the engine. It was only when he was trying to negotiate the tricky part of getting out of the station that he had been stopped by one of the many sentries posted at all vantage points and exits. Again quite politely escorted back to his carriage he decided to abandon any further attempts until the next day.
Just next to our carriage was an enormous refuse pile, square-shaped, each side measuring about twelve yards and rising six or seven feet above the ground. I glanced over to see whether there might be any possible hiding places inside –
[Digital page 51, original page 193]
there were one or two places where the walls were not complete – when someone from the next truck passed close to me and whispered not to take any interest in the dung heap as there were already two blokes down there. Any further contemplations of escape were rudely shattered by a most unpleasant young man who appeared to be the German equivalent of a corporal. He clutched his Tommy gun in a most determined fashion, waved it towards the largest assembled group of breakfasters and indicated that we must return to the trucks. There was some dissent about this and as if to assert his authority he went up to the nearest group of three or four, shouted something extremely abusive and then raised his free arm as if to strike a blow. I thought a rough house would develop when a Canadian pilot who was six foot of solid muscle started to walk slowly towards the German, but he was dragged away by friends and in a short while everyone was aboard the train. The sliding doors were shut and a bolt lock slid into place along the outside of the doors. A chain was looped around the end of the bolt to make it doubly secure.
Soon afterwards the train started, but after going for a few minutes it stopped and began to shunt. It became difficult to make any reasonable guess about the distance we had travelled. After some little time the train stopped altogether, and I heard the chain being removed from the door bolt and the doors were partially opened.
[Digital page 52, original page 194]
CHAPTER VIII. Escape
The truck stank of stale horse dung and of very fresh overpowering human sweat. What little light there was came from the two small grille windows and through the semi-opened sliding doors. The heat was oppressive and most of us wore only pants and vests, or slacks and shirt. I had removed my battle dress jacket and my boots, and was sitting against one of the sides of the truck reading. We had been fortunate in getting a pitch underneath one of the windows, and this made reading possible, though the resulting crick in one’s neck was a high price to pay.
I was deeply engrossed when I heard someone, whose voice came from near the doorway, saying, “What a magnificent chance to escape.” The person sounded so convinced that I decided to have a look and if necessary do a slight reconnaissance. Having got my boots on, I went over to the doors and looked out.
We were in a siding about two hundred yards out of the station. Immediately opposite our truck was a hut obviously for the use of railway officials, for there were six or seven guards and drivers sitting on benches in front of the building which stood some twenty yards away across another railway line. The railwaymen were making signs to us to come into the hut. I
[Digital page 53, original page 195]
pointed to the roof of our truck indicating by signs that I wanted to know whether there were any German guards there. The answer was a characteristic wave of the hand, and I could see their lips shaping that expressive word “Nichsie”. Adjoining the hut, separated only by a tiny path, was a small garden fenced in by a wire fence 4 feet high. Behind the garden were some yards of undergrowth, then what appeared to be a main road, separated from the undergrowth by a fence of concrete palings 5 feet high.
The two guards armed with Tommy guns allotted to our coach patrolled up and down the length of their beat, meeting in the middle where they turned about, so that they were both moving inwards and outwards at the same time. They were allowing us off our coach, and the coach in front, one at a time to go over and use the side of the track as an improvised lavatory. This went on for ten minutes or so, and then gradually discipline relaxed and three and four were allowed off together, going further and further afield until the garden had taken over the duties of the side of the track. I turned to Rosie and yelled to him across someone’s head to pass me a roll of toilet paper. With it clutched under my arm and feeling rather like Cromwell when he walked the Bloody Tower, I descended from the truck and walked across to the garden. It must have been a funny sight because I remember trying to look as though I had taken a large dose of evacuant the previous night and
[Digital page 54, original page 196]
was just starting to suffer from the effects, whereas in fact I have seldom felt more costive. However it proved efficacious for I was not stopped, and eventually arrived at the garden where there were already three or four others. My intention had been to jump over the wire fence immediately and get into the hut from the back. Once inside I hoped to be able to persuade the Italians to put me on a train for La Spezia, where in view of the rumours we had heard I was firmly convinced that British troops had already landed, or would land at the latest within a few days.
Unfortunately, one of the German guards happened to catch my eye at that moment, and knowing that my thoughts are usually reflected on my face when I am not trying to hide them, I had a nasty feeling that the game was up. However, I decided to continue my impression of the gentleman suffering from severe enteric troubles, and, following the normal procedure adopted by our gallant allies the Egyptians, lowered my trousers and squatted. This appeared to satisfy the guard, and he turned away and recommenced his patrol. The only thing that worried me was the open truck, two away from ours, which was being used as a machine gun nest and observation post. But, from a quick glance, I saw that nobody there appeared to be taking much notice of me, and when the guard who had been watching me was hidden by the corner of the railwaymen’s hut, I had my trousers up and was over the wall
[Digital page 55, original page 197]
in record time. I found myself behind the hut, but with little cover apart from some long grass into which I threw myself. About a minute later I heard a voice telling me to move as I could be seen where I was. It was Wilson who had come from the same carriage, and by the same route.
Behind the hut there was a little rabbit hutch, alongside which, for about twelve feet, ran a tiny path which led to a trellis work fence attached to the rear of the rabbit hutch. On the other side of the path was a rock garden and the path between this and the rabbit hutch provided the best external cover available. I gave an imitation of a Hollywood Red Indian going scalping and succeeded in getting round to the path without creating much noise, though was considerably shaken by continual bursts of machine gun fire. These I imagined to be connected with attempted escapes from the train, or even with me, and they left me feeling somewhat depressed. I tried to occupy myself by looking for small pieces of rock, flowers and shrubbery to serve me as camouflage in my attempt to look like a little prairie flower. The next half hour I spent making myself as comfortable as possible under an assorted collection of vegetation and rock. The shrubbery which I had found I arranged along the trellis work to conceal myself from the road, on the other side of which was a German self-propelled anti-tank gun around which the crew of four or five were chatting. Fortunately, there
[Digital page 56, original page 198]
seemed to be very few people using the side of the road which was nearer to me. I thought that I was quite unobserved until I heard someone whispering beckoningly from the pavement. As soon as I had located the person from whom the noises emanated, I made pleading gestures for him to go on his way and not become involved in something which, after all, was a purely personal affair. He seemed rather a pleasant type of well-covered Italian, and with a happy knowing smile he went on his way. Time passed very slowly, and I had ample time in which to meditate on the waste of ammunition that was taking place. Or perhaps it was not being wasted, but there certainly was plenty of machine gun activity.
For a long time I lay there in my manufactured hiding place trying to curl myself up into a small unobtrusive shape that would fit in with the landscape, but I am sure that if any of the German guards had taken the trouble to come round behind the hut I would have been seen. At the beginning I remember thinking that, even if I were recaptured, it was rather an amusing interlude, and now that I had convinced myself that getting off a train was really quite a simple matter, I would be able to use this experience on another occasion. The whole thing was a question of opportunity; if you were lucky enough to have it handed to you on a silver platter as had been my good fortune, then conceivably you might even expect your luck to hold.
[Digital page 57, original page 199]
And as my mind wandered over this proposition, and the minutes dragged slowly by without incident, the conviction grew in me that the Gods were on my side, and that everything would turn out well.
I began to think of what to do next, and I decided that the best course would be to stick to my original plan and get to Spezia. But first I had to get out of the station, and that looked impossible until the prison train had left.
I remember trying to send a telepathic message to my friends on the train, pleading their forgiveness for what I was about to do, and then following it with a sincere prayer to the Almighty that he should get the train moving without delay.
Nothing happened. The fire of machine guns continued and occasionally a guttural German voice could be heard giving orders. In the street in front of me, people passed up and down, but the majority of them used the pavement on the other side of the road, and from there I must have been well concealed. The few who passed near me also failed to see me except the happy, short, well-covered Italian, who came back sometime after the first visit, looked at me intently once again, and then went on his way. I thought that everything was over. But another half hour passed without incident, and my heart ceased its furious thumping and reverted to normal.
Suddenly I heard a voice call my name quietly but urgently,
[Digital page 58, original page 200]
and I squeezed my head round, trying to avoid rising as I did so. Standing at my feet I saw a magnificent sight; it was Bill Wiltshire dressed up to look like a rather smooth Italian labourer in his Sunday best. He was wearing Air Force serge trousers, a civilian shirt open at the neck with short sleeves, and a wonderful sombrero type of Italian felt hat.
He threw me a bundle and said.
“Get into those, Nat, and go through that window and they will look after you inside.”
And he pointed to the window at the rear of the railwaymen’s hut. Then he walked to the corner of the hut and disappeared.
The bundle contained a pair of yellow denim trousers and a long black overall coat, torn in several places and well marked with oil and grease. I put on the denims, which effectively covered my battle dress trousers, and took off my khaki shirt and slipped on the overall coat. I caught a glimpse of myself in the window of the hut just before I pushed it open and climbed inside, and was gratified to find that I did not look unlike the Italian railwaymen who had waved from outside the hut.
Then I went through the window. Inside the room, which was the main room of the two contained in the hut, there were three or four Italians. They did not seem at all surprised to see me, nor, on the other hand, did they appear enthusiastic.
[Digital page 59, original page 201]
The room was obviously being used as some sort of a telegraph office to signal boxes further up the line, for the telephone rang on two occasions, and I gathered from the conversation of the Italian who answered that it was in connection with the time the prisoner of war train would be passing through Mantua.
Through the open doorway of the room I could see the train twenty five
yards away; the sliding doors of the cattle trucks had been locked and all the
prisoners were on board. Between the train and the hut S.S. guards still
patrolled, but now their patrolling was different, for they were not moving on
a regular beat as previously, but just strolling around, each in his own small
allotted area. I looked at my watch, it was past noon and this surprised me,
for the last hour must have gone more quickly than I thought. This was
obviously not too healthy a spot, so I tried an opening gambit.
“Voglio andare alla Spezia. Pagare dieci mila lire.”
And to emphasise this I pointed to myself and said, “Io.”
This failed to arouse any enthusiasm, but Bill had sounded so sure that I would get help that I decided to repeat the question, this time with a little extra emphasis.
“Io, voglio andare alla Spezia molto prontissimo. Io pronto pagare dieci mila lire.”
[Digital page 60, original page 202]
As I was finishing this pretty little speech, an elderly railwayman
came through the open doorway. I saw a timetable lying nearby and got hold of
this and attempted to look as though I was interested in its contents, and
furthermore that I was studying it in the course of my duties, when I heard a
little splutter of conversation, and then the newcomer was standing beside me.
“Inglese?” he asked.
“Si, si! Ufficiale inglese. Prigionero di guerra scappato,” and once again I repeated my desire to go to La Spezia.
The old man shook his head slowly.
“La Spezia nichsie buono,” he said, making the usual deprecating gesture with the thumb and first finger of the right hand.
This was becoming difficult, but I kept on trying. Somehow I had – for
no reason at all – set my heart on Spezia, and if I was going anywhere it
seemed important that it should be to that city.
“Ma, truppe inglesi sono in Spezia.”
“Nichsie, nichsie. Tutte rumore. Tedeschi in Spezia. Inglesi non ancora sbarcati.”
So what we had suspected was true, and our troops had not yet landed in the northwest. Or perhaps this was another trick and this old railwayman was only interested in handing
[Digital page 61, original page 203]
me back to the Germans patrolling outside. But I immediately discounted
this thought, and was ashamed of myself for having allowed it to enter my mind.
If he wanted to hand me over, there was nothing easier. He only had to call out
and summon the guards. And then as if to settle the uncertainty in my mind, the
old man spoke again quietly.
“Bisogna andare alla piscina. La sarete sicuro. Gli altri sono anche andati. Ma spettate un po”.
I gathered that he wanted to take me somewhere where the others had gone, though I did not know that anyone besides Bill Wiltshire had succeeded in getting away.
Suddenly I felt an overwhelming desire for a cigarette and at the same time, I was terribly thirsty. I did my best to make my needs known to the old man, and he immediately sent one of the others for water and he handed me a packet of A.O.I.. We had occasionally received a packet of these cigarettes in Padula from one of the interpreters, and I found them a not unpleasant smoke, though the opium content gave them a scented flavour and sometimes caused minor explosions in the tobacco.
The man who had been sent out came back with an army dixie filled with water, and I stood puffing my cigarette and getting rid of my thirst. I don’t think that I was really afraid at all at the time, for the whole scene seemed so utterly natural and the old railwayman inspired confidence. The others too
[Digital page 62, original page 204]
were now much more friendly, and I realised that they must have mistaken me for a German when I first landed among them.
Then the old man, who had gone out of the hut for a few minutes returned, and from the recesses of his voluminous overalls he produced a high peaked cap similar to those worn by engine drivers and their mates all over the world. I tried it on. The fit was perfect, and now I felt fully clothed. But my friend had one more trump, and with a little smile of self-satisfaction he put a red flag into my hand.
What absolute showmen the Italians are. Even this old man, whose life must have been very limited, insisted on producing the right article. If I was going to be a railwayman, then of course I must have a red flag. To him it was as simple as that, but to me it seemed quite a brilliant touch. For how could the Germans guarding the train expect some of their late charges to be wandering about the station carrying red flags?
And when, a couple of minutes later, the old man beckoned to me I went with a feeling of confidence. He took me by the arm, and together we walked by the S.S. men outside the hut, and keeping parallel with our train we followed another line until eventually we became hidden behind some trucks on it. We carried on behind these trucks for a short distance, and then walked down a small embankment to the concrete fence which I had seen in my hiding place, and which completely surrounded the station.
[Digital page 63, original page 205]
I looked up and down the road which I had seen before and which ran on the other side of the fence. The Jerry self-propelled anti-tank gun was still there, now about a hundred yards away. The crew were still there too. A few pedestrians were about, but none were very near and no one was paying us the slightest attention except two men who were standing right opposite us on the other side of the road in the entrance of what appeared to be a large park. There was a big iron gate opening on to a drive, and a smaller gate obviously used by pedestrians, and it was in the smaller of the two entrances that the men were standing.
One of the men was short and stocky, the other tall and slim. The short one was beckoning urgently. I thought that there was something vaguely familiar about him, and suddenly realised that he was the pleasant smiling type who had spotted me while I was hiding in the rockery.
All this happened in a very short space of time, and while I was trying to make some sense of it I felt my companion urging me to get over the wall. I tried, but it was no good. Neither my arms nor my legs had any strength, and I was unable to hoist myself up the few feet and get my legs over. The old railwayman was equal to the occasion, and, seizing me by the seat of my overall pants, he gave one hearty heave and I was on the other side. Then with a couple of quick movements he was over too.
I wanted to run across the street, and started to do so.
[Digital page 64, original page 206]
But again he took my arm, and suddenly the stocky man was on my other
side also with his arm through mine, and for the first time I heard him speak
in a normal voice.
“Piano, piano, tutto va bene,” he said in a friendly tone, and his face lit up in a charming smile.
So we went across the street, quietly and without any sign of undue haste. My friends led the way through the smaller gate and turned sharply to the right where we were hidden from the road by a high concrete wall. There the tall man was waiting. He shook me warmly by the hand and the other two followed suit. It was all completely incongruous, but at the time it seemed perfectly natural, and anyway it was absolutely Italian.
I was led towards a large building with an enormous tower, it was a typical example of fascist architecture, square, big, pretentious and vulgar, and giving the impression that one fine day it might just fall down. There was a large clock on the tower, and underneath an enormous reproduction of the Italian fasces sign.
As we walked towards the building, I saw that the place was some sort of a sports stadium, for we passed a big marble swimming pool, and a little further away I could see a football ground with a stand big enough to accommodate several thousand spectators. Then we reached the main building, and entered what appeared to be a restaurant equipped with a first class bar. To my
[Digital page 65, original page 207]
disappointment we did not stop, but went through another door, up some stairs finally stopping before a door marked: Ronchi G. Direttore della Stada. The tall man pressed the bell three times, and the door was quickly opened. We stepped inside and I found myself in the entrance hall of a small apartment. The railwayman said something to me which I did not understand. Then he spoke to the tall fellow who turned to me and asked me in perfect French whether I spoke that language. I told him I did, and was starting to thank him and his friends for all they had done when he cut me short, assuring me that it was nothing and asked me to take off my overalls and jacket and hand them to the railwayman who was going back to the station to bring in any other prisoners hiding there.
I willingly did as he asked, and handed the clothes to the old man who
bade us a fond farewell and departed. I was left with my battle dress trousers
and army boots and nothing else, but the woman who had opened the door did not
appear to be at all embarrassed. French speaker asked me to follow him and we
went into a well-furnished living room where two men and a woman were sipping
glasses of wine. One of the men was Bill, the other I did not know although he
was obviously British. Bill introduced me.
“Nat, this is Ted Paul, an Aussie. He got off the other end of the train earlier on this morning. Walked along the road by the side of some chap wheeling a bicycle and was getting a bit too close to the Jerries with the anti-tank gun when Joris
[Digital page 66, original page 208]
there,” and he indicated my short stocky friend, “came out of
the gate and took him by the arm and brought him in.”
Paul broke in.
“Yes, it might have been very awkward. I still had on a khaki shirt and Air Force trousers. I was feeling pretty nervous.”
French speaker must have understood, for he added smilingly, “Oui, il etait blanc comme un drap!” Then he introduced me to the others.
The short man was Joris Franciosi, and as soon as he had been introduced he left the room announcing that he was going back to the gate to receive the next visitor. I told them where Roworth and Wilson were hiding and he said he would look for them. Then Ronchi, the tall slim man, introduced himself. He was the director of the sports stadium, and he told me that he and his friends had been watching the station since early morning from the top of the tower. They had actually seen some of our escapes and had sent Joris to patrol up and down the road to see where we had hidden. Having found us, he had contacted the old railwayman who was a friend of his and organised our exit from the station.
Then I was introduced to Ronchi’s wife, Pina, a charming brunette dressed comfortably in a housecoat, who had been busying herself pouring me out a glass of wine. She only spoke Italian, but made it perfectly clear that we were all
[Digital page 67, original page 209]
very welcome guests and were going to be looked after accordingly. The door opened and a woman who had admitted us to the flat came in with a baby in her arms. More introductions. This was Maria, the maid, and the baby was Mario the son and heir of the Ronchi family. He was twenty months old, a happy young man who continually gurgled, “Dada, dada.”
In a corner of the room I saw a wireless, and I eyed it greedily. But I
did not want to suggest listening to London for I knew that the penalty for
Italians caught doing so was death, and I did not know whether we might be
overheard. Pina guessed what was in my mind, and got up and taking me by the
arm, led me to the set and switched it on. Then she gave me the glass of wine
she had been pouring out. I toasted our hosts, and then gave my attention to
the wireless. Soon I got the B.B.C.’s Home Service, but there was no news
programme. Ronchi came across and without hesitation turned the set on to the
B.B.C. programme in Italian. I could only follow a little of what was being
said. Ronchi translated into French and I told the others.
“It’s all right apparently. They have just announced that the Italian people must keep calm and do nothing rash. Allied troops will have taken over the whole country within a fortnight.”
“Well, we certainly seem to have fallen on our feet here.
[Digital page 68, original page 210]
Personally, I’ll be quite happy to stay put for a fortnight. I wonder
whether we will be able to stay here.”
I asked Ronchi what the chances were of hiding up in the town for a few days, and was told most reassuringly that on no account must I worry, for such small details would be taken care of. We must regard ourselves as their guests, and even if it were not possible for us to stay there with them, arrangements would be made elsewhere.
We were having our second glass of wine when the doorbell rang three times, and a few moments later Roworth and Wilson appeared in the room. More introductions and explanations and more glasses of wine. This was becoming a regular binge, and, unaccustomed as I was to public drinking, I felt slightly lightheaded and wondered whether it were all real. The observant Pina noticed the effect of the drink and at once suggested that we might all like something to eat. A well received suggestion, and she went off to the kitchen with the maid.
Ronchi told us he was waiting for some friends to arrive with civilian clothes, and in the meantime we might like to have a shower and a shave. We willingly agreed and were conducted out of the apartment, down the stairs and through a back door into the changing quarters of the swimming pool. There were some showers here and we were soon splashing away trying to remove the traces of our morning activities, though
[Digital page 69, original page 211]
finding it tough going to work up a lather with the Italian soap which we had been given. And then I understood why it was that we had always had such a good market for British soap when swapping it with our guards.
While I was dressing I chatted with Ronchi who told me that the stadium
was officially closed as the summer season had finished. But we were indeed
lucky he said, for the football ground and the restaurant had been taken over
the previous night by a German motorised unit who had camped there until five
o’clock that morning.
“Les sales boches,” he said, “they came in and helped themselves to wine and food, made a filthy mess of the place, and then complained because we hadn’t got sheets for the officers! Yes. You are very lucky, for if they had not left this morning we would not have been able to help you and your friends.”
When we were dressed he led us up into the tower, and from a window there we were able to see the train we had left. It seemed to be in the same place and the doors were all shut. The guards were still as numerous and were still patrolling on both sides of the wagons.
I looked at my watch. It was 2.30. And as I turned again to the window, I saw the train start to move. Looking down on it from where we were was as if we were watching our own destiny from some eyrie high in the clouds where we would remain untouched by anything we saw. The
[Digital page 70, original page 212]
train disappeared from sight. Bill said.
“Those poor devils. They’ll all end up in Germany. Another year in the bag.”
We all felt that way, and I breathed a silent prayer of thanks for my deliverance. It was while we were meditating upon our own good fortune and feeling rather depressed about the others that Terry Muirhead suddenly arrived on the scene. Incredibly dirty, dressed in khaki drill shorts and shirt covered by the overall coat which I had worn, he nevertheless looked hugely pleased with life and a broad grin illuminated his face. Terry, 6 ft. 2 ins., and proportionately wide across the body. A very tough young man aged about 27, he was captured during the breakout of the Tobruk garrison in the autumn of 1941. A regular soldier, and though stereotyped in his love of hunting, shooting and fishing, possessed of more imagination than the normal run of Regular officer. Fair-haired, a pleasantly ugly face with an attractive smile. Had a M.C. [Military Cross], won during the short Syrian campaign, but when questioned about the manner in which he had acquired it, claimed that it was the result of successful chicken stealing on behalf of his senior officers.
Terry was quite an intimate friend from the camp for we had often played bridge and piquet together. We decided to stay together if it were possible.
[Digital page 71, original page 213]
We went back to the apartment and there we shaved and made ourselves generally presentable. On returning to the tower, we were met by several new faces. Italians who kept coming in carrying a suitcase, or a pair of trousers over one arm, or a paper parcel containing sandals, or a bag with food. In fact, every need of the escaped prisoner was catered for. And soon we were dressed in the manner of the Italian borghesi, but still Terry and Wilson, both blond, could not have been mistaken for Italians. Fitted with hats, they were less obvious. So they were given hats.
Then Pina came to tell us that food was ready, and we left the tower and went to a largish room at the back of the restaurant. Attached to this was a kitchen from which were coming most appetising odours, and tucked away in another corner of the room was a good sized cellar. Here Joris came into his own, and soon we were toasting each other again, this time in Asti Spumante, followed by Lambrusco – the local sparkling red wine. Pina came out of the kitchen with an enormous dish of pasta which looked wonderful. Another woman followed her. We were all introduced. This was Claudia and she helped Joris, who, it transpired, ran the restaurant and bar.
It was a fine meal, with the excellent pasta, the salad with a dressing that was just right, and the rabbits cooked over an open fire so that the sides were of a golden brown.
[Digital page 72, original page 214]
The bread was the whitest I had seen since leaving Cairo, and the wine was good and plentiful. The gateau had real cream, and of everything there was an abundance.
We were just starting to eat, with conversation carried on mainly in English by tongues loosened with wine, when a couple of sharp knocks sounded on the door. Instantly everyone froze, and looked towards the door, where, outlined against the frosted glass that formed the upper part, were two men. Ronchi whispered to the Italians to keep up a conversation. This they did. Then Claudia called out that she was coming to the door, and asked what the newcomers wanted. As she went out of the kitchen, the answer came in Italian spoken badly and gutturally, and we knew that we had German visitors.
My heart literally came up into my mouth, and, the law of natural compensation reasserting itself, my morale dropped right into my feet. Always prone to extremes, I saw the end of all hope of a successful escape, saw myself and the others retaken by Germans, sent to a camp where I would have no kit and probably get a hostile reception from the authorities into the bargain. I even looked under the table to see whether there was any chance of hiding there. Suddenly it struck me how ridiculous I was being and how little my fate mattered compared with that of the people who were now helping us, for if they were caught they would get either
[Digital page 73, original page 215]
imprisonment or death. And if the Allies were expected within a
fortnight it was not likely that the Germans would waste any time in putting
people in prison. Ronchi came over and whispered in my ear.
“Tell your friends that, if the Germans come in, they must go on eating their meal as if nothing was wrong. They are Italians having a late Sunday lunch. These Germans probably don’t speak Italian, so if any of you are asked any questions just say yes or no, or any other Italian words that you know. Anyway, I will try and do the talking if they do come in here.”
Claudia came back into the room.
“It’s all right,” she said, “the swine have only come to have a bathe. I’ve given them costumes and towels and they are quite happy now.”
The relief was incredible, but I found that my appetite had forsaken me. I had another glass of wine and felt better. Another Italian came into the room. He was tall and well-built and gave the impression of a prosperous merchant. He was followed by a small man with thin pointed features, but a very pleasant face notwithstanding. Both of them gave the impression of toughness, both in his own individual way. The fat man was introduced as Mario Lugli, the thin one as Luciano Vezzani. Mario came straight to the point.
“I can take two guests in my house. I am ready to leave
[Digital page 74, original page 216]
at once, but if you would prefer it we can wait until dark. But in
these times, I think it is less suspicious to go while it is still
Vezzani then made his offer.
“I can accommodate another two for a few days until we can get them fixed up in the country,” he said. Joris closed the lists by offering to take the remaining two. We protested that we had accepted enough of their hospitality. But we did not protest very convincingly, and anyway they would not listen. Of course we must do as they said, for would not our own soldiers be here soon to take care of us?
Then, sitting there in the kitchen we were given our Italian names. I do not remember those of the others, but Terry and I became Gino and Enzo respectively. This renaming process amused our hosts, and they chattered among themselves like young children enjoying a new game. And in a sudden glimpse into their characters, I saw that they were indeed enjoying the intrigue of it all, enjoying it as they would enjoy a sport in which they were determined to be successful.
The method of leaving the stadium was discussed, and it was decided that we should leave in pairs at intervals with our hosts to be while it was still light. Wilson and Roworth went first with Mario Lugli and Ronchi, and as they were leaving, after fond farewells all round, Pina gave another illustration of the Italian love of detail in any affair of intrigue. Gathering up the little Mario, she handed him to
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Wilson. Ronchi explained.
“Your friend is too blond to be Italian. The Germans are still outside in the pool, and you will have to pass them to leave the stadium. Even they are not such fools as to imagine your friend is anything but British! But if he goes out carrying Mario, he will be all right.” Which was what happened. Ronchi told us the story with some pride when he returned half an hour later. Wilson had carried the infant, with Ronchi walking at his side. The child seeing his father beside him, kept gurgling, “Dada, dada,” and they passed the Germans without arousing the slightest suspicion. Wilson and Roworth were now established in their new home and were quite comfortable.
Ronchi and Lugli, who had returned with him, went off again. This time they took Bill and Ted Paul. And now at last it was our turn.
We went out of the stadium and walked past the swimming pool, in which five or six German soldiers were still swimming and splashing about, along the side of the football ground. I walked in front with Joris and Terry came behind with Luciano. It was not yet dark. Soon we came to the end of the football ground and Joris produced a key and unlocked a small door which was fitted into the wall which rose high above us and surrounded the stadium. We went out locking the door carefully behind us. Then Joris linked his arm in mine, and we walked along as if we were two old friends. Joris was
[Digital page 76, original page 218]
talking volubly in the patois peculiar to the district, but I caught only an occasional word that I understood, and this only because it sounded very much like a French word. I never made any spoken reply, but from time to time gesticulated as I had seen our Commandant do when walking around the monastery, surrounded by his posse of stooges.
Terry and his companion were on the other side of the road. Broad Terry towering above his newly-found friend, who was short and slim, and I made a mental note to tell him that he must do something to conceal his height if the occasion arose again for him to display his Tarzan-like figure to the local inhabitants.
We walked through a residential district and I was thankful to see that there were very few people about. We passed two guards of the Royal Carabinieri, but they appeared to notice nothing untoward and we proceeded on our way unmolested. This gave me confidence and I felt that either we must look like Italians, or alternatively that escaped British prisoners of war were not expected to be walking about the streets. I thought that as long as we reached our temporary haven safe and sound everything would be all right, for I had gathered from the little I had understood of the conversation, that we were to spend the next fortnight at the apartment of Joris’ sister and brother-in-law. This was situated in the working class district of the town, and there was little likelihood
[Digital page 77, original page 219]
of our being discovered there.
Being still convinced that the Germans were clearing out of Italy fast, my optimism had been augmented by the B.B.C. announcement that we had heard that afternoon. As long as we remained quietly concealed for a fortnight we were safe. The keyword was “Play safe, and avoid risks”.
Soon we came into a more populated district and now it was becoming dark. Although there appeared to be some sort of a blackout in force, there were many shop windows whose lights were exposed to the street and large chinks in curtains and windows gave a somewhat uncanny effect to the streets unlighted by lampposts. We passed through a small street lined on either side by shops over which were large buildings projecting out into the street so that archways were formed over the pavements. The street itself was narrow. And suddenly we were in a large square and this was lighted and many people were walking about; among them several Germans, who, I had to admit at the time, did not seem to be in any hurry to evacuate the country. But nobody paid us much attention although, as we went across the square and crossed over the main street of the town, one or two of Joris’ acquaintances bade him a good evening, to which he replied with a non-committal nod. He seemed to know a lot of people. I looked round for Terry. He and Luciano were walking along on the other side of the road a little behind us, and Terry
[Digital page 78, original page 220]
seemed to be talking away as fast as he could, at which his companion was smiling hugely. I remember hoping that he was not saying anything out aloud for, in spite of a thousand different dialects of Italy it would not have been possible to mistake Terry for anything but an Englishman.
Leaving the main street we crossed into a narrow alleyway and after proceeding a few hundred yards my companion turned into a small and poor tenement house. He led the way up the stone stairs to the fourth floor and then rang the bell of one of the two doors on the landing. By the time the door was opened Terry and Luciano had arrived. The door was opened by a short Italian woman whose hair was greasy and hung in black curls. She was young but unattractive and dressed very badly. Joris said something in rapid Italian and we went in quickly and the door was closed behind us.
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CHAPTER IX. Life in an Italian town during German occupation.
Soon we got into the routine of the life of our new home. The apartment comprised a living-cum-dining room which adjoined a small kitchen. A door from the kitchen led through a tiny passageway into a largish bedroom, and in turn a door from this led into a room which we occupied. The door through which we had passed to enter the apartment led directly into the living room, opening inwards, and whenever anybody called and we happened to be sitting there we would scurry out as quickly as possible through the kitchen into the little passageway, and then via the big bedroom until we finally reached our own room. This room which we occupied had a separate entrance from the staircase. The living room furniture consisted of a table, a dresser, a small double occasional seat, and a few chairs placed round the dining table. Some artificial flowers were stuck in a vase on a pedestal in one corner. There was a window on the left of the front door as you came in, and during the whole time we were there we insisted on the shutters being drawn. This aroused no interest as this particular window faced east and it was natural that shutters should be drawn to prevent the heat of the morning sun. Facing south was another large window through which it was possible to see over the whole town, but owing to our being fairly high up, the chance of anyone
[Digital page 80, original page 222]
seeing us and recognising us as alien to the district was indeed remote. Next to this window was a door which led out on to a small terrace, and the modern conveniences of the apartment, which we found out later had originally been built some three hundred years before, were situated in a little shed on this terrace.
The kitchen consisted of a small room with an even tinier scullery leading off, and as befitted Italian hygiene and plumbing arrangements, it ran directly alongside the shed which was used as a lavatory. The kitchen itself was fitted with a small gas stove, and a range which was heated by whatever refuse would burn. The little passage off the kitchen was used as a storeroom, and was something of a danger spot for us, as on the north side it had a small window which looked onto the staircase inside the building. When moving across from the main bedroom and the kitchen, we were always careful to make sure that the curtain of this window was drawn. The main bedroom itself consisted of a large double bed and a chest of drawers, and there was on the west side a double window which opened out onto the alley below. The building directly opposite was an apartment house, and we always had to be careful to avoid being seen through the windows from across the street.
Finally to our own room which, when we arrived, consisted of a single bed, a washstand, a dressing table, and a large
[Digital page 81, original page 223]
mirrored wardrobe. The room had two doors, the one leading into the large bedroom, and the other into the passageway through which passed the main staircase of the building. We also had a double window with shutters, looking out onto the street below, and these shutters were always kept practically closed. The room was small, being about 10 feet long by 9 feet wide. So much for the geography of our new home.
The inhabitants were more interesting. They consisted of Joris’ sister, Maria; her husband, Darco, and their son, a precocious but highly intelligent youth of five, Mario.
When we first arrived in the flat only Maria was there, and it was she who admitted us. Joris introduced us quickly, and as I could not make head or tail of the conversation that was going on between brother and sister, apart from catching the words, “Ufficiali inglesi”, I took the opportunity of watching her reaction. She was a vivacious little thing, very short, certainly not more than 5 feet tall, and appeared to contain a hidden store of tremendous energy which manifested itself chiefly in her speech. This, as is fashionable in Italy, especially among the poorer classes, was accompanied by an incredible assortment of gestures, both manual and facial. But with the exception of a certain tense excitement, she did not seem to regard our coming as anything unusual, and from the further few scraps I understood of the conversation, her main concern was whether she would be able to feed us adequately.
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As soon as she had got over her first surprise, at learning that her brother proposed that we should live in her apartment for the next fortnight, she set out to be hospitable and try and make us feel at ease. She was obviously a woman who had never seen many of the good things of life and her outlook was extremely restricted. We learnt later that, until the 25th of July, she had worked in an armament factory near Reggio, travelling some forty kilometres daily to do so. And, as a result of being a small cog in one huge wheel of organisation, any individuality of thought had been completely stamped out of her. Thus, not only was she mentally undeveloped, but I think that she realised it too. In the security of her own home she tried to become a different person, and by expanding in a slightly dictatorial fashion, endeavoured to lose her inferiority complex.
There was no doubt, however, that she was extremely kind and delighted to help in any way against the fascist regime, which though she did not even realise it herself, had so dulled her perceptions and cramped her individuality. In addition, too, she had the Italian love of intrigue and the similarly characteristic Italian respect for the head of the family. And as Joris was the head of the family, we immediately acquired status, both as his proteges and his guests.
After being introduced, we were shown to our room and asked whether there was anything that we needed. I explained.
[Digital page 83, original page 225]
to Terry what it was all about, as far as I could, and we agreed that this would be absolute heaven provided that there were no other occupants in Wehrmacht grey. I tried to explain this to Joris, and he must have understood for he smiled hugely. Then he beckoned us back into the living room, and no sooner had we sat down round the table than a bottle of wine was produced. Glasses were filled and we were about to toast the speedy liberation of Italy when there was a knock on the door. Joris called out.
“Chi e?” He seemed satisfied with the answer and went to open the door, motioning to us to remain where we were. It was Gaston Ronchi. We were delighted to see him, and I was especially pleased as I was able to get all the latest “gen”.
He took a glass of wine and then told us that Roworth and Wilson were living in an apartment not ten minutes walk away. Bill Wiltshire and Ted Paul were also parked locally, but were moving out to an estate in the country within the following few days.
I questioned him as to the movements of the Germans, and he said that there were very few in the town, though there was a lot of transport on the roads. Most of the road transport was going south, but all the trains seemed to be heading north, and two more POW trains in addition to ours had passed through during the day.
The town was alive with rumours and the more sensational reported British landings at Spezia and Trieste. Meanwhile, the Germans
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had seized control of the key centres in Modena and occupied the post office, the station and the town hall, but apart from this, were not exercising any direct control on the population.
The carabinieri had mostly changed into civilian clothes and gone home.
Most of the fascists, and there were only a few in the town, had taken off
their black shirts and were quietly in hiding awaiting developments. The main
direct cause of friction existing between the Germans and the Italians arose
out of the imprisonment of the local Italian garrison in the town barracks.
“Where are the barracks?” I asked. “They are the buildings
opposite the stadium,” Ronchi replied, and I realised that this was where
all the shooting had been coming from during the morning.
“What are the chances of getting to Rome?” I asked.
“Il n’y a pas moyen. C’est tout a fait exclu,” was the answer, and he went on to explain that the only trains operating were those going north. These consisted almost exclusively of cattle trucks taking prisoners of war to Germany.
I told Terry. He suggested trying for Spezia on the footplate of a locomotive, and when I put this to Ronchi he said that we would do better to wait until things had settled down a bit and we could see them in their proper perspective. Then he said, “About nine hundred escaped prisoners from a camp in the north managed to get across into Switzerland, but that was in the first two days after the Armistice while Italian guards
[Digital page 85, original page 227]
were still on duty. Now they have been replaced by Germans. It’s not worth the risk trying to get up there, when, after all, your own troops will have probably occupied the whole country in a short while.” And Joris who had been following the conversation attentively, joined in and urged us to stay put. The order of the day was “piano, piano”.
We were still sitting at our round table conference when Maria’s husband returned from work. He was a tailor in the town, and had been allowed to carry on because his medical category was low. We thought that he was consumptive. He was taller than the average Italian we had met, and very thin. His face was pitted with smallpox scars, and with his lank black hair hanging down over his forehead and his closely set eyes, he presented a sinister appearance.
When he learnt who we were, his sallow face lost all colour, but like Maria he paused to think it over, and then told us that we would be very welcome in his flat for as long as we liked to stay, and really set himself out to be hospitable.
Terry and I were still in a daze from the rapid turn of events, but when we returned to the privacy of our own room while dinner was being prepared, we tried to form a coherent conclusion out of the situation. Our total wealth was two hundred lire, which Terry had received from the Escaping Committee prior to leaving the camp, our watches and my signet ring. Terry summed it up.
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“We seem to have landed on our feet, Nat, and frankly I don’t
think that we can do better than stay here for a while. If we go traipsing round
the countryside in the hope of saving a fortnight, we’ll only finish in the
“I agree. Nobody is likely to look for us in this spot, and after what they have done for us today, I can’t see anyone here giving us away.”
So we decided to wait for a fortnight and see what happened. I was full of confidence that we would be free before that time, for I reasoned that there was no smoke without fire, and at least some of the rumours of British landings north of us must be founded on fact.
Dinner was quickly ready that evening, and we returned to the main room and there met the son and heir of the house, young Mario. He was a cute little kid, and his great asset as far as we were concerned was that he was unreservedly prepared to accept us at our face value. Having been cautioned by Uncle Joris against referring to us when out playing with his friends, he abandoned us entirely as a topic of conversation outside the flat, but determined to make up for this loss by getting us to play games with him at home on all possible occasions. As befitted an only child, he was very spoiled by his parents, who, in fact, had not the foggiest idea of how to bring him up, and alternatively scolded and petted him with astounding change of front. Maria in particular had a habit
[Digital page 87, original page 229]
of giving him a good thrashing one minute, and as soon as he was howling the place down, repenting and clasping him to her ineffective bosom.
Our presence was explained to him briefly but forcibly by the story that we were cousins from Naples and that we would not be able to understand each other as the dialects were so different. So within a few days he made up his young mind to teach Terry, who appeared to be the more mute of the two of us, the local dialect. It became a common sight to see them after a meal sitting by the table, Mario perched on Terry’s knee, holding up a knife and pronouncing the appropriate word in local dialect, then a fork, then a plate, and so on. Poor Terry had no ear for languages, but this fact did not deter his young teacher at all.
We had a good meal that first night. A chicken had been produced and roasted over a charcoal fire in the refuse burning cooker. First we had pasta, and like that of lunch it tasted very different from the insipid stuff we had been used to in camp. This was well flavoured with Parmesan cheese, and a good sauce of mashed tomatoes and chopped up offal. The bread too was fresh and of a light colour and free of the hay and straw and sawdust which had been a feature of the 125 grams which had been our daily ration. The whole meal was washed down with two bottles of Lambrusco, which I found delightful.
We rounded off the meal with bread and cheese and some
[Digital page 88, original page 230]
fruit, and I remarked to Terry that I could not have chosen two better meals with which to celebrate the end of captivity.
We excused ourselves soon after dinner, after Joris who returned to sleep at the stadium promised to call and see us early in the morning, and bring news of the others. Ronchi had left previously. We went back to our room and moved about on tiptoe talking in whispers. Contemplating the small single bed which was to house us both, we decided to try it one sleeping at each end, and turned in accordingly, but it wasn’t a huge success. I found difficulty in getting to sleep, and when eventually I did drop off it was not for long. I awakened to find myself scratching furiously and probing to find the reason, felt big lumps all over the front of my body. In addition, my feet, sticking up in the air near Terry’s head, were extremely cold. I got out of bed and taking the top cover, which was a sort of rug, wrapped myself in this, stretched out on the floor and went off to sleep instantly.
When I woke, the sun was sending narrow rays through the cracks in the
shutters. I was very cold and my body was stiff. The floor seemed harder than
other floors I had slept on. Terry was lying on the bed, his body half covered
by blankets which trailed on the floor. As I dressed, Terry woke and we
discussed plans. I was adamant about the immediate future.
“Whatever happens, I am going to stay in hiding for a couple of weeks. The main thing at present is to try and get
[Digital page 89, original page 231]
some reliable news about what is really happening. Until then we’ve
just got to stay put.”
Terry agreed, and suggested we should get Joris to take a note round to the others asking if either pair had a wireless. If so they could take down the B.B.C. news and send us a daily bulletin.
It was 9 o’clock before we were both dressed. We washed in a small enamel bowl near the window, but were careful to keep the shutters closed. There was no razor or shaving soap to be found, and we were unable to shave or indeed to have a satisfactory wash. Terry held up the cylindrical bar of soap and complained that he could not get any lather from it. We learned later that it was shaving soap as they had no coupons for ordinary soap.
We made the bed and tidied the room and were sitting on the bed smoking and wondering what would happen next when there was a knock on the door leading from the main bedroom.
We unlocked the door to admit Maria who brought coffee and told us that Joris had already called and was returning later. She asked whether there was anything we wanted, but the conversation was laborious for she used the Modenese dialect which is difficult for even the expert Italian linguist to understand.
Then Joris arrived accompanied by Gaston Ronchi. We spent the rest of the morning telling them about the events
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that had led to our arrival in Modena, while they in turn gave us more details about themselves. Gaston explained that the stadium was controlled by the State and that he had appointed manager owing to his record as an Italian international rugger player. For apparently the Italians did play rugger and he had visited many European countries with the Italian team, though never England. He explained quite frankly that he had been forced to join the Fascist Party before they would give him his job, but he had never been a fascist for he disliked their principles. I thought of the events of the previous day and believed his story.
He went on to tell us about Joris and Luciano Vezzani. Joris, he said, was a fine fellow “avec beaucoup de cran”. He did not give a damn for anyone and belonged to no political party, though his leanings were towards communism for he had been named Joris after a communist deputy in an Italian parliament forty odd years previously. Joris paid the rent of our apartment and normally he lived there during the winter months while the stadium was closed. At present he was living in one of the outbuildings of the stadium where he had furnished two rooms and enjoyed a good degree of luxury.
Joris was trying his best to follow the conversation which was in French, and interrupted from time to time. While we were his guests he said we would eat well and he would join us for meals. And he would try and make our stay as pleasant
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as possible in the circumstances. Then Gaston spoke of Luciano. He, too, was a fine man, without fear, apolitical and only obeying the dictates of his conscience. A great sportsman, he had been the most famous football centre forward in Italy in the late twenties when he played for Turin and had represented his country in all parts of the world.
Before they left, I asked for a map, writing paper, pencils, a pack of cards and shaving requisites, and these Joris brought when he returned for lunch. At the same time he handed me several packets of A.O.I. and a couple of Italian novels, and announced the good news that Roworth and Wilson had a wireless where they were living and he would arrange a daily bulletin for us as suggested. We passed the day playing piquet and when we got bored with cards we turned to the map and made appreciations of the situation. But this became pointless in view of our decision to remain where we were for a fortnight at least.
Terry told me that he too had been badly bitten during the night, so we organised a bug hunt. This was quite amusing and made more interesting by our walking on tiptoe and speaking only in whispers. I, particularly, had a mania against noise. We could hear quite clearly conversations from the floors above and below, and I did not want any sound to go out of our room. I got worse in this respect as time went on, for as soon as the Germans had retaken complete control of the town, they
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distributed leaflets offering eighteen hundred lire reward for information leading to the recapture of escaped Allied war prisoners. Obviously they regarded this problem as important, for the leaflets offered the alternative of eighteen hundred lire or twenty pounds Sterling – a very much better proposition incidentally – in respect of each escaper recaptured on information supplied, and at the same time threatened the death penalty on anyone found harbouring or helping us. Planes flew low over Modena dropping leaflets in thousands and manifestoes were affixed to walls throughout the town.
The reward offered was a considerable inducement to the poor people who lived in our apartment house. Their children had to be fed, and the basic rations were neither sufficient nor were they always available. Long queues would form in the hope of obtaining a small loaf, but generally it was only the few in front who came away satisfied. Transport and distribution had been completely disorganised by the events of the previous week and food was pitifully scarce. Under such conditions it was inevitable that the black market flourished; and flourish it did to such an extent that the ordinary factory worker or labourer, dependent upon a fixed wage, was quite unable to afford the tremendous prices demanded.
Seeing his children and his family wanting food, it would have been understandable if some normally decent Italian worker had succumbed to the temptation offered by these leaflets. And
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though we only heard of two cases of escaped prisoners being betrayed, and in each case the informer was a fascist, I thought it advisable to avoid advertising our whereabouts. So we tiptoed around the room and conversed in whispers and Terry must have chafed under my constant and sometimes ill-tempered admonitions to make less noise. But he always retained his good humour, and refrained from pointing out that it is difficult to move fourteen stone without occasionally causing the floor to creak.
Joris told us an amusing and rather touching story about an old woman
who, knowing the whereabouts of eight British soldiers hiding in Modena,
decided to cash in her knowledge and obtain the advertised reward. Off she
ambled to the Questura and was standing about in front of the building
wondering which door to go through when an old crony hers tapped her on the
shoulder and said.
“What, in heaven’s name, are you doing outside this evil place?”
She explained her mission and was beginning to detail all the things she would buy with the eight rewards, when her friend cut her short.
“You, a grandmother, would do such a thing? You, a Catholic? Have you thought of your own children? Of course you haven’t. Have you thought that these poor boys, whom you are going to betray, have also got mothers and grandmothers?
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And that some of them have wives and families too? Have you thought of
that? No. All you have considered are the thirty pieces of silver that will be
thrown at you by quei delinquenti tedeschi – quei villachi. These German swine.
Think of all those things, and if you still persist in your folly, think too
that none of your friends will ever call you friend again.”
This so affected the would-be informant that she burst into tears, apologised for having considered such an evil act and ambled off home again.
Nevertheless, it was wise to take no chances and we were therefore always careful about noise in the apartment and also to keep away from the window, even when the shutters were almost closed. It was such a temptation, shut in that tiny room with only each other for company, to go to the window and look down on the street below. There was so much life there, with the children playing, the workers going to or returning from their factories, the young girls and their sweethearts and the husbands and their mistresses. The boy on his bicycle who always returned from school at the same time each afternoon, rang the bell of the apartment house opposite and went through the door which was automatically opened by someone who first checked up on him from a third floor window. The first floor flat opposite had a balcony outside the living room, and every night mother and father
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used to sit there and watch the street scene. And, of course, we watched them. It was impossible to keep away from the life and activity that our window represented. So we compromised with safety, and only approached when the shutters were closed. We were able to see reasonably well through the chinks in the shutters.
The window became a cherished place in the room, but there was one disadvantage. We always had to keep the shutters drawn now in order to preserve the fiction that no one was living in the room. They could not be open some of the time and shut for the remainder, for the community was an intimate one and would not have taken long to notice these things. To ventilate the room, and it certainly needed ventilating, we were forced to rely on the communicating door with our hosts’ bedroom, leaving their window wide open.
At night, however, we pushed the shutters open a little wider as soon as it was dark, and sat on the floor in silence just feeling the beauty and quiet of the evening. One night, while we were by the window, I heard an operatic aria being sung by a girl who had one of the finest voices I have ever heard. I thought it was a wireless from across the way, but Maria came in before the singing stopped and told us the story. Rather pleasant it was too, sitting there like conspirators and hearing a tale that you knew was interesting, but in a dialect that you could not easily follow. It somehow
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added to the interest and intrigue.
It appeared that the singer we heard was a young girl aged seventeen, who was the daughter of the woman who kept the trattoria on the ground floor of our building. The girl had an operatic voice, and to that Terry and I could both testify, but her mother would not permit her to go to a singing master to have training. And the reason… The mother said that she could not afford to pay the singing teacher, but this was not true. If necessary, everyone in the vicinity would have been quite happy to make a small contribution towards these expenses, but the mother would hear nothing of it. As soon as the girl reached the age of fifteen, her mother sold her to a wealthy merchant in the town, and the little girl became his mistress.
For the mother had taken care that her daughter would be so educated as to enjoy the pleasures of being the mistress of a wealthy old man whose sexual appetite, though perverted, was not unduly hearty. Maria told us that the consideration for this transaction was the sum of one thousand lire, about thirteen pounds at pre-war rates. When the old man tired of his youthful paramour, as he did within a year, he gave her a fur coat and broke off the association.
The girl returned to the trattoria, her mind and body still undeveloped but eager. Drink, too, had taken a hold. But though she had since been sleeping promiscuously with
[Digital page 97, original page 239]
any man who entered the trattoria and paid her fifty lire, and had been taking more than her fair share of drink into the bargain, her voice still maintained its beautiful purity. Which made life rather awkward for us.
Her voice became famous throughout the town, and the bar was always full of patrons clamouring for a song. Among the patrons were some carabinieri, and three days after our arrival in the building – by which time the Germans had retaken control of Modena, and had started circulating their reward leaflets – these carabs brought along some of the local German garrison to hear the girl sing. They came to hear her sing, and when they discovered that singing was not her only talent, the attendance of the garrison increased and continued after the bar had shut. I cannot remember a single night during the seven weeks that we were in Modena, after the first three days, that we did not have a German truck parked in the road outside, and there were always between seven and ten Jerries in the building.
This, to us at least, rather took the purity out of her voice, though we argued to ourselves that if Germans frequented the ground floor of a tenement house, the last place where they would expect escaped prisoners to be hiding would be on one of floors above them. But still we sat by the open window and listened, and we heard ‘Lili Marlene’ follow ‘Boheme’ and ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Tosca’ and, of course, Wagner and the Horst
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The curfew was fixed at 10 p.m., but it was seldom that we heard any of the Germans leaving before one o’clock. Then they went out, in varying stages of intoxication, and often, when I was awake, I heard them extolling the physical attractions of the girl they had all just bedded. It was small wonder that the Italians hated them as they did.
Maria also gave us some insight into the attitude of Italian husbands towards their wives. We noticed the complete autocracy of the male in the Italian family very soon after our arrival in the apartment. Naturally there was no maid, for they were exceedingly poor people. But not on a single occasion did we ever hear Darco, her husband, suggest that he might help in the clearing away of the meal dishes. It was obviously out of the question for such a thing to be contemplated, for even Joris who was certainly one of nature’s gentlemen, would never have dreamed of suggesting it. And when we volunteered to help with the washing-up, and despite Maria’s genuine protestations insisted upon doing so, we endeared ourselves to her for life. Being British officers we were automatically lords, and by similar reasoning we were men of great wealth. And to be really helped by such people, and in a sphere which she could understand – her own kitchen – was something which raised us in her estimation more than anything else we could
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have possibly done on purpose.
She pointed us out to Darco as an example, but he only laughed and said
that it was well known that the English were mad. We asked him why he was
risking his life to save a couple of madmen.
“Oh,” he said, “that’s different. I don’t dislike mad people and I hate the Boche. Besides, I would do it out of humane feelings.”
“And have you no humane feelings towards your own wife?”
“Good gracious! What an idea! When you have married a woman, your humane feelings have already vanished!”
Nothing would shift him from this point of view. Joris said nothing, just sat and listened and poured himself another glass of wine. But first he made sure that our glasses were filled. He was a wonderful host, and went out of his way to make our stay happy. We ate well too. Every day for lunch there was a pasta followed by roast rabbit, or stewed rabbit or perhaps rabbit pie, though flour for pastry was terribly scarce. Sometimes we had chicken and sometimes what Joris called “bistecca”. This was the tender rump of a horse smacked flat with the back of a hatchet, and served as a minute steak. And very good it was, especially with the excellently dressed salad which always accompanied it. We never went short of anything; Joris saw to that. There was always bread in abundance, bread that was almost white,
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bought of course on the black market – as was all our food, for ration cards were in issue and the risk of getting forged ones was considered too great -bread costing fifteen lire for a tiny French loaf. Oil, too, we had. Oil that cost four hundred lire a litre. And, in case we were ever caught out by shops being shut or empty, there was always a spare rabbit in reserve. There was no refrigerator, so Bunny was allowed to have the run of the flat and the balcony outside the living room, until such time as his presence was required in the pot.
Joris had, I believe, five brothers, and one of them kept a small hotel a little further along the street. From him we got quite a lot of food that would have otherwise been unobtainable. He provided the bread and eggs and chickens, I think, but Joris never told him that he was sheltering two British officers. And though Joris’ consumption must have seemed considerably in excess of his normal requirements, for both Terry and I were good trenchermen, he never made any enquiries. Potatoes, too, we had. And strong Parmesan cheese which Joris brought home in thirty five kilogram hunks. To finish the meal there was fruit, apples and grapes and pears purchased from itinerant fruit vendors. And each meal was washed down by two bottles of Lambrusco or Chianti.
Early on in our stay, Joris decided that his sister’s culinary talents had not been sufficiently developed, and from
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that time onwards our meals were cooked by Claudia, whom soon, because of her general petiteness, we called “the little woman”. Maria, too, acquired a nickname and it was automatic that this should be “the little whirlwind”.
The little woman was a wonderful cook, and it was a real pleasure to go into the kitchen and watch her preparing a meal. Sunday was always a special day, not through any religious reason, for Joris was a confirmed atheist, but merely because it happened to be Sunday. On that day, the little woman arrived extra early for she had to prepare the tagliatelli. The flour was poured on to the table and, instead of a dough being made with milk and water, six to eight eggs were used. When the dough had been rolled out on the kitchen table, it was brought into the living room to be rolled and rerolled on the table there before being finally curled up and cut into long narrow strips which later figured in the chicken soup.
Other “specialites de la maison” were gnocchi and tortellini. After eating these cooked by the little woman and subsequently, when I spent a couple of days at the swimming pool, those cooked by Pina, I used to have long arguments with myself about the respective merits of each cook. But arguments were unnecessary for they were both perfect, and Pina sometimes produced Roman dishes which the little woman did not know. It was not surprising that both Terry and I started to put on a lot of weight. And, wonderful
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though it was to be free and well looked after we began to become restive.
Roworth and Wilson had obtained forged papers and gone off to Rome to try and get through to the Eighth and Fifth armies respectively, and had promised to send word if they were successful. They also thought that it might be possible to arrange for an aeroplane to be sent to some outlying district to pick us up. At this time there were about three hundred escaped prisoners in the area, and we thought that this number might induce the authorities at our H.Q. [Headquarters] to try to get us out. But after they had been gone a fortnight, we still had no news beyond the fact that they got safely to Rome.
We had been a month in Modena now, and both of us were worried about our families who must have been without news for a long time, for we were sure that few of our letters after June had ever got home. Then, too, the position of Joris and Darco and family was becoming increasingly dangerous. The Neofascists, backed by the Germans, had set up a puppet government and, in order to show goodwill towards their German protectors, they clamoured for volunteers to go to the Reich as workers in war industries. When there was no response, the iron fist became more apparent, and men and women were called up in their age groups. Again no response. People simply did not register.
Fortunately most of the town’s records had been destroyed, which made it difficult to check up on the registration census,
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but the Neofascists countered with another method, which lacked subtlety and was in fact brutally simple. A gang of blackshirts armed with Tommy guns patrolled at each end of a busy street, and anyone whom they suspected of being of military age who was unable to produce papers on the spot explaining why he was not in the Neofascist forces or working in Germany was despatched to the latter destination without any further delay. He went in cattle trucks, as we had gone, but he went accompanied by sixty other men in the truck, often without water or food, and was never allowed out of the truck during the journey. Nor was he allowed to say goodbye to his family, or indeed even tell them what had happened.
Terry reckoned that this street raiding might easily spread to house raiding, and I agreed with him. It seemed so logical, and the Italian S.S. were after all only the students of the Germans. Being caught was extra serious now that we were living with an Italian family. We would possibly get away with nothing worse than a German POW camp, but Joris and co. would unquestionably face a firing squad, and that not before they had been subjected to some very unpleasant “interrogation”.
Although Roworth and Wilson had gone, we were still getting our daily wireless news. This now came from two South African majors who had escaped from the officers’ camp at Modena. I went round to have tea with them soon after they arrived at
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Mario Lugli’s flat. They had come from the country where they had been living in a barn near a farm, and had been brought to the town on bicycles. Both were tall, robust looking men, Britz being well over 6 feet, and it spoke badly for German powers of observation if these two men had cycled through the town without being stopped and questioned. Italians must certainly have recognised them, but, unless escaped POW were very unlucky, Italians would not betray them. For, apart from other considerations, Italians were discouraged by the occasional sight – which became increasingly familiar as time went on – of would be informants lying in the gutter with several bullets through the back of the neck.
So we still studied the wireless news from home, and it was not good. Obviously something had gone wrong with the campaign in Italy, and we began to realise that if we stayed where we were we might be there indefinitely. I was still optimistic, but Terry summed the situation up correctly and voted for an immediate move. This sounded a good idea and we held a council of war with Joris and Gaston.
The outcome of this was that Joris would try and get us identity cards, while Gaston went to Rome in an attempt to find a home where we could stay while waiting to pick up guides to take us through the lines. But it was not a success. Joris told us that the woman in the town hall who had been supplying the cards and necessary stamps had now been transferred
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and Gaston in his turn announced failure of his mission. And he went on to tell us that the train had been stopped once going to Rome and twice on the way back for checks of documents and anti-black market controls.
It seemed that we would spend the winter in Modena, and we were worried. Winter would soon be on us, for we were now in the middle of October, and with winter came almost insoluble problems of food. Joris thought about this too, and one day when we were sitting in the living room playing with Mario, we heard his easily recognisable knock on the door. He came in and was obviously very pleased with himself. We soon found out why. He had managed to buy on the black market five cwt [hundredweight] of potatoes and an equal quantity of flour. He was storing half at the apartment and the balance in the reinforced concrete cellar at the swimming pool. But his main reason for being pleased was not that he had been able to acquire the stuff, but because it would enable him to be in a position to feed us even should we remain his guests for another year.
Nevertheless he knew that we had been terribly disappointed at not being able to fix up the trip to Rome, and said that he would do his best to get us away soon. Terry and I had often discussed Switzerland, but had ruled it out now that the situation on the frontier had become static and the Italian guards had been replaced by Germans. We had no idea of what the country was like there and had come to the conclusion that
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without guides it was not worth trying.
One day Joris arrived and told us that he had been speaking to a fisherman who operated his boat from Rimini, and who was prepared to take us by sea down the Adriatic to Pescara. Joris was satisfied with the man’s bona fides, for he was also taking two Italian boys, sons of a man to whom he was under an obligation. These boys were trying to escape deportation to Germany, and had to leave quickly for they were Jews and the Germans and Italian S.S. were looking for them.
We carefully measured the distance from Rimini to Pescara on our map, but it was too far to allow us even the smallest margin of safety. The journey would take at least three days, and even though we might travel only by night, the chances of being discovered while hiding the boat during the hours of daylight were abnormally high. The fisherman argued that he knew several small caves and other hiding places into which we could go, but finally we decided against it. I think that we would in fact have tried, but Joris was most emphatically opposed. Having suggested the scheme, he had then investigated it carefully and was convinced that it was doomed to failure. One interesting point emerged, however, and that was in connection with the journey from Modena to Rimini. The fisherman said that he had come in on a workmens’ train and this had been so crowded that a check of identity papers or indeed any kind of check would have been impossible. Joris confirmed from other sources that
[Digital page 107, original page 249]
this also held good for the main workers’ trains going north, though at that time we were not interested in the north.
On another occasion, Joris asked us quite suddenly whether either of us had any experience of demolition work. I told him that I had a rudimentary working knowledge of high explosives, and Terry knew about as much as I did. Then we learnt the reason for the question. There was a main railway bridge spanning a river near Florence. As far as I could understand, it was a suspension bridge and the river flowed far below through a deep ravine. A lot of traffic passed over this bridge. It was all military traffic, bearing reinforcements from the Brenner to the southern front, the trucks returning to Germany filled with loot from the southern Italian cities. If this bridge were blown up it would take a lot of repairing. Joris asked us to think it over and let him know in the morning whether we would volunteer for the job. The only other information he had was that some twenty volunteers were being called for among the escapers hiding in the district, and that the original request had come from a band of three thousand partisans whose headquarters were in the Abetone Mountains above Florence and who were being directed by three British Generals.
It sounded interesting, especially interesting as the urge to move became more pronounced. We wrote letters to our respective families and gave them to Joris who promised to do his best to smuggle them across the Swiss Frontier and get them
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posted from there. We thought then that there was still an air service from Zurich to Lisbon, and the letters could go that way. We also wrote reports of the events which had led to our present situation, setting out fully the responsibility of the Italian Commandant at Camp 19, and at the same time asking for rewards to be given to the Italians who had helped us in our escapes. These reports we addressed to the Office Commanding Allied Troops of Occupation in Modena, and handed them to Joris for delivery at the appropriate time.
But nothing came of this scheme either, for Britz – the senior of the two South African majors – said that he wished to investigate before allowing anyone to go off on a fool’s errand, and as he was the most senior officer around we took his orders. By the time he had organised his own trip to Florence – this took well over a week to fix – news came through that the three Generals had left the partisans, and the whole project was accordingly abandoned. I was disappointed at not leaving, but relieved at being freed from the obligation of fixing home-made time bombs, prepared to our own plans and specifications, underneath the girders of a well-guarded bridge. Somehow, it had never seemed the kind of work in which I would excel.
Then it happened. About the 20th October 1943, Joris burst into our room. His normally calm face was seething with excitement, and he thrust a letter into my hand, saying.
[Digital page 109, original page 251]
“Now I think, you will be able to go. That is if you would like to
go to Switzerland. That letter is from a friend on the frontier who knows a
route. If you want to try I will go up to Domodossola this afternoon and see
what arrangements can be made.”
I read the letter. It said quite simply that arrangements were now possible to take the furniture out of storage and have it removed home. The transport contractor who could do the job was Mr. B. of Domodossola.
It was decided that Joris should leave that afternoon and we would both go round and stay in his small apartment at the stadium. This was in order to be ready to leave Modena at a moment’s notice, as the stadium was only a few hundred yards away from the railway station. We said goodbye to the little whirlwind and Darco and the child, and went with Joris and Luciano to the stadium. Back through the same narrow streets, the same small gate in the same high wall, past the swimming pool and into Gaston’s flat where we were to eat. I had been there once before during our six weeks’ stay, having granted myself twenty four hours leave. And it had been wonderful just listening to the wireless for twelve of those twenty four hours. I took down items of interest on the French, German and Italian programmes, for by this time I found that my Italian had become fairly fluent if ungrammatical, and to these items I added the main
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news from the Home Programmes of the B.B.C.. When I got back to Terry, we were busy for hours trying to work out the effects of the changes in the situation, though as far as we could see the situation was virtually unchanged, so there were no effects. But the outing was worth a lot. Poor Terry had to stay in except for a couple of walks we took after dark, for it had been unanimously agreed that it was too dangerous for him to venture outside in daylight. With his fair skin and hair he risked instant recognition as a Britisher, and it was not worth risking recapture for the sake of an hour in the open air.
I must have rather laboured that point. By all means, I said, let us take risks where those risks might lead to our ultimate freedom or to our doing something concrete, as for example, joining a partisan group. But for the sake of stretching my legs, no. I would rather get cramp in both legs, and even with cramp I’ll be able to move in a hurry if the occasion arises.
It was most unfair advice because I knew that I could pass unchallenged as an Italian, but Terry took it very well, as indeed he did everything, and his only comeback was to rag me gently whenever I went out on one of my own trips, though these were very few, and I remember only going out on four occasions during the day while we were living with Darco.
We stayed at the stadium for three days and it was a wonderful break for us. We played with Gaston’s infant, examined his photographs of rugger teams and well-known sportsmen with whom he was friendly, listened to the wireless,
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and generally were made to feel as though we were in our own home. Pina and the maid went to great lengths to cook extravagant dishes for us, and tagliatelli and tortellini and tortelloni and chicken with home-baked white bread and good wine were put before us. We even had the fire stoked under the boiler and had a hot bath each. My first hot bath in more than two years.
We had long chats with a friend of Gaston’s who was living with them. Luigi was a professional footballer playing centre-half in the Modena team. A private in the Italian Army at the time of the Armistice, he had walked the several hundred kilometres from Foggia to Bologna and was now a deserter. Now he walked round the town quite openly in ‘civvies’, though he always carried a gun just to be on the safe side.
Joris arrived back on the evening of the second day; a Wednesday. He was jubilant, for everything had gone according to plan and we were to leave the following Monday. He had contacted a friend, also a member of the Modena Football Club, who was going to meet us at the station in Milan and take us to accommodation where we could stay the night. The journey had to be done in two days, to Milan the first day and then on to Domodossola the following morning, arriving soon after noon on the Tuesday.
At Domodossola, Joris had seen Mr. B., the man mentioned in the letter. B. informed him that for the sum of ten thousand lire a guide could be provided who would guarantee to get us
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into Switzerland. It was agreed that half this sum would paid to the guide as soon as we met him, the balance handed over by Joris as soon as the guide returned and showed a note from us announcing our arrival in neutral territory. Joris was coming to Domodossola with us, and he asked Luciano if he could come too.
Luciano was delighted. Normally living a very peaceful life, the extra excitement since the Armistice had stimulated him and he seemed to welcome any situation involving personal danger.
I questioned Joris about searches on the train. No, he said, the train had not been stopped for identity cards, but there had been one search on the way up by carabinieri attempting to check up on black marketeers. A.O.I. cigarettes now cost twenty five lire per packet of twenty in Modena – when available – as against a pre-armistice price of ten lire, and as against the then prevailing price in Venice of thirty lire. Which accounted for the presence of several thousands of packets of A.O.I. on that train each day. The carabs had searched the luggage of any suspicious individual, but without much success.
The only other danger point appeared to be at Domodossola itself where Joris had been subjected to an identity check by one Italian and five German officers at a control gate at the station exit. He arranged with B. for the latter to meet us on the platform and signal if the control still existed,
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whereupon we could go out of the station further along the track. But we did not want to do this if it could be avoided.
We tried to keep the plan as simple as possible, the main point being that although Joris and Luciano would be travelling on the train they would do absolutely nothing that might indicate any association. Our tickets were for Milan. There we would get other tickets for Domodossola, so covering our traces from Modena in case we were caught, while their tickets would be right through to Domodossola. We would leave the stadium separately, Terry and I following the others through the station entrance on to the platform.
Meanwhile we were to return to Darco’s apartment for the next four days to get fitted with hats and overcoats which were conspicuous if carried in parcels outside the immediate centre of the town. On the Sunday night we were to return to the stadium, sleep in Joris’ flat, and leave to catch the only train of the day to Milan on Monday morning. This train left at eight o’clock, and we dare not risk missing it as all the arrangements had been based upon our arriving in Domodossola at lunchtime on Tuesday.
Leaving the stadium on Thursday evening we got back to the flat in time for dinner, being accompanied there by Joris, Gaston and Luigi. Gaston and Luigi took a glass of wine to toast the success of our trip and then left.
We had not been long at the dinner table when there was
[Digital page 114, original page 256]
a knock and Terry and I both dodged out of the room. It was Gaston and Luigi. Their news was disconcerting. Gaston had just spoken to Pina on the phone and it appeared that the “Australian” – which was the local name for Ted – had arrived back at the stadium. His story, which they could only partially understand, was that the palace where he had been staying in the country had been surrounded in the afternoon by Fascist militia and plain clothed police, and he and Bill Wiltshire and a South African officer, together with all the Italians, had been arrested. The Italians comprised their hostess, her daughter who was ill in bed and whom they had been visiting at the time, and a couple of friendly Badoglio officers. There was also an Austrian girl who was companion to the daughter. The whole menage had been driven off in an army lorry to the carabinieri headquarters in Modena and put in another truck to be sent to the German local commander. Their guard consisted of three fascists armed with rifles and revolvers who sat with them in the back of the truck. The time was then about 6.15.. At this point the story became confused but we gathered that Ted had re-escaped. The situation was indeed so confused that Gaston promised to return home immediately and question Ted and then report back to us if there was anything urgent.
I had just got into bed about 9 p.m. when Joris burst into the room with Luigi. Both of them were extremely excited and worried. The gist of it was that the others had in fact been
[one page (p257) missing from the original]
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Mario was out trying to arrange new accommodation.
We left the flat after a hurried farewell to “the little whirlwind” and her husband who had to be summoned from next door. The little whirlwind was very upset, and naturally not a little worried, but Joris reassured her by saying that we would probably be back the following day. It was the last time we saw her.
It was already 9.30 p.m. when we left, and after walking for a few minutes arrived in a side street which seemed deserted. This street like all the others in the town, suffered from the severe blackout in that no street lamps were lighted although several windows from which glows appeared gave the impression of searchlights mounted in mid-air. The street was narrow, but on either side there was a wide pavement, covered by a series of arches, supported on one side by columns which were built on to the kerb, and on the other by the houses and shops abutting on the sidewalk.
It was some minutes before our eyes became accustomed to the darkness, but finally from the place of concealment where we had gone under an arch close to the wall, we were able to distinguish other vague forms hovering up and down the street. These became recognisable as Ted, the two majors and about five of our Italian friends. Ted at once began to tell us all that had happened. He spoke in what was to me an unnecessarily loud voice and all my fears returned. After he
[one page (p259) missing from the original]
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of songs and voices raised in guttural revelry caused a sudden vanishing of everyone from the centre of the street to the dark places of the arches. The owners of the voices turned out to be about fifteen Germans in varying degrees of drunkenness. They were reeling along the pavement. So the ten of us had the unpleasant experience of trying to make ourselves scarce without any possibility of moving, which would assuredly have aroused suspicion. Several of the Boche brushed past my coat, but apparently without suspecting anything. Then one, who seemed rather worse for wear than the others, barged into me rather heavily. He was an aggressive type and it seemed that the game was up. I mentally cursed our luck and Mario for suggesting our move that night, doubly unfortunate for in our previous night excursions we had met very few Germans. However, working on the basis that the gentle answer turneth away wrath, I muttered a polite “permesso” and turned as if to walk on in the other direction. This seemed to satisfy him and he hurried off to catch up his friends.
A few minutes later Mario arrived with a youth of about 17, who as soon as the British among the party had been pointed out to him, happily took Ted by the arm and chatting gaily – Ted not understanding a word – led him off into the darkness with the rest of us not far behind. Mario and Joris said that they would contact us the next day and went off. Our destination was an apartment house which we reached with only a few minutes to
[Digital page 117, original page 261]
spare before the curfew. There we met Tony Snell of the R.A.F. and Peter Lewis of the D.L.I. [Durham Light Infantry].
Their stories were simple, exquisitely simple. Both captured in Sicily, they had been sent to a hospital in Italy for treatment. Peter had been shot in the back and in the face, while Tony, whose Spitfire had been shot down the first day of the landing while he was supporting invasion troops, had had his arm smashed while attempting to escape. He had had an excellent reason for wanting to escape, too, for the German troops who had captured him were convinced that a man wearing grey flannel trousers and a cricket shirt, and carrying a Luger revolver, must be a spy. After his crash landing near the beaches he had been caught by Italian troops whom he had convinced that he was a Vichy French journalist, and after giving him a glass of wine they had let him go. His second encounter was with Germans, and that had developed into an exchange of shots with the advantage in favour of the enemy who possessed and used hand grenades. But again he managed to get away.
Finally, in the evening, he was caught and taken to German headquarters where he received a brief interrogation. He told them that he was in the R.A.F. and had been shot down that day, and that the reason he was not wearing uniform was that he had gone up at the last minute to take the place of another pilot who was indisposed. Which was the truth. The Germans looked through his papers, found some maps and foreign money, but
[Digital page 118, original page 262]
nothing to substantiate his claim to being an R.A.F. pilot. He was told that he would be kept at headquarters that night and sent off to a camp the following day. Half an hour later he was summoned before the German officer who had interrogated him. The German was sitting at his desk in front of a large window, and three others armed with Tommy guns stood in a semi-circle behind Tony who was directed in front of the desk.
The officer questioned him again and he repeated his story. He was told to kneel down in front of the desk. About to do so, he glanced into a mirror hanging above the officer’s head and saw that the three men behind him were raising their guns to fire. He jumped forward through the window, shielding his face with his arms, and found himself at the top of one of the hills overlooking the landing beaches a few miles distant. A burst of machine gun fire had gone through his arm, and as he rolled down the slope he increased the damage, ending up with a shattered elbow as well. He went on, trying to get to the beaches and join up with our own troops, but passing out every ten or fifteen minutes. At three o’clock the next morning, faint with exhaustion and loss of blood he was picked up by Germans out looking for him.
Taken back to the same headquarters on a stretcher, he was confronted by an English-speaking officer who derived obvious pleasure from informing him that he was to be shot within the hour as a spy. He could have one last request, for,
[Digital page 119, original page 263]
said the officer, it must not be thought that the Germans were not a humane race.
Tony felt certain that his officer’s pay book had been among his papers, and requested that another search of them be made. The German went away smirking. He returned shortly afterwards, told Tony that the pay book had been found and that instead of being shot he would be sent to hospital for treatment. Looking at Tony’s arm, he apologised for any inconvenience caused.
He and Peter had been in the same hospital which after the Armistice had been packed up lock, stock and barrel and despatched to Germany. The patients still suffering from their wounds were loaded on to a hospital train, and it was from this train that they had escaped somewhere in northern Italy, jumping out of the window of their carriage while other patients held the single guard in conversation. Making their way south they finally reached Modena where they were contacted by an anti-fascist organisation which billeted them in our present home.
With them in the flat, which was on the ground floor of a five storied apartment house, were three other ranks who had escaped from working camps not far away. Terry remarked that we only needed one more to form an all British football team.
I went round the building with our new host, a young
[Digital page 120, original page 264]
Italian of about thirty, commandeering rooms from the other occupants.
We had to be very careful and quiet, the Italian warned, because the people who
lived on the fourth floor were fascists. All went well and we returned downstairs
to allocate sleeping quarters. There we found a benign Italian priest trying to
make the others understand him. He told us not to worry, though he had no news
of Ted’s late hosts or their friends. Efforts would be made to help them, and
meanwhile we must be taken care of. I thanked him on behalf of the assembled
multitude and asked him what he wanted us to do.
“There is nothing you can do, my friend,” he answered, “which will do you more good than having a good night’s rest. Tomorrow you will be directed to new homes where you will be quite safe.”
And have a good night’s rest we did. I slept in a large bed with our host and the young Italian who had led us to the flat, and when we got down early next morning, it was to find two of the other ranks already up and preparing an early morning brew in the kitchen. Our host, with true Italian hospitality, had even gone to the trouble of acquiring – at an appalling cost, no doubt – some real English tea!
During the morning, we exchanged experiences and then we told the others about our projected trip to Switzerland. They were all keen to try after us, the two majors having already
[Digital page 121, original page 265]
fixed up, through Mario, to follow if we were successful. We arranged to send back word with Joris.
Then we had lunch. It was a good lunch, prepared from ingredients
purchased that morning in accordance with a shopping list we had written out in
the kitchen. As soon as we had finished, Peter got up and put on his coat. I
asked where he was going. Tony explained.
“Oh. He’s having trouble with his teeth, and goes over to the dentist every other day. The old boy is very decent and sees him before his other patients!”
And Peter added.
“Yes. He’s certainly a very nice old boy, but I wish he were a better dentist!”
At half past four, the priest came and went off accompanied by one of the other ranks. He was a Scot, as far as I can remember, and very fair, and his departure was preceded by a feverish hunt for a hat with which to cover his un-Italian blondness. Then it was our turn. Our host told us to follow behind him at a distance of ten or fifteen paces, and after saying goodbye to the others and exchanging mutual wishes of good luck, we left the building.
Following as directed, we walked through some crowded streets in what appeared to be the centre of the town, until finally our guide led us into the precincts of a very beautiful church. He stood facing the altar, and Terry and I
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placed ourselves parallel to him but nearer the door, just in case of emergencies. I kept watching the door, and it was not more than ten minutes later that I saw Joris and Luciano come in. Joris was looking pleased and I saw him wink. He beckoned us to follow. As we got outside, Joris linked his arm in mine and Luciano walked over to Terry.
Again we went through the town, but this time our destination was one of the suburbs where Luciano had his home and his skittle alley. This was to be our home for the next two days until the Sunday night when we moved into the stadium. Joris assured me that we would be quite safe as long as we did not venture downstairs before 3.30 p.m., for it was not until then that the skittle players of the morning finally left. Being winter, there were no afternoon sessions.
We were given a wonderful reception by Luciano’s mother. She was a magnificent old lady aged 74, who managed to do most of the housework and still have the time to prepare some of the finest meals I have ever eaten. Luciano’s brother who, on the advice of his commanding officer, had changed from uniform as soon as the Armistice had been announced, was there also. He had escaped from the Germans coming to take over the headquarters where he was stationed by the simple expedient of walking past them wearing overalls and carrying some car repairing tools. Technically, he was a deserter and old Signora Vezzani risked being sent off to Germany or Poland if
[Digital page 123, original page 267]
she were caught harbouring him. So, a couple of extra fugitives were of
little consequence. She used to say to us.
“My dear children, I have had my life and a good life it was too. It is of no importance if I have to give up that life now. For you the best part is still to come. You have your wife and your sweetheart and your families to go back to, and your future can be full of wonderful things. Now you can see why it is so much pleasure for me to think I am being of some small service to you.”
Then she would cry a little and call to Luciano to bring down a bottle of the Napoleon brandy for us. For the skittle alley had a bar too. We lived very well during our short stay with the Vezzani family and in every respect we were sad to leave them, for now we felt that we were part of the family. We knew them all so well, from Luciano’s nephew and niece to his brother and his brother’s wife. And it was especially sad to say goodbye to the old lady who kissed us and called us, “miei bambini”.
We found ourselves back at the stadium on the Sunday evening, and it was hard to realise that the morrow and the day after would mean so much. We listened to the wireless, but my thoughts were on the train journey ahead and it was still early when I suggested bed. For the second time in Modena I shared a bed with two others. But I had got so used to Terry’s feet in my face by this time that I passed a surprisingly good night.
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CHAPTER X. Italian travel talk. We cross into Switzerland.
We left Gaston’s flat just before 8 a.m. after an early breakfast, and made our way slowly to the station. Unlike Wordsworth’s celebrated group, we were only six. Gaston and Luigi went in front, then Joris and Luciano, and Terry and I brought up the rear. Terry dwarfed me and I told him to limp and walk in the gutter while I kept on the sidewalk. This made our height about equal, and adopting the practice popular in the town, I put my arm through his and we followed a few yards behind the others. We arrived at the station without any trouble though we passed fairly close to a couple of militia on the way. Joris had bought the tickets the previous night and had given me those for Terry and myself. We went past the main booking office and then through the waiting room on to the platform. The train was due in within five minutes.
On the platform were ten or twelve Germans, for the most part officers, a few Italian troops, one or two carabinieri and quite a lot of civilians, this being the only train of the day to the north. We walked along the platform in what was supposed to be a nonchalant manner, until we got near Joris and Luciano who had stopped some distance away from the rest of the people waiting. I think that the Germans, and even
[Digital page 125, original page 269]
the Italians, were far too conscious of their own importance to notice us. As soon as we approached, Joris and Luciano moved away and Terry and I stood endeavouring to give the impression that we had been catching the 8 o’clock for Milan for years past, and that most of the townsfolk of Modena – including the stationmaster – set their watches by our appearance at the station each morning. I do not think our performance was a great success. Joris reappeared carrying a large stock of newspapers and magazines. He approached and as soon as he was within a few feet, developed a melodramatic air and, sidling up to me with the look of a Guy Fawkes conspirator or the man about to put poison in Hitler’s soup, he thrust the papers into my chest and moved quickly away.
Fortunately, the attention of anyone who might have been watching this classic manoeuvre was diverted by the arrival of a passenger train bearing some three hundred German soldiers. They were making a colossal row, chanting their folk songs, or Wagner, or the Horst Wessel, or something. Anyway, it was not La Donna e Mobile, so all the Italians who were waiting for the train were delighted to hear something new, and naturally enough the few Germans already present were only too pleased to join in, which they did. The din was intense and lasted until the whole outfit had been marched out of the station. It served to distract attention from us.
The train eventually arrived twenty minutes late. We had
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spent the waiting period in making some sort of pretence of reading the periodicals which Joris had given us, but I never realised until then how difficult it was to appear cool, calm and collected under such circumstances.
We were lucky enough to find that the train was comparatively empty at our end, and, being first in, we managed to get two window seats. Joris and Luciano followed and secured the two seats next to us, thus acting as a sort of buffer between us and any over-inquisitive fellow passengers. Two other men entered the compartment. One was a priest, with blond hair, spectacles and a studious look, whose only luggage appeared to be a small book. The other was nondescript and might have been a farmer or a builder.
During this time Gaston and Luigi were on the platform outside our window and, while we were waiting for the train to leave, we spent our time in affectionate farewells. These were rather fun as all the talking was done from the platform end while we merely intervened from time to time with an enthusiastic ‘si’ or ‘no’. The train started, and the next four and a half hours until we reached Milan were painfully slow.
There were various ways of trying to make the time pass. One was staring fixedly out of the window looking for cattle to count, and if one were successful in finding any, then there were the various methods of counting them: first the front legs and dividing by two, or all their legs or their heads or
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merely the different sexes. Even that palled after a while, owing chiefly to the shortage of cattle, and we were reduced to the alternatives of feigning sleep, actually sleeping or pretending to read our Italian papers. I concentrated on sleeping, and Terry after a short spell of the other methods followed suit. From time to time, I opened one eye to have a look at my watch, but never found that more than five minutes had passed since I had last glanced at it.
We had arranged that Joris should patrol the train and check up that there were no fascist patrols or railway police going through the train looking for black market dealers or asking for identity cards. That would have been disastrous, as not only did we have no identity cards, but in our suitcase were two large roast chickens, two roast rabbits and five kilogrammes of white bread, quite apart from such luxuries as Parmesan cheese, wine and a good few cigarettes, and Tuscany cigars for our guide. It was amusing to see Joris get up from his seat and, still with his conspiratorial air which he retained throughout the trip, go out of the compartment, close the door behind him, look carefully up and down the carriage and then start on his patrol.
Heaven only knows what would have happened if there had been a search on the train, but our provisional drill was that as the train would probably be stopped, we would be able to leave our compartment by the window and make our way along the side of the track to that part of the train that had already
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been searched. For this reason we were travelling in a coach about two away from the end of the train, so that no matter which end the search started we would receive sufficient warning. But nothing happened.
I watched the priest quite a lot. He was sitting opposite to me wearing dark sunglasses with his book resting on his leg. This he was contemplating with what seemed to me to be unseeing eyes, and from his general appearance and his concentrated avoidance of any contact with his fellow travellers, I got a most definite impression that he was an escaped POW in disguise. Or he may have been an Italian priest meditatively studying theology. I don’t know and didn’t trouble to find out. He also got out at Milan and I never saw him again.
Once when Terry and I were both feigning sleep at the same time, Joris, who had started a long conversation with Luciano in which the farmer fellow joined in, suddenly said with a very dirty smirk in his voice, “What a night those two chaps must have had yesterday. They have been sleeping practically all the time from Modena.” Then he changed the subject back to the black market, or something equally topical, and we were completely forgotten.
The train got into Milan just before 1 o’clock and we followed our friends along the platform, keeping well behind them. They were to go to the exit where tickets had to be handed in and we could then see whether any trouble arose. If
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there was, they would try and get back to us at some future time, while we meanwhile would do our celebrated passing time act on the platform. However, a large crowd was on the train and, Milan being the terminus, everyone was getting out. So we closed into the crowd until we were in the centre of a milling mob whose one desire seemed to be to get out of the station in record speed. We were quite ad idem with them, but the trouble was that the exit consisted of a small gate permitting one person to pass at a time… or two at a pinch.
Then suddenly, what I had been fearing happened. Someone in front of us said, “Si domanda carte d’identita”, and promptly produced one. His action was followed by that of several others on both sides of us. Then someone else, to whom I shall be eternally grateful, shouted something which boiled down to, “What the hell are these people messing us about for? Damn identity cards and all those who examine them and their children and their ancestors.” This had the necessary effect and everyone started pushing and shoving as hard as they could until the barrier had been pushed aside and Terry and I were swept through on a tidal wave of disgruntled and excited Italians.
When we got outside the barrier, Joris and Luciano were talking to a shortish well-built young fellow whom we had not seen before. It was Gaston’s friend who had fixed up our stay overnight in Milan. We went over and shook hands though
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taking care to limit our Italian conversation to “buon giorno”, muttered in a low voice. He led us out of the station. I walked with Joris while Luciano put his arm through Terry’s and went over to the other side of the road as soon as we got into the main station square.
To pass out of the station, we had to go down a wide staircase of three flights. Workmen were busy there with scaffolding, and from the warped ironwork and smashed glass we assumed it to be the result of the recent R.A.F. raids. In the station square were some big stores, whose enormous steel shutters covering the windows were warped into the shape of small waves. We passed by these stores and turned into a busy street, with tram lines running through it, and the pavements thronged with workers going to lunch. We still kept to separate sides of the road, and our new friend suddenly reappeared on a bicycle upon which he forged ahead, turned round a little further up the street and came back to us. Then he dismounted and walked along beside us chatting happily.
There was no doubt that despite the fact that all three of our Italian friends would have been shot forthwith if they had been discovered helping us, they were really and truly enjoying every moment of it. That they were actually able to do something that would have upset Hitler or Mussolini, had either of those bonny gentlemen known about it, was to them a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and their real regret
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was that they could not send a letter to the authorities telling them how they had cheated the said authorities out of two good British escaped war prisoners.
The street along which we walked also showed signs of air raid damage. Several houses had been hit, and in one side street about three hundred yards away from the station, there was hardly a house standing. At a small alleyway which opened on to the main street, Joris directed us inside, first warning us not to say anything while passing the concierge’s lodge. I needed no second warning, and hurried past the lighted room as though on urgent business. The others followed and we went up some back stairs, across a small space open to the sky, and into a doorway where our new friend, whose name I never discovered, knocked in an obviously prearranged manner. The door was opened by a plumpish, jovial looking girl of the middle twenties. She invited us in and immediately cautioned us to be quiet, pointing to the walls as she spoke. We looked over at them and saw that the ceiling was separated from the side wall by at least two inches in most places.
There had been an air raid, she explained, and the house had suffered.
“How long ago?” I asked. All this conversation taking place in a
hoarse stage whisper.
“Oh. About three months. But there’s no material to repair anything with. So it’s stayed like this. And as the
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rent is paid, and it’s convenient for business, I stay on here. Besides,
if I go anywhere else, that is likely to be hit too, so there’s really no point
in it. The only trouble is that people in the flat next door can hear most of
what’s going on.”
Joris explained that he would call for us at 8 o’clock the following morning. Our train left at about half-past eight, and in the meantime we should make ourselves comfortable, in which – he assured me sotto voce in a corner out of hearing of the others – the young lady would be pleased to cooperate. It was not possible to mistake his meaning, and I took my hat off to the intelligence of our friends who had hit upon the idea of lodging us overnight in the place where we would be least likely to arouse suspicion, a prostitute’s flat.
The three men left, and our hostess asked us whether we would like to eat. She explained that she was unable to offer us anything, but she knew we were well provided with food and she would make us some coffee afterwards. And then, most apologetically, that the coffee was ‘surrogato’, but, what with fascism and the war, real coffee was virtually unobtainable, and what little had remained in the country had been sent off to Germany after the September showdown.
We ate some chicken and then some rabbit and finished up with the excellent Parmesan and fruit, all of which we washed down with the wine which Joris had so thoughtfully packed. The coffee after all was not at all bad and I began to feel that I
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could manage a short sleep. Terry agreed and we went into the bedroom where there was little furniture beyond two twin beds joined together so that one set of covers sufficed for both beds.
On closer inspection the beds proved to be raised on varying sized blocks of wood in order that the beds attained a degree of level all round. For the floor, as well as the walls and the ceiling, had suffered from the air raid and was sloping peculiarly in places. The girl closed the window and drew the blinds. We felt comparatively safe then and got into bed.
I slept for a long while and then, waking, realised where I was and started dozing again. This went on for a long time, and then our hostess returned and excusing herself for disturbing us, came into the room and took out a deckchair and a couple of cushions which she carried into the other room. Perhaps I should have explained that the flat consisted only of the kitchen-cum-living room and the bedroom which we were in.
We immediately protested that one of us should sleep in the kitchen, but she would not hear of it. It was a pleasure to help the British, she said, and especially to do harm to those “sporchi”, the Germans. And anyway, she was used to spending her nights in discomfort. She wished us a pleasant goodnight, told us that if we wanted anything, to let her know; warned once more about talking in a loud voice and having
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cautioned a minimum use of the electric light, she retired next door.
The night passed slowly enough, with periods of sleep alternating with longer periods of wakefulness during which all sorts of the most weird thoughts occupied my mind. Most of the time I was awake I could feel that Terry was also restless, occupied too with his thoughts. While awake I tried to keep my mind off the morrow by conjuring up in my imagination my arrival home. But my thoughts refused to cooperate. I went to sleep again.
It was a curious thing, though, that I never had any doubts as to the success of our undertaking, provided that we negotiated the train journey satisfactorily. I was sure that once we were in the hands of the smuggler who was to guide us across the frontier, we would follow such devious routes that there was little chance of our being recaptured. The only real danger of our being caught was during a search of the train by fascists; Germans did not worry me, as we had passed so many during our stay in Modena, and even walking through the streets of Milan the previous day, that I was convinced that they were totally unable to recognise the difference between an Englishman and an Italian.
The fascists, however, were an entirely different proposition, and had a hawk-eye for the prigioniero di guerra evaso, and while our Italian was sufficient to pass muster in
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a ten seconds’ conversation when the other party did all the talking, it would not be good enough to rise to the situation of explaining to a blackshirt why we were not in possession of identity cards. But, by this time, both Terry and I had become quite resigned to the fact that worrying was the last thing to do any good. If we were caught we could try again. There was bound to be another train to get out of, though with anything like normal luck, there was no reason why this attempt should not succeed.
I thought about Switzerland, and wondered how long we would have to stay there. From the few scraps of information which had filtered through into the camp at Padula, it appeared that we merely had to make our way to the nearest British Consul, to be forwarded on to the Legation where a red carpet and a hearty welcome, to say nothing of a substantial meal, would be waiting. After consuming this, we would stand by to receive a large number of offers of diplomatic posts varying from twentieth to fifteenth under-secretary in the aforementioned Legation. One of these offers would be accepted, and after a period of three weeks we would become proud possessors of diplomatic passports which would entitle us to passages out of Switzerland on the continental equivalent of the Clipper.
We expected to get into Switzerland either the following night or on Wednesday morning, being due in Domodossola by noon Tuesday. Working it out carefully in one of my wakeful periods,
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I figured that we might well be home by the end of the month, and there and then I increased my holding of Home for Christmas shares (1943 issue) by 100%. I had been a large ‘bull’ of such stock since accepting Italian hospitality on January 23rd 1942, and if previous losses were to be recovered the only means was by healthy speculation. This, however, looked rather gilt-edged and it seemed almost a shame to take the money… though not quite.
Eventually morning came. We rose about 6 a.m.. I looked in quietly next door and found the girl already awake. She indicated the water tap where we could wash. Then she told me to wait a few minutes and she would heat some water for shaving.
We both felt pretty good after a shave and wash, but when I tried to eat some of our roast rabbit I found that my stomach was doing rather peculiar things and refused to accept anything. I decided not to force the issue, so ate nothing. We got our suitcase ready and waited for Joris and Luciano to call. They arrived shortly after 8 o’clock, and we left immediately for the station. I saw Joris slip a bank note into the hand of our hostess as he said goodbye, and her resultant protest. Clearly she had neither wanted nor expected any reward for helping us. She was merely doing a favour to her boy friend, who had met us at the station, and at the same time pleasing her own ego by intriguing against the Germans. Joris, however, persuaded her that she might have lost some clients owing to our
[Digital page 137, original page 281]
being there and insisted on her keeping the money.
When we had all finally said goodbye and got outside Joris said.
“A nice girl. But I wanted her to make something out of it. After all, we will probably need to use the same place for the next batch!”
We walked back to the station in the same formation as before and along the same street leading into the main station square. Our train was due to leave within ten minutes, and we made straight for the platform. There we found a train composed entirely of cattle trucks, and this I regarded as a particularly auspicious sign. For it was out of cattle trucks that we had both left immediate German hospitality, and it would be out of similar vehicles that we would leave their impending board on a more permanent basis.
When we were inside the station, at the foot of the big staircase, we changed partners and Terry and I were together again with the others leading the way a few metres ahead.
Before leaving our abode of the night at Milan, we were given our railway tickets. Joris and Luciano had the direct tickets from Modena to Domodossola,
[Digital page 138, original page 282]
while we had tickets from Milan onwards, which had been bought that morning.
The idea was that if we were caught on the last lap, it would be assumed that we had started our journey in Milan, and Modena would not be implicated. This we considered rather important in view of the large number of escaped POWs still in hiding in that area.
We found a truck that was almost empty and parked ourselves in separate corners. The weather was beautiful and the day gave indications of the heat to come. Both Terry and I were wearing our overcoats and felt hats in order to conceal our ill-fitting clothes and cover our faces as much as possible without arousing suspicion, and it soon began to get very hot.
The train started and a light breeze came through the truck whose doors were open on either side. Just before we left Milan, our truck had been invaded by a large party of people dressed in black and carrying varying sized bouquets. I remembered what Joris had told us about it being La Festa della Morte, on which occasion any Italian having lost a relative hastens to put flowers on the grave and say prayers for the soul of the departed one. And I blessed the foresight of the good Joris who had provided Terry with a black band to wear on the lapel of his greatcoat. Neatly sown on by Pina, this immediately removed any suspicion our fellow travellers may have felt towards him, for how could such a handsome well-
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built young man who was going to put flowers on the tomb of his departed loved ones and who appeared so distressed that he hardly opened his eyes during the whole journey, be an evaso inglese? So Terry slept or pretended to do so, and I did the same though on a smaller scale. I wanted to see who got into the train at each stop. It was a slow train and there were many stops, and at each one I feared that it might not be a station, but a search that was holding us up. On one occasion we were rather lucky, as some Italian bersaglieri who wanted to get into the truck, decided to go elsewhere because it was so crowded already.
The journey passed even more slowly than that of the previous day. I kept on telling myself that it had to come to an end soon, that all things were relative, and that with luck we would be in Switzerland the following day.
The only nasty moment during the trip was when the ticket collector
came round. We were the last he came to, and I handed up our two tickets hoping
that he would not trouble to look at us as well as at the tickets. At the time
we were hemmed in on either side of our corner, and rapid flight would have
been out of the question. The collector looked long and hard at the tickets,
then at us, and asked where we were going.
“Domodossola,” said I, putting on my best Italian accent. The question was repeated. The train was making a terrific
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noise going over faulty rails, and, to make myself heard, I had to shout at the top of my voice. I did this to repeat our destination, and the ticket collector must have been so taken aback at anyone shouting at his illustrious person, railway officials in fascist Italy being almost sacrosanct, that he at once clipped the tickets and handed them back, leaving the truck at the next stop. I found that I was sweating badly.
Shortly before the end of the journey, the carriage became empty except for the four of us and a well-built and very good-looking man whose only luggage was a mountain pack. I started to picture him as the guide who was going to take us across, and after a short while had quite convinced myself that it would be he, even going as far as to work up a feeling of great confidence in him. Unfortunately, he spoilt the illusion by getting out a few stations before Domodossola.
Finally we reached our destination, and as had been previously arranged, Joris and Luciano got out and went along the platform to the exit. For me this was the crucial moment of the trip. I was scared of the control of Jerry officers which Joris had reported previously. We saw Joris and Luciano go up to a tall well-dressed middle-aged man, who greeted them warmly, and led them out of the station past the control barrier. This was being guarded by an Alpini officer and a railway clerk. We followed closely behind, taking care
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to get ourselves wedged in to the general mass of passengers going through the barrier.
Our three friends crossed the street and entered a small cul-de-sac out of sight of the main square. When we got there, they were waiting for us and Joris introduced us to our new friend, Mr. Barbera. He ushered us into a cellar in which were stored a number of boxes, a few bicycles and other oddments. Then through a series of rooms, obviously used as offices, though we only met one person who appeared to be an employee.
We finally arrived in a spacious private office used by Barbera himself. He invited us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable, and chatted happily with us for some time. Then he asked whether we would mind taking a few letters across for him and posting them on the other side. We naturally acquiesced and were given about twenty letters addressed to people in Switzerland and already bearing Swiss stamps. Barbera asked if there was anything we needed, and I said that we had no Swiss money and enquired whether there was any chance of his giving us some. I explained that we wanted to try and get through to the British Legation without being picked up by the Swiss patrols on the frontier. We needed money for train fares. Barbera pointed out that Swiss francs were worth about eighty lire each and that it was therefore impossible for him to let us have the fifty francs for which I asked. Nevertheless he would give us five francs each to enable us to telephone the Legation on arrival. We already had five hundred lire each
[Digital page 142, original page 286]
which Joris had given us before leaving Modena.
Barbera then phoned a friend and, quite openly, told him to bring round ten Swiss francs together with two packets of tea and two small bottles of brandy. From us he seemed keen to be given a certificate to the effect that he had been instrumental in facilitating our escape to Switzerland, having arranged the services of the guide to accompany us to the frontier. It seemed to me that Barbera was one of the large number of fascists who were trying to clear their past by helping escaped POWs. But this was a practice to be encouraged and I willingly wrote a letter for him, though pointing out that the sum of ten thousand lire which was being charged by the guide was being paid to Barbera by Joris.
Shortly afterwards the friend arrived with the Swiss money, the tea and brandy which we packed into the suitcase. Now the time had come to say goodbye to Joris and Luciano. They had been wonderful to us, and both seemed to be friends of a lifetime rather than of the seven weeks during which we had known them. Joris with true Italian effusion of spirit, was almost in tears, while Luciano though avoiding such demonstration, was also deeply affected. I had taken off my signet ring during the train journey and was wearing it on my key chain. I slipped it off and gave it to Joris. I told him to keep it as a small expression of our gratitude and a souvenir of the two males he had saved from a fate worse than
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death. He cheered up enormously and promised he would always wear it.
Then he became practical again and told us that we must on no account sign the message for the guide until we were actually in Switzerland. When the guide eventually produced the signed message to Joris at Domodossola, where he intended to wait until he had definite news of our success or failure, he would know from the context whether the trip had been easy or difficult. Consequently, whether it would be possible to bring through Britz and Holdrich, and Tony Snell and Peter Lewis. Britz and Holdrich would certainly be handicapped by anything that required a very strenuous effort, and the others were not yet completely recovered from their wounds. He gave us five thousand lire to pay the guide at once, but the balance of the money was not to be paid until Joris had proof, as constituted by the message, that we had got over the frontier.
Final farewells having been made, we were led out of the building by Barbera’s friend who handed us each a bicycle. He took our suitcase and told us to follow him out of the town, keeping about two hundred metres behind. We were to watch him carefully and at any sign of a control post in the road at which he was stopped we were to turn around and make for Barbera’s office in Domodossola. He got on his bike and away he went. We followed behind as directed and as we went
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round the corner leading into the town, we had our last glimpse of Joris and Luciano, who were just about to sit down and have the beginning of a series of quick ones at the local pub. We went along at a medium pace keeping well behind our guide, everything going nice and smoothly when suddenly coming round a corner, we found ourselves directly behind a German Wehrmacht sergeant who was cycling in the same direction. We slowed down a little and let him keep in front of us, while we in turn also separated slightly so as not to appear in the same party.
We went through the small town in this formation, with our guide well in the lead, the German sergeant a good second, Terry third, and myself bringing up the rearguard. The German happily turned into a side street, and immediately afterwards we found ourselves on a long straight road leading to the open country. We cycled along on level ground for about fifteen minutes and then the road began to rise until finally we were forced to get off our bikes and push them along. At the same time we closed in on our guide until we were only fifty metres behind him.
The hill was long and I found myself sweating from the heat and the unaccustomed effort. Barbera had insisted that we retained our overcoats because of the extreme cold in the mountains overnight. It was not certain that we would cross the frontier that evening. Everything depended on our condition on arrival at the starting place, and whether the smuggler guide
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would prefer to take us across in darkness or wait until the following day. This, in turn, depended upon a number of other considerations such as the presence of frontier patrols, the conditions of cols or mountains to be negotiated, and generally the route to be taken.
All that we knew was that we were to meet him at a village called Varzo. There he would be waiting for us in the road leading to the village.
After a long spell of walking our bicycles we were able to mount again and the relief was very pleasant. Since leaving Domodossola, the only people we had met had been cyclists coming from the opposite direction along the long straight road while we were still in the plain. Once we had left the immediate neighbourhood of the town we encountered nobody.
Soon we came to a fork in the road, where a signpost announced the distances to Brig and the Simplon and back to Domodossola. We had come seven kilometres. I looked at my watch and found that we had needed nearly an hour to cover just over half the distance to Varzo, thirteen kilometres away from the town.
We trudged on, having from time to time to dismount and wheel our bicycles up the sharp gradients in the road. The countryside was beautiful, though to be admired rather when fresh than after unaccustomed exercise. The road ran alongside a steep slope leading down to a mountain stream which flowed
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steadily until it reached rocks in the middle of the waterway, causing rapids to start. On either side of the stream the wooded banks rose sharply, and the general impression was of great peace and tranquillity broken only by the sound of the rushing water. The road itself seemed to be cut out of the side of the mountain, for on one side there was the slope leading to the water while on the other sheer rock towered above us. Once during a brief halt, a peasant passed on a wagon drawn by two horses. Taking advantage of the slowness of his locomotion, he said something as he passed. I answered “si” and not waiting to see whether this happened to be the right answer, we jumped on our bikes and pedalled off as fast we could.
We took turns at carrying the suitcase which was still heavy and made an awkward burden. After what seemed an interminable time, we saw a cluster of houses a couple of kilometres in front of us, and Barbera’s friend with whom we had caught up, told us that we were looking at the village of Varzo.
Another five minutes’ cycling and we reached a shack standing at the side of the road. In front of this shack were two men, and a hunting dog. When he saw us, one of the men moved across to the other side of the road and turned into a small track which led behind a hedge and out of sight. The dog followed him and we in turn followed the dog, so that
[Digital page 147, original page 291]
quite a procession ended up in front of an old barn used for the storage of hay.
Our cycling guide introduced us to the man with the dog. He was to guide us across the frontier. The man from Domodossola then handed me the letters we were to take and post in Switzerland, bade us a rapid though heartfelt farewell with best wishes attached and disappeared quickly. I handed over the five thousand lire which Joris had given me to our new guide whose name for the sake of brevity shall be George. Having parked our bicycles in the barn George beckoned us to follow him and led the way along a small mountain track going through a forest and climbing steadily.
After a while we stopped and undercover of a mass of foliage we transferred the contents of the suitcase to George’s rucksack. Again I asked about the advisability of retaining our overcoats, but George advised as before telling us that we would probably be spending the night in a cabin in the hills and that the cold at night was intense. So we started again, still in those damned overcoats, and soon we were climbing in earnest until sweat poured off us both and suddenly I began to feel faint. I decided to take a swig of my brandy, and took a quick gulp, but when I looked at the small bottle afterwards to see how much remained I saw that it was quite empty.
Our progress was slow and it seemed as though we had been going for hours, and frequently I thought that I would lack the
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strength necessary to reach even our harbour for the night. Terry was going quite well and said that his shoes were bearing the strain comfortably. I took off my coat and he carried it for me. My progress became a series of short laps after which I sank exhausted to the ground and tried to recover my breath and allow my heart to calm down from the tremendous number of revs at which it was ticking over. This disgusted George to no uncertain degree and we heard the Domodossola or Varzo equivalent to the age-old question of whether we were mice or men. I readily agreed to being whatever he liked, but pointed out that we had not eaten since the previous afternoon, and that if ever he wanted to get the remaining five thousand lire for getting us safely across the frontier he had better remember his mices’ inner men. And so, when we came to a high plateau overlooking the village a thousand feet below, he allowed us to stop and gave us food and a bottle of wine. We finished the wine first and he produced another bottle, and this was disappearing with such speed that he said he would go down again to the village to replenish his stock and would return for us within three quarters of an hour. We established ourselves behind a large bush, finished the remainder of the wine and the food and stretched out to enjoy a well-deserved rest and reflect upon the possibility of being in Switzerland the following day.
True to his word, George was back within the time stated. There was not a drop of sweat on his face nor was he the slightest
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bit out of breath, and in fact was smoking one of the Tuscany cheroots we had brought up for him. He had a special system with these. He first cut the cheroot in half, smoked one half, and, when he had finished that, bit a large slice out of the other half which he chewed constantly throughout the trip. This chewing was interspersed with various ejections of nicotine juice aimed with precision at different targets on the side of the track. George, in fact, gave the impression of being a very tough guy indeed. He was certainly in excellent training and thought that we were too, and it took me quite a time to convince him we had spent the last seven weeks hiding in a small room, during which time our sole exercise had been three or four very short walks. And although we were just as anxious as he was to conclude the deal successfully, there was far more prospect of doing this if he moderated his pace and let us live to attempt the passage of the second day. Perhaps my Italian was not perfectly clear, but the endeavour to be bitingly sarcastic evidently must have been, for he shortened his step and pace and keeping up with him changed from being a physical impossibility to being mere torture.
Darkness fell half an hour before we reached the mountain cabin which was our objective for the night, and we followed closely behind George along a narrow steeply climbing track in the direction of a light which shone in the distance. Being able to see the light which George told us came from the cabin,
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was a great help to our morale; especially to mine, as I felt that any long trek would be utterly impossible for me. Terry was still trudging along comfortably and from time to time helped me with my overcoat and gave me a hand over the rougher parts of the track. But for the main part I was glad to remain well in the rear and keep my troubles to myself, though taking care to keep to the track and not lose sight of the friendly light.
After what seemed an eternity we came suddenly upon the cabin by the side of which was a large barn. George shouted and the door was immediately opened and a fine old man of about 65 stood framed in the light. He was a typical peasant, with his face, weather-beaten and bronzed and half hidden behind two enormous moustaches which had never been trimmed since their inception. He was dressed in rough but serviceable mountain clothes and I especially admired his stout boots which were similar to those worn by the Italian Alpini.
He invited us inside where three girls and two young men were sitting in front and around a fire blazing in the open hearth. The old man introduced us as the two Britishers who were going across the following day. The girls were his daughters, one of the boys was his son and the other his nephew. Both of them would be accompanying us to the frontier.
When my eyes had become accustomed to the light, I saw
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that the nephew was wearing the uniform of the Alpini. I started talking to him and he told me that he had formed part of the Italian division which had been on the Italian-French frontier, and that he had taken five weeks to get back to Domodossola after the Armistice. His journey had been accomplished mainly on foot, though sometimes he had managed to get a lift. The whole trip had been several hundred miles long.
Meanwhile the old man had seen the state we were in and had insisted on our taking off our shirts and vests and socks which were hung up to dry by the side of the fire. Then an enormous pan was filled with water, fixed on a hook suspended above the fire and in a little while we were dealing with large quantities of Italian tea whose main virtue was its warmth and sweetness, for there appeared to be no lack of sugar. The old man’s son went out and returned with an armful of wood for the fire and a box containing chestnuts. These were put into the same container which had been used for the brewing of the tea, and soon we were having a feast of roast chestnuts. We sat there talking until our clothes were dry, but about 8 o’clock I could no longer keep my eyes open and asked to be taken to wherever I was to spend the night. This turned out to be in the barn, where with the help of a couple of blankets and my overcoat I settled down quite comfortably into the straw which was laid down in abundance. But despite my fatigue I could
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not get to sleep, and kept thinking about the next day’s trip which George had told us would take eight or nine hours or even more if we only went at the pace we had used that afternoon, with which he had evidently not been impressed. I somehow could not see myself walking continuously for even eight hours, but the old man who apparently knew the route well had told us that after the first hour or two which involved heavy climbing we would have a very easy trip practically all on the same level.
We left the cabin at first light on Wednesday morning, November 3rd, 1943. With us were the guide, the young son of the farmer, and the Alpini. George carried our food, and both the others also had haversacks. The Alpini’s service rifle was slung over his shoulder and we had a couple of revolvers in addition. Neither Terry nor I carried anything.
For the first two hours we climbed at a slow steady pace, and George stopped every half hour for a short rest. During these halts, which was the only time I could coordinate my thoughts at all rationally, I marvelled at his fitness. He was a man of nearly sixty, but there was not a bead of sweat on his face, though it was pouring off me already. His breath came quite evenly and from time to time he spat out the dark brown juice of the Tuscany cigar he was chewing.
Then we moved on again and nothing mattered beyond finding a sure footing for the next step. I kept on telling myself, as I had done the previous night that all bad things must come to
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an end. This day must eventually turn into night, and before night we would be in Switzerland. Or be caught.
Now we were high up in the hills overlooking the valley where the
village of Varzo snuggled comfortably and seemingly secure. George held up his
hand cautioning silence, and we sank to the ground behind some bushes. Then he
beckoned us forward and as we got up to him he told us to run across the next
piece of ground which was open without cover of trees. We dashed across and as
we stood panting and waiting for George who came last, the Alpini pointed down
to the valley where two men were wandering about at the side of a mountain
stream. I looked through the glasses and saw that one of them was in German
uniform, the other in civilian clothes. George grinned.
“Those bastards. They are afraid to come up here. Besides I doubt whether they could climb fifteen hundred metres.”
I doubted whether I could climb another fifteen hundred, but I refrained from comment.
Then the fates and George were kind, for the next four and a half hours were easy. The going was level, through woods where frequently we were able to use narrow paths. The shoes which Joris had given me – his best pair of real leather brown brogues were beginning to pinch at the toes, and I cursed myself for not taking a chance and wearing my army boots. But after a while I told myself not to be a fool. What chance would I have had wearing my British army boots on a crowded Italian train? It
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occurred to me that I was able to think now, and was not just plodding along intent upon the next place I would put my feet, but with my mind otherwise blank. I found, too, that my breathing was coming quite easily and that, apart from my pinched toes, I was feeling fine.
Once we stopped to shoot at one of the trees on a slope above us and I knew that we must almost be safe. It was noon. I asked the guide how long it would take us to reach the frontier. He said we might get across within three hours, and grudgingly admitted that he was satisfied with our progress.
We came to the edge of the woods and I saw that we were on a high slope
leading down into a most beautiful valley. Far below, nestling in the focal
point of the valley surrounded on all sides by mountains of impressive height,
was a small hotel, set there like a miniature among a host of old masters.
Beyond, further up the valley, I could see a waterfall which provided the
source of a rapidly flowing stream running almost to the front door of the
hotel. George followed the direction of my glance and said.
“There, by the side of the stream, we will have lunch. And you will be able to drink to your heart’s delight from the mineral springs. After lunch we will tackle the hard part of the climb.”
I came down to earth.
“The hard part of the climb? Where do we have to go?”
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George pointed to a snow-clad peak that towered above us on the other
side of the valley.
“That is the Monte Leone,” he said, “and a little to the right you will see the pass that we go over. The Swiss call it the Furggenbaumpass, and a few paces beyond that pass is Switzerland and a Swiss guard hut.”
I looked to where he pointed. It seemed a long way away. Right across the other side of the valley, and I realised that it must be high for the snow line seemed to start very low down the face. I said.
“Is it absolutely necessary to go down the valley and then up again the other side? Can’t we skirt round the range on this side?”
But it was all to no purpose. That was the way George intended to go, and that was the way we went.
Going down into the valley was simple, though a strain on the thigh muscles, and when we reached the mineral springs I was glad of the rest. The hotel we passed on the way, but it was empty. When we got to the springs, a small boy appeared from behind a rock and offered to fill our bottles. I drank three bottles of the gassy water. It was not unpleasant; something between Vichy water and soda water. For our lunch, we finished the chicken with some bread and cheese, and I found that the exercise had given me an unusually large appetite. Just as I was thinking how nice it would be to take a short nap, the
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guide gave the order to move on.
We climbed for an hour before we hit the snow line. We were stopping at more frequent intervals now, and my feet and legs had little feeling beyond an intolerable tiredness. But still the guide kept on, and still we followed carefully putting our feet in the steps which his nailed boots had made. It seemed that it would never end. I wanted to drink, but George refused to give me anything, saying that it was the worst thing possible. I compromised by gathering up handfuls of snow and putting them down my back and rubbing them over my face and into my hair. From time to time I walked beside Terry who was feeling the strain even more than I was. We hardly spoke except to mutter some short phrase of encouragement. Then one of us would fall and lie full length in the snow, while the other attempted to drag him to his feet. Sometimes these falls were caused by exhaustion, sometimes by misjudging the correct spot to place our feet and then we would sink in to a depth of at least a metre.
After a thousand years, the guide called a halt.
What I wanted more than anything else was a drink, and after that a long sleep followed by a steaming hot bath and a change of clothing. As the latter all seemed out of the question, I concentrated on the drink and without stopping to get a breath emptied half a bottle of Vermouth which the guide gave me. Terry who was in an even worse state got through a similar
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quantity, and we then went on a short reconnaissance round the guard hut. There was a small window which had been left open and we climbed in. Once inside I was most relieved to find some blankets with the Swiss Cross on them, and at last the fear of being betrayed left me.
We said goodbye to our guides who quite casually told us that they were returning to their village that evening and thought the trip would take them about four hours. We arranged that the Alpini with us should go on to the main frontier post which we knew was some forty five minutes march down the mountain. Then began a feverish hunt for wood with which to light a fire, for though marching had previously kept our drenched feet comparatively warm, they were now approaching the stage when frostbite becomes more than a possibility. We found the wood all right, but unfortunately the fire was connected to a detachable chimney which we were unable to locate, and not wanting to smoke ourselves out we decided to call it a day. Using a blanket as a towel, we managed to dry ourselves relatively well and then we got up on a long wide bunk covered with straw, and, putting all the covers we could find – which amounted to nearly a dozen – over and under us we were asleep instantly. We awoke about three hours later to the sound of voices talking in Swiss German dialect. In a state of semi consciousness, I watched four men, in uniforms very similar to those of the Wehrmacht, moving about the hut, which in an incredibly short space of time became lighted, warmer and
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comfortable. The fire had presented no difficulty to them, a chimney
being instantly produced and adjusted through the window, and in a few minutes
there was a bucket of snow being melted down on the stove. Then I struggled out
of bed and introduced Terry and myself, thanking them for having taken the
trouble to come all the way up to look after us for the night. In fact, I
certainly would not have put it above the Germans, if ever they reached that
altitude, to have a look inside the hut with a view to removing anyone to whom
they might take a fancy, should there be no Swiss guards there at the time. So
I was quite profuse in my thanks. Soon the Swiss German equivalent to our
“brew-up!” echoed through the hut, and over a bowl of scalding tea we
recounted a few of our adventures and misadventures since leaving Hun
hospitality. Our new hosts were most sympathetic and were obviously interested
in our story. They told us that, though the pass had been used by a
considerable number of Jewish refugees and a few anti-fascists, we were the
first British officers, or soldiers for that matter, to have come over. Consequently,
we were regarded rather as oddities and asked all sorts of questions.
“Where and when had we been captured? How long had we been in Italy? How had we been treated there? How had we escaped? How had the Germans behaved when they took over the country after the Armistice?” And a host of others. We answered as well as we could, though the desire for sleep was
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now becoming well-nigh unbearable and I could feel my head starting to
nod and it became increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open. This must have
become very obvious to our new friends for they suggested that we should turn
in, which we promptly did. They put our socks and shirts in the oven to dry,
and then came over and tucked us in to a couple of blankets each, over which we
put an enormous sheepskin coat normally used by the sentry actually on duty. We
were soon asleep again, but curiously enough it was only a very fitful dozing
slumber and during the whole night my mind was full of incidents of the past
seven weeks which I had never expected to remember:
How perfectly rotten for Bill and the other bloke to have been recaught, and would Ted be able to keep hidden away until the word got back that our route was safe, though unpleasant?
Our little excursion through the streets of the town the night of Ted’s second escape.
Tony Snell’s story and Peter’s visits to the dentist.
Hopes of getting an aeroplane at Littoria when the train taking us to Bologna had stopped the day there.
Listening to opera and ‘Lili Marlene’ sung by a chorus of boche led by a pure voiced prostitute.
And of our luck and that we had succeeded.
And finally, thoughts of food in great luscious quantities, barbers’ chairs and hot baths full of bath salts, and rough towels warmed on a hot rail, and beds with clean white soft sheets… and so to sleep.