Norman Rogers (RAMC) was imprisoned in PG49 Fontanellato. Entitled ‘Footloose in the Apennines’, his very detailed account of walking 600 km south is remarkable both for the speed with which it was accomplished and the unusual fact that he achieved this with only one companion, AA (known as Ack-Ack) Jones (RA). They crossed the Allied lines at San Angelo, by Venafro on 25 October and Dr. Rogers was reunited with his family on Christmas Eve.
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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FOOTLOOSE IN THE APENNINES: 8th September to 25th October 1943
Most of this journal was written in my parents’ home at Filey, East Yorks during the first quarter of 1944. The effort of writing every morning served as a discipline and enabled catharsis for feelings arising from: shame of capture, interest of life in Prisoner of War (POW) camps; the sense of liberation from prison; the efforts, pains and perils of our journey; and the joy in having come through.
On country walks I was still listening afar for the sound of a car or lorry on quiet country lanes and feeling that the roads were an extension of prison.
I aimed to write a continuous narrative, as honestly as possible, accepting pedestrian repetition and trivial comment; I hoped that Ack-Ack would read it and there it would rest, another experience in the war.
Recently I re-read the whole manuscript for the first time since it was written and recognized that two events, important and dramatic for us, were covered by a line or two, or not at all. This arose because I was dissatisfied with the drafts and felt the journey urging me on. There was no time to wait for emotion.
The final pages were written after I had joined The 1st Black Watch as Medical Officer. The Battalion had returned from Sicily with the 51st Division and was in Berkhamsted preparing for the invasion of Europe.
Blank space was left opposite each page because I hoped that ‘Ack-Ack’, my companion, would add a different point of view to some of the events.
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I sent the manuscript to him at Catterick and he returned it to my home as requested. He wrote to me saying that he had liked it and been moved by some passages but had felt he couldn’t write in it.
I was disappointed but realized I had asked too much.
About 10,000 of 80,000 allied prisoners of war reached allied lines or neutral Switzerland in the early months. Such numbers would have not been possible amid a hostile population.
The heroes and heroines for us were the Italian people especially the contadini (peasants), so many of whom had been generous and courageous on our behalf in difficult and dangerous situations.
Overwhelmed by many acts of kindness I asked ‘Why are you so good to us?’ and some said ‘Umanita’, sometimes adding ‘as the Church teaches us’. I assumed they meant humaneness, compassion.
I was haunted by a memory of Pontefract on a dismal sunny day in June 1940 when I was billeting the remnants of a Field Ambulance RAMC, just returned from the disaster which had ended at Dunkirk. We couldn’t find enough large halls to hold everyone, therefore lodging without meals was needed for some of us in houses; so I and my companion, Staff Sergeant Smith, an Oxford College Scout and man of tact and charm, tapped on doors along rows of houses. Some people were helpful taking one or two, some had no room, but many found all sorts of excuses, notably so in a well-to-do suburb. ‘Yes! We have two empty bedrooms’ ‘Oh well! I’d take an officer’.
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More than once we had to threaten to return with a policeman who would have the authority to insist. The Germans were at Calais and the French were crumbling.
And here we were, scruffy beggars ‘on the run’ received in many farms as guests, like the two gods entertained by Philemon and Baucis.
Their bounty came as an undeserved blessing which I regarded as due to God’s Grace.
These sentiments were clean different from my earlier views about our enemies.
The three German divisions in Libya had fought well under Rommel who was a hero to them, and to us. They had good weapons and were well trained. There had been chivalry on both sides; for example it was common practice to stop firing on tanks while casualties were being evacuated under a Red Cross flag and I had experienced that myself; on the whole the Germans had behaved well to us after capture and apologized for passing us to the Italians under an arrangement between Hitler and Mussolini. Atrocities to Jews, Poles and Russians were blamed on the Nazis and SS; second-hand news and conveniently faraway.
Italian frogmen had earned high marks for incapacitating capital ships of the Royal Navy in Alexandria harbour but such exploits were forgotten at the sight of Italian infantry surrendering in hordes after the feeblest resistance and cries of ‘Please please, Signore, I want to be a prisoner in South Africa with my brother’. They were sent to the Delta in hundreds of thousands to be kitted out in light khaki drill with a dark brown square in the seat of their trousers, and shipped off to India or South Africa. We had heard little about our disaster in Singapore although the humiliating fall of Tobruk was much in mind.
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As prisoners ourselves we had found many Italians decent, but inefficient and excitable, illustrated by two officer POWs at Capua who were shot while escaping and whose bodies were riddled with rifle bullets suggestive of intense agitation on the part of the guards, fearful of the threat that any escapes from a POW camp entailed a rapid posting to Russia for those held responsible.
For ourselves, camps for officers contained an amazing collection of men in their 20’s and 30’s from many social classes and civilian employments, of differing abilities and experience, with personalities from the strait-laced to the raffish, where the eager student could learn fascinating detail about so much, such as taking a small scoop from the rich broth; the Danish system of pig farming; how life East of Suez; a Church of England living where the family with the ‘gift’ hoped that the new incumbent would be ‘the sort of chap we could take shooting with us’ (to prolonged laughter); memories of a fast bowler for Yorkshire and England; the effect of Dimitrov’s reorganisation of the Comintern on a Communist student in Glasgow after 1936.
It was Radio 4 before its time, albeit more innocent.
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A university where the fees were shame of capture and absence from loved ones, in every possible meaning of love.
The ‘escapers’ went about their orderly affairs with all the skill and ingenuity since recorded in books and films; a dedicated body of men, not quite ‘saints’ but ‘conscience easers’ for the mass.
We knew they were sanctioned by a committee authorized by the Senior British Officer whose rule was light within the strong bonds of custom and convention well known to most in that period of time.
There seemed to be experts on everything from Higher Learning to Forgery.
Religious services were well attended.
Lectures were given on a regular basis and everything was discussed. News about the War and the shape of Britain after the war were popular mixed with plenty of substantial learning reminding me of Edmond Dante’s and the Abbe Faria in the Chateau d’If.
We learnt about the organization of the Communist and Fascist parties in Britain between the wars and discussed the day to day politics. Like many another I was a ‘Don’t know’, not Socialist but touched pink by the Labour loyalties of so many good men who came from the main industrial areas.
At Rezzanello camp, Gordon Clover *, John Alexander and I had spent many mornings, talking with Dr Campanini, the Italian doctor, and had become his ‘cari colleghi’; others had joined us but given up because of the language barrier.
* Gordon Clover, Barrister on Northern Circuit, later QC, Circuit Judge and Recorder of Blackpool John Alexander, a bed-patient at first, not long down from Oxford, still young and a bit shy, very bright. Later he became Chairman, Ocean Steam Shipping Co., Deputy Chairman, Lloyds Bank, Director of BP and Hawker Siddley, now Sir Lindsay Alexander.
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Luigi Campanini, a tall stately man, his grey head erect and his expressive face lighting up in a smile as he stood in front of the fire in the Infermeria, balancing his cigarette in its holder. A cup of tea balanced in a convenient position on the mantelpiece by L/Cpl Sugden, the Medical Orderly. ‘Ah, grazie, soojden’. He was as interested in our ideas as we in his, and aroused our interest in Italy, its people and much else in the world. Two favourite adverbs we heard were ‘dunque’ (then, so, consequently) and ‘quindi’ (hence, therefore, then, afterwards) as the reasoning proceeded.
He was an old continental Liberal crushed by the forces afoot. He was contemptuous of Fascism and ironic about Mussolini. ‘Mussolini said he was supported by eight million bayonets’. Pause – sad smile. ‘Of wood!’.
The black market was rife in Italy and long-standing corruption touched everyone. People had to make the best of it. I saw Machiavelli as an honest patriot. At the same time I did not take Dr Campanini’s advice in a dispute between the Senior British Officer and me (as Senior British MO) about some medical Red Cross parcels.
Memorably, Dr Campanini told me early in 1943 that if ever I were in trouble and went to any farm (pointing with his cigarette on its holder out through the window and round the room), the Contadini would help me. I tempered my amazement because he was so serious.
He was right, the Contadini allied to Good Luck helped many of us to return to our homes, and Luck by itself would not have done it.
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I had become RMO 4th Royal Tank Regiment in September 1941 in Tobruk during the first siege. Matilda Tanks.
|November – December||Break-out battle – Duda – Sidi Rezegh – Gazala. Part of ‘Crusader’ Bn had 4 tanks left|
|24th December||Bn. back at Alexandria – Sidi Bishr Camp|
|January 1942||Palestine – Hadera equipped with Crusader tanks|
|March||Lake Timsah in Canal area and practised landings from Tank landing craft for intended landing at Tmimi|
|Late May||Rommel attacked at Gazala. We rushed up with tanks on transporters – 4th Armoured Bde – 22nd Armoured Bde expecting to attack to Derna but nothing much happened until we were attacked near Bir Aslagh early on 6th June 1942 Owing to wounded Anti-Tank gunners and confusion caused by speed of Germans. I could not keep up with the tanks as they motored back to Tobruk and was captured. Saw Rommel.|
|June||In German Dressing Station attending British wounded – 120 stretcher patients in first 24 hours. Helped by British stretcher bearers from 50th Division.|
|July||Tobruk cage- Derna – Benghasi – Lecce Southern Italy.|
|POW Camps||Bari – Benevento – Capua – Rezzanello|
Fontanellato – near the Parma – Piacenza road
On 8th September 1943 after the fall of Mussolini – Armistice with Italians
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‘Ack-Ack’, the name of my companion recurs through this journal. Signallers said Ack, Beer, Charlie for ABC, so Ack-Ack was the familiar name of ‘Anti-Aircraft’. Captain A A Jones had been serving in a Field Regiment RA, and not Anti-Aircraft, but he became known as ‘Ack-Ack’ by allusion to his initials; and he and I stuck to the name for many years: in conversation, letters and Christmas cards, long after I knew that he was Bert or Bertie at home and Mr Arthur Jones MP.
The sharp insistence of the sound suited him, quite apart from the bond of friendship. He came to Rezzanello (an officer’s camp, south of Piacenza) from capture at el-Alamein and a few days later gave a lecture about the battle which everyone attended. It was a straightforward account, like a formal report, about what he knew.
Seen in profile against a makeshift map, his full lower jaw and thick hair brushed back to a crest suggesting a ‘long skull’, which at other angles looked ’round’ with a broad forehead.
The lecture was well received and he was known for some time as ‘I was there’, no doubt due in part to our envy of the man with the ‘griff’ (reliable news) about a great victory which we had missed.
At Rezzanello and Fontanellato (Piacenza-Parma) we lived and messed separately and my memory of him is dim for many months.
During the summer of 1943, among all the lectures and discussion groups, there was a series on Plato’s Republic by Ian Fraser, a Regular (i.e. Career) Indian Army officer, a quiet modest man who practised Yoga. I enjoyed his lectures and was ready to believe the rumour that he had gained a First in Classical Greats at Oxford.
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I met Joyce at Cople when Alison was christened. I thought Ack-Ack was a very fortunate man.
He sent me a handbill when he first stood for the local council as a Liberal. A picture in Service Dress with S D hat worn in the correct ‘Gunner’ fashion, a reference to our walk and to his gratitude to the Harpur Trust.
We attended Alison’s wedding and met on some later occasions with Joyce and Pam for dinner in London.
I was cheered by letters from The Mayor’s Parlour and read about his election to Parliament, directorships and work on charitable committees, marvelling at his skill and endurance in keeping so many irons in the fire.
Pam and I enjoyed our visit to Pavenham, the farm and buildings he had restored to create a peaceful home. I admired his Rolls-Royce in the barn where Bunyan had preached and wondered whether the ‘Bishop’s’ shade was murmuring ‘A worthy conveyance for my pastoral journeys to the Elect’, like a Minister of the Kirk I knew, another Calvinist, who demanded a Daimler from his West Lothian flock, and got it.
We walked to the river over his land and silently I was recalling his ‘yeoman’ forbears, who had been a subject of discussion during our walk.
Joyce wrote to me that he had died while cutting a branch of a tree. Would that fortune have delayed his passing, but for me the circumstance fulfilled one of his earlier dreams.
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The first appearance of Ack-Ack in my story refers to a philosophical discussion which suggests that he too had been attending the lectures, unaware that shortly each of us would be reversing Plato’s ‘Three lives’: man of action; appetitive man and philosopher, back into one.
From that day I recall his quick, bright eyes, characteristic smile and laugh, as well as his good turnout, worthy of remark because many friends might wear battered old caps, corduroy trousers, desert boots and coloured scarves; whereas he had been captured wearing properly fitted battle dress and officers brown boots. At first impression, a decent chap, companionable, efficient; and not likely to get left behind.
We had been detailed to companies for any march out of the camp; ours was commanded by Lt Colonel Denis Gibbs, Queens Regiment; Ack-Ack was Adjutant and I was Medical officer. And why had Gibbs chosen Ack-Ack as Adjutant? Gibbs had been captured at Alamein and almost certainly they must have discussed the battle with their small group. Further he looked quite smart and efficient whereas many older birds bore the appearance of brigands.
Our duties proved minimal and short-lived but we were bound to stay with Gibbs until the rest of the company (many score) had dispersed.
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The Journal 8th September 1943, Footloose in the Apennines
‘Well! The wops seem to think that Jerry’s coming, cleaning their automatics for the first time since we’ve been here. We had been called into the pebble-covered courtyard after breakfast. Old Schnoz Boyd was expressing his views through cigarette plus ash which wobbled at each word below his enormous and expressive nose. He thought that Jerry was coming for us.
The evening before, we’d seen the Ites streaming past the camp – men, women and children all delighted – ‘La guerra e finita’. Inside we’d noticed, then hoped, then ‘it can’t be’, but ‘Yes the SBO Has gone to see the Commandant’- Armistice?
Later, collected in the great hall in good-tempered hushed, jostling throng: the SBO got up, announced ‘Of course I’ve seen this happen before at a previous camp, it may not be true but the Commandant has promised to keep me posted on events.’ And so, further hubbub, each having quiet breathless moments when long-suppressed thoughts and hopes of home surged up.
Sleep was very difficult, so many pleasant thoughts arose to break the calm.
But now things didn’t seem so easy. The SBO* came out on the steps, the actor on the stage, 50-ish, greying well-tutored hair and early pouchy face, an arbitrary man. His bad manners and bilious disposition had made a bad impression previously. Now he was clearly the man for the situation. ‘It is likely that the Germans will come to this camp, the commandant has stated that he will defend it (pause). When I heard this my first impulse was to offer assistance but in view of diplomatic reasons, I decided that we would leave and hide in the country.’
* The SBO was Lt Col De Burgh. He was probably less than 50. Read his ‘Smugglers’ Way’ reprinted in ‘Home by Christmas’ from Blackwood Magazine. Reggie Phillips had been the Camp Adjustant, calm, charming, smiling easily, a bit smooth, just the chap for De Burgh.
‘The commandant will give warning of enemy approaching.’ Then followed orders regarding collection of food, wear battledress and greatcoat, carry haversack containing necessaries for two or three days, companies positions for fall-in ……. Break off!’ ‘Which patients are unfit to move?’ ‘Which Doctor stays with the patients?’
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We make a list then walk along to the ward, where we find that the patients have decided for themselves. All have gone for their clothes.
In Room 84, there is great preparation, packing up haversack, towel, washing kit, two bars of soap (good currency), tin opener, 1 tin meat roll, biscuits, sweets, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, dictionary. Boots or shoes? (The shoes were crepe-soled, suede topped sent by my mother as a house shoe, about the weight of a gym shoe.) Shoes for me, the boots are not a good fit and it won’t be for long. George Potts just came in saying that the ‘rumoured’ landing at Pisa and Leghorn were now announced on Squealer Wheeler’s board, so there must be some confirmation.
As I go downstairs, Ken stops me, 45, history master, he is one of the self-discharged patients having had diarrhoea, now improving. The excitement has been too great. ‘Right, I’ll give you something to quieten it.’
In the Infirmary the doctors are detailed to companies and split up the first-aid kit, am sorry I can’t go with Gibson when he asks. Everything else is put on the beds, all the time quiet activity by the twenty room occupants, broken by the joking of excitement – as before a show.
‘Hoot’ Gibson a Canadian doctor I had first met in the break-out battle from Tobruk. He was MO 2nd Black Watch who suffered heavy casualties. It took 24 hours to attend to them all. This had given us a bond. Hoot had been captured in a SAS raid on Tobruk before Alamein. He had been learning dentistry from Kane-Berman and I still have one of his stoppings using a foot-operated drill. Maybe he did not know that the MO had already been assigned to companies.
Outside the Ites are taking down wire at the end of the field. Ack-Ack is in the courtyard so we sit on a pavement and continue on the last philosophical discussion. There’s the drone of an aircraft passing near us, we hear shouting and scurrying in the square outside the wire, the sentry near us runs down from his perch and joins half-dozen other Ite soldiers running towards the fields at the back. Cammino the interpreter comes hurrying across the square, calling to Wheeler ”Please get away as quickly as possible!’
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‘What a flap! I still don’t think that Jerry would worry about us yet – although he’s very efficient.
Somebody blows the bugle as we go upstairs – ready to move in 5 minutes. Don’t hurry. I’d better go the Infirmary, Newby (Eric Newby, ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ refers to these events) is setting off, hopping, on one leg, got on his bonnet with red hackle – that’d give the girls a treat!’
With Donald Fleming (we had been MOs at Benevento and Rezzanello. Had adjacent beds. An opera lover. GP in Taunton, He walked with another MO named Lewis (Luigi)). I report to Colonel Gibbs No 1 Company, our places are found, I’m in Company HQ – always an odd and sod.
The companies move off in threes, Ronnie Noble is rushing around taking ‘shots’ of the event as we pass through the maize field, some people pick the corn cobs but they are ripe so the seed is yellow and hard. (Ronnie Noble: a news cameraman featured on TV after the war) Various pieces of soldiers’ equipment are lying about rifles, ammo clips, bandoleers, pouches – our guards have gone home. Out of the maize field there’s a short halt on the road where Ite children cluster around smiling; one hero with glasses and a nanny goat beard appears dissatisfied that we are so quiet saying ‘Coraggio! You should have more enthusiasm’ at which Burdett says ‘We have much courage.’ That’s a good show!
We settled down along the inside of the bank, lookouts were posted by platoons including Company HQ which meant the O’s and S’s did one hour in six – a poor thing.
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Over meadows of rich green grass lined by willows and studded with anemones, along country paths. What a picnic! Going along a road a Ju52 flies along very low and near to us. I hope he didn’t look too carefully. After 3 miles walking we disperse by companies and lie down under the vines. What a life! Flat on one’s back reaching up to pluck grapes or out to one’s haversack for sweets.
Messages from Headquarters indicate the probability of a return tonight, the Germans 20 or so arrived at the camp but went away again. The daily paper arrives covered with ‘Armistizio’. The ‘bund’ is frequently discussed, whatever they may be.
Later in the afternoon it seemed as if we would remain the night out of camp, so Col Gibbs decided to move into the ‘bund’, which was a stream 3 or 4 yards wide having high and thick artificial banks rising 10 or 15 feet above the surrounding country, the inner sides being covered with small trees and bush. This system continues for miles across the flat country to the foothills of the Apennines, where the stream arises.
With night came the mosquitoes’ Field Day with the choice of suffocation under towel or a sore face without. During that night one could hear trains running along the main line Piacenza – Parma and sounds of small arms ammo demolition from the Parma direction. During my watch a machine flew over dropping a red-green flare quite near to us.
In the morning while rubbing the misty dawn out of numbed limbs, the message came along that the Colonel wished everyone to shave. He set the example then hobnobbed with the soldiery in the approved manner. A little later while on look-out, Ack-Ack who’d had a diarrhoea-spent night came along to help pass the time, but was shooed away from on high. One could see quite 30 yards and much of our frontage wasn’t watched at all. Good old ‘spit and polish’.
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During the day, odd fellows started dropping in wearing civilian clothes causing surprise and some amusement. In the evening the first party from 1 Company left to get civilian clothes and go into billets. Everyone seemed to be making plans or contacts for leaving, 2 other companies were going in the night to cross the Emilian way (between Piacenza and Parma) then to disperse.
Although the mosquitoes were plaguey I was loath to consider leaving the bund, so like a Robin Hood hide-up, everyone sitting about in groups under bushes or ground sheet bivouacs, all extremely cheerful and good-tempered.
Ites had come in telling colourful stories of a second German detachment, 120 or so strong, arrived at the camp, they were reported to have taken many Red Cross parcels, clothes, mattresses, beds, everything including the famous geese.
They’d broken windows and smashed up the place generally, then gone down the road selling the loot and firing up at the civilians. A good story. The locals brought in enormous quantities of Red Cross tins and bread until we were well stocked with food.
Next morning everyone seemed to be moving or fixed up, Company HQ was diminished but not wound up so ‘I’d stay until then’. There was not long to wait anyhow. The Brenner was said to be closed, Turin and Milan fighting the Germans, Spezia had been added to the list of landings. News of big sweeps over France. Possibly the big show was coming. A peasant and his wife came with many suits of old clothes, they were obviously frightened, saying that there were rumours of a German search of the area. I bagged an old shirt and pair of trousers from the pile.
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The company was officially dissolved. Gibbs asked me if I wanted to go with a party of eight to a farm, I hummed and ha-ed then said Yes. Ack-Ack had decided not to go with Toby Graham, Gilbert and Davies and was put in the party, as we’d agreed to go to billets together. (Toby Graham and Mike Gilbert were keen escapers. I next met Toby in Normandy the following June. Mike Gilbert became a distinguished crime writer.)
Some girls were waiting to guide us to the farm, the mistress of the party Carla 15 years of age, disapproved of my old shirt and trousers, she issued me a blue shirt, very dinky made of blouse material and blue linen boys trousers. As I was changing Gibbs turned up looking magnificent in trousers 3 ins too short for his long legs and an old hat so battered that it looked like a deerstalker – needing only some flies stuck in it to complete the picture.
With much laughter we said good-byes and the party was off, we split into pairs each going with a girl, groups walking at 100 yards spacing. Carla leading with Gibbs and Barney, odd chap, Barney – somehow I associate him with food, Ack-Ack and I second with Bruna, then two parties behind.
The day was beautiful, sunny – a deep blue sky, we walked along farm tracks between fields of maize, vines growing along wires, rows of mulberry trees.
The sensation was exhilarating and I felt frivolous and foolish, very talkative and questioning Bruna, who didn’t know quite what to make of it. Such as bicycle bell- campanella – music – piano then buttercups, do you like butter? – children’s games. (They say the Italian for ‘forget-me-not’. A buttercup is ranunculo or bottone d’oro, hence no connection with butter).
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We passed around to the North of Fontanellato by unfrequented ways, the girl’s scout system was extremely well organized. Some old women came out of their houses to give bread, saying ‘Poor people’ as they wiped their tear-laden eyes. At one corner a man shouted ‘Germans are down the road’ in a most unfriendly way – unusual.
Finally arrived at the farm we were greeted by the Signora a florid woman, embonpoint with unusually fair hair, brown eyes and coloured cheeks. Grandma had got beyond all that. All were cordial, we were taken to an arbour at the back of the farm house, where we were wined and watered. Somebody gallantly presented some coffee – worth more than its weight in gold: Gibbs who spoke good Italian acted perfect ‘grandestile’ and went down well.
Some of the usual questions were asked ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Who is married?’ ‘Any brothers and sisters?’ ‘Any children?’ We went round to the kitchen, old-fashioned and dark but clean and well-ordered.
The wireless was switched on but only the tail end of BBC news in Italian was caught.
The padrone arrived and was anxious to get us out into the fields: as we went out we passed a cat giving birth in a barrel, she looked most annoyed – I didn’t blame her. We dispersed by pairs into the fields north east of the farm. Ack-Ack and I chose a place under willows lining a field where we sat or lay highly contented with the day’s proceedings. Women working in a field of tomatoes came over to stare and then to talk, after the questions about ourselves. Are we from England proper or America? What village? Married? Children? Work in peace time? They spoke of their sons already returned or prisoners overseas.
They hoped that the English would arrive soon. How were we treated in the concentration camp? Were they cruel? Was there sufficient to eat? This latter question put with the characteristic motion, right arm with elbow at right angles close to the side passed horizontally palm downwards so that thumb banged belly. Each seemed to have a relation serving as prisoner, they said that their letters were contented.
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At dusk we went over to the small farmstead in the middle of the fields, others were there Majors Girling, Smith, Booth, Barber, Whitehead, Gosling. We washed hands and face with the traditional splashing and seal noises, some heroes even had a tub. Preserving the niceties. The table was set in a stall, mercifully cleaned except for a pig penned in the corner. Straw spread along below the troughs had been provided but it seemed so close inside and the moon so bright outside that Ack-Ack and I decided to sleep in the straw out of doors. We had a good time hiding ourselves under it but it became too hot and the bugs such a nuisance that finally we lay down under the edge of the rick in the open.
After a bread and milk breakfast we went back to our position in the fields. It was Sunday. There were few women working in the fields but various families sought us out to give bread, cheese and grapes and to talk. When alone our main topic was:
A. Events – We were beginning to doubt the stories of landings at Spezia and Leghorn, there was no doubt about the landings in the South. Would Jerry fight to delay us in the South then fall back on the Northern Apennines or the Po? I was more optimistic than Ack-Ack but we agreed that in order that invasion this year should be worthwhile, the allies would put their whole invasion forces into Italy to drive Jerry back to the Alps before winter. As such if we remained in that district we must wait about 6 weeks.
B. What do we do? – Alternatives
1. Stay put, digging a hide in the ground was discussed.
2. Go towards Spezia and await the expected landing.
3. Go to Switzerland – only 80 miles but Internment-No! No! No!
My own inclination was to wait and see as there was no indication for immediate action.
The farm provided a good lunch of chicken, vino, bread which we attended in relays to avoid congregation and suspicion. Back to our ‘site’ for the afternoon receiving further visits by Ites, mainly youths deserted from the Army.
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They warned us of two women living near a Church which we can see across the fields, they are engaged to German officers. A German soldier rode by the Padrone’s farm on horseback, we presumed coming from a veterinary unit 3 miles to our East.
The evening was enlivened by three sisters and a friend ages 22, 18, 17, 13 from a peasant family, all clean and well-dressed. The eldest who was small and pert did the talking and bossing. She said ‘We used to hear the dance music coming from your camp when we walked by and Oh! We did want to come in and dance so much’. Such was the reaction to the fascist law forbidding dancing in wartime. The second sister was a real young Mediterranean beauty; not in keeping and most unkind but we both thought that the initials M and V (=Meat and Vegetable. Tinned Army field ration, very good, especially with rum in it) embroidered on her blouse pockets were unfortunate – that is for a visit to the ‘British Army’. She became voluble on the desires of the Italian poor, expressing clear-cut ideas. They said that Colonel Stephen was very good, they always listened to him. Reared in fascism and Catholicism.
As they disappeared, we agreed that the British troop would do very nicely when he got his knees under the table. That night we decided to sleep inside and had a better night. Next morning back in the fields we received more gifts of food from various visitors, all friendly. The outstanding visitor was a conspirational little man who warned us about this and that and invited us to lie nearer his house. We would bear it in mind. In the afternoon a youth told us that a friend had personally heard on the radio that landings had occurred near Leghorn.
Much discussion had occurred during meal-times that day concerning a transport to La Spezia, it was said to be organised by an Italian Officer starting from the Tomato factory each night. 120 were supposed to have gone by it already, the powers that be considering that Spezia must be fairly empty after all the bombing.
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We had been added provisionally to the group of 25 going that night, but on our return in the evening we heard that it was off. On the other hand the Padrone had met Gibbs with the story that although there were now no Germans in the village the locals expected them back on the next day as a billeting party had visited various buildings that day. Further, manifestos had been published in some districts promising ‘shooting’ for those who harboured escaped British POWs.
It was apparent that the Padrone wanted to be rid of us from his domain, he had produced a map marked with known German positions on the way to Spezia. Dorrien arrived after dusk on a bicycle wearing a natty straw trilby, he had the same story from another farm – a locals flap.
Gibbs wanted to leave, he said that we were not under his orders but he thought it better that we move to cross the Emilian way that night, then to split up. San Marcello had been suggested as a good place to lie up. We agreed to move with the party that night but although of no more than irritating value I felt that we were being bounced. So to sleep until midnight.
We were moving well spread out in pairs, we circled back to the north of Fontanellato then turned south on its western side. The moon was up, the night clear and still. Every moonlit field and path was enchanted.
Gibbs and Barshall were leading and we made good going although the pair in front of us tired quickly under their too-heavy haversacks. We were travelling last and relatively light. Dress: Ack-Ack- Ite shirt and trousers, army shirt, battle-dress blouse and slacks carried. Mine- Ite shirt and trousers, Cap FS carried. A haversack (swopped carry) containing towel, our washing kit, 2 tins biscuits, 1 bar chocolate (Ack-Ack), tin-opener, dictionary.
After 2 hours over fields we neared the railway line and waited sitting on the damp grass of a ride, while Gibbs made a recce.
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Then we filed along beneath the railway bank, a climb up the side. Step carefully over the rails, don’t rattle the stones. There’s a signal light to the left. I wonder what guards there are. Gibbs is counting us over and showing the way down.
After passing a woodyard we walk in single file along the top of an aqueduct 1ft 6in wide and 15 yards long over a small chasm. It’s pitch dark below. If one should slip the drop’s uncertain. Walk quickly. Remember Blondin.
Across another field and we see the main road shining in the moonlight, walking closer we see a group of houses on the far side. ‘Get down! A Jerry motorbike’s coming!’ We lie in the shadow of some trees which stand below the level of the road. Just like the flicks. ‘There they go rider and pillion’. ‘Oh what a long time the noise of the engine lasts as it tabbers away in the distance. At least 2 miles’. Somebody has seen an armoured car near the houses so we turn back away from the road and bear west until we hit a stream which we follow back to the road.
There’s a tunnel. We go along one by one, everyone tip-toeing in heavy boots. I am last and hurry through pleased with my crepes. But kick a stone.
We got cracking again along the sides of fields, over a small railway then between rows of vines sometimes cutting through them, carefully ducking heads to avoid hitting faces on the wires stretched between the poles.
The grapes are still small but sweet and refreshing, it gives added interest to keep a bunch in the hand.
After a pause while Barshall retrieved a jerkin that he’d dropped, we hit a wire fence with high barbed wire along the top, we turned back and tried again. This time we came to a massive iron gate, on it were ‘Keep Out Military’ notices. We entered and bore off left away from a large building, possibly the ‘Powder Factory’ that we’d heard about.
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We crossed a broad field to a low wire fence where there were two sentry boxes, through the fence we came to a long series of steps leading down across a valley then up the far side, on our left was a high wire fence. All was cavernously still and quiet, our boots clattered on the concrete steps as if to waken any sentry within a mile. Those stairs, disappearing up the other side in endless succession most awesome. I wished people would walk more quietly.
The moonlight was nearly gone, dawn was breaking and we got on quickly to leave the cage. An outlet was soon found then we walked along the wire. As the sun rose we came to the head of a valley. We dispersed and disappeared into some undergrowth where we lay down and went to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of a mosquito buzzing, then sun on my face. I felt clammy and hot. It must be about 11 o’clock. We ate, functioned then moved down to a stream bed below, where we found the rest. Ack-Ack went off to see Gibbs, and to find out the form, he copied the map – What a copy! Barshall, Hemmings, Gosling, Whitehead intended to break away and perhaps stay locally for a few days. Gibbs was moving on that evening towards Spezia, he was obviously so well practised in such movement that we asked to go with him for the night. He agreed. We slept until 4 disturbed occasionally by the sounds of carts on a near-by road and once or twice by rifle shots close at hand. Now 6 we moved on down the valley. Gibbs and Barney, the latter on a good wicket, Majors Girling and Smith both looking a bit distraught, Ack-Ack and self both a bit cocky. Across the valley, the route led South for a short way, we walked strung out in pairs halting while Gibbs went in to a farmhouse. Soon came the ‘clear’ message and we met the mother of the house sitting outside preparing food. She sat us down on the grass around, water was brought and we prattled away with her until the son came in from the fields. A Emilian 25-30, a big man with hooky nose, his speech was slow and almost guttural. He beamed at us.
We washed and shaved in a communal pail. The light was fading, biscuits and jam were produced and started but we were interrupted by an invitation to eat with the family.
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Crowded around the kitchen table we were regaled to a potato-egg dish, wine, ham and bread. Gibbs was in excellent form, saying the right things in excellent Italian, altogether charming. Sitting with our host was a small man who’d run away from guard on our ‘Powder Factory’ 2 days before, his home was near Rome but he had wormed his way in as a worker-guest at the farm. He said that the Germans had taken some technicians and instruments from the factory, which was now guarded by old Squadristi, who let off their rifles now and again for effect – hence the noises.
We asked ‘How many Fascist houses are there on the way to San Pellegino?’ None, all are farmers, they hate the Germans’. The suspected houses are over by the main road (NE). Straw was spread out on the floor of a barn where we slept until the moon rose.
At midnight we were off towards the saddle marking the way to San Pellegino, it was all over open country mainly fields set with rows of vines. The wheat grown between the rows had been mainly harvested. We made good progress as the going was easy and the visibility good. Arrived below the saddle we rested then climbed steadily through cultivated land until we came on a road leading along the high ground above a village.
About 2 hours after starting we reached the edge of a valley, which lay across our way. Gibbs started down the side, the rest followed. It appeared to be very difficult going through bush and extremely steep. We waited – it looked damned silly to go down there. Better to try elsewhere we agreed and shouted to Barney the last of the file. We walked along to a farm on the right and through the yard -a dog rushed out barking – Dammit, we turned behind a haystack then down through a brambly hedge to some smooth slopes where there was a path winding down to the bottom. In 15 minutes we were looking up to a very steep face, the top part of it dark with bush – the place at which we’d parted. The dog had just stopped barking. What next? The mountain side looked so very vast and dark. They could easily come by and miss us.
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Ack-Ack wanted to get on. I was sorry that we hadn’t said goodbye to Gibbs who I’d come to like very much. (Gibbs – I wrote to him later and had a charming reply. He went to Normandy as a Major commanding a company in the Queen’s Regiment, which meant dropping rank. He was a regular (ie career officer). The pre-war Army had been small and promotion slow. Many had surprising talents.) Still, it was good to have avoided that leg breaking way. We sat and waited and listened for 15 minutes, the dog had barked once but no other sight or sound. Reluctantly we wished Gibbs ‘Good luck’ as we turned up the next hill. Bumming South was on.
After half an hour’s walking over high open country we struck a path which led down a narrow cleft between two mountains, at the bottom was a clearing containing a farm. The sky was lightening in the East, we would await activity in the farm. On greensward under a solitary vine we lay down. There was mist in the valley and dew on the grass. We slept well.
The man was going out to the stables to see to the beasts. He was small, of poor physique. A wan face.
Verbally nudged by Ack-Ack I asked for something to eat, adding our never-to-be-forgotten story.
He invited us into the kitchen-living room, about 15 ft square with large open fireplace, there was a built-in bench along one wall, wooden stairs leading up through the raftered ceiling, a small table in the centre. The space filled with a collection of baskets of apples and grapes, poles, capes, umbrellas! The stone floor pecked over by hens, which were shooed out regularly every 10 minutes. The wife made a fire then called her 2 small children, who came rubbing their eyes. The family had come from Parma 9 months before, the husband had not been able to find work in his trade (engineering), some national organization had put him there but previously the farm had failed. The future outlook was poor. They gave us hot milk with coffee and sugar, I think the latter came from a special store, bread, grapes, apples. As a parting gift we received bread and 4 raw eggs. ‘Suck them, they will give strength when you are tired.’
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They were very quiet and undemonstrative. The attitude of the man was as if hope had disappeared long ago. I marvelled at their generosity.
There was a steep climb out of their valley, on the way we passed fields belonging to the farm, set on a 60 degree slope it looked worthless soil to till. Looking back there were the farm buildings so deep in the chasm that only 2 or 3 hours of sun each day could have reached it. The winter snow would cut off the family from the nearest houses for 2 or 3 months.
We were eyed suspiciously at the top as we walked past some houses of the summer residence type and further along the road were stopped by an officious inquisitive old man standing with 2 youths one of whom was a deserter, the latter understood our position immediately and explained at length to the officious one, who was dense. We were polite answering questions and allowing the conversation to drop before moving on.
A short distance further and we turned off the road and down the hillside a short way where we lay down to sleep among the young chestnut trees covering the slopes. Sleep was disturbed as one kept slipping down the bank so we sucked our eggs and discussed the future which was to make towards San Marcello. Ack-Ack wrapped up a couple of raw toes, my own feet were well – at this time.
At 4-ish we moved, the road 3rd class led to a T junction, we turned left as seemed the best geographical direction. Making good speed we caught up an old man driving an ox-cart which was bearing a tank of urine from the stalls. In these parts there is little pasture, cattle are kept in stalls, dung and straw is taken out and piled on platforms provided with tanks to collect fluid as it seeps out. This is used on the land.
‘Yes! A German truck has passed along this road, today it didn’t stop at all near to here.’
The pace increased. Insensibly one seemed to be keeping the next corner in view, looking round occasionally and trying to tune one’s ears to the sound of a truck.
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The country continued open and rolling, various farms dotted about everywhere. After an hour’s walking we were saying ‘The next likely looking house’. A few groups of houses set above the road were passed, finally we saw a middle-aged man and woman standing outside a farmyard.
They looked at us suspiciously while we asked for water and said the ‘piece’- British POW released by the Italians, camp ruined by the Germans, Commandant taken prisoner to Cremona – they invited us in, holding off the dog which guard was leashed by a running noose to a long wire stretched across the farmyard entrance. Inside, things were more friendly. ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Bread and cheese?’ ‘and vino’ ‘Yes! Yes!’
The old man bemoaned their fate under Fascism, pointing to his bare feet and giving a life-like imitation of memories and views of the Duce when he steps on a thorn.
The good wife did some darning for Ack-Ack. The daughters of the house produced water, towel and soap (home-made) for a wash. We got directions as to passing Fornovo, and decided to pass to the South as the oil wells to the North East of it might be guarded.
As the sun was setting, we left the house accompanied for a short distance by a bullock cart which was bearing grapes and grain down into the valley to a safer place. It was said that the Germans were taking food.
We passed a husband and wife driving cattle through a cleft between low hills then stopped at a house on the next slopes to ask the way of an old lady. She told us of a collection of grain at Parma which had been ordered by the Germans. Very maternally she wished ‘God be with you’ as we started off up the hillside.
There was a rocky broken plateau some half-mile wide to cross. Overlooking the Taro plain we could make out in the dusk the lights of Fornovo and of trucks running down the main road some 3 miles away.
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We sat and made plans. Constitutional. Ack-Ack recommended himself as navigator, he claimed a good eye for country and keen eyesight. He had a small ‘hide-away’ compass. It would mean that he led and made the constantly recurring decisions regarding path, field, hill, river. My own contribution inevitably was speech with the Ites, in itself involving directions, information.
Policy decisions to be reached by agreement.
The scheme didn’t work badly, I was frequently to annoy Ack-Ack by disagreeing vocally with the path taken or asking who or what some object was that I couldn’t quite see. Per contra I was often infuriated by his desire as it seemed for me to stop and ask the way of every Ite we passed, also in houses the thrice-weekly ‘You won’t forget to ask her to mend my shirt, trousers, socks’ always got the reply ‘All right I’ve not forgotten!’
The policy idea tended to degenerate into letting events or the country decide. Inevitably so. Each member combining ‘stubbornness’ with widely different outlooks.
When, throughout this narrative ‘we agreed’ comes about it cannot be taken as indicating a harmony duet built on Anarchism. It is a superficial observation.
Having talked to other pairs who made a similar trip, it was remarkable to learn that we had not suffered from the bitter arguments and splits like the large majority.
No doubt the sub-division of duties was an important reason for the calm, overlying potentially troubled waters.
The immediate goal was San Marcello, we could move by night so far as possible, we would be seen less often.
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Ack-Ack celebrated his leader-navigatorship by some (as I thought) suitably bright deductions as we lay down to wait for the moon. Then down the slope towards the river, which here at a fork was in all about 1 mile wide of flat pebble strips interspersed with sand. There was the stream of the Ceno to cross first, then some part cultivated country (the fork) then the Tayo stream. It was confusing and illogical at the time that the river should be splitting on the way down to the sea. There was a short scare as someone rode along the small riverside road to a farm. Then over the road and wait under an embankment. Nobody about. We walked over to the first channel about 200 yards away. We were in sight of some farms, but the moon would be in their eyes. It was unlikely that Jerry was there – but you never know.
Shoes off we waded across the channel which was shallow but extremely stony, making walking most uncomfortable. A pebbly stretch then another channel. It was too slow, I put my shoes on under the water. We sat behind a sand dune to dry our feet and put on socks and shoes, then turned southwards towards some higher habitated ground of the fork. Soon we were in fields crossing rows of vines and avoiding houses, an hour later we were below the hill and much nearer the railway line judged by the sounds from a passing train. The moon was still high, we would cross that night. Past an oil well, we came out on a sandy beach with the railway embankment in view. We rested for half an hour. A train came clanking by.
Finally off shoes to cross the next channel which had a much sandier bottom. The water led right underneath the embankment, we sat up among some huge boulders while the feet were dried once again.
Up, over the line, there’s a signal box over to the right, down the bank, only a few yards to the main road, across the road then run like hell up the grassy side for 100 yards, sinking breathlessly on the ground, there’s no noise – one crossing made.
We lay down until cold then pushed on over a gorse and bracken covered hill until we reached a farm; after much creeping around and avoiding the dog we lay down under a hayrick. I had on Ack-Ack’s spare shirt but soon fell momentarily to envying his BD blouse, I didn’t regret not bringing mine.
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After fitful sleep for half an hour or so I awoke to a strange voice talking, finally I came to and grasped that he was saying ‘Why not get into the barn?’ So in we got and slept well for an hour. The people gave us milk before we left but were quiet and apparently anxious for us to get moving.
Soon we were on country roads running South parallel to the main road which we could see from time to time, frequently hearing German trucks and motor-bikes going along to Spezia.
At about 10 we stopped and lay down among some bushes in a dell, after bread and cheese with water carried in a Chianti bottle from the Emilian farm, we went to sleep until 4-ish then pushed on. We soon came on a village, small and mean. The outstanding buildings were a new church of white stone and new cemetery. We dashed to a T junction in the village, took what we thought the best turn and walked on before we could be questioned; the way led down diagonally across a valley side, in the bottom a stream with steep face on its far side. It took half an hour to reach the stream, then was a steep climb bringing us above our village. In our sweating labours we saw the streak of a much shorter way leading straight across from the village. We’d wasted much energy through not asking. Half-way up was a flatter cultivated area, we stopped to talk to a little dark man with Charlie Chaplin moustache, he said that he had heard on the radio that the Allies were near Rome.
Further up we passed a man and wife each carrying a young tree trunk up a very steep slope; we joined them in order to find the path to the village above, ambling along, feeling rather ungallant that the wife should be carrying such a whopping burden, we had burdens of our own however and were not feeling particularly sentimental.
Arrived at the village we asked the way to Berceto, a few young men from the fields were collected in the rough, stony and very narrow street talking to some women and girls. They stared at us without uttering a word, apparently through lack of grip.
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One young woman was wearing as a pendant a miniature M13 tank. In a rush of illogical irritation I thought ‘Typical, not only a damned silly pendant but no wonder they are gormless wearing such a damned awful tank round their necks’. Finally an old woman came up and directed us; as we left the others were still standing like cows chewing the cud, their heads lowered and a reproachful look in their eyes.
Shortly we were on a path leading uphill along the side of a valley. After a rest we met a woman with two children. The woman was small dressed in black with a piece of stuff covering the head like a Bedouin, she had bare legs and no shoes. Her face was wrinkled and brown with two dark beady little eyes. She looked 50, her actual age probably 35. In her arms was a great lump of a child aged about 6 months. A six-year old boy ran up and down the path nosing here and there like a young dog.
She had been visiting an aunt at the village of the gormless and was returning to Berceto. Somehow we stayed with her, she knew the way and puffed in making good going. [She said] ‘She liked our faces, we could be trusted, she had met some German soldiers in her village, many were so nice, polite and so lovely with their blond hair. Of course there were bad ones but she reckoned that there were good and bad everywhere. War put good people on opposite sides.’
Again I felt a bit ungallant, but that feeling soon wore off as, puffed or no, she kept up such a stream of conversation that was most fatiguing to answer. As it was growing dark, the little boy started to hang back, he’d cut his foot on a stone, it hurt when he walked. She shouted back that he’d better keep going and not much more attention was paid. He kept up.
In the setting sun was the plain of Berceto below us, beyond was high ground where were Jerry guns. We could make out the road, she said ‘The English will come up that road when they land at Leghorn’. (Livorno)
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The last half-hour’s walking was downhill, our friend apologized that she would not be able to give us any hot food to eat, but asked on our behalf at the first house of a hamlet. She said goodbye, waited a little outside the house then went on her way.
Our host was a small active little man, the household made up by his young wife, grandma, grandpa who was a special friend of the small child, and an odd hanger-on or two who ate at table but were silent. They looked mentally defective. Food was ready in the kitchen, minestra – a soup thickened with spaghetti and bread – followed by roasted meat cut into mouthfuls and set on a plate in the middle of the table. After food we washed and shaved in the kitchen before an admiring throng.
Before 9 pm we left that house and called at another nearby, where we asked if we might listen to the wireless. The father seemed to be a well to do tradesman, the rooms furnished according to middle-class standards. We said our ‘piece’. The wireless was tuned but only caught the tail-end of news in Italian from the BBC. ‘Would you like some food?’ ‘No thanks.’ ‘Apples?’ ‘Yes.’
A woman with a varicose ulcer was shown for the professional opinion of the ‘Capitano Medico’. Treatment was advised and an estimate of length of time likely to last. Doubt was expressed. At which ‘I’m not a witch (‘Le tre Streghe gave me the word), I can’t charm it away’. Great success.
The moon was coming up; the young man of the house started us on our way and gave directions. ‘Under the church, 2nd turning to the right, path to river, wooden bridge over the mountain top (that we could see) to Corniglio’.
We descend the stony path arriving at a boulder strewn river-bed, we cross the stream by a rickety wooden bridge then pause before starting on the mulepath of our directions. But it quickly peters out, we go back on it and try again but again without success, so we strike up the hillside over grass and rock, covered with patches of tree and bush.
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There’s a long climb and the going becomes worse higher up, great steep banks of loose stone, near the top we see a sheer face barring our way so turn right. Walking diagonally across a bank of loose stone my shoe tears with a depressing ‘crunch’. The stitching of the left shoe is torn from toe to instep. I try bandaging it up, but that slips off, so give it up until the morrow, hoping to get it repaired before the stitching tears further. The top of the mountain is flat and grassy. We rest then walk along a grass covered way for a quarter of an hour. The moon is up, but shadowed occasionally by rapidly moving cloud. It gives a woolly effect to the grass, and bushes cast sharp, contrasting shadows. The vigorous breeze makes the face tingle. The trees are soughing. Bells clank, as sheep start up here and there before us. We walk on air through a fairyland on top of the world.
They were the most enjoyable moments of our journey. We had eaten and slept well, our course was set and we were still fresh.
Our beautiful way ended and we started to go downhill, but with some flat stretches. A halt was called for sleep, in a secluded spot we lay on the grass. After half an hour we awoke feeling cold, so walked on.
The sun was rising as we went downhill, at the bottom of the next valley we saw Pugnetolo, over to the right. A house above the village refused water-‘The well wasn’t working’. Nearing the main road we stopped at a new small house. The woman gave us water, we needed food but I was reluctant to ask for it. The young child in her arms was obviously recovering from measles. I expressed interest in child and illness then ‘Have the Germans passed?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Going to Corniglio’ ‘Many?’ ‘One truck only’. Finally, ‘We are hungry, can you give us something to eat?’ ‘I have very little bread, I am baking this afternoon’. She disappeared and brought back a lump of bread. ‘Thank you very much’ – feeling like a beggar indeed, the bread was wrapped in the BD Blouse and on we went.
The main road ran down to Corniglio, where there was no outlet to the South, hence the small amount of Jerry traffic.
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Delighted by the good going we stepped out, quickly through a hamlet below Pugnetolo, then turned off towards the valley bottom where we took off boots and socks, ate then went to sleep. I woke up early, sweating in the sun so shifted position, pausing to pick blackberries.
At 4-ish we returned to the road, we were passing some houses, a young man was sitting by a doorway. We said ‘Buona Sera’, he called out ‘English?’ Rather sheepishly ‘Yes!’. He said ‘Come in’, adding ‘You shouldn’t carry that uniform jacket, even rolled up, I recognised the colour’. Various neighbours looked in, on our request a sack was found and given to us. An invitation came to eat in another house where was milk with added ersatz coffee, bread, cheese (a very good sort) and grapes. Many young men came in to talk, deserters from all parts of Italy, they said that they had received orders from their officers to lay down their arms at the Armistice, the Germans had arrived, so they’d come home. They didn’t want to fight with the Germans against the British, they never did.
The grandmother, mother and son of 17 were most solicitous about us, fussing around. Ack-Ack got more mending done. The daughter of the house aged about 25 came in. We had seen her before, on the road and had remarked that she looked intelligent. She asked me many questions about England and the English. ‘We all listen to Colonel Stephen on the wireless, only few people like Fascism’. I made a conversational success (quite impossible to me in English) on a ‘double entendre’ and amid much laughter felt that things were all right. They remarked that I had no coat and gave me a double-breasted blue jacket, fairly new, very snappy – but ersatz. Came the time to say goodbyes, we were given bread to carry, amid expressed sorrow at our condition the emotional tension rose and we found 10 lire notes being pressed into our hands. Handkerchiefs came out. We left saying to ourselves ‘Very nice people’.
After a mile’s walk we came to the cobbler’s shop. We were invited in, I showed him my shoe. He was a small dirty little man sitting in shirtsleeves in the work cum living room, which opened on to the road.
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Under the window was a table of tools, magnificently untidy, farther back the open fireplace and a table, opposite the front door were stairs leading through the ceiling. The good wife produced bread and ham for us to eat while waiting; the lady from across the road said that she would prepare minestra for us if we’d wait.
In the meantime the cobbler was considering the shoes with the artist’s attitude, he discussed this and that of the problem with me, then discussed it with a chap leaning through the door, suddenly seized tools and in a trice had mended the tear with metal clips. Gloomily I said ‘How many days will that last? 2 or 3?’ He said ‘Even more’. I would have to look out for another pair. We walked on after dusk with some youths and maidens. One young gallant said that if we went along with them we could get a bed in a house for the night – with a girl in it. By the tone of giggling among the young damsels, this would appear to be youthful humour. We were in whole-hearted agreement that we’d prefer a cup of tea and hot meat and vegetables. Various groups slid off to their houses, leaving us with two youths who showed us up to a group of houses where they asked for shelter on our behalf.
A house was willing, we were taken into a small room with stone floor and large fireplace, where we sat and talked to grandpa while we patted a large white dog. The meal was soon ready so we trooped into the next room and sat at table with the family. The room was bare except for the family board, some chairs with various large framed photos of relations and gaudy religious prints in gilt frames on the walls. We were served with macaroni, cooked by boiling, the surplus water poured off and tomato sauce mixed in, grated cheese added when served. Called ‘Pasta Asciutta’. Meat was served separately in small portions and eaten after a Pasta foundation had been laid. Giovanni the grandpa’s son and boss of the show joined us during the meal, a big broad man with my idea of a Roman face. He was hospitable, his theme – Italy’s disaster. His wife asked about English families. ‘Oh how small we have 6, 7, 9, 14’ – Mussolini gave medals, a pension and monthly food parcels to claims of 9 or more. Giovanni produced a blanket and showed us his barn, where we slept very well, high up in the hay.
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In the morning we washed then waited while they milked a cow to give us hot milk with the bread.
We said goodbye with gratitude, and made steady climbing up ever narrowing paths to get over the mountain into the next valley. The sky was overcast and we had mist and rain near to the summit, where we met a middle-aged man, he had one eye missing, lost (he said) fighting the Germans as an Alpini in the 1915-18 war. On his advice we called at the ‘missionaries” house a few hundred feet down the slope, and found 4 youngish men. One a priest, 30, fat, bearded, black-rimmed glasses spoke some English and showed us the chapel of St Matthew which he was helping the mason to renovate. He said that there had been a chapel on the same site for at least 1000 years as it had been on one of the routes for pilgrims going to Rome from Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. It was a small square chapel which they were smoothing off and painting in the usual garish colours – but I liked the pilgrim idea.
Back in their cottage, I was taken up by a 3rd year Medical Student from Parma, where he had been training to become a medical missionary, but now the Universities were closed in the emergency; 30-ish, bearded, dapper, extremely charming and voluble. There were two other men, swarthy, unshaven and tall, less determinate individuals. All were preparing to form a mission to China after the war. The bearded student did most of the talking. ‘Europe is the naughty child of the world, she has had great opportunities to do better.’ ‘Christianity has done badly for world.’ ‘Italy is a ruined and disgraced nation’. ‘At the Armistice, there was no organization ready for the Army, the commandant of the local garrison was anxious to resist the Germans, but received no orders of any sort’. ‘The Italian peasant is not bad, he has been misled’. At this moment some six Tuscan deserters were ushered in dressed in civilian clothes, they had each a bundle or attache case. They entered in a group, silently eyeing us. The bearded one sprang up, hand outstretched, like a circus ringmaster saying to us ‘Behold! The Italian proletariat’. They looked stolidly decent enough. Half were fair, tall and fresh complexioned, with their cropped hair they looked most unlike organ grinders and ice cream men.
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With charming grace our friend asked them to sit down, and we talked to them but they felt awkward and didn’t speak easily. We ate some sweets then bread and milk, but refused an offer of a meal as this would have involved waiting, and moving later, which would mean going with the bearded friend who was going our way that afternoon. The schedule he worked out for us was far too slow for our liking – we must get on. We got off as soon as courtesy would permit, so picking up the sack and haversack we said our piece and departed.
The way led down a path, so steep that when, after an hour, we reached the bottom, one’s neck got cricked looking up at the chapel. Passing a small village, it began to rain so we waited under a tree. Ack-Ack wanted something out of the sack, which I had. I stuck my hand in and found it full of wool. I’d swapped sacks at the missionaries. I was annoyed with myself for a careless fool but also pleased as we’d only lost BD trousers (Ack-Ack), Cap F.S (mine) and some bread, quite a decent cut in the excessive weight (as I thought) that we were carrying. The rain came harder, we went further under the tree. It was lessening when a small boy came over, asking us into his house. We declined the offer amid slight tension, Ack-Ack didn’t want to get wet, I wanted to get on. The rain came again and the little boy returned, so we splashed across 200 yards of field to his house, arriving just as the rain was leaving off.
Mother greeted us and stoked up the fire for us to dry ourselves. Soon we were eating minestra before the admiring gaze of a mass of friends and relations. The eldest daughter of the house, 17, buxom, had lived in Genoa working for a family, she was brighter and more inquisitive than the rest. She had heard that the Americans offered money rewards to those families who helped escaping prisoners, so we gave our numbers. We received an invitation to drink with some good lady- a professoress. We declined, we had to get on, but the lady came herself, about 35, spinster, quietly pleasant, she wore a well-cut jacket of green large ribbed corduroy. It looked well. We left the wool to be sent to the missionaries, taking the sack with us.
The sun came out amid great white clouds, on our left the sky was dark. There was a valley to cross, then we followed a track below and parallel to a road.
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The paths consisted of varying proportions of large lumps of limestone lying loose on earth, the latter now converted to slush. Wet and uncomfortable walking. Frequently stopping to eat blackberries from the hedgerows, we tended to spread out. At two houses we were eyed suspiciously, although the woman at the latter directed us to Ramiseto without comment. We crossed a river, past a sawmill and climbed out on to a road, near the end of the logging funicular. The road led over the hill to the next valley. Walking along it, we passed various young men and women, courting, going along arm-in-arm bouncingly in step. They looked very happy. We joined a woman driving a bullock cart, she had a child so we thought she would be friendly. We asked the name of the village we were approaching -‘Ramiseto’. ‘Any Germans?’ ‘No’. She said that many ‘escaped’ Italian soldiers had passed. I told her who we were.
We entered the village, she turned off the road and we bowled along saying ‘Buona Sera’ right, left and centre. A ‘Carabiniere’ was standing on the road outside the police station, he had his coat open as he chatted to some local. We walked past then came to a crowd in the middle of the street around some Ite soldiers. Somebody on the outside pointed into the crowd and said to us ‘These are your friends’. Saying ‘Oh yes!’ and to ourselves ”Thank God for them’ we went past. Gone 100 yards there sounded shouting and running, outriders on bicycles swung in front. ‘The English are come’. ‘You are prisoner?’ ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Take this bread’. A woman says that we must stay the night. Surprised by the welcome we returned surrounded by a friendly mob of all ages, all asking questions at once. We split up but I heard Ack-Ack say in his best ingratiating-type voice ‘Non capisco’ (I don’t understand).
We were taken through a yard into a large kitchen. The mob trooped in. I was asked questions by a bright youth then by one of the local beauties. They said that the Germans had visited the village once and ordered the pictures of the King in the prefecture to be taken down. Shooting had been promised to those harbouring British prisoners. The village carabinieri were all right, they had been ordered to stay in the interest of public order.
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The fascists in the village had been beaten up when Mussolini fell and had kept quiet since. Yes! We could stay there the night, why not stay longer?
There were some Italian soldiers in the kitchen, also in trek, from Alessandria to Florence (2) and Bari. We washed and shaved amid the throng, various people producing bowl, water, mirror etc, admiringly discussing our nice white soap – ‘and look! It makes a lather’. ‘Mussolini has taken away soap from us, the ‘viliacco”. The refugees sat at table to a meal of minestra, bread, wine, cheese, milk, coffee and sugar. The fair Florentine youth had been in the Army of occupation in France, he said that the Germans had treated the French very badly. ‘In what way?’ ‘Well they destroyed vines to dig gun positions and stands for gun limbers’. He spoke Tuscan, the ancestor of Italian; the words pronounced clearly and slowly without clipping, C’s sound like hard H’s. While we were talking there was occasional laughter near the fireplace where grandpa was holding forth to a group from the mob still packing the room, new recruits replacing those who left.
I opened up with him, he reviled Mussolini and the Fascists, detailing a castration cure for them amid general approbation. He ‘funnied’ on but was difficult to follow as he spoke Emilian dialect, which possesses many clipped words. Generally the people spoke to me in Italian, although nearly always used dialect among themselves. The old seemed to find Italian unfamiliar, in consequence I tended to do some wise (looking) nodding, hoping that the sense would become apparent soon.
We asked about sleeping the night. A man who had just come in pointed out to them the dangers of our staying there. The emotional temper of the crowd altered and within a quarter of an hour we were walking up the hill behind the village with two youths, going to a sheep barn, well out of the way. One boy who did the talking had a pleasant voice. I regret that I never saw his face clearly. They showed us the barn, which had a compartment full of dead leaves where we lay down to sleep until midnight.
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The going was easy until we started to descend. According to the boy’s directions we skirted right through some horse chestnut trees then descended in order to avoid a village where was said to be a ‘Squadristi’ guard (members of a Fascist guard). We stopped short of a cottage surprised to see a light burning so late. As we went past a dog barked and we were joined by a kitten, which kept dashing along purring with grand abandon.
The descent soon became precipitously rocky covered in places by bush which had to be forced. Near the bottom we came out on a crag which we had to scramble down for some 15 foot; leaving the kitten mewing piteously. Sweating profusely we were disinclined to do anything about it; it could get back all right. Soon we were down by the river, looking back the mountain’s side appeared impassable. Shoes off to wade across the stream, the bed was muddy which we blessed.
As dawn appeared, limbs were numb but walking soon loosened them out. During the morning we crossed successions of shallow valleys. There were few people out for it was Sunday, a large woman washing clothes at a trough was in high spirits. ‘My son is home. He escaped from Naples – from those murderers, he arrived yesterday’.
Church bells were ringing, we became conscious of the large numbers of churches, even small groups of houses had their church – their best building. We halted at noon for bread and cheese then a rest. Our way led across a broad valley passing a village perched upon the high ground above us. There were few convenient paths so the greater part of the way was across the fields as if on a stage before the houses. They seemed to be watching us, one felt unreasonably self-conscious.
After a short steep climb we came to a road leading from village to church. The church bell was ringing and a stream of people were passing so we sat behind some trees to wait for the service to start. Finally things seemed quiet so we got up on the road to walk past the church.
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There were many groups of men lounging about outside as the strains of the service came burbling forth. A few looked up curiously as we went past to enter a mud road set between walls, groups of people were coming in the opposite direction, the down cast of their eyes as they glanced at us was reminiscent of cows. Soon our path led through a collection of squalid buildings, some cattle slowed us, among a group of people one man looked to us very suspicious, bourgeois and officious. We slid past the cattle. Out the other side of the village we breathed deeper and got off the road and made down a valley side among bush and trees. That was Salogno – Villa Minozzo. It represented better going than we bargained for. A path led along the bottom of the valley to a road, along this we passed a few more houses marked ‘Villa Minozzo’-‘A district?’. The road wended its way across a hill and we came to a view across yet another valley. At a halt our farm for the night was chosen, on the far slopes, isolated, not too large. Paths led down to a bridge crossing the stream, a road zig-zagged up the hillside. We walked up the flint strewn way until we judged that the farm was near, we were wrong and wandered among woods and over fields for some half-hour until we saw the farm a few minutes before sunset.
There were three or four houses in a row with farm buildings behind. A woman, obviously the boss’s wife was feeding the chickens outside one house. She looked rather tart so we went to another house, noteworthy for unusual looking doorposts. I knocked on the door. A pale gaunt individual came. He looked at us incredulously as the yarn was told. The family came and mutely goggled as we entered.
There was a very old boy with a cataract, two wives the old and the young Marthas, their heads wrapped up in cloth. They got on with the housework. A young girl of 16 came in and kept us occupied for some 20 minutes with incessant questions. She was the boss’s niece, an evacuee. She invited us to their house after food and said she would arrange for us to sleep the night.
A good meal included ‘polenta’ – a Yorkshire pudding-like maize meal cake. On this occasion it was served cold, cut in doughy strips. It is nourishing and uninteresting.
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We said that we liked it. The old man kept the conversation going in sprightly manner, especially concerning ‘Porto Ferraio, Elba in the 90s’. There he’d met some British sailors from whom he’d got some ‘plug’. The strength of the tobacco had ensured his admiration of the British nation. ‘I always said that this war against England was wrong, but that wicked man Mussolini etc’.
I was asked to advise regarding the gaunt young man. He has fever and a cough. There’s only a small oil lamp of the early Roman design, so I promise to examine him in the morning. Along at the other house there are two children of the family, the niece is quiet, thinking hard. Mother warms up a shade and talks a little. Soon Dad returns from church, dressed in his best, having got off collar and tie he gets up some of his best wine. He tells of Germans commandeering grain, livestock and furniture adding the old question ‘When will the British arrive to liberate us?’ The little room is clean, there is a smart type of stove in the living room 10′ x 15′ with front door and stairway on each side. They have made efforts. We slept in a staff next door, plenty of hay, very pleasant.
The young man had chronic lung infection probably tuberculosis. He’d visited the local doctor under some public health scheme which didn’t sound very satisfactory. Advice was difficult.
Dad directed us on the way but after 10 minutes it had petered out and we were scrambling through hedges across fields over ditches, but finally make the top of the rising ground then cross some rolling country amid wind and occasional rain.
An old man was standing on a bank. I asked him the way. ‘Who are you?’ ‘Soldiers?’ ‘No you are British’ ‘I can tell it by your accent’. Committed, I maintained that we were Ites and asked the way. We needed to turn back but I kept down the road. The old boy looked suspiciously at us. Out of sight we turned off to circle back but came into view again. Amid recriminations and sharp words we walked above him, he no doubt completely convinced that we were English and madder than most.
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An American cannot easily detect a fake Cockney. In remote places, the people readily took us for Italians. Probably the day before a Sicilian had passed whom they couldn’t understand. Further we were becoming aware that every village had its spy and that the bush wireless was very effective. Hence the policy of pretending to be Italians, in these parts, it worked fairly well. We had learnt from Ramiseto to choose isolated farms, here we would stay nights telling them that we were British officers. It went down well and seemed only fair on the people in view of the German threats. By day we attempted to be incognito.
After about 10 minutes, we were walking along a wide ledge above a deep ravine, a few restrained remarks were interchanged and calm was re-established as we arrived at the next village – Cevago. The place seemed small and remote enough, so we skirted through streets above the village proper, passing the Church we looked at the War Memorial and repeated some of the names in a most convincing manner. Exuding a complete Ite atmosphere, we inquired of a young chap the way. His reply was utterly deflating ‘English?’ He put a finger by his nose and with quizzical smile said ‘I recognized your haversack. Follow me’. I said ‘Don’t announce us in the village’, his reply ‘Of course not’ was reassuring. On the far side of the village we stopped near some farm people, he said ‘These people are all right’. We talked for a few minutes hearing of the British who have passed, 2 Majors and some Sikhs, all making South. Going on, our friend introduced himself as Giuseppe Rossi, Caporale Maggiore 19th Bersaglieri; he had been in Rome, they had killed some Germans but resistance had soon ceased. He had come to his uncle’s house in Cevago, in uniform as he held the Iron Cross 2nd class, earnt he pointed out by his powers of ‘strategy’. He had been left as senior officer of his company on the Don but by superb strategy he had been instrumental in the capture of 243 Russians.
‘Why don’t the British drop arms here? You think we are bad soldiers because of Libya, but the Italian soldier doesn’t want to fight the British! Many men here have arms, in spite of the German order forbidding it. You wait until we continue the war into Germany, the Italian soldier is good, better than the German’.
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All uttered at high speed, drawing my attention by plucking my sleeve and addressing us as ‘Ragazzi’ (Boys, chaps), sentences being punctuated by shouts of ‘ Viva la pasta asciutta!’ which apparently had been the battle cry of his company.
It arose no doubt from the fact that in the Italian Army the daily rations of soup, bread and wine were rounded off by Pasta asciutta on Sundays.
All the time we were climbing steadily. We passed various peasants whom he addressed as if an old friend, anxiously pointing out to us the hard toil of the Italian peasant for his ‘gold’ – pointing to a sack of potatoes. Rossi had lived much of his life in Marseilles and on the French Riviera. ‘I was a waiter in a hotel at Nice. You should say that you are Italians repatriated from England or America and say – Budapest. Often I’ve seen men in the Italian Army who didn’t speak Italian at all’. ‘Here take these!’ He ransacked his pockets and produced two leave passes and some postcards. ‘Say that you’re from the 19th Bersaglieri!’ ‘If you are searched they will find these passes and perhaps think that you are speaking the truth!’ The passes bore his name.
Reached the top, was a magnificent view over rolling country, an electric cable snaking away into the distance led to Lucca and would be our guide for a few days.
Our friend said that he was going to meet the bus from Bologna as his wife-to-be was arriving that night. He’d been rather too zestful on his return from Russia and now she was increasing in girth. But she was good looking and fair, like English girls he’d seen in France, and anyhow it was a good thing to get married. His mother – in Marseilles – would be very pleased.
We descended the mountainside and stopped at a house on the lower slopes where we wanted to stay. Rossi wished to announce us as Italians but I dissuaded him as we thought that in view of German threats it was only fair on our hosts that they should be informed who we were.
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The master of the farm, a long lean fellow, 40-ish, with sallow face and a squint said he would put us up, then was quiet while Rossi talked and a friend of the family played with a little child. This chap had been medical orderly in some unit stationed near Trieste, they had been put into a camp under guard, but he had escaped with a fine pair of Alpini boots – his officer’s. We stood about outside for some time talking and were glad when we were invited inside. After a wash and shave we sat down to food – minestra, hot and very good. There were Grandpa and Grandma, wife and one son aged about 12 years. The conversation was not brisk; we heard about the village Fascist ‘He wept when Mussolini fell’.
We went to bed early under the eaves of their strawshed, covered with an old blanket then plenty of straw, we felt snug as the wind whistled outside. The rats found it snug too as we were constantly being disturbed by scurryings in the straw.
The sun was up when the man came out to show us on our way. Our chianti-water bottle was broken as we got over a wall. I was delighted because firstly it was one thing less to carry and secondly that it wasn’t me, on such occasions there is always the suspicion that accidents are deliberate – although generally untrue.
We made across cultivated fields and meadows through a broad stretch of undulating ground then bore East along a stony cart track to enter the valley in which lies our next village. We have a guide and friend. The cable.
Passing through a wood we came out onto a road. There were stacks of cut wood along the roadside. We were both apprehensive at this sight. Jerry might send trucks out to collect wood. There were supposed to be many Jerry in Pievepelago which the km stones said was 4 kms away.
We left the road to skirt to the right of Pievepelago and soon came out in open country. A small valley in front of us, the village away to the left.
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As we were passing a group of houses, a woman ran out ‘Militari?’ ‘Yes! Yes!’ ‘Three German soldiers just passed, they are armed.’ ‘Two are bathing at the stream down there, one has walked up the valley. You look decent people, I wouldn’t want you caught by these bestial sons of the devil’.
Probably out for a stroll but still best avoided. We turned right up the valley and walked for about a mile along a road, then turned down to the river descending a very steep stony bank. Rocks were loose. We dislodged many on the way down. Across the river jumping stones without seeing our German soldiers, then turned left up the slope to get back in the right direction.
At some houses we were recognized by two young women, heavily got up for rustics. We had passed them an hour back beyond the river. They must have come straight across. They said ‘Are you Germans?’ ‘No! Italians.’ I asked ‘Are there any Germans hereabouts?’ To which a mason answered ‘They are everywhere. They are our masters’. I put the wrong stress in pronouncing Pievepelago, so extracted a route from them and got moving.
We climbed through some horse chestnut woods, picking up leaflets dropped by the Allies. A picture of Garibaldi and statement by Roosevelt about democracy – all in bright red. We were hailed by a man ‘Militari?’ ‘Be careful, there are German soldiers very near, they stopped me and spoke just now – over there’. We thanked him and veered away from the place indicated. Un-Italian whistling was heard but we could see nobody. Hastening our steps we soon felt easier as we found a path through woods along a hillside.
After half an hour we descended slightly and struck the road from Pievepelago. Sat on the bank a few feet above the carriage way we watched a few German staff cars go by, including one containing a German Field Security policeman and two Italian women. ‘Anything to do with us?’
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There was a path above the road which led past a village deep in the valley bottom. A young man was picking apples in his orchard. He said ‘I came home from Rome by train, you should do the same’. The apples were good, even better the approach to the road was concealed. Across the road we were in the open meadow for crossing of river and railway. Always glancing at the road for the odd German vehicle – not that they would worry about two scruffy civilians, but still. The slopes were steep, the sun on our backs. It was more pleasant on top walking towards some new looking houses on a copse. As we approached we could see many large hotels near to the road along the fir covered slopes. Suddenly come on the village we turned sharply away North along a path amid enormous pine trees. Here and there were seats. Evidently a favourite promenade of the resort. Frequented on hot sunny days by the gilded youth – of all ages and beauties in perpetual youth. How jolly! Not to say charming!
For us it was dark and chill.
The going was excellent but we were concerned that the direction was wrong. Our friend the cable plunged across our track, into the valley below. The path led out of the wood and up a slope.
The sun was setting. We attacked the slope urgently in order to see shelter by dusk. From the top we viewed a copse below, magnificent mountains with great rocky upper slopes beyond. By the copse was a barn set at the edge of pine forests spreading Southwards down the valley. The view was beautiful but meaningless. We were tired and in a hurry. The barn was empty so we turned down the valley along a path among trees and bushes. Light was failing. We hurried along. A shower of rain. We ran.
On and on the path twisted and turned, gently falling. The direction was good but never a dwelling. Darkness descended. We were on a bleak hillside looking down into impenetrable blackness. Ack-Ack saw a light. In the dimness at the door the young wife of the house stood indeterminate at our request. The husband was working in a barn. A spare little man. ‘Are you really English?’
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Ack-Ack produced his BD blouse out of the sack. ‘Look! A Captain.’ He was convinced. We were invited into a small clean parlour, the electric light showed tasteful furniture in good repair. The walls had been recently painted, there were pretty curtains and pictures on the walls. The wife was feeding a girl child of about 5 years. Lively in a spoilt way she was well dressed and well groomed. There were stout little boots under the sink. The fourth member sat in a corner without uttering a word. There was rough bobbed hair and a plain dark smock. The face puffy and expressionless. Probably about 18 years. Imbecile perhaps cretinous. Her hand moved a spoon. The food was put in her mouth. It was all an eerie miracle.
After a short period of conversation we sat down with the husband to good pasta. We learnt that we had crossed the Abetone pass, a famous winter sports resort, everyone hereabouts an expert on Skis. The man spoke Tuscan dialect. We had entered Pistoia province – another milestone. Supper finished we were shown a small map of the district, where we saw that San Marcello was within two days’ journey. Thus encouraged we scrambled up to the top of the straw in his barn and burrowed in, how excellent.
Outside washing in an icy cold stream, the man came out to say that he would show us on our way. He must go to Cutiliano in order to get the ration tickets. We were soon joined by a friend of whom at first we were suspicious but finally decided in his favour. Both men were dressed in new tweed suits, cloth caps and good boots. The excellence of the clothes was in marked contrast with any peasant dress we had seen before. Presumably they made good money selling farm produce to the hotels at Abetone. The party tripped along paths running down the valleyside. After about an hour’s walking our friends left our path on their way to Cutiliano. Still discussing Churchill’s speech.
We rested before a large hollowed out oak, there was a shrine in the trees before us, a stream rushed by, cutting deeply in the soft soil. A youth came by ‘How do you do! We hope that they will make it soon.’ (the Allies). The path led uphill past the house of a dirty little man. ‘Have you bread to give us?’ ‘Wait!’ His wife, a slut, handed out a lump of bread through a gap left by the part open door, quickly closing it on us.
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So on over open rising ground, cultivated fields cut by wide rocky rifts at every mile or so. Away to our right was a wide tree-covered valley with the main Pistoia road running along the far slope.
Passing a farm, a strange creature, short and fat with small hands and feet, dressed in blue smock ran out towards us. The expression was blank but she seemed intent on something. She ran towards Ack-Ack, I thought she would hit him, but turned on me and grasped my hand with wet fingers covered with potato peelings. Not a word was uttered, it all seemed incongruous. There was a shout from a pleasant looking youth, who was loading a cart with his sister. ‘Mama, it’s all right, come here!’ They apologized and directed us on our way. The second imbecile.
There was a deep valley ahead of us, the way led down hill but we made one mistake and had to turn back to take the other track. Soon the path failed to descend but continued up the valley.
Across the gorge the face looked bare and sheer, seeing some woodcutters climbing up it however, we plunged down the slope through trees and bush. Sweating freely we reached the bottom and amid a fine mist, started the climb. After half an hour’s hard work, we reached a path. Looking back we could see across the valley our starting point, some 300 yards away. It had taken two hours. The path led up the valley past some houses where we asked the way to Pracchia. ‘Up that path and over the summit’. Above us the mountain top wreathed in mist looked awesome and chill. We went up the path. Rain came intermittently. Darkness was descending. After half an hour it was clear that we were on the wrong path but we kept on to a lone farmhouse standing by itself on a high mountain spur.
A young man of 25, pleasant featured was going out to see to the sheep. Along at the house mother and the rest of the family were like all Tuscans cautious and slow to accept us. We were invited into their kitchen, a built on room with fire burning in the centre, the smoke theoretically going out through the open rafters of the ceiling.
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Thankfully we crouched near the fire, how near varying as the smoke got in our eyes or the cold bit our backs. There was little talk while mother handled the huge cooking pot with familiar efficient sounding clangings. Finally the young man returned, he invited us into the house for food at a long family table.
There were about seven in the family, all adult. They lived by tilling their 40 or 50 acres of land and pasturing 80 sheep in the mountains. As had father and grandfather before. The house had been built 100 years ago.
At this meal we were introduced to ‘Necci’, served like pancakes. It is made by pouring a chestnut flour paste onto a tile previously heated and covered by leaves. The gobbet of paste is covered by further leaves then another hot tile. The performance is repeated until there is a pile of hot tile-leaf-necci sandwiches. After 10 minutes they are taken to pieces obtaining hot chestnut pancakes. In remote parts where chestnuts abound, necci is eaten in lieu of bread. We both enjoyed it greatly.
Conversation improved, we learned that no Germans had been seen up there. They complained that salt and tobacco were not obtainable. Three sons were away in the Italian Army, one a prisoner. Mother was most annoyed that she had received no news of them for three weeks. She told me as if she thought that I was to blame.
Our host showed us to a room for the night. A straw packed bed with coat and blankets. We wondered if it would make us soft.
The buxom daughter of the house gave us milk, coffee and bread. While we were washing Mother set off to market with donkey equipped with panniers. She carried an umbrella and looked most business-like. We soon followed, retracing much of our path of the previous evening.
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At the bottom of the valley a dear old lady stopped us to talk, telling of German thefts of property, of arrests of young men for service. Even a small boy of fourteen had been taken – it was said.
The way was easy, now in the main valley running towards Pistoia. Looking back we could see a village containing factory buildings which we took to be San Marcello.
After an hour’s walking the path led out of some woods above a small village, so we turned along the hillside which was very irregular, causing much scrambling. The still was broken by an air-raid siren; a little later we heard far away thumps. We piously hoped that Jerry was getting some stick.
Beyond the village we descended and did a stretch on the road. We passed a suspiciously respectable Ite which increased the ‘road anxiety’, looking and listening in front and behind, always with an eye for cover near the road. Thankfully we took a likely looking path.
Our policy had developed. We intended to reach our own troops sparing no effort to make it as safe as possible.
Already there had been rain, we expected the weather to break soon. For those reasons it was imperative to get south of a possible German Spezia-Ancona-Rimini line quickly. We would rest South of the Leghorn Latitude.
The rest of the morning was spent in our getting involved in the branch line of the San Marcello railway. We had no map and opinions differed as to the correct route, but scrambled over low hills and cultivated fields in a broad half-circle, suddenly finding ourselves above a large sprawling township lying down in a hollow. Pracchia perhaps.
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The haversack was put in the sack. We got down to the road and crossed it at an inhabited part. Nobody seemed at all interested in us and breathing easier we climbed the hill on the far side bearing left to pass above the town.
The sun was coming out, we walked along a wooded hillside for three quarters of an hour before entering a valley. Approaching the road running along the valley bottom we suddenly came out on a drive leading to a large mansion. Some people were standing outside it some 100 yards away. We turned away but there were shouts and a young man came running towards us.
He came near, pleasant face, active body. ‘English?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Come with me’. He led us to the house.
The young man was a soldier ‘escaped from Yugoslavia’. He’d arrived home the day before. The family listened to our story. They gave us hot Necci ‘Please sit at the table’. There was bread, cheese, wine and a large plate of ripe green figs. We got moving on these with great effect. I believe that I did best, Ack-Ack reminded me that I nipped a few extra, having said that I was finished.
We listened to the wireless and talked. They told us how they’d had to join the Fascist party in order to get work. Now they hoped for liberation by the Allies so that they might set their house in order. Rationing was discussed, they marvelled that bread was not bought on ‘tickets’ in England, they received 150 grams daily. ‘We were told that England was starving’. They advised us to stay there as the Germans were digging defences in the country which we intended to pass. Pleasantly bloated we were set on our way to San Mome by our friend. It was a sunny afternoon and we had an enjoyable walk for an hour. We had been warned which part of the villages to avoid and where to make enquiries.
San Mome lies in a valley. It was beautiful that afternoon. In its bottom we could see the railway line passing through tunnels and along viaducts as straight as a die.
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High up above it on the far mountain side was the main Bologna-Florence road. The second main highway to be crossed.
Deciding to cross the line North of San Mome we went down a slope and crossed the line near a tunnel. On a small road we turned towards the railway station 100 yards away. On our path I saw two men with rifles outside the station. They turned towards us and came walking down the road.
As nonchalantly as possible we walked off to the left of the path up a slope, getting on to a track which rose steeply up the mountainside. They were carabinieri. The official Italian police, owing allegiance to the King, many had remained in their jobs after the German occupation in the interest of public order. Some were Fascist and dangerous, the large majority however had no pro-German sympathies but in public were at the mercy of spies. The Germans offered £10 sterling per head for British POW. The carbs knew everyone in their district.
We regarded them as more dangerous to us than the average German soldier.
These did not follow us and we slogged up the steep slope for an hour. As we neared the road we could hear much German transport passing. Motorbikes, trucks, staff cars. The sounds were familiar by now. Virtually all Italian transport on the road was in use by the Wehrmacht.
We came out of a belt of trees and looking up, saw about 20 Jerry soldiers dressed in brown working clothes sitting on or leaning over a roadside railing some 50 feet above us.
Those looking over showed no interest in us, nevertheless as we walked below them to some farm houses one was aware of sweaty palms and crutch. At the farm was an old man sitting on a bench. He had just lost his wife and was in a state bordering on terror.
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‘Are the Germans living in the houses above?’ ‘Yes they are everywhere’.
Unbelieving we walk up the path towards the houses and are near the road. ”alt!’ (I omit the h – it was very short and very near) We hear the call from just round the corner of a house, then sounds of a lorry slowing down. A vehicle check post dammit.
Turning back a few yards down the path we rested in some bushes and made plans. We presumed that the Jerry seen were a working party awaiting transport to billets. Probably building a road block.
Above we could see German transport streaming through the village. Nearest to us was a hotel, where it seemed was the road block. We could hear German voices talking and shouting in the yard and at the windows. The road must be crossed but we didn’t wish to run into guards on their diggings which possibly were beyond on the high ground. Being the Ite speaker, I left Ack-Ack in order to make a recce after unanimous election. I crossed a field, climbed up on to the road then turned right along it. The highway was broad with a smooth macadam surface, there were a few houses on both sides (of the road).
Assuming my best slouch I walked along. All was quiet except for the occasional vehicle passing.
A man was sitting outside his house. He eyed me cautiously. Further on was the canton house, all newly painted with official looking signs.
Just outside the village I cut off the road and, a back yard negotiated, was soon walking over open heathland. Looking back the mountains appeared dark and forbidding with the sun setting behind them. On top of the rising ground was a plantation of young firs which had to be negotiated in order to see the far side of the hill.
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The next valley beyond was bare and remote enough. I circled back and came down to the road by our hotel. Waiting for a minute behind the wall of a house I could hear Jerry talking just round the corner.
One man stepped out into the road to stop a truck. Now! In the half light I did ‘Ite slouches Mark 1’. I could just touch the bonnet of the nearest car. Two Jerry were standing at the rear wheels, talking. Back in our hide we waited for darkness.
We walked up the path to cross the road, but we could hear talking. Ack-Ack was disinclined to pass that way. He had good reason. There was a curfew at 8 pm. We would cross further away from the road block. So circled back to the left across terraces, fields, through woods of huge pines. Coming near the road again we were warned by sounds of trucks below us, evidently it descended here from the hotel. We heard a truck stop, then a man got out and ran back towards the hotel. Five minutes later, the same footfalls were heard coming back, they reached the truck. Silence. We crawled near the road and saw the truck stopped 10 yards from where we wanted to cross. Across the road the ground looked most uninviting, dropping away and covered by thick bush and trees. It was probable that other vehicles were stopped nearby, we didn’t relish walking along the road past the truck. We would try again so turned back to return to the place from which we had started. It was a most unpleasant half-hour, pushing through low bush, slipping into holes and banging feet against every large stone in the pitch blackness. However we were encouraged by the sight of huge numbers of flares, flashes of AA guns and thumps from Leghorn direction. We wondered if the landing was coming.
Back at our bushes we decided to go through the village by my first route. There were voices in the hotel, we lay down until bed time.
Across the field. On the road there may be trucks halted. Ack-Ack takes off his boots. We flit along the village street like ghosts.
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We cross the heathland, then force our way through the young pines, until we are facing the next valley with the moon looking on us. It must be only 2 or 3 o’clock so we set to, making a fern bed on the damp ground.
We are tired. Ack-Ack is standing with face and figure fallen as if he doesn’t care what the hell happens next. The picture of dejection. Extremely funny. I am overcome by the farcical nature of the situation, burst out laughing making bantering remarks, which displease him. He retorts by reference to my hysterical laughter. In good temper we settle down on the ferns. Back to back. It means one small warm part. Chorus ‘If only my wife/mother could see me now.’
As always one lay down hot and tired but thankful. After about half an hour’s sleep a part conscious state arose while numbness spread over. In these twilight states I had hoped for years to reach greater awareness of ultimate reality. I cannot recall even glimmerings. Perhaps my previous education was incomplete.
Finally the situation became impossible and one moved about until warm. Tonight I did lying bicycling.
Just before dawn we started down the mountainside into the next valley, there was a stream at the bottom, beyond it was a path turning into another valley which ran in our direction. Looking back and to our left about 1 mile away was the road where we’d tried to cross.
Ack-Ack saw men standing by trucks along it. We concluded that probably we had been wise to try elsewhere. The sun was rising as we set out along the bank of the stream, there was a mule track to follow. We passed one charcoal burner’s dwelling, built according to a lean-to design of grass sods on a rough wooden frame, 10 foot long, 4 foot wide at base and about 6 foot high. The inside is dark and noisy yet quite large families emanate from such hovels, generally they appear fit. Almost always kind hearts dwell there.
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After an hour’s walking the valley rose to a low col which led us on to a road passing along yet another valley. We met a man and a boy with a train of six mules equipped with large panniers for charcoal carrying. The man did not ask questions, he advised us that a German truck had passed once along the road, he thought on reconnaissance. He fished out his mid-day snack handkerchief and insisted on our accepting some polenta, ‘necci’ and cheese. The effect of the kindness and the food was uplifting. Our step was lighter. We blessed the fact that the road was unfrequented and went in our direction. Nevertheless the eye kept wandering to the next spur where the road wended around.
The road-mender gave us directions to Borgo di San Lorenzo, he’d been there once. He pulled out small packages from his pockets and presented bread and a large thick slice of green bacon; adding that if we would return to his house, there would be more. Aged about 50 with lined clean shaven face and white hair he wore his hat balanced forward over his eyes. He told us that many Italian soldiers came past each day going home. ‘Poor boys to be involved in such a misfortune’ looking me straight in the eyes and in sincere tones – as if giving a formal benediction, he said ‘Tante belle cose’ (Tuscan ‘hose’). (Lit: many fine things) All the best.
Spiritually soaring we walked on down the sunny valley and were soon on paths passing through woods. We stopped to ask the way at a group of new houses which we took to belong to charcoal burner bosses. They directed us on without expressing any interest in us. Along downhill the path led along a riverside bank. A young Italian aged about 25, short dark moustachioed, dapper, came by accompanied by a local carrying his bag. The young man’s hair was sleekly groomed, his nails nicely manicured, his breeches and riding boots impeccable in their florid way. He looked like an Army officer ‘escaping’ to some remote haven. Both before and during my capture I had heard Italian soldiers say that their officers were merely coxcombs who strutted and yapped in smart uniforms. No doubt born of bitterness and assisted by the wide gulf between officers (and the Italian bourgeoisie) and the men (peasants).
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More than one soldier added that they had noticed how different were the German officers, who seemed on terms of friendship and greater comradeship with their men. This chap looked a good sample Italian officer.
Finding a quiet spot we stopped for 2 or 3 hours in the middle of the day to do some washing as it had been decided that is was a ‘gradely day’ for drying the smalls. So we washed our clothes and selves in the brook.
Feeling spruced and starched we went on, soon reaching a house in a clearing which overlooked a plain to the South. We paused here and were warned that Carabinieri were about and had that morning arrested two English POWs. A blond Teuton faced fellow showed us the way. He seemed efficient for an Ite but spoke the language like a native and seemed friendly. We were told ‘3 hours to Borgo di San Lorenzo’.
We soon came out on a path running along a ledge on the mountain group about 1500 foot high. The sun was burning, a shimmering haze hung over the plain of Florence away to the South. The going was smooth and level for three quarters of an hour. We dashed along. Then the country began to open up before us, the way less determinate. We went up and down hills keeping to sheep tracks, finally finding ourselves on the side of a steep slope. The path had petered out so we went down as far as possible via charcoal burners platforms.
Coal being scarce in Italy, much charcoal is used in stores for heating and cooking. The charcoal burners clear circular spaces 15 foot across, or on steep slopes build platforms. Wood is cut up normally into blocks 6 inches long (sometimes larger) which are piled into a cone 10 feet high. Sods are packed over, leaving vents at the bottom edges and the top. A slow fire is started and maintained by regulation of the vents. When all has been charred the sods are taken off. Once cool the charcoal is carried off by mule leaving a black ring on the ground. These dot the hillside. In some parts the mountain sides are bare except for the dots.
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The bottom reached, we found a charcoal burner who advised us to go to Logomano for the night. After a scramble down the rocky valley we reached a path which led us to the village in an hour. At the first house we stopped to speak to a white haired old lady who was housing two Ite deserters. In the centre of the village we asked for shelter at a house, which we guessed, belonged to the factor. They said there was no room so we demanded of a group. They looked at us sullenly without answer, gnaw-nipples indeed. We cursed them in English and walked away. A young charcoal burner from the group came after us, he showed us the barn where he slept. It was still light so we returned to the group, sat down on some hay and tried conversation. A hulking great chap came up, dressed in good blue jersey, smart trousers and sandals. A well-groomed, well-fed fellow. He stated that he was an officer in the Italian Air Force, and made some remarks about the war insisting on speech in the French language. I thought that he was showing off to the locals. They goggled suitably. Evidently he felt that some explanation of his presence in that retreat was necessary. ‘Without arms we cannot fight, we need arms’. I limited my reply to ‘Oh yes’. My gorge was rising. He walked away.
At sunset we were invited into the kitchen of the factor’s house. There were two daughters of the house, in their twenties, one had a child. Ack-Ack anxiously asked the age. ‘Mmm walking eh!’ They asked if we were married. Ack-Ack had learnt his piece. ‘Yes and has a son aged 15 months’. Like clockwork I add ‘He’s not seen him yet’. As usual they throw their arms out saying ‘Oh! Oh! Poor fellow’. He shows them a picture of Peter. They make the familiar gurgling noises. A daughter turns to me ‘And you are you married too?’ ‘No’ ‘Engaged?’ ‘No.’ She is lost for words.
Various men come through the kitchen to another room. We are not invited. Mother 45-ish built on a sound massive chassis o’er topped by bestayed boso(o)m is doing great execution on the cooking stoves, manipulating pots and pans with dexterity. Some charcoal burners come in and sit at table to huge plates of Pasta. Tentatively they invite us to eat with them but Mother doesn’t look pleased, she makes some remark about us getting food later.
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She then sets to the frying pan. Eggs go in. Crackle, crackle, that’s more our form. The eggs fried are put on a plate and taken into the next room. We should be next. Suddenly, with a flourish we are presented with a plate containing (dreadful pause) a hunk of bread and a few thin, very thin slices of polony. A plate of walnuts and two apples are added.
Oh! What a falling off.
We scoff the lot in a few minutes and do our best to look disdainfully non-replete. A few more walnuts.
In the meantime a greasy looking youth was annoying me by trying to speak English. ‘The Germans are very bad people’. I felt like disagreeing with him heartily. At the moment the scurvy treatment indicated to me quite clearly that these people had all been keen Fascists and might not be above selling us to Jerry at £10 per head. Naive but a judgement having great elements of truth, especially in judging some Italian country people. We went to our hay and slept well.
In the morning we saw Mother. There was no mention of breakfast. We washed at a broken down monumental fountain presented by a previous factor and shook the dust from our feet!
We had not asked the way. The final defiant gesture. We started off in the right direction and clambered along a rocky valley bottom then up a steep slope for an hour to reach a road and a stone saying Logomano 3 kilometres.
Away along the valley was a village overshadowed by an old turreted castle, which perched on a hillock. It was flanked by cypress trees, reminiscent of the illustrations of fairy stories but leaving a vague impression that Giant Decay would arise grinning from behind. (Gibbs Dentifrice adverts in 1930’s had featured its use against ‘Giant Decay’ in ‘Ivory Castles’.
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We skirted to the right of this village and were informed of the way to Vernio, a place which sounded as good as any. We were soon on a road wending its leisurely way up to the very top of the next hill, then continuing through a village which we left on our right. A halt was called on a grassy patch where large bunches of grapes were eaten to the accompaniment of the sounds of a bomber force passing. It was out of sight but we heard shouts of children ‘Americans’.
Descending we were soon in sight of a town lying at the junction of two valleys. We could see a railway line passing away to the South and decided to cross it near the town. The approach was followed by an extensive recce. We had to traverse a bank, the road, a group of factory buildings, a stream, the railway line then climb the far side hill. Decision was reached on a part of the railway passing through a tunnel in the hillside.
We reached the bank overlooking the road. The brambles and bushes slowed us. We reached 20 foot above the road quickly. A German lorry passed below, a Jerry sitting on a pile of tyres stacked in the back.
We tried further but found a drop of 15 foot to the road, the fall complicated by tree roots jutting out of the bank. It was foolish to try. We beat a hasty retreat up the side. I tore my shirt in my desperation. We rested on the bank above. Stage 1 of scallywaggery had been reached. But an intriguing sight held our attention. Three carabinieri, now christened crabs, were walking along the line. They entered the tunnel, two emerged at the far end. One turned back outside the tunnel and came down across the stream in the general direction of us. There was a loud explosion in the tunnel. Nobody whom we could see looked at all perturbed but we decided that it would be healthier to cross elsewhere. We turned back and walked towards the town intending to cross on the far side of it. Down the next valley we passed over farmlands, through farmyards along paths. Various peasants didn’t act as if it was the least bit incongruous for us to be weaving over their land or dodging the clothes line. At the bottom we were stopped by a wide canal.
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The only possibility was to walk through the town. Murmuring a prayer of hope we turned on to the main road and walked along the street, over the bridge, past some shops, there were a few people sitting about, across the cross-roads then climbed up a path out of the town.
It was beginning to rain. We stood up under a lean-to cover near a farm, the farmer came in, a pleasant featured man he talked readily and answered our questions. ‘This is Vernio.’ ‘There are a few Germans-down at the station. They are all right, we’ve had no trouble. The railway line is beneath us in a tunnel.’ I said that we were from Piacenza, going to Perugia – a suitable sounding place. After a long time and for no particular reason I told him who we were. He invited us into his house but we replied that we had to get on. The rain was ceasing so directed by our farmer friend we crossed the rise and dropped into the next valley. There was another village to pass. Few people were hurrying along the slippery street. No loungers to stare.
The road was the Prato-Florence highway, and still nowhere near Borgo di San Lorenzo. A steep climb led us up rough tracks through small hamlets. At the topmost of these there were some people sitting outside their houses, who wished to talk. Feeling in need of a rest we sat down and were well entertained by a small middle-aged man with greying hair and Hitler moustache. His pale face possessed a pathetic long-suffering quality. He wore an old shirt and trousers plentifully bepatched. He could not read nor write. His toil from dawn to dusk on a piece of land gave him a bare living. That was all that was important to him. The affairs of the local town were of no interest. He considered that the Fascists were bad men because they made the peasant’s sons go to fight, they had taxed and rationed the people. Not that taxes or rationing of food affected him much but there was no oil for the lamp, the clothes in the shops were bad and now there was no salt or tobacco. And all through Mussolini whose head had swollen so.
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The Englishman: ‘But why didn’t the peasant do something about it?’
The peasant: ‘Government is the work of the bosses, we do our work in the fields. We work hard. The bosses of Italy are bad men. It would be better for us if Italy was a colony of England or America’.
The Englishman: ‘That is not our desire.’
The peasant: ‘Oh! Well you will have to keep an eye on our Government’.
He showed me some of the school books of his 11 year old son, adding that the boy didn’t go to school many months in the year as he was needed to help on the farm. Anyhow what use was all this education to the peasant.
In the meanwhile Ack-Ack had wormed his way into the good graces of Mother who was skilfully sewing a fine patch in the knee of his trousers. We said goodbye. They came out of their cottages. A youth, noticing that the crutch of my trousers was somewhere around the knees, took off his belt and presented it. Ack-Ack was relieved from a distressing sight. We continued up the mountain, being directed on to the right paths by their shouts from below.
Over the top we passed some prosperous, new looking farms as the slope descended slightly into a broad valley. As we approached the main Borgo di San Lorenzo road, a German staff car with motor bicycle escort tootled along.
A group of people were listening to a traveller as he described in dramatic utterance the damage caused at Florence by the ‘Americani’. We didn’t stop.
Dusk was falling. We started looking for a billet pessimistically, remembering Logomano. An old boy was tipsy, talking garrulously to another old codger. He reeled over to us. He seemed harmless, so I told him who we were. He led us up to a farmyard but it was clear that he was no more than a distant friend.
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I spoke to the obvious boss. ‘We are British officers, escaped POWs released by the Italians at the Armistice. Have you a place where we could sleep – on some straw?’ He said ‘all right but how do I know who you are?’ So Ack-Ack pulled his BD blouse out of the sack.
The family had collected around us. They were highly impressed somebody had recognized the uniform from the film Bengasi. ‘And a Capitano’, fingering the pips. Ack-Ack pointed at me and said ‘Capitano medico’. ‘Oh and so young’.
The boss, a stocky chap with greying head and vigorous open countenance, ushered us into the kitchen. Great deference was shown. We were shown to seats near Grandpa, the family – huge – stood around. It was a large kitchen, clean and quite well appointed. There were two sets of grandparents, three husbands and wives plus children. All seemed related, most working on the farm. Our host was the eldest son.
The atmosphere was happy, they asked the familiar questions. Married? Children? The stock answer. The usual cries of ‘Ooh! Poor fellow’ amidst waving arms. We told how the Commandant had let us free, that he’d been arrested by the Germans and imprisoned at Cremona. How the Germans had looted the camp etc.
Soon we were seated at a huge table for the family evening meal and fed on some delectable minestra of very fine quality, apparently specially prepared for us. The two English ‘only children’ agreed that large families were a good thing.
I talked about England. Small families. Better standard of living. Bread unrationed. ‘So they are not starving as our papers said’. The air raids of 1940 lead to fantastic figures concerning our present raids over Germany.
Back in the kitchen we felt quite part of the family. We expressed interest in the spinning wheel, which was demonstrated by the wife of one who was adjudged the family odd-man out.
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The wife was better poised than the rest and had clearly made greater efforts. Her daughter was well dressed. She remarked upon the excellence of the Battle Dress material. When I asked the name in Italian of some Michaelmas Daisies, Grandpa said that they were ‘flowers’, referring to her for the proper name. I imagined that the family considered her hoity-toity.
Amid torrential rain we ran across the farmyard under umbrellas to our barn. Our host produced sheets and blankets. Bed made we settled down well-pleased.
We would lie in tomorrow, Sunday.
We were up, dressed and shaved by 9 am – very late. They insisted on our taking ‘colazione’ of milk-coffee, bread, cheese and apples. This Grandpa ate with us. I admired his bread-cutting technique with clasp-knife, and am still envious after many attempts of imitation. We were invited to stay but were determined to push on so left at about 10.30 am going South down their wide valley. There were heavy rain clouds in the sky but a high wind gave some hope of progress along the quagmire of the paths left by the night’s rain.
Over fields and paths for 2 hours we were hindered but slightly by showers – until a torrential rainstorm came. We ran down a ploughed bank and, slipping and splashing, dashed under a barn. The father of the house recognized us and invited us to dry our clothes. We sat by the fire and pored over a small-scale map of Italy. Father was a careful man. I heard him instructing the children that they must tell no-one that we had been there. He came in and said ‘You never know where there are spies’. We ate bread and cheese, taken with a little wine. The rain ceased, he directed us on our way, which passed over a rolling cultivated land broken here and there by wooded knolls. We crossed the next main road with ease then had to remove boots and socks to wade a stream swollen by the rains. The wind was gusty, the sky overcast, making a ‘Home’ subject appropriate. We discussed ‘Homes’ all that morning. Lunch of bread and cheese was taken under a hedge on a slope, black and white grapes came from the nearby vines.
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My haversack which I’d had all my time in the Army was reverently (I hope) placed under a hedge while I looked the other way and shed a sentimental tear. We had been recognized too often by it, with reorganization we could carry everything in the sack. We ate the last chocolate and Healthy Life biscuits, finding that the tin of the latter was a fraud. In the bund someone had taken some of the biscuits substituting bread now mouldy. I had a good laugh being a non-believer in weighty reserves, previously I’d thought 2 tins of biscuits one too many.
The burden reconstituted meant that we would take it in turn to carry the sack.
So on and over ploughed fields, vineyard, stream, up hill and down dale buffeted by the gusty wind. On that momentous afternoon we found a fig tree suitably hidden. The wind had blown ripe figs onto the ground. What a shame! We ate those, then assisted the wind a little, finally cleaning the branches of the ripe ones.
I was gratified. With memories of that odd one off the plate, Ack-Ack pretended that I was in my element.
No doubt it was his sense of equity but his score was imposing.
Greatly refreshed we pushed on, entering a wood, evidently a pleasure park in summer. A refreshment booth now locked up stood in a clearing. Looking through the window, there were all the tables and chairs in a pile, so ill at ease. No lemonade or ice-cream. No prams. No lovers billing and cooing. No matrons discussing their day. No children happily licking ices or crying passionately for some good reason they’d forgotten. An unhappy looking little shed! Almost a miserable little shed!
Out in the open again there was more open going past a 17th century castle.
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We wondered if Jerry was there. I stopped to ask a small girl, who was minding the sheep. She answered crisply. ‘There are no Germans in the castle or the village, but many passing in lorries on the main road over there’.
We walked past the castle then bore right up a valley looking out for a good place to cross road and railway. We passed above a railway station where was a train packed with grey and khaki figures.
At a wooded spur over the road, the wind was blowing a gale, nearly knocking us over. Everything below looked still in the sun. We saw three Ite youths pass down a river bed under the road and surmised that they were well informed. So getting past a house we looked up and down the road then strolled across it, we jumped down into a meadow and followed the Ites through some bushes, under a bridge carrying the railway over a stream bed, then steady going uphill. There were only occasional trucks on the road behind us.
The top surmounted we were soon traversing a wide sweep of cultivated terraces. The grapes were ripe and cooling. A path across open gorse covered land led us to a 3rd class road, bordered by green verges. It swept through horse chestnut woods. Many scenes were reminiscent of familiar places in the Home Counties.
The road passed below a collection of hotels, evidently a holiday resort. A few people were walking on the roads, dressed in their best probably returning from church. We felt that they were rather too well-dressed to be trustworthy from our point of view. An old man at a farm advised us to go on.
We passed two small villages. Darkness was coming and we would have stopped but somehow they didn’t appear inviting so we pressed on hoping for a nice isolated farm over the next ridge.
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Finally we came to a collection of houses where was a farm, not perfect for us, it was near the road, but it had a barn. I asked the old man. ‘No we’ve no room’. His young son was more sympathetic but the old man wasn’t having any refugees. ‘Go to the friars, up the road there’. The usual English curses of exasperation.
Children’s voices were heard from a mansion along the road. Better not risk it. We were out on bleak moorland in pitch blackness. The wind moaned over the wastes.
Ack-Ack saw a house, well away from the road. I fumbled along after him. A small farmstead. The lonely farm on the blasted heath indeed. We banged on the door and asked of a thin pale looking woman if they could put us up. She conferred with her husband, a gaunt wasted individual who sat crouched over the fire. Finally she allowed us into the small kitchen. The table, stove and fireplace left just enough room for us to sit down next to a wrinkled old grandma who was nursing the baby.
The man had only recently returned from a hospital operation for Gastric Ulcer. The farm was a poor one. He had not done much work for many months. The woman looked pale and listless. Only Grandma seemed in good spirits croaking at me in fine voice.
They had already sheltered British POWs and were frightened of spies. Nevertheless the man showed us into their parlour, gave us the only light so that we might see the bread, cheese, grapes and water, then he returned to the kitchen to partake of some wretched little bird shot that day.
The light was a help for the earwig fishing.
We got to bed soon in their barn, they gave us an old blanket. We slept well relatively undisturbed by furry friends who wanted our bread.
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Outside. Next morning. Washing. We were delighted by the sight of Florence about 10 miles away, we could see the great dome. They pointed out where the American bombers had dropped their stuff the day previously. ‘It is said that thousands of Germans were killed’. They gave us milk. The man directed us to a track ‘which leads through the mountains to Foggia’. The day was gloomy. Showers came to make us stand up under eaves of barns. After an hour or so, the Foggia way ended on a road.
Passing a farm, a woman asked us if we had heard news of her son, so and so who had been serving in Sardinia. After crossing some fields we reached a road running in the right direction. Sploshing along we were surprised by English voices ‘Are you going to Arezzo?’ A couple of chaps came up, eating grapes. ‘These grapes are rather good, funny how they vary.’ They were dressed in civilian clothes, wringing wet. An un-Italian spectacle. We stood under some eaves to talk and laugh for a few minutes. They were Lts Ringdahl and Rushmere, South Africans from Modena camp. They estimated that only 50 out of the 1000 officers in the camp had escaped. They had met Gordon Clover and Mike ‘Blueballs’ Williams on Mount Cimone. We were envious of their map (RACI) of Italy on which they demonstrated their general proposed route to Naples. They hoped to get there in 3 weeks. We split and went off separately. We felt that we looked more like Ites than they. This stimulated a short description of the Races of Man and Ack-Ack’s resemblance to the Mediterranean race, and a bit of the Celt.
Mists wafted around us and showers dampened our ardour. We kept to 3rd class roads all the morning and met few people. At a small village a few men standing around the village pump looked up and stared. A woman started up conversation after we had passed. We walked on agreeing all the time that these were ‘ugly times’.
In the afternoon the sky cleared somewhat as we descended a zig-zag road leading to a village. There was no easy way of circumnavigation so we walked straight through the main street, shuddering slightly at sight of the police station.
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Queues of men were standing outside the salt and tobacco shops. Hoping no doubt for a cigarette ration though Jerry was said to have taken over the entire stocks of cigarettes.
We were not stopped. The road took us along a narrow valley where we were passed by a car driven by an Italian – a rare sight.
Past a small factory and suddenly we were on a main (Florence to Pontassieve) road, 30 yards away was the bank of a broad river – the Arno.
Indeterminately we wandered across the road praying that no trucks would come while we were looking vague.
Just to our right was a weir, but there was a gap in its middle, there were men fishing on the far part. They must have got over somehow. We walked along the paved structure, finding there were stepping stones right across. ‘Bless our good fairy’. Across a small bridge and we were on the far bank. A very fortunate crossing. (We had been told there were sentries on the bridges and ‘crossing the Arno’ had filled our thoughts with apprehension. The ease of crossing gave a sense of delivery and my memory is of a vast flowing river ‘the Brahamaputra’. That was in September when the river was low. Years later in May it looked a modest stream removing from my mind (more or less) my Brahamaputra. We turned towards Florence (W). All was quiet on this bank passing only a few houses and work places. We could see and hear heavy traffic along the road on the other side. After two miles along the bank we turned South climbing around rising ground. A few minutes’ rest was taken to drink in the view of Florence, quite up to all expectations. Behind was a castle set up on top of the hill. We remarked that there would be good contacts around these parts, if only one knew where to go.
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The rain started again, driving us into a pretty little farmhouse where we stood under the eaves and chatted to the owner and a merchant. The latter a quick-witted man, recognized us and gave various pieces of advice ending ‘You should go and see the count at the castle up there’.
We stood around while they did some bargaining, finally the pact was sealed by the two parties and a third putting their hands together in a sort of handy-pandy, then repeating some riddle-me-ree amidst laughter.
The merchant gone after much chaffing, we talked to the two brothers and ate grapes. They gave Ack-Ack a tattered brown jacket for wear by day, small but would serve for occasions when he couldn’t wear his BD blouse.
After some discussion between ourselves we asked them to put us up for the night. One said ‘You should go to the castle. There are beds. Ah! You don’t trust them’. I said ‘Yes.’ Actually we were inclined to think that a Count would have too much to lose.
We met their mother inside, an 8-day old baby was brought down for our approval. We did some sock washing and sat on the fireside bench on the hearth. There was some food cooking but presumably they couldn’t spare any and perhaps felt that the bread and grapes were sufficient, for we were asked if we wished to sleep and conducted to an upper storey of a barn. The little man gave advice about getting away in an emergency. We slept well. In the morning we decided that the possibilities presented by the castle were too tempting. No need to stay long.
Without telling the farmer we set off to climb to the castle. A child or two noticed us as we climbed past a few groups of houses. Ack-Ack’s ‘Don’t tit up’ recalled me from rubbing the corners of my mouth. The drive led round to a side door where we knocked and were met by a man wearing trilby and baggy brown suit. The factor. ‘We wish to see the Count.’ A subtle leer momentarily accentuated the suggestion of sharpness of his face. ‘Come in and wait here’. We entered a small hall, the high walls covered by paintings and tapestries.
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A young man of medium height with swarthy hawk-bird-like face came in. In English we said ‘We are British Officers, we came to ask your assistance in some ways. He said ‘Wait a minute.’ and disappeared. The handsome Italian Count straight out of Ethel M Dell. (The farmer had said that Mussolini had put the Count in prison for a time. The Count himself was a member of the Azione party. The castle is called Monte Acuto. The family name is Brasi-Foglietti.)
A small side door opened. We entered a small panelled room. He was puffing a cigarette with an anxious air. ‘Now I could put you up for a little time here but -‘ We broke in explaining that we would be grateful if he would:- ‘Give us a map’. ‘Yes! I can do that easily’. ‘Give me a pair of shoes’, I pointed to mine now showing splits from wear. ‘Yes, we’ll go into that’. ‘Can you give us reliable news and advise as to our best course?’ We sat on a sofa and pored over an atlas map of Southern Italy. ‘The 8th Army is 30 kilometres from Foggia. There is stiff German resistance South of Naples. The main fighting is on the coasts’. He appeared to be under no illusions – he didn’t think that the Allies would reach Florence that winter. How different from the peasants, regularly speaking as if the Germans were expected to leave tomorrow.
‘They say that there are few Germans in the Abruzzi’. Carefully we were ushered through large rooms, our host going ahead to ensure that there were no servants. His mother Countess Brasi-Foglietti, greeted us saying ‘I’m sure you’d like a hot bath then you must have some breakfast, I’m afraid that there’s only soi-disant coffee to offer you. No tea’.
Upstairs through a small gallery of family portraits to a bathroom. There was a lavatory next door equipped with seat and a pull chain. What with soaking and soaping our bodies and listening to the flush. Twiddling the hot tap with one’s toes. The sensation of oil-cloth and mats under wet feet. How pleasant is the bathroom in the life of a soldier!
Our host came up and passed in two woollen vests, some grey flannel trousers saying that they’d be warmer than my blue ducks and two pairs of shoes to try on. Thoroughly palm-olived, we dressed back into our scruffy clothes, but the shoes were too small.
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We went down to the drawing-room, large and high, panelled walls covered by red tapestry and paintings. Windows in two walls, one of them nearly the height of the room opening on to a balcony. From that window Florence framed by the cypress clad slopes of the Arno valley. Renascent Europe. Various landmarks were pointed out, the Duomo and Tower of Giotto. The pile carpets brought one back to earth but gently. ‘Here are some ham and eggs and coffee’, our host’s sister was carrying in a great tray. And they were good.
GAP – I can’t remember what was said here. The gap must have been left for security reasons.
They spoke of the German occupation of Florence. The Italian garrison commander had gone out to defend the pass at Futa, but little resistance was offered. They had formed the impression that at first there were very few German troops in the town but they had kept their lorries careering round the streets at all hours in order to create a show.
Now there were more troops but many of them Austrians, some were reported to have told Italians that they had no interest in the war and were fed up. There was a story about 2 British POWs betrayed by a Fascist squadrista to the Germans. Three Austrian soldiers had arrived at the house, eaten with the ‘Tommies’ then gone off saying that it wasn’t worth while arresting them.
At the other end of the scale there was confirmation of all stories of German soldiers taking livestock, grain, bicycles even jewellery from young women. It was vouched that a young girl had been shot out of hand for refusing to give up a bracelet to a soldier.
It was evident that Italy was being demonstrated to Europe as an example of the results of treachery to the master people. The Countess said that she hoped the British would send some well-ordered troops to Florence, she didn’t like the idea of these Indians and New Zealanders. A film she’d seen called ‘Bengasi’ had fluttered her somewhat. The daughter said ‘Oh but that’s propaganda’, but she was not completely convinced.
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Some of the scenes had depicted the occupation of Bengasi by the Aussies in the first push. We admitted that the Aussies were a bit wild. Ack-Ack softened it a little by the story of the Aussies in Cape Town who had carried a pretty girl complete in Austin 7 up the Post Office steps saying that she was so sweet that they wanted to post her home to Australia. But the old lady unconvinced said that she’d hidden her silver away and that it wouldn’t be brought out for a long time.
The sound of aeroplanes was heard. We stood at the windows to watch some large bombers flying North East over Florence. Yanks going to Bologna we thought.
Returning to conversation we heard that the local people had been genuinely dismayed at the time of the declaration of war against England. ‘But why against England?’
They were impressed by our second hand reports that there was little black market in England. ‘When one found everyone else buying on the black market, it was difficult to do otherwise oneself. At present in Italy the landowner and peasant can live, but down in the city food is becoming scarce and very dear’. They predicted starvation in the towns during the winter. Already in Florence one could get 800 lire for £1 sterling under the counter. More sounds of bombers were heard. Now they were going South probably the same chaps. We went up on to the tower to get a better view. The sister for the second time phoned up to hear reports on her house.
They couldn’t understand why the Americans kept missing all the German camps and railways yet hitting civilian houses. The raid of 2 days before had killed hundreds of civilians. They hadn’t heard of any Germans being killed.
We were beginning to think that our time was up. The Count was anxious and restless, although the women kept saying to him ‘It’s all right’. They said that they’d told the servants that we were Italians but would prefer it if we didn’t lunch with them.
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We agreed. Mother departed to prepare a picnic lunch for us. While waiting we heard something of Anti-Fascist parties and politics.
The sister said ‘We have had so many happy times here, many English friends came but now how will we live down the fact of being Italian’.
I said that I was sure that their English friends would come again after the war. They knew that many Italians were not to blame for the acts of Mussolini! To which he answered ‘You won’t believe it so strongly when you are living with your own people’.
Mother returned with various packages and a bottle. They wished us good luck and asked us to return after the war. As we went through a secluded part of the garden, the sister murmured ‘And we did have such fun’. We were at the wicket gate. We knew the way. ‘If you should fall ill and can get back we will put you up. Goodbye’.
The paths led round a valley, after half an hour we stopped for the picnic. We could see the castle and blessed them for a baked rabbit, slices of sausage, bread and wine. We ate part of the rabbit and some grapes but had to push on quickly as it began to rain.
We got under a hayrick but a man came from his house and invited us to shelter there.
Following the policy of non-announcement of ourselves by day except for good reason. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Walking from Piacenza to Aquila’, ‘Are you Abruzzesi?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What is your work in peace time?’ ‘Clerk, my friend here is from Gorizia, a Slav.’ We sat down stolidly without a word to each other. In my impatience I’d walk to the door and say ‘It’s still raining’, Ack-Ack ‘Yes, Yes’, he would stand up look out of the window then sit down with a very convincing ‘Ma’ (- but, expressing doubt, but with hopeful overtones – That was my understanding – Ack-Ack was expressing it well by now), accompanied by the bang on the knee. Then silence. Two most unusual Italians.
We tried to get on but were driven by the rain into a cobbler’s shop, then a peasant’s house. The same procedure was enacted.
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In the last house they made up a great blaze from most precious bundles of twigs then gave us some wine and flat bread hot from the oven. They said ‘Poor boys’. We were beginning to feel a little resentful about all this sympathy, wondering if it hadn’t been a factor in the nation’s moral collapse. Keeping up a pose, all the time hoping that the rain would stop, made one very impatient. The people were most kind and didn’t ask too many questions.
Finally the rain stopped at about 4 pm and we splashed along the roads, then crossed a valley to gain yet another road, blessing the good fairy we strode out along it. We came to a small village just as the rain returned. We asked at a farm if we might sleep there and were shown a place in the corner with a massive bull. We’d have been overlaid if we’d slept there, so asked ‘Nowhere else?’ The man said ‘I’m not the boss, I can’t say.’ but promised to get him.
We waited then searched around the farm. One or two people were prepared to talk to us but no more. So we decided to try elsewhere. It was nearly dark but after 10 minutes’ walk then turning back a little we made for a light 200 yards from the road. We announced ourselves to a man working by lantern light in a stall, he showed us into the farmhouse where we found a vast room peopled by 3 or 4 sets of relations. They received us graciously and we were invited to sit down with them to a meal, a cooked potato-egg-bread dish followed by bread and cheese, grapes and vino. Placed near to a youthful active Grandpa of 60, who was quietly gracious, we discussed a few everyday topics, then Libya with a youth who had been in the Trieste division. They seemed to farm a fairly prosperous family farm imbued by simple faith. A strong family spirit, love and charity was there. Missing was the Roman sense of justice and personal responsibility to the state. Simple humble people. Happy people. ‘We would help anyone who is poor and homeless’. ‘When will the English relieve us from our oppressors?’.
They gave us blankets for our sleep in the hay. Next morning we met another member of the farm who lived in a cottage separate to the rest, he cobbled Ack-Ack’s boots and gave us some bread to take away. After the usual type breakfast we set out for Rignano Val d’Arno, going by way of the South bank of the river.
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At a street corner, a grey-headed man stepped out of his group ‘Inglesi?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Come in here. We entered a grocer’s shop. The man said ‘I knew that you were English by your faces’. They brought seats for us into the shop and insisted on us taking wine and bread and grapes. Various friendly people came through the bead curtains to stand around in an admiring half-circle. Briefly I told the routine story and pointed out that I needed a better pair of shoes. ‘That’s impossible in this village, perhaps at Montevarchi’.
‘Where do you advise us to go?’ The grey-headed man said ‘San Pancrazio, Monte San Savino then probably Chiusi’. Others said that they would go East of Lake Trasimene because there was an air station at Castiglione. They gave us some sliced sausage and offered cigarettes, saying ‘Come and see us, when you liberate us’.
Just started on our path when a young chubby little fellow came running along. He would show us our way. He was a guard at Sulmona prison camp, all the prisoners there were set free! Oh the British soldiers were fine and they had such good food in their Red Cross parcels. Parcels sent from England, so the English weren’t starving. Oh! the English were good. He’d like to cut every German’s throat. If only he had a gig he would take us all the way to Bucine in it.
Bubbling thuswise he trotted along showing the way across fields and paths. We passed various peasants to whom we were introduced as ‘English, our masters’.
Well on our way, he left us with directions for our route. ‘Two kilometres along this road, then ask for La Strada della volta’ – most romantic sounding.
Greatly encouraged by the progress we pressed on. ‘Yes! This is ‘La Strada della volta’!’ We were passing West of Bucine. Dusk was falling when we came to the outskirts of a small village. The rain came so we ran under the eaves of a house. The tool shed door was open. We got in there.
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Vineyards were everywhere. We needed the grapes for in the next valley at a road fork we turned right towards the hills – an unfortunate choice as it meandered up the side of yet another steep hill.
Past a village on the heights, we were dismayed when the road petered out. There was a deep valley to be crossed so we enquired at a farm for directions. The father walked around to the back of his farm to show us the way. ‘A bad year for grapes’. Looking along this subsidiary valley to the Arno. ‘Yes that village is Montevarchi’. What a sweat. All day long. With small progress. Better than being a guest of Jerry.
Down in the valley we crossed a stream then found the way up the steep slope easily. We were bored and fed up with climbing. The sun was shining, dammit always in our eyes. We were hot and sweaty. One’s pants would keep riding up into the crutch.
Finally reached the road on the upper slopes but once past the crest and we had to leave it dropping into a dip in the ground. There were orchards everywhere, rows of trees along terraces. And – many fig trees. ‘What a scandal! Ripe figs have fallen from the trees and no-one has bothered to gather them. The wasps are in some’. With mock self-righteousness we well night poured them down our throats. Probably the bestest fig meal.
We crossed a few more such dips until quite suddenly we came to the outskirts of a village and paused to consider where to ask the way. Two blacksmiths dressed in Blackshirts were making strange signs to us from their forge to come across the road, as we were going over two Crabs came by on bicycles. We kept on to the shop. They went by without comment. We didn’t trust Crabs.
The men gave directions. We dipped into a narrow gully across which was the village but a part where the streets were so cobbly and so muddy that we hoped the bicycle patrol wouldn’t ride into it.
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We left the road at the place promising the smallest height to climb and started up what was becoming ‘My favourite going’, ploughed fields. Armed with bunches of grapes to keep us occupied and ignoring the usual friendly, yet curious, shouts of ‘Who are you?’ ‘From where do you come?’ etc from the fields below we sweated up. Up! These accursed hills! From the gorse covered summit we were delighted to see another road in front of us. A celebration lunch disposed of the last of the Contessa’s most delectable baked rabbit, helped out by tomatoes.
On the road, our peace was disturbed after only 300 yards walking by the sound of a truck coming from behind, he was in sight for a moment as he swept round a bend. While he was out of view we jumped down into a field and nestled into its low wall. Almost immediately Jerry dashed by at great speed. We suspected that his dinner was getting cold.
At a roadside farm we were induced to leave the road and take a path by the sound of a truck coming in the opposite direction. It was always possible that drivers had been ordered to keep a weather eye open for strange scallywags. The next road that we came on was well surfaced, walking along a few yards we heard a truck round the next bend followed by German voices.
We went into a farm to beg for a drink. The German truck had been halted there for some hours, they said a break-down. We skirted below the road then reached it again just outside the village. As we were going along the main way a German staff car sped past, they all looked clean and smart.
A group of Ites whispered ‘Coraggio’ to us before we turned on to a path winding up a very steep slope. A small boy left his play to join us and to ask questions. He meant well but got rather abrupt answers. Up top we met a bent old woman who confirmed our route, giving forth a valedictory blessing to us rounded off by a curse on all ‘Tedeschi’ (Germans) and their mothers.
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We went to bed immediately after the meal. A dog was leashed on a long line passing the foot of our barn’s steps. A warning no doubt but like all these chained dogs he sounded fierce, we could expect a jolly time if we wanted to get down by night.
Our host came before dawn and seemed anxious to get us off his premises. Our socks were damp. The morning was misty. Altogether an unwelcoming start.
The map had given greater precision as to immediate objectives, it only showed large villages however. We were frequently to find that we would ask for a large village 10 miles away, evoking as answer that the questioned one either had not heard of it or described it from memory of a visit years before as if it were only just on the rim of the known world.
Alternatively there were those who airily waved an arm saying Naples is over there, Ancona there, Florence there as if they were in the next valley.
In fact the earnest pilgrim to the Eighth Army was not easily satisfied.
We were making South to pass Montevarchi and Bucine. The roads were fairly good for our purpose but on the whole were swinging right or left of our course, to hill or river, consequently periods across country to the next road were inevitable. One road, passing through a colliery, gave us a view of the coal being carted to the dumps, it looked poor stuff.
The mist lifted as morning wore on. Our road led into a large village. ‘No Germans there!’ We could see a way going uphill on its far side.
There were groups of men standing about in the square, not wishing to demonstrate ourselves we turned to the right seeming direction.
We had gone some distance before realizing that we were on the wrong road.
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What appeared to be a Sunday school treat was enjoying nature on some open heathland. Children of both sexes and all ages up to 20 stood about or walked in self-conscious little parties. The younger members were playing the little games and pranks beloved on such occasions, under the eyes of a group of priests who resembled great beetles, black and thick winged in their long robes and curly-brimmed hats. Our appearance aroused some tittering amusement among a part of the senior class, which occurrence surprised me as few of them had no brother or friend ‘escaped’ from the Army in that most rapid of demobilizations completed a fortnight previously.
Along another road we passed some beautiful houses, some fairly new. Reaching a fork we asked the way of two young men. They thought that we were Germans and took some trouble to direct us on the shortest route leading across fields, through a wood to another road. It was said that ‘Jerry had a HQ in the tower which was perched above this winding land’. We were sceptical. The Ites referred to any small body of men as a HQ.
We were climbing again over rough round, passing under cables for the overhead railway from some coalmines. After a short walk along the high ground we came on a large and remote farm. The young man boss of the farm was strong and straight. We were shown where we might sleep then we did some washing while he was being most efficient about his farmwork outside.
With hope in our hearts we asked if we could dry the socks in front of the fire and thus get a foot in the door but so full of bright ideas, they demonstrated that the oven was still warm so the socks were duly balanced on sticks after the dried figs came out.
The young wife brought down some cold food and a light, we sat on chicken coops twixt the oven and bottom of the stairs. Three or four of the more curious minded inhabitants stood about to watch us eat. They didn’t mean to be offensive. We were good troupers in our circus by now, in fact one derived a furtive sense of guilt if a mouthful was manipulated without some eye watching it in.
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We kept along the bank but hindered now and again by streams entering the river. Finally there was a broad stream which forced us away from the main one. Once crossed and we found ourselves climbing a rocky hill behind Incisa following a long walk inland. Here among the rocks were crabs (real), at least a mile from the river.
On a track leading away South from the village towards the hills, we fell in with a rascally looking little man who informed us that the Allies had taken Foggia and had made landings at Leghorn. I didn’t admit our identity, clearly he was suspicious. We stepped out hoping to tire him but he trotted each time he lagged behind, looking round into my face with his foxy little eyes. He said that food could be had at the factor’s house ‘over there’. We took the hint and as soon as possible turned left from the track and made across country. The rascally one met a friend, shortly there was whistling after us. We paid no attention. We were now walking along the hills forming the valley side West of the Arno. Below us the green hills shelved gently to a dark green curling line made by the tops of trees along the banks.
Odd twists of the main road could be espied, running near the West bank. Many Jerry passed there. We considered it unhealthy. Series of Ju 52’s leisurely flew along this well marked route.
Tramping over downland led us on to a road. It was small enough and went our way. A convent stood at the roadside, what about hiding up there, and wouldn’t Boccaccio’s ghost be delighted. I was tickled by the vision of Ack-Ack with a two day beard heavily disguised as a nun.
A farmer put us on to ‘the way to Rome, through the bush’, ‘dozens of Italians have passed this way during the past fortnight’. After the third field had been crossed we were not so convinced.
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The ground was muddy, the scrambles hard work. Some of our way was along a railway line where there were Italians working industriously on maintenance.
After 2 hours’ plodding, splashing and slipping we reached Rignano, there was no easy way round so we walked into the centre of the village. There were some Crabs, one looked fairly senior by his width ‘a posteriori’ we turned under a railway bridge, walking a short way below the overhead railway before recrossing in order to be West of it, away from the river and main road. But the Crabs were coming our way, not with intent we hoped. They were 30 yards behind, we looked in the air and strolled past the station before turning right, up the hill behind the town. The way was steep past one group of buildings, nearing a second lot we saw an Ite staring at us with concerned countenance. An engine chugged behind us, the sound increased, it was right behind us. The Jerry staff car passed and was gone. We could have touched the driver. The shape of his neck stuck in my mind. Quite a youth. Rum world!
We hastened through the hamlet and continued up the slope. Somebody called. He was walking towards us. We were astonished to see our cobbler friend of the morning dressed in his best suit, his great seal-like face protruding from collar and tie. His shoes were quite unmuddied. He took out his watch, a half hour’s walk along the road. We’d taken two hours. He advised us about today’s route adding ‘You can trust the peasant everywhere. They hate the Germans’.
Across field tracks we reached a small road running parallel to the Arno at 200 yards. There were few people walking along, we tramped for half an hour until we were driven off by sight (Ack-Ack) of Crabs coming.
A track ran along the river bank among the trees, along here we sat down and ate some more of the most excellent baked rabbit with our bread. Grapes were growing to hand in the vineyards.
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A fat man came up and stood at the doorway, he looked up and down the track outside. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Piacenza, we are English.’ Two women approached. The man pointed at us, ‘English’. With a flurry of voices ‘Oh come into the house out of the rain’, adding for the benefit of some children. ‘Our poor Italian soldiers, walking home’.
Our hosts were middle-class people from Florence, the man seemed to have some work which brought him to the country in summer, his wife was the youngest of three sisters. The second sister was married to a bank clerk of Florence, being an emotional creature she did most of the talking, laughing and even mild screaming.
They fed us on ham – well-nigh unlimited – with bread then some apples. They apologized and left us to eat their minestra, which they said was very bad. Now on the parlour table was a plate piled high with dried figs. Sidelong glances. ‘I wonder if they meant us to eat some!’ A few were nibbled. The odd ones were not eaten by the Medico.
After a wash and shave performed in one of their bedrooms, we chattered in the parlour. The women set to patching the seat of my trousers, which now allowed two pieces of shirt to droop out. They talked much and organized the work well on a piece work basis, unfortunately they were not peasant’s wives, lacking experience they didn’t allow a sufficiently generous overlap, with the unedifying result that after very few days, shirt and patch drooled out of a larger hole.
They were venomous about Mussolini, the Fascists, the Germans. They told of a Fascist living some half a kilometre away who had been acting as informer to the Germans, taking them to hides of food made by farmers, also reporting the whereabouts of British POWs.
A peasant arrived and as soon as my trousers had been put on again we went off with him accompanied by the fat friend to a barn 100 yards away.
And so we tumbled in the hay. Shoes off. Well burrowed. Excellent sleep.
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Our fat friend arrived before dawn to tell us that as it was raining we could lie in, he would return later.
After dawn the rain stopped. We returned to the house one by one, being shown upstairs to a spare room whose floor was covered by piled maize and tomatoes. The young wife brought up black coffee, more ham and bread.
On the mantelpiece was an Italian version of Ethel M Dell published in some Heartsease Library which included quite a number of English authors – translated. Two I remember, Warwick Deeping and Baroness Orczy.
They wrapped up more bread and ham for the journey. Guided by the man we left at about 9 am. We followed him through fields around the village. He pointed out the house of the Fascist – perturbingly like any other farmstead.
The man asked me to take off my glasses while we were walking along the main road. ‘Nobody who is dressed as badly as you are, can afford spectacles’.
We turned off on to the good 2nd class road leading to San Pancrazio. I put on my glasses again but remembered the tip. We shook his hand warmly, he’d done his best. ‘The peasants in your next valley are decent people but -(he rubbed his palm)- if you offer money they will be kind more easily’.
The road rose along a zig-zag course to the top of the valley. It was tree-lined for most of the way. That gave a sense of safety. San Pancrazio lay off the road, past the turning we sat down overlooking the next valley and ate grapes, not far from a monument commemorating in flowery terms ‘the death by the murderer’s bullet’ of two hardworking (other virtues) peasants, good fathers, sons, husbands etc.
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Photographs of the men were mounted on the stone block. It was a beautiful and quiet place.
Unfortunate were murder and monument.
Shortly we heard a lorry coming from behind and dashed most precipitously behind some piled logs of wood. It was an Ite lorry carrying coal, he might have given us a lift.
We strode down the valley to where it widened and the land became flatter.
Families were gathering grapes in the vineyards. The great baskets were stacked by the roadside.
Various people stopped us, inviting us to choose or selecting a nice bunch for us. We walked along for an hour or more, eating grapes. Jerry was said to be in Monte San Savino, working at the railway station in connection with a depot of stores somewhere else.
At about noon the village came into view, ahead of us. Our road was running beside a stream, after a mile or so the road bore off right to the village. We paused. A woman said ‘Don’t go into the village. Where are you going?’ ‘Foiano.’ ‘Then go along the bank of the stream, it goes to Foiano.’ We took her advice and blessed the dear old soul many times!
On the bank, a man stopped to talk. ‘Don’t go any further. You are walking into the wolf’s mouth’. By way of emphasis a German staff car passed over the bridge nearby. ‘Go into those hills. I know of a house where you could be safe.’ We said ‘Thank you very much. We must get on.’ For a Parthian shot of encouragement he shouted ‘Be careful lest they take you’. On scores of occasions we were similarly warned of Germans at all points of the compass, indicating that the only thing to do was stand still. It must be admitted that the Ites quite naturally gave Jerry credit for their own power of detecting us as foreigners. Nevertheless such a state of mind in them made the obtaining of factual evidence most difficult.
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We walked a mile along the bank then sat down in sight of Monte San Savino to eat our bread and sausage.
Taking off our shoes and socks in order to wash our feet, we could survey the damage. A split extended along the instep of both of Ack-Ack’s boots, it was however confined by the double stitching of toe-cap and heel. The thin suede tops of my shoes had become hard and cracked by the frequent drenchings and dryings, the leather insole above the crepe had split across the ball of the foot. I had thought on previous nights that my socks seemed to stick when taking them off but was surprised by the extent of blistering, Ack-Ack had a few blisters at heels and toes.
I prayed frequently for dry weather, my blisters were in all sorts of places where I’d never had such before, my skin softened by the constant soaking. Oh! please, dry days.
The leit-motiv ‘Blistered Feet’ struck up.
All that afternoon we walked along the canal bank (Val de Chiano), the formation was similar to the bund of early days perhaps constructed for irrigation and disposal of flood waters. Flat cultivated fields extended on each side to hills 2 miles away. Occasionally a bridge for road or railway would cross the canal.
The dead flat and nearly straight path was most encouraging and we walked as fast as possible during the rest of that day, only pausing to pick grapes or ask for information of occasional passers-by. Late in the afternoon, Foiano slid by on our left. We turned right from the canal to seek a farm but hit the canal again. After recrossing it we found after search a large farm staffed by a single large family and odd helpers.
The father, 50-ish, greying, stout, said that we could stay the night ‘I would do the same for anyone who has no home – even for Germans. It is only humanity’.
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The men pulled the butts from a cart then lent a hand to the women who were mashing up the fruit with long wooden dibbers.
Watching the bustle and activity we felt idle, somehow one should work one’s passage. So we lent a desultory hand at the pounding, cracked a few gallant remarks about the fairness of maidenhood like some spavin’d old fornicator, then helped pour juice and sludge into a huge vat, climbing up steps to tip the butts. Vino to be.
With a virtuous feeling of having made a good impression we were ushered into the upstairs kitchen where with the family we took minestra. The eldest son, a returned soldier, was politely interested in us asking questions about England’s farms and families and explaining anything in which we might be interested. I thought I should say something to father, Ack-Ack supplied ‘the church’ as topic. The suitable remark was made about the differences in the churches, including the differing importance given to the Madonna.
He said ‘Of course, we see great miracles done by the Madonna’. So I passed on and pondered. In the weeks following, that remark was frequently recalled when the Madonna was invoked among a tirade of desperate advice poured out by a sweating peasant to his always unco-operative bullock, pulling an old-fashioned plough over stony ground at a precipitous angle.
Of course the Madonna was indispensable. Ack-Ack would say ‘That’s Private Enterprise. Can you imagine that man doing such work if he was a State employee’. ‘Italian peasant. Take your choice. Carrot and stick (a note of dissension) or Madonna and PE.’
What a subject. A tragedy. In 3 Acts.
We were fixed up in a stall of a fine cowshed, on straw, complete with sheets and blankets. A small window was opened to let out the ‘effluvio’. We settled down, under the admiring gaze of the majority of the family.
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Sleep was restless, one seemed to be constantly slipping down the straw, fitfully awaking to the cow’s chump-chump and clanking chains. I returned to consciousness, pouring with sweat. I gathered that Ack-Ack had been awake some time and wanted to go outside. Gathering up our bedding we tip-toed outside and nestled under a haystack. Hardly asleep when it began to rain, so cursing gently we started out for a covered cart standing at the house entrance, two ghost-like figures surrounded by blankets and sheets. When we were within 10 yards of our objective the dog rushed out barking and whining. He dashed straight out into the fields about 100 yards away and stayed there barking for at least 20 minutes, while we returned to our cow-byre feeling much cooler.
Up at ‘sparrers’ (sparrow’s far = very early) we ate breakfast and were off by dawn trailing through the dewy grass. When we left one of the boys had said ‘Go by the other canal over there’. Unfortunately we didn’t take his advice. We found that our canal was not the main one and was leading us into the hills.
A particularly voluble man was loading stones on a lorry, he indicated that the Germans were in all directions and that ‘it would be a disaster if we moved further along the canal’. Saying ‘What windy chaps these Ites are’ as we left his quivering form, we approached a railway bridge; climbing up the embankment and ……….. there were Crabs guarding the bridge. We turned back gently and found a way beneath the embankment.
The canal began to curl leftwards. We cut across fields to make a short cut. Our sack aroused one man’s interest. ‘What are you selling?’ Another old man beamed in a delightful way saying ‘Good day, young men’ in the manner of an old friend. We walked through a pretty village then came on the canal again. It was now apparent that we were going too far West. We rested by the side of the water. Some magnificent white geese were swimming, twisting and twirling in the group as if at the dance.
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The green banks reflected on the glassy water, the vivid blue sky above made a perfect ballroom.
The canal became a stream, we left it walking South over downland. The paths and fields were twined, always up or down. We had one small disagreement about a path in which Ack-Ack was right. I reflected on the deliberations of the previous day when ‘Which side of Lake Trasimene?’ was the issue. Ack-Ack a wester, myself an easter. There were all sorts of marvellous reasons put up for each side, Ack-Ack wanted (in my opinion) to write them down and tot them up. I wanted to toss for it. Finally it had been left that we’d ‘follow the country’, an expression on which we were clear. We’d come West. Ack-Ack had said later that he’d had a presentiment against going to the East. I’d wanted to see Assisi. Oh! Leave it to the country every time. We made exceedingly fast going but I would have liked to visit Assisi. I must.
During the afternoon we struck another canal leading out of the hills South East to the main system. At first the way was along narrow paths among bushes, occasionally leaving the stream as it cut deep in the ground.
We surprised an Ite youth performing his daily function, he sprang up adjusting his trousers. The scene stimulated a review of the Italian methods of sanitation. Whilst the better houses are fully equipped, if old by Doulton Ware or Shanks; the peasant relies on the midden or more often distributes his droppings at any quiet spot outside the house. Such places tend to be communal as opposed to the Englishman’s ‘dog with a bone’ secretiveness. The use of paper is not apparent. In order to stifle at conception any cries of ‘Shame!’ I must add that in my opinion the results of international investigation would vindicate the method to large measure. I do not wish to enter into gory not say intimate details reminiscent of a medical board but the crux of the question is in the position, squatting without restraint or sitting and hemmed in.
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Further I must record that my own consumption of paper or equivalent is most definitely less when the physiological stance is employed, in fact numerous occasions have occurred when the usual procedure has been no more than a form, a rite representing that English man’s sturdy adherence to tradition.
Returning to our theme, I must record that the finest example of sanitary art, in its restricted and impure sense, that what I have seen was the ‘piece de resistance’ of a Venetian hotel. Behold a beautifully designed seat, inlaid with mother of pearl, the whole set on a dais in the middle of the bathroom, so cunningly located that it provided the morning sun and an excellent view of the lagoons. Oh Yes! We are walking.
The canal led us across a main road running to Perugia then swung South. Seeing some electricity cables running due South, we checked that they ran to Chiusi so left our canal to follow them, soon we were passing the Northerly Chiusi Lake seen over dead-flat land mainly covered by tree plantations.
Being hot and thirsty we went towards a farm whence came sounds of an old man bickering in loud voice. We walked up to him. He looked a sly old fox of the small time chiseller class. He shouted for glasses, which were brought by a harassed shrew of a woman. Some water was obtained from the well – it was brackish. The old man, ‘Two Germans will return here soon, they went out shooting, my son has gone with them, one was a sergeant. But they seemed good people.’ Thirst quenched, we moved on. I didn’t think that he was suspicious.
Keeping our eyes skinned, we crossed a railway then some ploughed fields. A farmer passed near to us, out with gun and dog, this creature ignoring whistles and calls followed us for at least a mile. We had seen extremely few well-trained dogs, the average farm dog was a cur which barked when one had passed, running away with tail between his legs when he saw a stick or stone.
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The shoulder of a low hill negotiated we sat down to eat some grapes and observe the tranquil scene. Fringed by grassy and tree-covered slopes was the wide expanse of the South Chiusi Lake. A small boat chugged over the water. A few Jerries were shooting around the lakeside. The sun was low and behind us, thus giving the sky above the hills a sombre evenness. We had the feeling of lurking danger.
We struck towards the South West, passing for some distance along a railway line, which we had noticed was used by the locals.
A mile walk across some marshy country then climbing up a hill. We saw Chiusi set up on the side of a hill facing South, its white houses blushing in the setting sun.
Keeping South West we crossed a main road then turned South, it was getting dark so we asked a woman at a far if we might stay there. ‘What can people do when there are so many poor fellows without roofs over their heads?’ She looked glum about it. We espied three other waifs so said that we would try elsewhere and crossed a valley by a stony path. I became conscious of the fact that I was lagging, my right heel seemed bruised, there was one acutely tender spot in the centre of the heelpad. Walking on my toe had made the calf very tired. After a steep climb we attacked the house to the battle-cry of ‘You never know your luck etc’.
Steps led up to their living rooms over the stalls. Father was standing at the bottom, nursing his hand, a man of middle height with dour clean-shaven face. He answered ‘I suppose so’ without enthusiasm and showed me his hand swollen by a bee sting. I said ‘Bad luck’ in a therapeutic voice but he didn’t evince any signs of reaction. Mother came downstairs and spoke to us rather remotely. Two of their sons were away from home, one in Corsica, one in Sardinia.
We were invited upstairs where was the usual kitchen filled with family. The centre of attraction was a baby, son of him who was in Sardinia.
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He was dressed in a smock which dwelt most of the time around his neck exposing his nude form. Involved in a general post he was seized in turn by various members of the family of all ages, who would bounce him up and down in the air, screaming at him with delight as if his approval was assured. He would be passed on with a playful slapping or lingering stroking of his backside. I presume that their ‘libido’ was suitably tickled by this performance. It certainly created a commotion in my subconscious.
A young man entered, aged about 25 he looked and spoke differently to the rest of the family. We were intrigued. Seated round the table we noted that he received two fried eggs, cooked by mother. While we ate their bread and cheese we wondered if he was courting the daughter through official channels or was mother baiting a trap? At length it was discovered that he was a 5th year medical student from Rome University, he had been serving as a Sergeant in the Medical Service at the time of the Armistice. One of the sons of the family was a medical orderly in the same unit. The University was closed so the student had come home with Antonio.
He said that Medical Education in Italy was a disgrace, too much book learning, for example 30 students would be expected to learn anatomy on a single corpse during their anatomy period. He didn’t agree with the insistence of authorities upon Greek and Latin. He considered that a very large proportion of Italian Doctors were dangerous to their patients. It was stimulating to meet a man with real burning discontent.
The son came in, a railway blackcoat worker equipped with stiff collar. He’d gone to his old work on his return to get some money for the family. Being in touch with Jerry he had Seraglio cigarettes and had eaten well already that day. He told us that the American bombing must have done some damage as there was a satisfactory delay in the rail services.
Another brother who worked on the farm questioned me much about England and what we thought.
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The whole family came along to see us fixed up for the night on some straw in the stalls, with various blankets. The medical student showed us the place, leading out of the stall where he slept with one of the brothers. Both were liable for service under the Mussolini puppet government so they lived on the ‘qui vive’. They pointed to the window destined for speedy exit if need should arise. As always when sleeping in stalls one awoke at about 3 am to the vision of father putting out hay for the beasts by lantern light. In the morning we were given a small breakfast, being Sunday we washed and shaved.
The family had thawed somewhat. The medical student was last seen standing outside the house, the picture of divine discontent.
The roads were still slushy from the night’s downpour. We were going to walk gently in order to give my heel time to get better. I would set the pace, actually I think we went a bit faster than usual until after an hour and a half we stopped at some cottages for a drink.
The women were baking bread and insisted that we wait until finished so that we could eat it hot and fresh. We sat in a kitchen with the usual big fire-place, table, stairway out, stone floor covered with hen droppings. The man sat with us, fortunately not too sharp-witted he didn’t seem to detect the imposture, although due credit must be given to Ack-Ack’s life-like ‘Ma!! Va bene! Si, Si. Buono! Ah bbrutti tempi!’ He was understanding the conversations quite well by now and knew when to employ his small armamentarium to the greatest effect. We were given some wine. As the wait was long we took more wine. The bread was brought in piping hot and we ate. Feeling thirsty we drank again. More bread was pressed on us, it did make the throat dry. Disregarding their kind invitation to stay for dinner, we said good-bye with thanks, took a deep breath and made for the door. We walked out of the hamlet. The ground seemed uncertain about its position, everything seemed funny and my feet had unaccountably become less painful. We tottered along the paths and across a field or two, feeling quite homesick. A Me 109F sped over going South, to think that if we were up there we could be lunching at Foggia. As it was we might have to swim to Africa.
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We lay down in the sun to rest and went straight to sleep, when we awoke the sun still seemed high. We scrambled up a long valley reaching a main road, as we approached it a Jerry truck came along so we dodged behind a wood-pile. We crossed the road passing a small boy who was interestedly watching a chap. He had a cloth cap pulled over his eyes and was walking behind a hedge. An escapee without doubt.
The ground began to slope away to a broad flat strip of land 3 miles across. Going downhill past some farms we could see a canal system similar to our previous friend. Down in the flat plain we had just crossed a railway line when a long goods train clanked along it. There were German soldiers in some trucks, one was shaving. At our canal we stopped walking for a meal of sausage, tomatoes and grapes but we were so pestered by a small and curious boy that we pushed on quickly. We turned left along the bank passing two villages perched on the bank on our left.
The sun was low, we had not walked far and the realization was dawning on us that we had snoozed for a long time. Night came and we were walking over ploughed ground through vineyards which led right to the canal bank. I was cursing the ground heartily. After a false scent, we found a farm near to a village. They asked us to enter. Father, 40-ish, had an honest open face, to my ‘We are English’ he answered ‘Fine’, his wife regretting that we had not come a half-hour earlier, produced some cold potatoes to supplement the bread and grapes. There was but one son aged about 12 years, who told us how the factor’s daughter had heard on the radio that the Allies had landed at Anzio. Out came our maps. The village near was Monteleone d’Orvieto. We spanned distances hopefully. Getting on. They told us further tales of thefts by German soldiers of money and jewellery, apart from the taking of livestock and furniture. There were Germans living in the village, the nearest lot being in a shop 300 yards away. Our host showed us his barn, the boy carried out rugs for us. They said that they would wake us early and requested us to leave soon after dawn.
We were given food in the morning. As we left we met the husband passing with a cart, padding along the road in bare feet.
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They had been most kind and had never shown any anxiety. We kept to the canal, soon crossing the main road at a place on a curve, no traffic was passing. Next we walked through long dewy grass along the side of banks which had been recently constructed.
As soon as the sun was warming we sat down and took off our footwear to dry them. A habit had arisen of always nibbling at a small piece of bread at all halts. An old woman was rather too interested in us, we moved on sooner than we’d intended, but occasional Jerry and Ite cars were passing along a road running up hill on the far side of the canal so we thought it wiser not to risk her attentions. The canal, its banks disappeared soon became a rocky bottomed stream. We passed some men with fishing rods, curious but friendly. They said a mysterious something to which I answered ‘Yes’. A mountain and high ground had to be crossed to reach the Marsciano Road. We turned from the stream towards the entrance of a valley, a road ran for a little of our way but the walk along it was anxious-making as there were no gaps in the long stacks of wood along the roadside. A small middle aged man seemed doubtful about our identity, he said ‘You can trust me. I have three sons away from home’. We agreed that these were ugly times! Leaving the road, a steep climb led up paths to the higher ground of the valley. We walked past a few farms, then followed a long and annoying scramble across and up a valley. It would have been enjoyable if our hurry had not given a sense of frustration.
Finally by the afternoon we were on high rolling country, rapidly opening out before us. Some people working on the vines stopped their labours to call to us. They gave us grapes, saying that other prisoners had passed. One old man told us he’d been a prisoner in Austria during the 1915-18 war.
They directed us to a stony mule track and pointed out as objective an electric pylon visible in the far distance, perched up on a hill on the sky line with two other hills in the foreground. The winds were gusty and we felt chatty, shouting some of our more precious thoughts to each other amid the soughing and moaning.
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Over the first hill the way was uneventful, in the second valley we got offline and stopped at a farm for directions. As we approached the farmhouse we filled our pockets with apples which act seemed hardly gracious. The old boy downed his tools from some carpentry job on his cart and ushered us into his kitchen where in the peasant manner he ordered his wife to serve wine and bread.
The performance of our usual act seemed easier. He was most unsuspicious in his attitude, pushing his hat back on his head with a hand. The index finger was missing. He talked about things in general. His wife, thin and careworn, took him outside after a few minutes; on his return I thought that his attitude had changed, so told him about ourselves. We were given tomatoes in oil prepared by wife and daughter. When the time came for departure, the wife asked us to stay the night, which surprised me. The old man came along the path with us to set us on the right track. He said he’d been a soldier in the 1915-18 war, he wished us luck and shook hands.
Glowing, wine-engendered euphoria held us. We appreciated the gesture.
So up another hill into a valley where there were children collecting walnuts along the roadside.
We passed below a village and dipped lower into valley before starting a long climb to reach a road. As we came out on it, there was the sound of trotting and a horse and gig came up, driven by a lone fellow, short and sturdy with fine if slightly fat, bearded face. He stopped ‘Are you English?’ I coquetted verbally and said ‘Yes’. ‘Get in I’ll give you a lift. I’m going to collect the post from a house on the Marsciano Road.’ We squeezed in. Feeling all ‘Stalls’. He whipped the horse. Off we trotted.
He’d been in the Army in Albania but had been invalided home with Malaria and had been acting as factor.
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He pointed back to three figures about a mile back hurrying up the snaky road. ‘They are English too. How do you say Ha-a-a! to a horse in English?’ ‘Gee up!’ ‘No that’s not right, I heard an Englishman say something different. But I’ve forgotten it’.
A pale spectacled man ran out of a house towards the road. Our friend whipped up the horse as we dashed by the man, who certainly looked like a German. He shouted in bad Italian ‘What is the time?’ Our friend bawled back ‘I don’t know’, and we galloped away leaving the fellow looking rather disconsolate. ‘I haven’t seen that man before and I don’t like his face’. Suddenly we were overtaken by a man pedalling at great speed on a push-bike. Our ride was developing rather trickily.
We kept on to the top of the hill, turning on to a good road which ran down for a mile to the Marsciano road without incident. Two hundred yards short of it our friend stopped for us to get out, advising us to wait there. ‘I will return in 10 minutes and will tell you if it is safe to pass the corner’. We settled down in the bushes on the hillside below the road, after a few minutes a bus stopped at the corner then roared on again. That would be the mail bus. We waited 5 minutes. No gig. ‘We must trust nobody unless essential’. We recrossed the road and climbed the slope to a good place of vantage, a strong position for a get-away. The trap came back. We shouted to him, he looked up motioning ‘All right’ then went on.
Gloom. Engendered by the match Mutual Trust versus Self-Preservation. This time the wrong team had won.
We walked along the high ground, crossed the road then set a course below and parallel to it. Some distance of wearisome ups and downs during which we had been rewarded for our labours by the sight of German trucks passing on the road. As dusk was falling, and being fed up with scrambling we got on the road and stepped out for about 2 miles, with only one scare from a cart. This stretch gave great satisfaction as we could see how difficult was the ground below, which we were avoiding.
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Finally, darkness descending fast we left the road and asked at a farm, receiving as answer the stuttered ‘There are Germans and spies in the village! Try over there’. So we crossed a dip in the ground then climbed to a new-looking farmhouse. A child brought Mother who was a poor little woman with face and speech of a moron. She burst into an emotional storm saying they’d all be shot etc. etc. We were terse tongued but got nowhere and were soon staggering yet further up the hill to a farm yet higher up. The moon was rising but its light insufficient to help us. As we stumbled up the rock-strewn track we cursed all windy Ite householders.
The family were sitting in the darkness of the kitchen ‘There’s no oil for the lamp’. They let us in however and the lamp was lighted – a modern imitation of Ancient Rome. We sat on a bench thankful for the warmth of a fire. As no reaction in the shape of food occurred we asked if we could buy some eggs. ‘Yes for 8 francs.’ ‘There are only two.’ ‘Two eggs for 8 lire?’ ‘Yes’.
The small daughter set about preparing dough adding salt and yeast. Mother put small sticks on the fire to make a blaze. The dough was formed into a large flat pat an inch thick. A suitable area of hearth was cleared of ashes and the dust brushed off for reception of the pat, which was then covered with hot embers. The eggs were dropped into the pan of hot olive oil, the yolks broke, a disaster which appeared to be immaterial to the cook. After 10 minutes the hearth was cleared. The loaf was dusted. The eggs plus oil were poured on to a plate. Exquisite delight. We broke the hot crust, a shimmer arose from the soft yielding dough. The feast progressed. With ceremony the spoon was passed to and fro. The oil was ladled up and bread rubbed over the plate. No word was spoken except for polite murmurs. We went to bed on the straw to sleep without dream or bellyache.
Almost immediately, we were awakened in the light of a lantern. As we left, it was dark but the sky was beginning to lighten in the East, so that by the time we reached the house of the imbecile woman again, people were moving.
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An old man, new to us, described the way leading to a pylon on the sky line. Pylons had assumed significance to our lives, and not only to us. We had been told that large numbers of prisoners had passed this way ‘following the Terni cable’.
Our paths led to a vast ploughed field bordered on its lower side by trees, we cast about for a path, finally taking one which led somewhat up the valley. It was fairly easy going but led us away to the West, leaving us with two valleys to cross instead of the original one. We kept on it however and after an energy-wasting 3 hours reached the pylon. On the crest we rested to look forward. Below where a series of low hills, mainly cultivated, with a background of mountains running North and South, we presumed the region of Massa Martana.
The descent achieved easily, on the first hill we stopped at a farmhouse. A portly mother invited us to eat and drink, the bread, grapes and ‘mosto’ being handed out through the kitchen window by a pleasantly assured daughter. We conversed with mother and grandma as we stood about on the grass, balancing our meal on farm implements. The sweet grape juice (mosto) was pleasant, we asked for more, but we felt that we needed something more sustaining for later in the day. Thinking that progress had been made with mother, I asked if we could have some cheese, adding that we could pay for it if necessary. A cloud passed over her face, she said that there was none. We talked more but the previous affability was missing. I wondered what had piqued her.
The daughter came out to show us on our way, which led down a shallow gully, flanked by fields being ploughed at precipitous angles right to the edge. Along a stream bed, a stretch of which was one smooth rock mass, itself confined by a sheer stone face. It was cool after walking in the hot sun, the slimy surface under foot gave a sensation of chill insecurity. One was thankful when we came out into the sun on the far side. After a steady climb we reached a road which wound along the green patched rocky hills. The scenes were typically Mediterranean, sun, odd white houses set on craggy slopes covered by olives and a variety of green bushes; vaulted by a sky of such a blue as to seem enchantingly unreal to an Englishman.
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We were in good form that morning, talking our heads off. I can now only remember the tale of ‘little C’ – how he’d had his leg pulled about asking the MO for advice on the married state, how his wife had married again shortly after he’d been killed and most important of all how he used to talk (nostalgically) of the Liver buildings ‘with the bird on top’.
A long shoulder of high ground led above land which was falling away on our right hand. We walked out on it, passing two groups of farms. We asked for cheese. ‘Sorry, we don’t keep sheep.’ We passed over the tip of the shoulder and dropped down into the valley.
Finding a secluded place by the stream we did some washing of bodies and socks. Then lay down for a sleep. Two old men passing at a nearby ford stopped to talk, overhearing some reference to Carabinieri, we went along to hear the form. They advised on a path, which led in the direction of Todi, so on we went for more up and down hill work. All day it seemed as if we were making for a farm on the sky line. Once reached, the map came out, the compass needle waggled and the next sky line farm was attacked.
Finally, late in the afternoon we found the ground gently sloping away for at least a mile to a tree-lined strip beyond which was a rise. We assumed that the Tevere (Tiber) river lay at the tree-lined strip and made towards it, mainly across fields, stopping at a farm to ask the best way of the young boy boss who gave clear directions for reaching the ferry – 3 kilometres away, not in direct line.
The river was 40 yards wide and sluggish, at one place was a shoal which didn’t look too difficult for wading, however we saw the barge fixed to chains stretched from bank to bank. We got on and started unhitching it, a man arrived to do the work, on the way across telling of 12 other soldiers who had crossed here that day, the last 3 had come from France. I gave him 5 lire hoping that he wouldn’t think the gesture too unlike an Italian soldier’s. Not heeding his advice to stay at a house near the ferry, we turned along the riverside road towards the town of Todi, which was only a mile or so away.
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It was nearly dark, ‘The first likely place’ we said. From behind us came sounds of a motor bike revving, we looked back, saw a light 100 yards back and nipped hurriedly off the road into a dell. The bike spluttered, started and came past us, we saw figures of rider and pillion. Later we learned that they were Italians.
There was a house 100 yards away, above the road. We walked up four steps to the open doorway. The family was sitting at table eating bread and grapes. Father, 45-ish, resembling Charlie Chaplin. Mother and two children. We were invited to join them. The mother went to a cupboard and presented some cheese to us, apologizing that she had no more to offer. They talked to us with some deference, I was addressed as ‘Doctor’ in polite 3rd person. After food I was shown the septic leg of their daughter, mother paid great attention to the advice given. I felt like ‘Can I give him Brands Doctor?’ (An advertisement often seen in the London Underground for Brands Essence of Meat. The grey-headed tall, handsome doctor with Mother looking up to him and child in the background.) We were shown to a room equipped with bed and sheets in which we settled down in state. The sheets were damp so we had a sweaty night and wished for straw.
In the morning, Father gave us advice about our route towards Acquasparta. Camerata – Dunaroba. Mother gave us bread and cheese. Daughter resting her leg up near to the fire, where water was heating.
We set off up paths to climb the slope past groups of houses. After half-an-hour, I asked a woman the way to Camerata. ‘Never ‘eard of it!’ or Ite equivalent. Reaching high ground we walked by paths along a valley side. Various villages were seen from time to time which was confusing.
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A farmer directed us over his fields and pastures to a village built around an old castle standing on high ground above us. It looked remote so we went straight into it. I asked for the cobbler’s shop of two sullen women. One said ‘Just here’. I went to the door. Immediately a woman appeared and joined the chorus of ‘He’s not here today’.
We walked through the village, some unpleasant visaged youths shouted ‘Inglesi?’ ‘Are you English?’ Further on a young woman with stage whisper said ‘There are fascists. That is the best way. Yes. Up into the woods’. Feeling as if we were being watched by unseen eyes, we walked across a 400 yards stretch of open ground crossing a small road, to reach some woods.
After 10 minutes spent climbing over small boulders and avoiding a farm we found ourselves on a road running due South from Todi 3 miles away. Fed to the teeth with scrambling, we kept to the road and walked along it for many miles having only minor scares, one being when strange figures along the road turned out to be mare and foal grazing on the verge.
After 2 hours good progress we came to Camerata, a village built around a disused castle. As we entered, we passed sheets from the washtub drying in the sun. The smell took one far away. A woman stopped talking to some men, she pointed at our sack ‘Anything to sell? Contraband?’
At the bottom of the gully below the village we stopped to drink. Two middle-aged peasants walked up for a chat. We were Abruzzesi going to Aquila! ‘Would you come to my house for food?’ ‘No we must move on.’ ‘Oh! there’s no hurry’. They told us that Naples was taken, the Allies were near to Rome. We didn’t believe a word. They spoke of their sons, how bad was the war. ‘You must be hungry. I have food at my house’. ‘No! Really we are anxious to get home’. As we left came the so familiar ‘Be careful lest they take you. Don’t walk into the wolfs mouth’.
Over the next hill we sat, ate bread, rested and hopefully spanned the distances on the map.
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We assumed that Jerry would fight along the Flaminian way, he might already have defences dug around the Somma. It seemed best to cross the road North of Terni. After that our views diverged, Ack-Ack wanted to go East of Aquila, myself West.
Further hills and dales were crossed in the afternoon. We were heartily sick of them by now. The man of a farm invited us in for a drink, we sat and talked to him and to the factor’s clerk who said that ‘The Germans had ordered the evacuation of all houses within 2 kilometres of the Flaminian Way. Difficulties seemed to be beginning early.
After further cross-country walking we came on to a road 2nd class. Some peasants were loading a cart, they said that the Germans didn’t use the road much, we were reassured and ignoring their ‘Don’t walk on the road, go across country’, we said ‘Windy Ites’ and on we went. At once there was heard a rushing sound ahead and we saw the top of a German staff car coming along the curving road at some speed. Running back pell-mell we jumped into a gully right by the cart, I only just missed landing on Ack-Ack’s back. We thought we must have been seen. The car hooted by and we got out – slightly shaken.
We kept along the road but left it as soon as possible, soon seeing a village in the valley below. We enquired the name of the place from an old woman standing at the door of her cottage. Looking to the right and left she asked ‘You are going to join Badoglio?’ ‘Yes.’ After the conspirational air it was disappointing to receive ‘Be careful there are Germans’.
A house further down the road had fleeces on the door post, the occupants looked rascals so we left the road soon. After an hour’s walking across open fields we reached a wood overlooking the road running North-South. We made a false start to cross it – there were Crabs at the roadmender’s hut. So ‘made a sweep’ and walked across the road into a defile filled with great blocks of stone.
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We rested. There were houses high up on the slope above us, they seemed to be watching so we soon pushed on over more cultivated hilly country just walking, stumbling, jumping; from clump of trees to the farmhouse on the next top; down across a stream, walking 200 yards to the side to find a crossing; on to the next electric pylon. All getting so familiarly boring. The landscapes, sunsets, people didn’t have that delight of a fortnight back.
Finally we were overlooking a great flat expanse of land extending South from the precipitous face of the Massa Martana. A large city was lying in the bowl, the setting sun casting shafts across its misty form gave it the appearance of some Artist’s dream city of Hope.
We asked a boy. ‘That is Terni’. The end of our cable. There was a long descent before another series of low hills of which one was always crossing what must be positively the last before the main road. On our left we passed a village stuck up on the hills oh-so-slowly, San Gemini. Topping some rising ground we found a path and were tramping along when all unsuspectingly we found ourselves on a wide Macadamed way – the Berlin-Rome Axis Road.
It was nearly dark, we walked 200 yards along it looking for a path off the other side. How beautifully smooth was that walk!
Our path entered some low-lying marshy country dotted with farms. At two of these the occupants found excuses for not sheltering us, each time pointing to some other place invisible in the dark. We slipped and slid about. My feet felt very sore and I was tired. Ack-Ack’s face had sagged. We both needed a good sleep.
Finally we came to a small farm where we met a young woman. She became full of indecision at our request, referring to her young son of eight years. Her husband was a prisoner in India, a fact which represented a lever but she wouldn’t budge. The decision was left to Grandpa, so we waited for him. The old boy turned up at last. He said ‘Of course we’ll have to put them up’. Turning to us ‘You’ll have to leave early in the morning’. A tall bent man with drooping white moustache, he possessed an air of derision quite unusual among such people.
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He showed us our bed for the night, being a bunk built in a lean-to shelter in the yard. He usually slept there, it had pillow and blankets.
‘Do you like eggs?’ ‘Yes!’ To the daughter, ‘Give them eggs’. To us, ‘How would you like them? Fried?’ ‘Yes I like them fried.’ ‘Fry them eggs’. We sat in the kitchen while they were cooked.
The old boy said that the Flaminian Way would be difficult to cross. He had heard the rumour about houses being cleared. We discussed the war, he said ‘Badoglio and the King have done most dirtily for Italy, they should have stayed to organize resistance against the Germans. Italy has acted dishonourably towards Germany. We are paying for it’.
The food was very good. We went to bed early. The old boy awakened us and we left in the misty dawn. The sky was overcast, showers fell to dampen our ardour, a road crossing between Spoleto and Terni. This would involve keeping just South of the Massa Martana in order to avoid Terni’s suburbs. Many German units and Squadrista guards were reported to be in the town or neighbourhood. We scrambled across country, then along paths which led below a hillside village to a railway line which we followed. A branch line of the Central Umbrian railway going to Terni.
Up a slope through olive yards -‘the olive sandall’d Apennine indeed!’.
On the top we sat in a rush shed out of the rain, the sky was gloomy, it didn’t appear as if we’d make good progress. We crossed a few [illegible] passing through farmyards, chickens squawking, dogs yapping. The folk never seemed to find this incongruous, they’d call off the dog and say ‘Good morning’ often ‘Poveri’. A young woman came out of her house offering shelter and food; I repeated the Italian-American myth about us. ‘Ah I thought so but you can trust us, I have brothers and cousins away from home, in Sardinia and India. She was obviously sincere. We had to keep going.
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We slipped along through gluey mud, making leaden weights on our shoes.
At about 11 am we sat down among some olives to eat. The rain was starting to fall again but it didn’t seem to matter.
A young man and girl were standing under an umbrella. They gave us almonds and some simple cake then went away; leaving us with our coats over our heads as we cracked the nuts. ‘Mmm! Nice looking girl’ said I. Evidently brother and sister, although the sole resemblance was a prominent lower lip. On the man’s face it looked sensuously weak, on the girl’s – most attractive! He was 22-ish with black straight hair and swarthy complexion. She was 19-ish with fairer colouring, flatter nose and wide set eyes. Most kind of them. They must live in that little white house up there. Fancy coming out in the rain to feed a couple of scruffy-looking tramps!
We were still cracking when they returned bearing wine and more cake. ‘Well! How extraordinary!’ The brother talked a little ‘Yes he’d thought we weren’t Italians. Would we like his umbrella? Why didn’t we go up into a small cabin in the woods by that red tree up there?’. The sky was grey, there was wind and rain. We went.
It was small and cramped but dry if one sat in the right place. Father came up to say ‘Hallo!’ but was interrupted by a small boy, idling inquisitively so he did some repairs on the roof and we remained mum. Dad was 50-ish [illegible] with kind little face, not badly dressed in retired man’s fashion. I never discovered his work. We thought that he might have won a lottery.
The son had been an Artillery cadet at the time of the Armistice and was now on the ‘qui vive’ in case he might get caught for service. He said that we should stay there until the British arrived. They’d landed at Termoli; in 10 days or a fortnight they’d be here. ‘We have another cabin where you could stay. We will give you food and I will tell you the 5 o’clock BBC news each day’.
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The weather was bad, both our bodies and my feet needed a rest. Weeks back we had agreed that we would rest somewhere South of the Leghorn Latitude. It was providential. We moved over to another cabin, a small round stone house, 5 feet in diameter, (we could lie down with the door open) and about 5 foot 6 inches high. It had been built as a ‘hide’ for shooting; the wary sportsman sat inside spying out any unsuspecting bird which alighted on a branch within view. All the locals had guns which we presumed to be the reason for the small number of birds about. The cabin was about 30 yards up a bank from the road, their house was just on the other side below it.
The old boy brought up a sack full of dry leaves which we spread on the floor, the daughter Frederica brought us a huge bowl of hot potato pasta mixture. We set to it with spoons, all four feet in the trough, grunting with delight. She sat and watched. ‘Mmm, that was most excellent’. She wrapped the dirty bowl in a dishcloth and went away.
We settled back to discuss the future, and decided to take a few days’ rest and see what turned up. The father seemed decent, the son enthusiastic and sincere although appearing weak, the daughter – Ack-Ack called her his ‘little gel’. We judged by her quiet manner, the excellence of the food and the way she sat while we were eating that she was our stoutest supporter, possibly touched by the romance of the situation and even XXX raising its ugly head – Ack-Ack’s hair had taken on that sleek pussiness which I’d only seen before in his photos. We felt quite safe.
With a spice added by the sounds of German trucks passing on the road. The map came out many times. ‘Termoli’ ‘Getting nearer’. We conned the possible routes. Anyhow we’d stay for a few days.
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After dark they came up with groundsheets, a pillow and blanket. They gave us some more of their cake and vino’d water. Two men arrived who introduced themselves in a proper conspiratorial manner as Communists, sworn enemies of Fascism-and all the rest. We slept well.
Early in the morning we got out up the slope for our ‘rear’ while the mist was still hanging about. The daughter brought up a bottle of water and a towel, out of her pocket came (it must have been that pussy hair) some good scented soap (almost certainly pre-war). Fortunately we had some of our own. Later in the morning she brought coffee and cake. Father and son had brought a saw out, with coats off, sleeves rolled up they were sawing a tree trunk on the slope below us. We were impressed by the Cover Plan.
At about 2 pm more magnificent pasta in the same large bowl. We ate our own bread, they had little. We had a short conversation but she went away soon.
The afternoon snoozed away. We discussed plans. At 6 pm amid great hubbub a group of men came up the path, two were our Communist friends, one of whom typically dago-ish was still in a state of excitement concerning the visit of some German soldiers and Fascists to the village the night before, he kept repeating ‘they’ll kill me’. Then would look outside listening intently in highly theatrical manner. The second Communist, a tailor, wore a three quarter top hat and leggings, he had a bluff ruddy face and looked like a gamekeeper. He presented to us wine, ham and bread. The boss of the party was the voluble Dr Mazzucca who, sitting in the hut, talked at high speed until long after dark. He plied me with questions, often breaking in on my answer to ask another. He had served on the Russian front where he’d been on the Don when the Italians were routed. He’d walked for 3 weeks, mostly over the steppes in the snow, as the Germans had taken their transport. He’d been fed and housed by Russian peasants ‘They are good people’. The Russian Infantry is very good, tank crews probably the finest in the world, pilots not so good. I saw myself much cruelty on both sides, German and Russian. I don’t like the partisans’. He had been returned to civil life before the Armistice, a Sicilian and Communist.
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We heard news about the amphibious operations at Termoli. The fluctuating fortunes of the battle. Montgomery on the spot. They had just held the German counter-attacks. Naples was taken. The first authentic news heard for nearly a fortnight and not so rosy as our hopes.
The little man asked if there was anything he could do for us. I showed him my left shoe which was splitting badly; he offered a piece of leather of his own for resoling, which I declined as the uppers wouldn’t take it. He arranged for a friend of the family to call in the morning, he would warn the cobbler to do them well and quickly. ‘He’s a good cobbler and a friend of mine’.
The left shoe was taken away next morning and returned within a few hours, well stitched in many places, a new piece incorporated in the sole but unfortunately parts had been nailed which made the shoe a bit tighter – until the nails dropped out. The family offered me a pair of Dad’s boots, in good condition but just too small. I was sorry as they had pointed toes. I’d have looked like Wtzkoffski (the Russian Bolshevist in Pip, Squeak and Wilfred of Daily Mirror of the 1920s).
Yet another magnificent meal in the afternoon brought by Frederica. This time she stayed and talked, telling that she’d been training to be a schoolteacher – with a smile as if schoolmarms had their legs pulled in Italy as well. ‘Fascism’ was a subject in the curriculum, she’d been a young Fascist but didn’t seem very worried about the whole business.
She shaved two ‘orange sticks’ with the table knife (presumably she intended them as toothpicks), presenting each with one. I looked at my fingernails and it so happened that they were clean – well, moderately so.
That afternoon a large snake about 3 foot long and 2-3 inches in breadth slid past our door. The largest we’d seen.
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We were beginning to be restive, there was no ration ticket for the son, clearly we were eating their reserves, our troops were approaching slowly, we felt rested.
In the evening the mob returned, Dr M in the van, they chattered away in loud voice, there seemed to be one or two new people who knew we were there. Far too many seemed to know about us.
Dr M. brought cigarettes, another man bread, one gamekeeper fried little fishes. The Dr prattled on. There’d been a fire on a benzene railway truck the night before (we’d seen the flames). A train had been derailed, many Ites killed and wounded. Sabotage? We thought ‘No!’ The Dr said they’d had air-raids at Terni, mainly American ‘Tell me. Why do the Americans always hit so many civilian houses. Now the British are gentlemen, they bomb by nights but they take the trouble to hit their targets’.
In a discussion about Italy, one chap said ‘Here in Terni in 1937, we were very happy, everyone had work and money. We had the Empire! But now ………’ and all the rest.
As soon as they’d left we decided to leave next morning.
The old man came up to talk and smoke. The light was fading. We heard a truck stop on the road, there was a grunting and sounds of voices, one a woman’s and at least two men, all Italian. After a few moments the lorry drove off up the road. During the interlude the old boy had been standing with us listening. First he was vague featured, then he picked up a stone saying that it was lucky that he wasn’t down there or he’d cut their throats. A few minutes later a friend who lived next door and had helped with the log-sawing came up saying they were Germans. They’d taken the log of wood left by the roadside. Most unusual German soldiers, they didn’t shout.
We were up before dawn, packed up, folded the blankets – as was our wont – and took all the stuff down to the house.
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The son was flabbergasted ‘You are worried about what happened last night’. ”No! But too many people know that we are here, that is neither in your interest nor ours’.
We gave him our names and saw theirs. The daughter came in, without a word she started making coffee and assisted by mother sat us down to as much coffee and cake as we could ingest. The friend of the family presented a tin of anchovies in oil and a bottle of wine.
Father was still in bed. Mother asked ‘How long do you think it will be before the British arrive here?’ I said ‘4 to 6 weeks’. We took up our things, said goodbye, walked out up the path. They all came out to see our going. Through the gate, across the road, into the olive yards. Our ‘littel gel’ was wiping her eye. ‘Una furtiva lagrima’.
The first purpose was to complete the traverse of the slopes North of Terni in order to cross the main railway and the Flaminian Way coming from Spoleto.
Finding that the suburbs abutted on to the slopes at some places, we soon struck up the steep mountainside. We were soon sweating and feeling that we’d acquired paunches in the three days. About 2 hours after starting we came to the top, gaining a view Northwards. There were about a dozen young Ites spread out on the Northern slopes, sailors and soldiers some still in uniform. All had shotguns, they blazed away regularly at any small bird seen, they hadn’t hit much.
We stopped at some sailors who offered bread and tinned artichoke (adding that it wasn’t much good) and a large hunk of dried jam. Many others came up while we were eating, these gave us information and expressed the familiar views against Fascists and Germans. The wasps liked jam too, so the conversation was interjected by wavings and warnings.
A path led over high country for about 3 miles, it was marked in places by arrows, perhaps an old tourist way. It wended between the mountain tops mainly over pasture, on which grazed sheep, goats and cattle in spite of notices forbidding it, perhaps they were in hiding.
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We descended the slopes down to the railway mainly be means of dry stream beds. We were glad that the weather was fine again as we judged by their depth and the size of the timber lying about that they would be raging torrents in winter. After a final few hundred feet clambering down rocks we entered a close packed village with houses built in tiers, in a cul-de-sac valley. We walked through it without interruption, crossed a small stream then past a small farm. The railway embankment crossed, a young woman pointed out the best way up the next hill. A path was found and we started to climb, just started when an old woman shouted from the dip below that we’d passed the best way. It was very useful to us but gave the impression of unseen eyes.
The hillside was covered with olive groves dotted by occasional farms. A young man was walking along a path towards Terni, his young brother carrying a suitcase. What story was there? Shortage of food at home. Going for service? Escaping?
Soon after mid-day we reached the Flaminian Way, all houses were inhabited. We avoided an oil dump hidden in some trees, then straight over the road along a track. We’d gone 200 yards when some German trucks passed. Somehow reassuring.
Up the slopes, passing many farms with yapping curs made us vow that we’d kill one soon. Then to ease our conscience eating the people’s figs – when we were lucky enough in finding a tree suitably secluded. Ack-Ack shinned up two lonely trees, throwing down ‘figges’ with suitable remarks. They were black and made our tongues sore.
There were a few cultivated hills until finally we were overlooking the River Nera. I inquired of a woman the best way. She described a cunning route down a river bed which would take us between two villages a mile apart; she added ‘There are spies in the villages’. Her husband approached accompanied by part of the family, he was a bit truculent and suspicious in a friendly way. He asked who we were. I said ‘Italians.’ ‘From where?’ Trieste, my friend from Gorizia. We want to avoid service, just now to cross la Nera’. Truculently ‘Why do you say la Nera. Can’t you speak Italian? You aren’t Italian’.
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‘But of course we’re Italian. We don’t speak well because I am a Triestino and my friend is a Slav. One of the boys said ‘Ah, a Slav oodgy-boodgy abracadabra’ (it might have been). That was easy. We grinned a smile of complete comprehension. The woman said among sympathetic murmurings. ‘Ah they understand their own language’. But the man wasn’t having any. ‘You are Slavs, not Italians’. ‘But Gorizia is in Italy, so is Trieste.’ ‘Then you are Austrians’. Feeling discomposed but very stubborn I said ‘Why are you so unfriendly to your own escaped soldiers?’ ‘But where are you going?’ ‘To Aquila, to friends of my father’s.’ ‘Then they will capture you’. Amid these cheering words we said goodbye. Father’s voice followed us, saying to the family ‘Then they are Austrians’.
The way of the good wife was perfect, leading between hedges to the road. We crossed this and reached the river, it was 15 yards wide, deep and fast flowing. A woman said that the bridge was along to the left, so we walked along the road past a tram stop, there were a few people about but Sunday suffused all. The small footbridge was crossed, following a donkey bearing an old man and small boy, we hoped to add to the family picture. There were no guards. The paths between the fields were muddy.
Feeling thirsty we stopped by some peasants, they had no drinking water but said that the stream water was all right although not clean. So we drank of it. ‘Three English passed yesterday going to Leonessa. You look like English’. ‘Yes! we are. Which is the way to Leonessa?’ After some argument among themselves. ‘Up that valley. Turn left before you reach the lake, there are Germans there. Then on, on, on to Leonessa’. After a mile’s walk we rested at the bottom of the valley. It was 4-ish pm.
A long steady climb led us on to the left slope; instead of to the head of the valley; this was not a bad thing so we kept up to the pine-covered ridge, where we met a pleasant young chap guarding sheep. He had been a soldier and had worked in the mines. ‘Come along with me and stay at our house. Two British and a Maltese stayed with us last night’. That suited us excellently, he was obviously a good fellow.
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We meandered along while he shouted to the sheep, threw stones at stragglers and beat up bushes: all quite familiar as was his sleepy old dog who trailed along behind taking no part in the procedure whatsoever.
We met father on the slope. He looked sour and only said that the Germans had ordered the evacuation of Ferentillo – over there, and had stopped the trains, the latter remark we knew to be false. We were not surprised when the youth came to us 10 minutes later, saying that some Germans were walking on the path which led to their house. So they couldn’t lodge us.
Although some time had been wasted, there was still about half an hour of light. The youth pointed out a path involving yet another climb to reach yet another valley. It was dusk when we were looking down on a road on the opposite side of the valley, occasionally lorry lights would pass along to indicate its twists and curls.
Our track led down the slope past some buildings. We turned off and went to the door. The family was eating. We were asked to come in by father, white haired with white well-groomed moustache, he said ‘Sit down you are hungry’. Then he sat down by the fire while we ate, without further questions. The flickering fire illuminated a gentle faced man who spoke and moved with quiet charm. In my mental diary he is recorded as ‘The gentleman peasant’. He showed us to bed in a stall, a smart bed with sheets; two boys (17 and 15), started fixing themselves a bed on the floor with blankets. We said – perhaps half-heartedly ‘No no!’ ‘It is a pleasure. You are tired and our guests’.
I was disturbed from our bed of ease at about 2 hours before dawn by the call of nature. My large bowel was anticipating its reflex by a few minutes each day. Starting as an after-breakfaster I was approaching the state of a ‘midnighter’. Possibly due to the vast bulk of grapes and figs that we were eating, giving the stool a fine purple hue; without ever, to my surprise, causing diarrhoea. Ack-Ack was not affected, he was an any-odd-timer tending to a mid-morninger, perhaps because he always spat out the grape skins. Most days we were eating pounds of grapes and occasionally dozens of figs as well.
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A daughter had breakfast laid out for us, mother was baking bread. Unfortunately father away from home.
We crossed the road in the valley and were soon climbing again only to find that we were on the wrong side of the valley which we needed to climb. So we went down the hillside and climbed to the path, with the cheering thought that there were many more hills and mountains to cross, we could see them – miles of them. Such descents were now becoming very slow, the repairs to my shoes were obviously not going to last and in my desire to avoid the sheering stress between sole and upper brought on by steep descents, I was becoming increasingly a slowcoach. Since further I believed in not making violent effort when climbing, I always seemed to be lagging behind.
We passed a woman walking along with her donkey, large load on its back, umbrellas strapped on. She was knitting as she walked and wished for us to walk with her ‘there’s plenty of time’. We kept past murmuring politely.
From the top we could view a series of mountains ahead, each looking larger and gloomier as it was farther away. Passing a family on donkeys we asked the way to Posta. ‘Oh, far, far, one and a half day’s journey’, and so down into the valley where we sat to eat grapes.
We were directed up the next hill to the ‘New path’, an old chap stopped his ploughing to give encouragement. After half an hour we were on the hill-top and followed the way passing over wild open mountain country, mainly broken rock covered by sparse plant life. The day was in harmony, gloomy and gusty. I felt as if I was going to Kirk to sit under a Hezekiah Mucklewrath on eternal damnation.
A man and his wife were tilling a single plot of poor soil, she stopped work to describe the way to Leonessa, ‘but be careful, there are Germans along the provincial road’.
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By noon our path was leading along a valley about half a mile away from the road which was running along the opposite slope. Gone halfway along the valley and the path ended; we were forced to cross the stream and get on to the road. We had seen no transport on it but Jerry had been using it, I was glad to leave it after a few hundred yards to walk and rest in a wide depression now on the right of the road. Finally the road turned sharp left into another valley. There was a hut, we inquired of the charcoal burner if German transport was passing at all. He said ‘Not for 3 or 4 days, there was much about 10 days ago but now there is none. I should use the road. The Carabinieri Officer at the next village does not like the Germans’.
Delighted by the smooth surface underfoot we set out along the road, our calm was ruffled slightly by a new Bosch plug box lying in the middle of the road but how fine to make such good progress! Eight kilometres to Leonessa. We strode along without care for the thundery clouds and high winds. The kilometre stones slipped by. Our road led us round two sides of a high rocky mountain on our right into a broad open expanse of cultivated country stretching away to our left and below us.
As we neared the village we passed two oily looking well dressed men with a woman who was seated in a gig. She had a baby at the breast. The sight set me wondering as to whether the cold wind would affect the nipple tone thus giving the baby ‘wind’.
But my musings were cut short by the sound of a two stroke engine from behind – a German motor bike. We jumped over the hedge and hid ourselves as well as possible. A trolley car came round the bend and roared down the road coming to a halt right above us. There were voices – Italian. We got up to meet six men, bosses and workers at charcoal burning and an engineer. They had been looking out for us since the man in the hut had told them about us. Bread and cheese was presented from all sides. What we wanted was a lift, we wished, but I wanted them to suggest it, finally they did so.
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We sat up on an engine block and the machine tootled along to the village, then through the village square – locals agape, slowing down at their place of business but they didn’t stop and we went out the far side of the village across a wide stream bed. We stopped at a turn of the road. The boss, his face aglow, eyes alight, in a cracked voice said with enthusiasm ‘Remember! These lorries are always friendly to you, make for Pescara, the English will land there. That path starting there is an old way to Posta, it avoids the road and is better’.
The lift had saved us 5 kilometres walking and the difficulty of passing the village. The way was perfect grass covered in part, between hedgerows and it led to Pasta.
We rested awhile to eat bread and survey the map for the ‘nth’ time, it was most encouraging. The way was remote yet fairly direct; unfortunately after an hour the rain came to dampen our hopes of reaching Posta before dark. It came down so hard that we left the track to seek shelter, we ran and plodded along for a quarter of an hour in the wet, without result. Finding ourselves in a small valley we made up for what looked like a hut but found the road instead. The rain stopped but our path was some mile away so we kept to the road. We were not agreed as to whether to stop at a house or to push on. As ever, Ack-Ack wanted to get dry. As drying didn’t make much difference to my feet – adrift anyway – I was not sorry that no suitable place appeared. We soon dried out fairly well bodily.
We kept going as hard as possible by means of the road winding about in contortionist manner, until we reached the head of a long valley whence we could see Posta right down at the other end 5 miles away. The path of the charcoal burners could be seen running down the opposite side of the valley as straight as a die while our road swung back and forth in wide sickening zig-zags to the bottom.
A shepherd said that there were rarely Germans in Posta but they used the main road through it a lot. Only occasionally did cars use this road. So for the long smooth walk downhill.
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We reached an outlying village after dark and walked through without arousing comment. Approaching Posta it seemed as if our road led below it. However we suddenly came to the main road; no way was leading from the opposite side so we turned right into the village. We crossed a bridge. There was a young German soldier leaning against the railings, he happened to look round at us. Along the main street were few people walking abroad in the dusk.
The way to Borbona led out of the little square, we avoided a cart and turned left. Almost immediately we were out of the village in a shallow gorge, the 2nd class road was unlikely to contain Jerry. Very safe by night – even by day. But the feeling of security was greater at night and it seemed worth the effort to cover distance without worry. Somebody said ‘I wonder if ‘Monday Night at Eight’ is still on the wireless?’
We stopped at a lonely new house about a mile from the village, occupied by workers employed at maintenance of the electric cables Posta-Cappannelle. We asked if we might stay until 9 pm when the moon would be rising. They closed the shutters and lowered their voices, asking us not to talk among ourselves in English. The wife sent a child upstairs to get tomatoes and apples for us; an effort to make our bread more interesting. They advised following the cable to Capitignano (said to be hospitable), thence to Cappanelle where we should get advice from their colleagues. A Blackshirt ‘M’ battalion stationed in the school at Paganica were in the habit of making patrols on the hills around Montereale.
Their kitchen, being new, boasted a small stove which smoked incessantly; we missed the hearth and open fire. The room was clean but bare and barrack-like.
We set out along the road. The moon was behind cloud much of the time but gave sufficient light. One or two people about in the streets of Borbona but they said nothing. The church clock chiming the quarters sounded friendly. The road rose gently to another village, which we hadn’t expected.
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We rested once out of the fine rain by lying down under a small bridge, an evil smelling place. We were soon feeling cold so moved on. My feet were sore, I borrowed Ack-Ack’s old pair of socks but the darns soon rubbed up fresh blisters on the skin softened by the continual squelching in wet shoes.
The way continued to rise, we had left the cable when we came to a T-junction of which we hadn’t been warned. Taking the way judged to be most used we crossed a height to enter a valley running South. The cable running South East recrossed the road. We struck matches to look at the compass, we were not cheered by our calculations. We were bearing too far West of Montereale. To leave the road was out of the question, the rocky mountainside would be very difficult, within a few minutes we might be lost. We could only keep along the road and hope for some luck. Luck we had! Making a spectacular S bend our road struck a main highway.
We came to a turning and there found a sign nearly adrift from its post. In the fitful moonlight, we adjusted it by deduction most subtle, and set off for Capitignano.
It couldn’t have been better. Soon our road was leading us past a village on a mound to our left. Clearly Monte Reale. We had made a circuit but had avoided going through the village.
Near an outlying farm we noticed a possible place for a kip in some hay but kept on. We had almost cleared the village when a dog rushed out barking in the middle of the road 50 yards ahead. Not wanting to attract attention we turned back then South from the road. There was no farm in sight. Ack-Ack wanted to walk back the 10 minutes to the haystacks. I had a rooted objection to turning back and extracted 10 minutes more walking ahead (I think it was). After 10 minutes walking in the misty darkness we found a lonely farm where, after much tip-toeing and re-arranging of hay trusses and bundles of wood, we got settled in an outhouse. Ack-Ack remurmuring ‘That was lucky’. So did I – to myself. We slept fairly warmly.
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Out in the misty dawn. To the East the cables disappeared going up the dark valley through swirling mist and fine rain. We walked for a mile along slippery muddy paths and less slippery but muddy ploughed fields. Seeing a house of similar design to that of our host of the previous night we went to ask if we could dry ourselves by the fire. A broad pale faced wife though sympathetic was in doubt as to whether it would be prudent. She referred to her husband who came in his black shirt. He looked keen, efficient, a smooth worker; his English prototype would play golf, drink and tell dirty stories each week-end – to keep fit. Obviously he had been a Fascist who’d changed his mind when Mussolini fell. He said ‘Come in for a short time. German lorries pass this house. We’ll get shot if you are caught here’. As he was the local boss of the power cable doing a perfectly good job, which was in Jerry’s interest, I didn’t feel worried on his behalf.
We sat by the fire, placed boots and socks near to it and warmed our feet. The good wife brought us cheese and apples.
After 10 minutes the man came in, saying that it was dangerous, we would have to go soon. We said that our shoes were not yet dry. The wife produced another apple. After half an hour we made off to reach the bottom of the valley with the advice in our heads ‘Keep to the right’. Paths led easily to the track we wanted, we passed Capitignano away to our left. Once started on the steady walk uphill we met a youth still dressed partly in Ite soldier’s uniform riding a donkey. To lighten our load he took our sack and prattled away to us and to some women whom we’d caught up. They were discussing the German terror, he didn’t think it was so terrible. ‘This is no worse than what we did in Greece’. After 10 minutes walking he said ‘There are British soldiers up there’, pointing to a hut a few hundred feet from the track.
Deciding to visit them we left the youth who seemed to be genuinely pleased that we were going to see friends. It was a shepherd’s hut built of stone on a steep slope, with byre below and room 15 foot x 10 foot above, half of which was piled with straw, hay and young oak branches, the other half had a straw couch nearly filling the floor space with a fireplace of stones in one corner.
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Four South Africans met us at the door, it looked as if they resented the intrusion at first but they soon thawed out and were most hospitable. They had been prisoners at a working camp near Padua, whence they had walked to this district in some incredibly short time. They had made two efforts to pass the Gran Sasso, both times being involved in German patrols they had withdrawn. They had found this hut, the local people had been very kind giving food and warning of the approach of German troops. This time they had waited nearly a week. After their experiences they were still feeling wary of trying again. We talked, and ate boiled potatoes almost unlimited, bread and grapes then went to sleep in the straw.
The afternoon was windy but the sun was shining as we went down to the stream for a wash and shave. After a few more potatoes we went to sleep again but were awakened by the talk of an Ite inviting the chaps down to his house for a polenta supper. At 8 o’clock, taking their small kit bags, they left us with a huge mass of boiled potatoes, bread, grapes and plenty of wood for the fire. The moon was up, they had about a mile to walk.
We nestled over the fire and steadily packed in food until I for one felt that I had a paunch, glossy like a Buddha. The wind howled outside and whistled through chinks in the walls, but we were warm and full, self-satisfied but very pleasurable.
Hobbling out to piss. Not far, shiver, footsore. Anyhow good for the grass. Great clouds hurrying from the North East, from the steppes. Poor devils in Russia. ‘ Snow’ wind. Hope it’s a fine morning. Nice warm shack. Unstick feet from shoes. Fire-worshippers. No wonder.
Plans were discussed, there was news that the Allies had taken Avasta. The Maiella mountains seemed best objective, remote, mountainous. Incurable optimists we (anyhow I) thought that offensives being so difficult and costly in mountainous country, our troops would make more amphibious landings.
Pescara would be the next site. Therefore the Maiella would be good.
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If we had known the ‘true positions’ ie: Campobasso just being taken, we would very likely have gone by a more central route West of Sulmona which certainly looked easier on the map. The die was cast for a route South of Gran Sasso, cross Pescara River East of Popoli and get into Maiella. By the time we get there, surely the 8th Army will be near.
We went to bed, all warm from the fire and slept blissfully in the rye straw.
The wind blew all the clouds out of the sky and next morning we got out as the sun was coming over the valley top, the sky was vast blue, the green, especially green and all edges sharp. The South Africans came out so see us off, giving final explanations of the Assergi route, abounding with kloofs and veldts and kopjes. Clearly the setting for the next shot in ‘Gorgeous Technicolor’.
There followed an hour of beautiful clear colours, as soon as the sun was up sufficiently to be out of our eyes.
Nearing the main road, where we could see a cluster of pylons and a few buildings, we met a little man who claimed to have been a prisoner of the Germans in the last war, he’d escaped to France. There were many British Prisoners of war in his village, he’d seen a British Officer nearby last night. He told us of places where the Jerry had dumps and headquarters, and advised us how to cross the main road.
We climbed up a ploughed slope to the road, listened then walked briskly along it to our path 100 yards away. Shortly we were on a col, open part cultivated rocky ground shelved on each side, towering above our left the Gran Sasso a great rock indeed, its upper reaches lost amid the cloud.
After a rest and meal we pushed on. The hill formations on our right began creeping in so forming a valley, at first grass with sheep abounding then narrow rocky and steeper. A shepherd said ‘Assergi, keep to the valley, valley always valley’.
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Down a bare rocky chasm led to a wider area mainly wooded with walnuts. Here were women and children beating the trees and gathering the nuts. We profited and walked along with pockets bulging; full trouser pockets made the crutch slip down uncomfortably which encouraged eating.
At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon the valley began to open gently before us, as we walked between great rocks we could see the village below us.
Three men were 200 yards ahead of us, we had been told that three British (or variously ‘companions’) were ahead. We caught glimpses of them complete in cloth caps, carrying umbrellas, we thought ‘What realistic Ites!’. A small dog trailed behind. The last man who was hobbling appeared to be wearing South African boots.
As we caught them up, the leader turned round, he had a most realistic Ite moustache. We thought that they’d done very well to get the ‘local colour’ so accurately. We said ‘Hullo!’ They looked blank. ‘Che ce?’ They were Ite. Neapolitans coming from France.
We crossed a few fields to pass South of Assergi village and strike the Paganica road. Somebody whistled from some trees and a chap came up saying ‘Seen any British around here?’ in typical BORs (British Other Ranks) way. Two more appeared. They’d been at a working camp at Aquila from where they had escaped and come to this place; 14 days before Jerry patrols had arrived probably on the advice of a spy and had rounded up many fellows including two of these. They had been taken to Aquila and escaped again from the same prison. They said that Jerry had treated them fairly although the wit of the party complained that there wasn’t enough sugar in the char for his liking. They seemed to be well dug in.
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One told us that he’d heard on the previous night’s wireless that 8th Army was 80 miles beyond Termoli. He wasn’t quite sure about it as he’d been going strong with some girl at the time. They said ‘Germans sometimes go through the village up to the hotel on Monte Como’. We could see it high above. A chap set us going, we found the main road and convenient fields running beside it where we kept along flat grassy ways within sight of the road for 3 miles, then crossed it and climbed a hill in order to make more East.
Soon we had entered another valley which we traversed to be faced by a steep winding path up to a village. A small boy seemed anxious to ask questions while riding his bullock beside us, in most irritating manner. I was very short with him and most effectively, but reflected on the children’s forwardness in asking questions of any stranger. A noticeable feature of the families we’d seen had been the way in which young men and women would argue with adult and old people in a most ‘man to man’ way and that the adults would always answer them in all seriousness without any suggestion of the use of authority.
‘Fear of the Lord’ didn’t show itself in Italy. They loved him too much. The consequent advantages were lacking.
Reaching the top of the hill we skirted Filetto, no-one evinced any friendly interest. We found a track leading away around hillsides. The people were returning from their fields, all stopped to ask the same old questions – as pestiferous as flies, they were so obviously merely curious.
In these parts the people live in a village of closely packed houses going out to their fields by day; many fields are an hour’s journey from the village, so all have donkeys, the men go out at dawn, the women following in the morning take along the mid-day meal. Those owning sheep generally act as shepherds on a co-operative basis, going out to the village pastures for 3 or 4-day spells where they live in tents or huts, supplies being brought daily by a donkey service manned by the women and small boys.
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Dusk was approaching, finding shelter looked difficult. We were told that there were no houses for at least two hours. Seeing a woman walking up the track ahead with basket containing plates, we reasoned that she must be going somewhere and got into conversation. She suggested our staying in a grotto which wasn’t far ahead. After half an hour’s walk from the village it was pointed out not far from the track. A tunnel about 7 feet high bored into the mountainside. It was nearly dark, we’d make the best of it. There was a wood about 300 yards away and a potato field near. A fire was imperative so we clambered over to the wood to get fuel. They were all young oaks and most resilient. I went for a series of good big branches and bent them double without effort, Ack-Ack with greater insight of his powers was cracking off smaller ones quite well but finally I made up much of the leeway by breaking a prize branch. We dragged all the wood back in the two trips then grubbed for potatoes in the very stony soil.
It was very dark when we started lighting the fire with some dried bushes, we’d picked up. They crackled away merrily albeit belching out clouds of acrid smoke but the oak, as we might have known didn’t burn at all well. After a few efforts we thought it would be better to keep the brush for a bed. The time had come for anchovies so we sat at the cave mouth and fumbled with tin-opener after many ‘let me try’s’ we got the tin open then solemnly took turns at picking out the interminable fillets while we munched bread.
The wind outside was bitterly cold, the cave saved us from its blast but was chilly and we’d cooled considerably from our efforts while eating. We settled down straightaway on the brush covering ourselves as well as possible with the surplus. I borrowed the sack and put it over my middle but it was damp, after some minutes’ calculation as to which would win the dampness or the heat of the body, I decided for the former and shifted the soggy mass.
One dozed, awaking benumbed with thoughts of Captain Oates and the Germans in Russia. I heard Ack-Ack go outside, sounds of diarrhoea bore into the cave. Those damned anchovies and the cold! He came back and settled down again without a word. Oh! for the sun. From the merest whisper of disease, waves of nausea came and receded, greater waves.
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I went outside and tried to vomit, but without success, feeling very miserable as I lent against a stone. A dog was barking a few hundred yards away. The yelp of the cur infuriated me. Over the rise, there he was amid the white boulders and scree a big white cur barking at me. The wind moaned and rustled over the slopes. I hated that dog. Blinded by fury a scrawny tousled savage painted with woad ran forward hurling stones at the hated life. The dog, disconcerted, ran away then yelped. Oh! well I’d got some near-misses. Atavistic moment. Anyhow it warmed the body, hating and throwing stones. I lobbed a few more at the wretched creature.
I felt tired of throwing stones and went back to the cave to lie down. Ack-Ack was silent, I felt that he was awake, guts rolling poor devil. I pressed the brush down on me. But it was no good, the cold cut through the belly. We’d only fall ill if we stayed. Ack-Ack was probably a bit warmer. But go which way? As ever he would only move to go to Filetto. The main factor is to be warm.
‘Ack-Ack!’ ‘Mmm’. ‘Let’s go back to Filetto, I don’t care where we go.’
Two numb mortals walked back down the track for the half hour to Filetto. We passed a man walking out, with a cow. ‘What time is it?’ ‘3 o’clock’. That was a surprise. The time in the cave had seemed like a year but we’d estimated the hour at 11 -12. We must have slept a long time. Where are you going? ‘To my fields to start work, the dawn will soon be here’.
We nosed about the first buildings that we came to. Finally entering a stable. There was a light. We tip-toed in. A man started up from a snooze. He’d been up all night for a birth. The calf was standing with legs square like a statue. Consciousness hadn’t dawned. The dark morning wasn’t encouraging. After the warmth of its previous existence, it might well not want to accept this.
The old man pushed it towards the mother; it moved rigidly in yet another statue pose. The miracle of life didn’t appeal to it.
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The old man said that they were frightened in the village because someone had been shot for harbouring escaped POWs. We might sleep on his kip in the stable but must leave before dawn. Settled on the mattress, wrapped around with sheets and blankets, all was bliss. They were calling us, the woman had some hot boiled potatoes. ‘Yes! We certainly would.’ ‘Many happy returns of the day’ (it was my birthday).
Still rather a long way from our own people, perhaps by Ack-Ack’s birthday. That was his hope.
We slipped out and set along the path in the misty dawn, joining the stream of people on donkeys on their way to the fields. Stopping at the grotto, we cleared up the wreckage of the night and returned the potatoes to the field.
The path led still further uphill, after quarter of an hour opening on to a great expanse of green pasture, where were tents and folded sheep. The shepherds were mostly friendly; producing food they said ‘What a pity you didn’t come here last night’. We thought so too.
Turning South we walked down a series of valleys, mainly cultivated or pasture. The sun came up and was warm, we were thankful. At about 11 o’clock we sat down and ate bread and nuts. One of the great hunks of bread had so dried as to be like iron. With regrets of waste we slung it down the hillside. The path led over a col then into a wide plain between the mountains. A youthful shepherd told us that Badoglio had declared war on Germany, so had Switzerland. Portugal had declared on Japan and many other things highly improbable yet vaguely encouraging.
We stopped at a pond in the middle of the plain, a Yugoslav soldier lent us his basin then got some water out of the well by a brilliant technique. He said ‘Barisciano, good people, Santa bad people, they don’t give food’. The water was full of hundreds of wiggly creatures looking like large paramecium, they got out of the way at each gulp, anyhow probably quite nourishing.
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The plain crossed, we climbed up the next slope and passed an old man minding some sheep, he had a wall eye and none too swift intelligence. I said ‘What’s wrong with that sheep lying there?’ At which he answered ”No you can’t take any away, they are not mine.’
A little further on was another shepherd, younger, lean, with narrow face, sharp nose and shy dancing eyes. A cloak thrown across his chest completed the picture of a sly knave. He talked a little in a smiling way then dashed off to round up some sheep. The sight of the flapping cloak and long legs flying along was reminiscent of the ‘Melodrama’ villain but without the pleasant certainty that the rogue would get it in the neck.
He came back saying that another shepherd a little further on had been in England and spoke English. This man was a dirty individual with a foul set of septic teeth and gums. He said ‘Hullo Boys!’ and drivelled a little. We didn’t stay long. We were entering an area where large numbers of the male population had been to America – Yonkers, Chicago or Philadelphia; Canada – Quebec largely; England, London or Glasgow. I formed a prejudiced opinion of most of them.
The common type wore a straw trilby hat over his eyes, as he addressed you there was a vivid impression of great dirty fangs set in filthy gums, here and there a gold crown or blackened stump held on.
These triumphs of civilization offset by draggling moustache and 3 days’ beard. The eyes just visible under the hat brim were difficult to catch. Whilst admitting that my own Italian was probably of similar order, I have not heard the English language sound uglier. A matter of opinion – Yes! But the everlasting use adjectivally of ‘goddamsonofabitch’ is apt to be wearing even when referred to Hitler. Many had kind hearts and the qualities of the peasant, but I felt to them as to Dr Fell.
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Down a widening valley we came into view of their village, we tossed up going into it, Jerry only visited it occasionally to take foodstocks but somehow it didn’t look inviting. We decided to stop at a large house outside. As we approached, Ack-Ack saw two men standing near a building some 300 yards away, dressed in flat caps and greatcoats. They might have been Crab officers so we steered clear and made up a valley where were terraces of small fields many being hoed industriously by the owners. So into a narrow plain where we had to walk through the fields themselves. We passed a family, the mother produced some excellent cheese which we celebrated by finding a nook by a wall out of the wind and with sun on us. It was tolerably warming.
Over the next ridge. The country became barer, much more rock frequently splashed with the red of some fungus. Appropriately the clouds rolled over the sun and the cold wind took charge. My feet were beginning to check us again, Ack-Ack was carrying the sack. (Rocks in the dark recurrently bruised my feet and slowed me down. This day was probably the worst. Ack-Ack took it in good part and carried the sack for longer periods for which I was grateful. He had kept his BD blouse which proved useful. I was doubtful about the number of reserve tins he kept). I always seemed to be catching him up, he stood in the path staring at the ground, his virile member, well-proportioned, passing a few trickles of pale wine. With solemnity the ceremony of knocking off the drops would be performed. The organ returned and on he’d go. This might happen every hour or even more often. When remarked upon he said it must be the waiting – to occupy the time. As a Doctor I had to support physiology – bladder tone and whatnot – although it was more entertaining privately to launch into the subconscious drawing out ‘Pannish exhibitionism’ – very tasty.
It was 5 o’clock when the rain started, we were passing some people working in the fields. They said ‘ Go to that cave’. We were shy of caves but went. It was small and had a hole in the roof but sufficient. The folk came up to talk, crouching outside – the rain had stopped. Two men and two women.
We were determined. I launched forth on the most piteous story of which I was capable.
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Then ‘Where can we stay the night?’ ‘Sleep here’. ”No! No! We’d die of exposure.’ ‘Well! I would willingly take you into my house in the village down there (2 miles away) but there are spies. Two poor people’s houses in our village were blown up by the Germans for helping British prisoners.’ ‘Well! We can’t stay here.’ The elder woman said ‘I will bring you a good minestra’. ‘We must have cover, we’ll die from the cold.’ They were weeping. ‘Try that valley, there’s a lonely house you might get in’. A youth came up – a soldier, he was staying in a village to the South, he presented me with a piece of sausage like a cigar, which I popped into my breast pocket.
So we tried the valley, passing some people collecting almonds, they gave us bread and cheese. We crossed a road without seeing German trucks. A pleasant grimy young man said a few encouraging words but wouldn’t converse, he was staring at a figure coming along the path. He said ‘I would get on’, so we did.
The farm was large, isolated. Fine rain was falling as we were walking past to some trees, having decided to return in half an hour at dusk. A man standing outside shouted to us. When we arrived he was sitting on the ground emptying stones out of his boots. I reflected on the convenience of ours which emptied themselves. He asked ‘Who are you? ‘Wouldn’t you like to stay here?’ A broad simple speaking fellow. ‘Wasn’t it providential that he’d seen us? When he saw other people badly off he wanted to help them.’ The second boot was on. He stood up. ‘There are spies in these parts. I see a suspicious character, please walk away and wait among those almond trees for half an hour then return’. He passed our wood, mounted on a horse and rode up a craggy mound calling to his boy as they rounded up the horses. The figure silhouetted among the crags looked quite Wild West. We waited for a fair length of time until driven in by rain.
The little wife gave us stools by the fire, crouching over it we ate minestra which never tasted so good or so warming before. We took off our socks to dry them. As we huddled over the burning sticks the mind thawed and a sense of being human returned. Again – Fire Worshippers. No wonder.
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The good wife did some darning for both of us. The man entered, talked a little of the prisoners who had passed; some still with Red Cross food, others eating raw potatoes.
No bed could be so warm or so comfortable as the rye straw and blanket -a waterproof sheet over the feet kept out the mist.
The man was calling gently, ‘The sun will be rising in half-an-hour’. We lay in for 5 minutes, then crept out into the mist. The woman had some hot milk and bread ready, she gave Ack-Ack a needle. Very gratefully we said good bye, they’d given us a new start.
As we left for Ofena, a long string of horses came by the farm. We walked across a wide valley by very rocky paths, over the next ridge there was a mule track over rolling country, through a village on the hillside. A shoulder passed and we were looking down a long valley. Ofena village 1500 feet below perched on a small hill, from it a road snaked away to Capestrano which could be just made out in the haze. By bearing left we could keep our height along the valley, after 2 miles reaching a village where we stopped at a food shop. The woman said ‘I have no food for sale but ask at any house and they will give you something’.
Outside we walked up the path looking for a likely old dear, she came – and invited us into her house. Of her two sons, one was away in Corsica, the other had died while in the Army; she had been allowed to bring the body home. She apologized that she had so little, putting out bread, polony, cheese and grapes. Various people appeared – mainly women bearing food and offers of it. Finally there was a throng of about 15 in the little kitchen, women with babies, children. A youth would insist on breaking into the conversation in indifferent English, no doubt because my professional pride was aroused but I found him difficult to understand.
Refusing offers to stay in the village we set out for a climb out of the valley, so to reach and skirt the Pescara plain.
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Our youth walked up the path with us, he was a 3rd year medical student at Siena University. He said that the British were not yet advanced beyond Termoli. The path rose steadily up sunny slopes, Capestrano down below shone out of the valley mist. Above us were swirling mists around the mountain top; very near the summit we met a chap remarkable for a grossly deformed chin, he was up there digging his potatoes out of the collection of stones and dust that constituted the soil.
The mist was dense at the summit, swirling and eddying from the East, but we soon dropped out of it to be greeted by a view of the sea away to the East, ahead was just seen a knot of buildings on the coast – Pescara. To the South East were the great dark masses of the Maiella – in sight of our goal.
The path led down the steep rocky slope into the hills of the plain where there were farm buildings again. We heard odd rifle shots near at hand but were reassured that no-one in sight took any notice.
At about 1 pm we met two British soldiers still dressed in uniform, on their way from Macerata. A youth of the Ite Air Force seemed to be the self-appointed guide, he became involved in vivid discussion with an Ite soldier plus rifle. The man who’d been shooting, a guerrilla he said, adding ‘against the Germans’. Waving his rifle around certainly made me frightened, much more than any Jerry had ever been frightened by him.
A civilian or two joined in the typical and showery argument; the BORs taking not the smallest notice of them, told us of parachutists who’d been dropped near Penne and showed us a list of places which the officer party had left, Popoli-Scanno-Alfedena, he’d added ‘When you get there you’ll be behind the 8th Army’, prodded the youth and with ‘Sempre montagne a Popoli’, they disentangled him from the throng and made up the track. As we walked on in the opposite direction we reflected how heart-warming to meet the BOR again and what a great man he is.
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We sat down for an almond and bread meal. There were a series of low hills to the South, the Pescara river must be behind one of them; it was pointless asking a local, they always said ‘Just over the hill’, or ‘ Ooh! Far, far away!’. Expecting difficulty at the river from Jerry guards or defences we made South, the usual crossings of fields, up steep ploughed banks, across streams, along stretches of road.
The man of a small house where we asked for a drink invited us into his kitchen; we talked to mother as she sat doing her needlework. They asked us to stay longer, we regretted that we couldn’t – it was a nice clean little place.
As evening approached we decided to stop early, the river couldn’t be far away. A man working in an olive grove said ‘Go up to —‘ s house, he has lived in England, he will entertain you as well, there is good wine’. We went to the house and asked, the man was on a balcony with two British-looking fellows. In Ite-American he said that he had no room, the chaps said ‘Sorry we got in first’ with pardonably triumphant tone. After we’d gone a few hundred yards the wop shouted after us that he could take us. We replied that it was quite all right, we would go elsewhere.
We passed a few unsuitable houses before the next effort. I went to the door and knocked; a young woman was making pasta in the kitchen. As she didn’t hear I knocked again. She looked up startled by the apparition, called the dog and pointed at us. He took not the smallest notice. We said our piece. She said ‘See my husband’, so we scrambled around for the husband. Aged 35 he looked younger, a pleasant rustic face, he said ‘Yes, come in’, and fixed us up with the necessaries for washing and shaving. The wife delayed serving dinner while we finished. Grandad talked a little, he’d lived in America years ago but only spoke in Abruzzese dialect which I couldn’t understand. Later he came out with one or two American expressions to show his familiarity with the tongue. ‘How are you?’ ‘So long!’ No doubt Goddamsonofabitch came into it. They gave us an excellent meal of pasta followed by baked kid, grapes and wine.
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There was little conversation, they had heard of parachutists being dropped and associated that with a ‘shooting incident’ in which a German truck had been burnt and an ever increasing number of Germans killed. The man said that they felt sufficiently independent there, if the Germans came they would take their guns and withdraw into the hills behind – a few hundred yards away.
They fixed us up in an outhouse room with a few blankets, bed covers, curtains and suchlike for a bed, warm but hard after our straw. I had three clear dreams that night.
1. Seeing the newspaper reporting a great British naval victory. Pictures of Churchill and the commander, who wasn’t recognized.
2. Being in a large panelled room facing Julian Hall (a fellow POW) who had a long beard and tousled hair with straws in it, some arms seemed to be coming out of the wall and encircling me but not quite. There were branches bearing many ripe black figs above me.
3. I was riding near a German driver in a truck which kept splitting, with Jerry in one part and myself in the other.
I told Ack-Ack in the morning and felt vaguely uneasy. We expected the Pescara river crossing would be difficult but in an uncertain way thought that it would be the last obstacle.
It was market day in Torre, out on the mule track groups of people were going down the stony paths, with donkeys or bearing baskets on their heads, to sell and buy and hear the news. They said that there were many Germans in the village. We met two more BOR from Macerata looking suitably ruffian-like. They’d been taking it easily working here and there, it wasn’t a bad life, they were in no hurry.
Two small valleys were crossed, the last slope led us through kitchen gardens containing tasty tomatoes.
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From the ridge above we could see all. The great wide valley narrowing towards the West of a pass between bare mountains, ahead the deep green gully in which lay the river; on the slope beyond it the Via Tiberina whence we could see and hear the steady stream of trucks and one or two tanks passing. On top of the low slopes was a village, far behind it the great leaden mass of the Maiella.
A man was passing, he was friendly, told us of the German dispositions (very few) in the valley to the West; the bridge near Torre – to our left – was guarded. ‘Ahead down there is a small bridge, there was not guard on it yesterday, avoid the railway station as you go downhill’. The way down and across the railway was easy, nearing the river we met a greasy young wop in a blue shirt, he said ‘Come to my house, eat there then I’ll show you where to cross’. ‘Isn’t there a bridge down there?’ ‘There are guards on it’.
He looked an unreliable rascal. I thought that there was a catch in it. We kept on, coming to the top of a steep broken slope, there 50 feet below us was the river, roaring down to the sea.
An old peasant working among his marrows which seemed to be sticking on the slopes by a miracle, pointed to where the bridge was. We scrambled over the broken ground and came in sight of the bridge in 5 minutes. We stared anxiously. There were no guards walking on or near the bridge; we got down by the river walking among fig trees on which was much black fruit.
We came under the embankment of the road, climbed up it, looked along the road behind, then across the bridge. All Clear! We stepped on to the road to reach the bridge.
Almost simultaneously we saw it.
Fifty yards away across the bridge tucked under a roadside bank and well camouflaged, a German truck.
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We went back to the river side again as deliberately as possible. Nobody had come on to the bridge but
1. The truck was planted there.
2. An old man working in the field opposite had not shouted to us therefore was he frightened? Or blind?
It seemed to be a guard truck and fairly subtle although anyone could get underneath for sabotage. We retired along the riverside and filled ourselves afresh with the figs. I recalled my dream. Then we sat down and held a council of war.
SKETCHES HERE FROM PAGE 100 OF DIARY (drawing off pipeline over river)
It was out of sight of the Jerry truck and so improbably used for crossing that they wouldn’t look at it. I had the strongest objections as the negotiations of parts A and B looked difficult. Failure would mean a 25 foot drop, from the swirlings of the current there appeared to be rocks near the surface. At the best, the current was rapid.
View No 2. I would prefer to swim, we could do it now and anywhere we chose. We would certainly get knocked over as we walked in and would be swept downstream probably 100 yards. We would be wet, no novelty but our possessions might get lost or damaged. Ack-Ack didn’t want to do that. We sat back then agreed to turn back and try to cross elsewhere, it would take time but be safer. We climbed back, the old man was surprised that there were guards on the bridge, then we recrossed the railway and made towards the hills inland. We made height for half an hour then found a path which led us West along the valley. Not gone far when a young man, dressed in Ite soldier’s shirt spoke to us as he paused from work in a house below the track.
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We said that we wanted to cross the river. ‘There is a small bridge down there (pointing), which is unguarded; go to the spring then turn down that gully’. An old man, hearing the advice, said that it was too dangerous, there were Germans and all the usual. Our young man was quite unusual ‘They want to cross the river, that is the best way’. He wished us good luck.
At the spring were two young women loading wood on to donkeys, one was the wife of a soldier POW in India. Both had pleasant faces and were built on generous lines, their natures were in harmony with their forms. ‘Wait a minute while we load the donkeys, then come to our house for food; when you have eaten we will show you the way’.
We sat down and talked while they worked, then down the valley to their house. We met father and mother (of one, the other girl was an in-law), who invited us in as detailed. Masses of hot pasta. Tomato sauce added. The cheese grated over all. Father went to the wine cupboard. Mother ‘lashed’ out great plates full, the vino was quite good. Everything was smooth, we’d get over the river easily. Never had the familiar suckings and slobberings accompanying the meal sounded so human or attractive. The little wife was really quite good looking. Some planes flew over which we were assured were British, all we could see was that they were frightened.
A ginger headed, gold-toothed fellow looked in at the front door. An ex-American, we’d met him at the spring, although a g-d-m s of a b-er of no mean order, he didn’t seem to be a bad chap. He would put us on the way to his little bridge. You see he had a house on each side of the river, so he’d had this little bridge made but that was before that s-of a b- Mussolini had started this g-d war with that bastard Hitler. S-of a b- Yes!
We said goodbye to the kind people. Ginger stopped by a house, ‘Another American lives there’. Out of the door popped a real life Humpty Dumpty with enormous girth and small tapering heard. He shouted ‘Come along in boys, there are friends of yours here’. Two flushed faces appeared bawling ‘Come along and have a drink, there’s bags of vino’.
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Obviously they were feeling most exhilarated but we declined. We left our guide as we had to get down into the gully, gone 50 yards through an olive grove when a young peasant came over quickly from his work. ‘Get into the gully quickly. There are Germans coming up the path’. Throughout the few hundred yards we passed various people, all stopped still silently watching us and furtively glancing among the olive trees towards the path.
Down the gully we made good going, passing an Ite boy scared out of his wits who said ‘They are coming, run away they will slaughter you’, stroking his index finger across his throat. The gully widened, we saw the railway bridge, we kept to the left underneath it as Ginger had advised. Some Ite railway workers walking over the bridge stopped to stare and shout. We waved to them to get on and not to look. Hundred yards past the railway bridge was the river and Ginger’s little bridge. No-one there.
We walked over the sleeper track, the river rushing by. A path led up the slope. We knew where to cross the road and an objective beyond. Without pause we climbed up to some buildings on the inside of a bend in the road. Various German trucks and cars came by, almost immediately there was a pause, we walked along the path and slowly across the road, up some steps then along a track up a bank. There was the rumble of transport, a number of trucks towing infantry close support guns trundled by. We were getting near the war again.
Our next objective was a small hillock some half-mile ahead; as we passed over a hill spur a monk came walking as if towards us. We went to him. ‘There are Germans very near, in our convent just over there, two hundred metres away’. We could see the roof top among some trees, we thanked him and steered to the right.
After 300 yards’ careful walking, we were passing a house when a good Scots voice shouted to us. A sergeant of the Scots Guards. We said to him ‘Better not talk so loud, Jerry is down there, which aroused his derision. ‘Why, Jerry doesn’t care about us, I passed as near as you are to me to a German last night, he didn’t take any notice’. He recounted some of his adventures and exploits.
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The little woman from the cottage came to us. ‘Campobasso has fallen. The British Government has sent a message of thanks to the Italian people for assisting Prisoners of War and has promised a reward. Would you like to stay at my house, good food and a bed, I will put sheets on it’. The Sergeant would avail himself of the offer. ‘It is safer nearer the light’. Certainly he looked like an Italian, rosary and all. We left murmuring, ’tis folly to be wise.’
There were some oil wells by the hillside, we would have to pass below them; we knew that Jerry inspected them daily from the convent. We’d passed the first set and were some 200 yards below the second when a man working in the fields stopped work to tell us the cheering news that two British prisoners had been caught on the day before – a few hundred yards away.
We kept South crossing a small valley, its stream black with oil, then a long gentle climb which finally gave us a view of a village about a mile ahead. An old man advised that we should go there. However the going tended to lead us away from it. Night was falling when we were walking in a valley with the village on our left. Without prospects. A man returning to the village shouted to us from afar but we took no notice and kept on over another rise. We could see one or two buildings stuck up on the other side of the valley.
Some people passing said that the next village was 3 kilometres further on – Sale Vecchia. We went across to one of the buildings, finding that it was a barn situated a hundred yards from the valley road. The stalls were empty, upstairs was plenty of dry hay.
I felt uneasy about going into one of the tight-packed villages, Ack-Ack agreed to stay, to my surprise. We ate our bread and cheese. Ack-Ack bequeathed me the very excellent cream cheese which Mother had given us. He ate some hard dry stuff, perhaps he preferred it. I thought it a noble gesture and ate the cream cheese. We ate some apples to slake our thirst then settled into the hay. As we were lying in great comfort he heard gunfire from Chieti followed by crumps. Later a bus chugged up the valley road, then a German motor bike. A warm sleep ensued.
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We stirred soon after dawn, noises of guns were heard again for a spell. Troops of three or four guns firing. They might be Field Guns. A German lorry passed going back down the valley, the ration truck, we thought – we knew later.
Much rain had fallen in the night, which saddened my feet. Both shoes being burst in various places let in the mud and water, again softening skin which had begun to harden. We slipped along muddy paths, over fields; finally giving it up we got down on the road. Gone 50 yards when some children said ‘Don’t go into the village (Sale Vecchia), Germans came in the night and are still there’. Being in sight of the houses we turned off the road and slipped and banged our way over the gluey mud to pass above the main part of the village. Coming to a small group of houses we went to one and asked for water.
A woman almost speechless with fright said that there were Germans in the hills above us, searching, they’d captured prisoners of war. She produced the water after a verbal tussle, various people had appeared, either waving us away in different directions, imploring us to go or frankly cursing us for being there. We did our best not to hurry the drinking too much then walked down the little street, avoided like pariahs. They were cursed. (In English ‘Windy Wops’. They couldn’t understand the words but read our faces. Easing our feelings. I say ‘we’ but am not sure whether Ack-Ack joined in.) We had the impression that Jerry had passed, going from the village on our left to the mountains on our right, accompanied by mules, but their activities were vague.
We kept straight on down the valley side, hoping that they had gone higher up, although as we went along a sunk stream bed I was half-expecting a Jerry to look down.
Out of the gully we could see for some distance South, all was clear. One of a group of peasants working on the land told us that the Jerry had arrived at Sale Vecchia during the night. Machine guns had been posted on the village exits and at dawn the village had been searched; 11 British POWs had been caught including 4 officers, all had been sent back that morning – in our ‘ration’ truck. The main party of 22 men and 14 mules bearing guns had gone up the mountain path that morning.
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We had not gone much further when from the summit above the village (now behind us) came the sound of a burst of machine gun, a flare went up then another burst, yet another flare; we supposed that they were rounding up prisoners – poor devils.
The rain came, we sheltered under an overhanging rock. There were voices, we looked out to see 4 BORs, still in uniform. They had been in Sulmona camp, we heard how everyone had left the camp but many had been rounded up. They had been hanging about, fed by villagers helping in the fields, to pass the time and repay and ensure hospitality.
We made some remarks about the people of Sale Vecchia – the flap. They said ‘Those people have been very kind to us’. Few people were in the hills above. A shepherd had given them the rumour that the British were attacking Sulmona. They had heard a big gun firing down the Popoli-Sulmona valley.
We left them under the rock and continued South, checking progress by the villages across the valley – Caramanico, Santa Eufernia. Reached the Maiella, we had no further (original) plan. We had thought from the map that being a dead-end, this valley would be quiet.
There was a loud explosion nearby, looking round there was smoke drifting away some 100 yards behind us; we had heard no whistle but it was clearly a shell burst, so we climbed up 200 foot and sat among the rocks and were regaled to a series of shells crumping below us; now we could hear the guns from the mountain top of the flare. On the road across the valley we could see a small car stopped and theorized as to whether that was the OP. A burst of Spandau and scattered rifle shots were heard to the South in the valley about a mile away. We saw a truck come back along the road.
What on earth did it all mean? The possibilities were the Chieti guns were field guns; these mountain guns were ranging in preparation for a battle; the shots to the South came from an action. But why so little noise?
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Time wore on. Ack-Ack suggested that it was all practise. The Chieti guns must have been ack-ack. Time wore on. That theory was right.
It was a gloomy afternoon as we sat on the hillside; the BORs came by, the faster pair calling on us to give their ‘griff’ (information). A shepherd had told them of a path to Sulmona – a 3 hour walk only. They were considering stopping the night in the valley.
We ate some food and set out at about 4 pm. After much cogitation we had decided to go to Alfedena according to the parachutist’s advice, presumably that was based on good information. We would walk over the mountains to Pacentro thence skirt Sulmona that night, then make for Scanno.
Until dusk we made fast going skipping from rock to rock, we passed the BORs again and told them what we were doing and why. As one pair had a pair of gym shoes and a too-large pack between them, we advised that the two pairs went separately which would give the faster a better chance. We had discussed whether we should take them with us but expecting difficulties to increase, we decided that they could walk and ask the way as well as we could, there was safety in small parties. Nevertheless they were more likely to arrive with us. We repeated the places, showed them the map; as we left they were repeating the names with good cheer.
Along various sheep tracks for short distances, we found ourselves steadily dropping into the valley bottom. However we hoped thus to find the track to Pacentro. Beyond Santa Eufernia, the last village, we came down on to a road: in the near dark we struck up one way – it ended after a few hundred yards, we went back and tried again, without success.
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We wanted to rest until the moon rose but it was probable that Jerry was in the village so we pushed on, hoping to find a barn or cottage – along the most likely-looking way. The next 2 hours we staggered and slipped about steadily climbing, sometimes over ploughed fields, mostly over open rocky ground.
The valley rising ahead was a black void, now and again one could make out rocks larger than the rest. Much of the time was spent slipping about, banging one’s feet on unseen ground. There were two false hopes of barns, when we bore off the way to find gaunt white rocks. We rested for a time by a huge towering mass, the ground was wet and cold. Flashes from the Pescara direction, the stars were out in places, the Plough reassuring. The moon came up, at first hidden by cloud but it gave some light. We seemed to be reaching the high ground of the pass. We could see the stones underfoot.
I took off my socks, the feet dried quicker so. At last we were going downhill gently, a path had appeared which was swinging right along a valley running East and West. The moon appeared fitfully from behind the racing clouds. As we bore right we saw a village lying on lower ground at the end of our valley, a single light shone out of the dark mass.
Our path joined a road, we skirted it for a short distance to avoid a lonely white house. Wended downhill along the valley to Pacentro, there were tyre marks of a familiar design on it. Some short cuts were taken where the road snaked wildly. By midnight we came to a point where the way turned along the valley side keeping its height and sweeping towards Pacentro. The light was still burning. The scene an inn, the brutal Prussian officers feasting, ‘Three German officers crossed the Rhine’, Guy de Maupassant. No more fantastic than White Papers. Keep to the rules.
A few houses appeared by the roadside, we walked gently being surprised by a large dog ambling along. We said ‘Nice dog, don’t bark’, and he didn’t. The houses became more frequent, then a ruined tower and we were passing the outskirts of Pacentro.
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The road led on to a path in some public gardens. Quietly we walked down an alley into a moonlit street. The clock struck 1 am; turning along the street we passed many stacks of wood and carts outside the houses, then we were in open country. The main part of the village was behind and to our left, ahead a broad valley passing to Sulmona.
Our road curled gently along, confined in parts by hedgerows touched by moonlight, it felt like home. For two and a half hours we made good progress along the road until we came to a turning going to a building a quarter of a mile away, where were many lights burning. There were two German signs bearing serial numbers and outlandish names. A German motor bike tabbered along about a mile away.
A few hundred yards further on, we saw a shed 50 yards from the road, we needed a rest, we’d sleep for half an hour. There was straw on the floor, we covered ourselves roughly with faggots. Captain and QM Jones decided that the moment had come to broach his treasured tin of Service biscuits, which we’d carried from the start. (There were jokes and songs about what the QM (Quarter Master) kept in his store. Every Battalion or Regiment of Artillery had a Lieutenant or Captain Quartermaster. Ack-Ack was not a Quartermaster. He had been a Troop Commander I supposed in a Regiment of Field Artillery. The joke was that he’d kept this tin so long like a Quartermaster who tended to seem tight-fisted with their stores.) We had one each, greatly to my surprise he wanted another, we ate the tinful which settled my mind quite a lot.
The clock was striking the three-quarters, 4.45, we’d slept too long. We must get across the Popoli-Sulmona road before dawn. Across flat, cultivated fields the going was very easy; we crossed a few small roads, at one, Ack-Ack said he saw someone standing not far from us. There were tank tracks on the road surface and the noise of a car in the distance which heightened the urgent desire to get on.
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Finally we came to the main road near some pylons. The hedge passage was a bit difficult, we waited while a huge lorry came by, then hearing no more sound walked across the beautiful macadam surface. We must go South West, cross the railway line then get into the mountains West of Sulmona. We walked across fields dotted with farms – and bomb craters.
Finally the railway embankment loomed up, the line passed along a bridge over a stream, which we hoped to cross under the bridge. We approached through a meadow ankle deep in cold water. The stream looked to be knee deep or worse so we climbed the embankment and walked along the line. On the opposite side of the bridge were sidings, we turned along the buffers. No-one was about.
We were crossing a field, the sun was rising. We would find a house, there eat and dry our feet. Passing through orchards we filled our pockets with beautiful big red apples, and so strolled on eating them. On a path we met two young men. ‘A thousand Germans are coming to Sulmona today, it is expected that they will reach this area’. We thought the remarks to be merely windy spasms. We asked an old boy standing at his gate, if we might sit by the fire and dry our feet. He said ‘Va bene’ (All right) and made up the fire for us. Cautiously he spoke in English in the kitchen for us to wash off the mud from feet, trousers, socks, boots and shoes. Boots and shoes were set on the hearth, socks draped before the fire; carefully we pushed our bare feet near the flames.
The son of about 18 came and talked, he was quite assured and polite in his manner. After a pause some bread, milk and walnuts were set out for us. A scout reported someone coming up the path, there was chatter outside. The old man came in saying that the Germans were coming. We were sure that the news was third-hand from the youths, and kept eating. The son was green and speechless with fear, he looked dazedly at us then walked out.
We put on our shoes and socks. The old man chivvied us but said ‘Finish the food’. More milk was produced.
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He brought in a hat full of walnuts, and bread and cheese. I seemed to finish my bowl of milk before Ack-Ack, he had a third helping, whether from hunger or sang-froid I didn’t know. I waited without comment.
Of course no Germans were coming. You never know, they may be right one day. Win-ndy! Why be caught for a sucker? ‘Plees, tedeschi…a comen, i Tedeschi vengono’. (Please, the Germans are coming) Why should he want more milk? Very windy, get belly-ache, sheer greed. At last. The old man came along the track to point out the way. ‘So long’.
Belching gently we made towards Bugnara village where the path into the mountains began. All the land was cultivated, we passed many people along the paths, few were curious. Pity I didn’t see the statue of Ovid in Sulmona, first St Francis now Ovid. After the war, not such fun.
We were told that the Germans had searched Bugnara the night before without finding anybody. A HQ was expected there but at present it was clear of the jack-booted gentry. We went through the village, in itself a steep climb. Clear above it we asked some Ite youths the way, they conversed. Some had been guards or Crabs at Sulmona prison camp. Some women came from the village saying ‘Wait here, we will bring food’. We waited and talked. A convoy arrived with baskets containing bread, hot beans in olive oil, eggs, cheese, vino, apples. All was handed out. ‘Eat it, we will have minestra ready tomorrow if you will come back – and bring your friends’. We finished the beans, ate some bread and took a little vino.
Undecided about the vast quantity of bread we finally took it, thinking that it might be useful in the mountains. I was more anxious to take it than was Ack-Ack, which was unusual. There were at least 12 lbs of bread, 1 bottle of wine, 1 dozen small apples and odds and ends making a big burden. Ack-Ack had been carrying the sack more than I had, on account of my feet. I would carry it now.
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As we were loading up a fighter plane flew over the valley some distance away, it fired a short machine gun burst. Everyone cowered and moaned, children shrieked; estimates were made of the damage it would do in Sulmona. They were very aeroplane shy.
We set off up the steep slope, the sack weighed a ton. After 20 minutes we decided to rest, we’d only had 2 hours’ sleep in 32 hours. Under some trees, nuts were cracked, apples eaten at a great rate; then we dozed. Two Italians came to us, one pleasant fellow had been a medical student, he said that he wanted to go to Oxford. Others joined the group; we learned of various local news, huge numbers of Italians were in the mountains avoiding service, they disliked Fascism and the Germans and hoped for the liberation of Italy by the Allies. All the usual, and quite sincere at that moment.
At about 3 pm we staggered off up the path, it was a fairly steep and a very long climb, for part of the way we dumped the sack on a donkey driven with constant whacks and shouts of ‘A-ah!’ by a small boy. Before the top was reached, he decided that he was tired so the sack had to come off. The mountains and valleys were grand and beautiful, we were conscious of this yet without any satisfaction. That was only obtained when one lay down and looked at the sky.
We were hailed by 3 young Ites still in uniform complete with rifles. They were guerrillas. They looked quite good chaps, most enthusiastic and loquacious. One could see them painting ‘Alessandria o Morte’ (Alexandria or Death) on their trucks as they trundled along two days’ journey behind the Panzer divisions (in the Libyan desert). Poor old wops. Very difficult to hate them.
A woman stopped her mule-train to argue the toss on the lines. ‘Why do you destroy our beautiful cities?’ ‘We are at war, Mussolini boasted that glorious Italian airmen were bombing London side by side with the Luftwaffe. London and many other English cities have suffered grave damage with many dead and wounded.’ ‘Oh but you are rich and what is London? It can be rebuilt’. She was standing with arms akimbo, we were both merely propaganda gramophones. What was the use?
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Near the top we met an Ite youth, 19, and a Free Frenchman, Algerian with negro blood. For no particular reason I took a violent dislike to the latter. Ack-Ack thought the former was worse. They arrived at the first shepherds’ tent on the topmost slope before us, evidently the man had been warned by our donkey boy as he said that there was only room for two – and none for them. So they had to go on to the next tent where they were told that they could eat but that there was no room to sleep. We thought that God OT was with the righteous. We were tired.
Wanting to boil our eggs we must make a fire; the shepherd lent us his machete and gave a wood cutting demonstration. The wood burned readily, soon sparks and flames were spurting out of the stone fireplace set on the sloping ground. In the approved manner we raked out some red hot embers and set up the frying pan on its legs to heat the water. The eggs boiled, they were excellent.
Night was falling and various shepherds collected in the encampment, a youngish man who seemed to be boss set about making up the fire and preparing the food. With immense care and ceremony the pasta was cooked, oddments added, further tasting ‘mmm’ ‘just a little more salt’ ‘mmm, a little more tomato’. It was dark. The cold wind drove us huddling near the fire but driven away from time to time by belching smoke and showers of sparks. The boss said ‘It is not cold here tonight. But would you like some cover?’ and sent for some canvas and a cloak for us. He was wearing an old suit, shirt, collar and tie but didn’t seem to be at all cold. They invited us to their meal, it was warming: our mouths were burnt eating it hot enough to warm our bellies. We were shown into their tent where was a rough bed with straw mattress, and pieces of canvas for cover. We got down at one side, a little later the rest came in and wedged themselves on. Rammed together we were quite pleasantly warm.
We got out after dawn, vaguely stood by the fire, reared, then stood by the fire. The sun wasn’t over the mountains, the wind still very keen but it would be a fine day. Another meal was brewing, we were asked to stay for it.
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Feeling bitterly cold we watched the ceremonial enacted, it was a meat dish with bread, chillis, olive oil and tomatoes all mixed in. At length it was ready, the warmth of the food was pleasant, we ate well then washed it down with goat’s milk.
At last we set out at about 9 am; shortly after the start a South African passed us, he had been staying at another shepherd’s tent for a week and had come to see us on the previous evening, telling: that Klopper had reached Campobasso, that South African officers were useless – like everyone else. He’d been waiting because his boots were nearly through! Evidently he had reconsidered the boots’ possibilities in the night, for he came sailing past us and soon disappeared in the distance.
It took many hours for us to warm up. Ack-Ack’s face looked drawn and fallen, mine felt the same. I felt a bit like a disembodied spirit. We were walking South along the mountains to the Scanno valley. After tottering forward for about one and a half hours we came out overlooking Frattura, our next village. We sat down on some rocks by a spring, stooping to drink the water was an effort. Our Algerian-Italian friends of the evening before, crept past; the sleep out of doors had dampened their ardour. When we moved again we passed them sitting by the path 30 yards apart. There was a steep descent to the village, the saving grace was the sight of a lake set in the valley, a blue cool sweep bordered behind by trees.
At the village were many women laying out grain on canvas sheets to dry in the sun. Our young South African greeted us, he’d found two BORs heavily disguised in civilian clothes. They had a sketch map of the best route into the Meta given them by an Ite.
From all the news received it was evident that the Allies were nowhere near Alfedena. We had decided from the map that the Meta mountains looked to be the best next step. This Ite’s route was closely similar to our own ideas, it had much excellent detail shown. The BORs were resting for a day or so before they went, the South African had decided to rest for to-day.
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We drank at the fountain then went out along the track to Scanno, 7 kilometres. Not gone far when our Algerian-Ite pair who had passed us again while we were talking in the village, came running back shouting ‘Germans, Germans, don’t go on’.
We had reached a small ridge and could see the track sweeping around a shallow recess in the hillside. Groups of people were running away from the path with donkeys following, some huddling among rocks then dashing on a little further, clearly at a loss to know what to do. From afar the call came ‘The Germans are coming’. We could see no troops; there was a village over the next ridge, we didn’t want to run into trouble there so we turned right into the bottom of the valley.
Just out of a ruined village we met a well dressed man, trilby hat, collar and tie, decent suit, carrying a rucksack. We asked him the best way along the valley to Scanno, he didn’t know what to make of us or anything else. ‘Are you really English? Not Germans’. He’d left his home (over there!) and was coming to his cottage (down there!) ‘Oh! It is terrible. Would you like some money?’ He produced a wad of 1000 Lire notes. I refused. He walked along the path. Hesitantly he tried a few English words. We answered in unison with our most convincing tones. He pointed out a way. We left him bewildered.
One sensible peasant talked a little, quite with sense although ending with the inevitable ‘Be careful lest they take you’. We got down to some fields passing above the valley road. A whirring noise. We dashed behind a tree trunk, a German staff car sped past. Crossing the road we walked along the lakeside through a few plantations, then climbed across a short stretch of rock forming the foundations of an old building. The block walls above, the lake to slip into; of course not so grand but like Douglas Fairbanks Senior (Hollywood star of 1920s) ‘Don Q The Son of Zorro’ (god boys’ stuff, plenty of action) or ‘Robin Hood’.
In a clearing near the lake we asked the way to Scanno, a young Ite said ‘Don’t go on the road, there’s a German truck standing 100 metres away. They sent a truck to Santa – with two soldiers – to collect food.’ Hence the flap. He said ‘Don’t part your hair, no Italian does so’.
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They showed us the path, it meant a short climb over a mountain shoulder whence we’d get a view of Scanno. While resting at the top we met some Ite youths who talked, then showed us to a house from which there was a good view of Scanno and the valley to the South which we must pass.
Here were many men of all ages. They’d ‘escaped’ from the Germans that morning. It seemed that the officer in charge of the German foraging party had stayed in Scanno with 3 or 4 men, while the other 2 trucks went to different villages. In all there were 3 trucks and 7 or 8 men. Jerry had ordered the mayor to hand over so many pigs, chickens etc., while he went to the local hotel for a free meal, payment being a grin and ‘Send the bill to Badoglio, the British are rich, they will pay’. The mayor collected food for the trucks, Jerry had a pleasant day and the male population of the town in their hundreds dashed to the mountains. ‘Alla macchia’ (To the woods (secretly)). ‘Nelle montagne’ (In the mountains).
A man presented a small map of the Abruzzi National Park to us. While studying it and asking questions we were abandoned. A British fighter formation flew over, weaving to avoid the flak (German anti-aircraft) going up from Alfedena-Cinque Miglia direction. There were shouts of ‘Splinters’, ‘Machine guns’ and the rest.
We were left to our studies. At last we were getting near to the war.
The Ites said that British Officers, guided by villagers, had turned back owing to the difficulty of passing the defences at Cinque Miglia. It was said that many British were nearby in the mountains but none of the hoped-for organization – of the parachutists. The wops advised a high and difficult traverse above Scanno, we said ‘Yes! Yes!’ declining many offers of food (except for the cheese). We went down the path towards Scanno heedless of whistles and shouts from behind as we passed the turning of their time-wasting route.
The path led close to the outskirts of Scanno. We passed a few people, surprisingly well dressed; some stopped to tell us the old, old story.
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We turned along terraced vineyards above the village and easily encircled it, musing what a damned good time Jerry must be having in dealing with his onetime shoulder to shoulderites. (Mussolini had announced that the Italians would fight shoulder to shoulder with the Germans).
We were beginning to get weary of these voluble, unreliable people, generous and kindly though they were. The sight of a German truck passing along the beautiful valleys seemed as a symbol of stoutness of heart in a land in which such a quality was rare. Beyond the village without incident we got into the South running valley, a mule track ran above the road, we stepped out along it.
After half an hour we rested. Ack-Ack was starting diarrhoea, my belly felt uneasy and was blowing out. Those beans in olive oil, the cold wind, the chillis, the milk. All at work. We kept on wishing to get past the mountain mass ahead. At 5.30 pm we were climbing.
The sun was setting when we passed a mule train and were told that there were shepherds’ huts further on. ‘Half a little hour away’. We hoped to rest there until the moon rose, then to cross the Opi-Alfedena road where (it was said) were many gun positions. Our climb finished. It was dark. Two men said ‘Another quarter of a little hour’. We staggered along the pale track looking out on our right. We left it for a false hope. Unfortunately we didn’t go back to the path but went on over a ridge, being faced by a descent over loose rocky ground. With visions of the soles of my shoes finally coming adrift, I crept down it – in sorrowful mood. Belly blown out like a drum. Ack-Ack’s voice sounded much the same.
A dog barked over to the right, a light flickered. Over we went. ‘Come in, come in, you must be cold, sit by the fire. Give them some food’.
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They talked away, three or four shepherds and various youths sitting round the fire set in the space between some bunks in a small hut. Bread and cheese and apples were offered to us, we started to eat. I was faint and asked to lie down; they cleared a bunk where I crept in and soon felt well enough to talk as courtesy seemed to demand, but couldn’t eat and suggested to Ack-Ack that we didn’t move on during the night. He agreed. Everyone went to bed soon, the hut was warm which was all that mattered.
The moon shone that night on the masses of white stone in the mountain cleft. The dogs got up and wagged their tails, snuffling in friendly way after I’d relieved my bowels of wind and water. In the morning we waited for the sun to rise before going out to collect our wits then wash and shave. A group of youths arrived from Scanno with the donkey supply column. They were ‘escapees’. They asked questions but meant well, finding a mirror for our shave and offering food.
Among the usual statements about Mussolini’s hatefulness they uttered two typical gems. ‘When the British liberate us we shall have cigarettes to smoke’. ‘The British will have to be careful as the Germans are leaving much Venereal Disease behind’.
We refused hot food full of GREENS and crept off at about 9 o’clock guided for about half a mile by one of the shepherds, a small, steady man, kind hearted and good-mannered who spoke beautiful Italian.
We met another shepherd as he came up from a tree covered cleft which ran down to the Opi-Alfedena road. They gave directions and advice. We walked for half an hour, slowly and dreamily, not daring to stretch the legs too much, haltingly. After a pause for some bread and cheese we got going in better style and after an hour’s walking down the cleft, we were within sight of the road. We could hear trucks going along and once a German voice shouting. It came from a lonely building occupied by them.
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Masses of sloes were on the bushes near the road, they were cooling and in some vague way one thought that they might ‘settle the stomach’. Here and there German tooth paste boxes, tobacco wrappings and newspapers. We watched a motor bike with pillion pass, as we sat behind some roadside bushes. Then into a small roadside clearing – a tank had stood there, there was a shell, newspapers, droppings.
Over the road we jumped down to the stream, which was strewn with rocks. Hurriedly we jumped from rock to rock but half-way across both slipped, so frankly walked knee high through the rest – The crossing of the Sangro.
Among bushes on the far slope feet were dried as we watched the Wehrmacht traffic pass some 50 yards away. Ack-Ack went away to pass another rear, suddenly realized that he was in an open space looking straight at a Jerry on a push bike.
The next step was to turn West for about 2 miles along the mountainside gently making height. We sat still as trucks passed along the road but as we climbed the figures in cars looked small. A field telephone line ran across our path, the BORs map had warned of this and that it was patrolled daily. Passing a brow above a sawmill we bore left into a valley running South amid the great peaks of the Meta. A track and narrow gauge railway ran along beside the stream.
Once assured of the way and we sat down to eat for a short while; walking on we came on a middle class family living in a shack. Mother, son and daughter, and her husband. They had come from Pescara in order to escape from the war by living in the sawmill. But Jerry had taken that so they lived in two shacks. Ack-Ack accepted some pasta. He was so loud in praise that, my resolve weakening, I took some. And it was good – but I regretted it later.
One of the men was greasy and harmless, another who arrived to answer questions about our route not only wore a hair net but knew everything. The women said little, except ‘Poveri, what will your families be thinking?’ as they stoked up the fire for the pig-swill cauldron.
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Following directions we kept along the valley but by 4.30 we’d twisted and turned and the path was not clear. The map showed the path keeping to the side of the stream but after a further 20 minutes we found that the way was impassable; the slopes were thickly wooded so we could see no further than 20 or 30 yards. We turned back and walked to place A, intending to take another direction. Arrived, Ack-Ack saw a donkey ahead; he shouted and ran after it. There was a small boy aged about 10 years in charge, the donkey was laden with packs but space was found for the sack which Ack-Ack had been carrying more than I. The little boy said that there would be room to sleep in the shepherd’s hut where he was bound. He was taking supplies from Pescasseroli. ‘It is only half an hour to the hut’.
The column moved on, donkey whacked forwards. I took the opportunity to relieve my rumbling guts, finished, restarted, while a shouting match ensued as to whether I was there, but it was still light, the path easy here and marked so the column wasn’t held up. Climbing steadily, the small boy showed superhuman energy at whacking the donkey.
Darkness came. We were still zig-zagging up narrow paths, now and again stopping to steady the load. Finally all was dark; pitch-blackness through tree-covered parts; a vague glimmer over the rare open stretches. Still the path kept on, the ground was invisible, one hoped for the best, banged one’s feet, tripped and slipped among the stones. And still it kept on. The donkey seemed to know every twist and turn, he never wavered. The little boy whacked on. Now and again sparks flew up from the donkey’s hooves. It was utter nightmare. And still we walked in utter blackness.
We must have been climbing for at least one hour. The British members of the party had high words at one tense moment. Both took violent exception. The fact that the donkey didn’t grumble was the most mollifying factor. I half expected him to turn round and give encouragement. In fact he’d decided that he’d done enough. Going up a fairly steep gully he gently subsided, his load supported by the gully sides. He made one feeble effort to rise then sat in trance-like state despite some desperate whacking.
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We tried to lift the moke by his burden but it was on a slope and he wouldn’t help, so the small boy started unlashing the baggage. We lifted the saddle off and the donkey stood up. We tried to lift the mass of the saddle and luggage up but it was too heavy. It would have to be reloaded piece by piece; if we had known the method it could have been done in the dark but we were disinclined to learn. I lapsed into the most persuasive and lyrical Ite of which I was capable. The small boy said that it would take 10 minutes to walk to the hut. ‘Much better – return in the light for the stuff’. The small boy made heroic efforts on his own to shift the mass of clobber, he made no impression. At length, downcast he gave it up. The donkey pressed on for his kip. Twice I was left behind. Ack-Ack ‘How do I tell him to wait?’ I (shouting) ‘Say ‘Aspett’ un po’.’ (Wait a moment, ‘half a mo’) Significant.
A short walk and we were crossing open country, there were shouts down in the valley to our left. In very few minutes we were greeted by the 18 year old boss and two boys of 15 and 12. They had a good fire in the hut where we crouched between the bunks around the walls. I said my piece in defence of the small boy over the pack incident but the boys were greatly concerned. ‘Some of the stuff belongs to the owner’.
We went to sleep early on the bunks, later we heard the boys go out. The moke lost his kip as they took him back when the moon rose and retrieved the pack. The sleep and warmth bucked us up. Ack-Ack still had some diarrhoea but looked brighter, my own had ceased. We obtained some information from the boys, very little as they knew none of the names of peaks.
Out of their mountain cleft we made down a long tree-covered slope to reach the valley West of the Meta; reached the head of the valley and we sat down to eat bread and cheese, reflecting how unpleasant and uninteresting was maize flour bread. We’d had nothing else (bread) for 3 days, its sole merit was that it cut down thoughts of food. There was a rough muletrack. A beautiful sunny morning.
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Ack-Ack paused to rear, I meandered on as we couldn’t get lost. After five minutes I turned off the track to a charcoal burner’s cabin just above the path. At the door a young woman; she burst out ‘Get away, there are Germans only 10 metres away’. Thinking ‘Come, Come! We’ve heard that one before’, I looked unbelievingly. She said ‘ That’s true, go up there.’ Ack-Ack – light as a fairy, had arrived, we turned behind the hut and climbed 50 feet, charcoal burners were waving ‘Get up, Get up’. We lay down and watched. A mule guided by an Ite and loaded with water barrel and line drum led, followed by the German line party. They were laying line (tying the field telephone line to trees) up the side of the track, two by two they passed along the path. In 3 or 4 minutes they were lost from our view.
We went down to a charcoal burner’s ‘standing’ and ate hot ‘polenta’ – the maize dough unleavened is cooked in a great flat slab 3 foot across and one and a half inches thick, placed on a wooden board, garnished with tomato puree, onion or cheese. Everyone sits around and cuts off mouthfuls with spoon, fork or knife. The charcoal burner, an excellent chap, advised crossing the valley then making over the mountains to Isernia which it was said was being attacked by the British.
We thought that our own route to Venafro, said to be in American hands, was the better, in spite of warnings that Germans were in the villages at the end of the valley. Reasoning that the line party were laying line to Opi and would be carrying rations on the donkey, we got down on to the path and continued along it.
We stopped by some charcoal burners to ask information about the numbers of Jerry in a church a mile further on. They were vaguely pessimistic. Looking past Ack-Ack down the path I saw something flash, there was a grey-green uniform above it – jackboots.
He was 50 yards away and coming towards us. The main path and Jerry line led up behind us, on our left was a small path crossing some open sloping ground. Surely he would go up the main path. I turned up the small track, Ack-Ack followed. Slowly we walked. I took off my glasses. Gone 50 yards. He was following 10 yards behind.
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Ack-Ack said ‘Aspett’ un po’, (superb, like a one-club golfer winning the Open). We stopped and looked, then shambled two steps off the path to let him pass. A dark fellow of about 28 shining boots, he looked at both of us. Two silver stars on his epaulettes – an ‘Oberfeldwebel’- WOI. Oh! well, only a Signals chap. He passed. Ack-Ack, ‘If he knew, wouldn’t he be annoyed!’ Self, ‘You never know your luck till the ball stops rolling.’
We kept on down the path. After 10 minutes we heard a low call ‘lnglesi?’ A tall dark fellow with deep-set eyes dressed in brown civilian suit was standing on the path behind. ‘Have you seen two Black boys around?’ Savage, a South African officer who was going to Isernia, the Jerry line party had made them disperse. He would wait until 11 am.
The valley widened, we could see a small house on our right, further along on the same side was a church. We struck across the pebbles of a river bed to a hut on the left side. It was in sight of the church so we stood behind it to talk to some charcoal burners working outside it.
Very soon – and easily we were on the path running along the left side of the Melfa valley to Picinisco. Looking down on the church we could see lounging figures on the portico. The path was narrow, winding, tree-covered; the telephone line was running along it, economically laid, no festooning – good workmanship. Two civilians passed, the leader was tall, fair-haired, ruddy-faced with powerful German-looking features, he said ‘Dove va?’ convincingly enough as he passed. The second was short, dark, fat, bespectacled, he looked like an Ite. Both pairs were walking fast and had passed in a moment but we wondered what they were up to.
We walked as quickly as possible for quarter of an hour; all the while listening for mules of any ration party or patrol. There was a scraping sound and tinkle from 100 yards ahead, we got off the track to rest. The noise was still there after 10 minutes, so we moved on again to find a herd of goats, billies, nannies and kids, standing and sitting about the track with the aloof calm of the well-bred. Disturbed by our ill-mannered intrusion they made way with jingles, leaving mute evidence of their activities. The only piece of Italian sabotage seen.
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Among the droppings were pieces of chewed telephone wire, the separated ends trailed on the ground. But not so funny for us, a party would be sent out to examine the line after the next test call. We sped down the path. My feet didn’t seem to trouble me even though the soles were right through in the centre so that I could tickle my feet.
Picinisco appeared on a brow facing the end of the valley. A mile short of it and we turned left off the path with relief. For an hour we made unhurried progress through fields to cross the ridge of Picinisco and to start the crossing of a wide valley running East-West.
At a group of houses we stopped and asked a white-haired old man if we might pick some apples from his tree. He answered in Ite. ‘They are not good to eat.’ Then in English ‘Are you boys English?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Go to that house, I will let you in’. He had retired years past from England where he had run four confectionery businesses. He’d started to get twinges of rheumatism so he’d returned to Italy. He worked some land and was self-supporting. We ate wheat bread, cheese, dried figs and grapes while we talked with him and one or two other old boys who’d known Soho. All had sons or relatives in England.
Our pockets bulging with figs, we moved out at about 5 o’clock to cross the valley. The Mill – San Giuseppe – Valle Rotonda, according to directions. Approaching the mill and Ack-Ack espied some horses near the footbridge. Fifteen yards from the bridge I saw a figure dressed in grey walking down to the stream on the opposite side, and was astonished – and shaken – when Ack-Ack said that it was a Jerry.
He was 30 yards away but not interested in us, he went to the stream to wash his dixie while we, after sheering away, walked down to the bridge and across it. Up a path by the mill and on to the road, along a few yards then up a bank and climbed through a field, lying down while some trucks passed. We moved up a little further to rest, a German soldier rode past on a horse. Somehow a very happy sight, I envied him.
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It was evening, we decided to sleep in a shelter containing a mass of young oak branches. We got up to the back of it and eased our way into the bundles so that our feet were near the door. After the dust had settled it was quite tolerable. As was the routine, Ack-Ack made some remark about my fussiness in getting comfortable. The form of attack or defence adopted that night is forgotten. It didn’t matter. I felt quite content, pockets bulging with dried figs. A good foundation was laid and as the cold woke one up at night a few figs or an apple would help pass the time. In fact it was quite a good night.
By dawn we were off for San Giuseppe. A woman living alone with two children, her husband a POW, gave us bread and apples in her kitchen. Soon climbing again, we were joined by two young Ites who would show us to the beginning of the track. We asked if it were true that Venafro was taken. And then we met Angelo.
He was going along the track in the opposite direction accompanied by son aged 30-ish and little ‘jackass’. They were making a return run from the son’s house in the mountains to Angelo’s in the valley. He said ‘Are you American?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Venafro is captured, we came from near there this morning. I go back tonight, takes 4-5 hours. You come along me. You come now to my house. Eat, bye-bye, then come tonight’. The offer was good. His house was a mile away so he went on to see that the coast was clear. He and his wife showed us into a bedroom. Angelo, 65, way back had lived in America.
He told long stories of his life there, such as ‘They made a big canal, Baltimore, thousands of men work, me Angelo work engine for digging in ground (then life-like imitation of the monster at work). Get up 6 o’clock, breakfast good mangiee, start work 7.30, work until 5 o’clock. Good money, one dollar a day’. ‘On Sunday – no work, I go clean and grease engine, then afternoon come put on good suit and go to town. Walk in street, Good evening Mrs —-. At Canteen, good food, 25 cents, run by a nigger Joe and Mrs Joe. One Sunday I go to town, buy bottle of whisky one dollar.’
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‘I see Mrs Joe, You like drink Mrs Joe?’ ‘Why that’s good, Angelo.’ ‘I say ‘You like bottle Mrs Joe?” she say ‘Thaanks Angelo,’ I say ‘You please give Angelo – Italian good mangiee Mrs Joe’. She call Joe. Joe say ‘It’s the company’s food, why of course Angelo’. ‘So I get good mangiee’.
So he talked on with imitations, lifelike and natural, his little moustachioed face lighting up at especial bits, such as some small girl, an employer’s daughter, saying ‘Oh Angelo-o-o’. ‘And I have Missie’s galoshes here’.
His wife made a fine pasta followed by pieces of sausage and walnuts. Producing hammer and bradawl she repaired my shoes with pieces of wire and nails most effectively. We lay down on a bed. At 3.30 we were off, the little ‘jackass’ now disappearing ‘neath an enormous load of household effects. Our sack perched on top looked a bagatelle. The son walked behind, beating with fiendish energy the small area of jackass available, accompanied by shouts of ‘A-a-h!’ and invocations for divine intervention especially addressed to the Madonna. Neither form of encouragement appeared to influence the moke – worthy kinswoman of Modestine. (‘Travels with a Donkey’, RL Stevenson).
Angelo took us separately. No worries about the way, we’d walk for half a mile then rest until the donkey arrived, heralded from afar by the whacks and shouts. I felt quite exhausted listening to it.
Atina was pointed out behind us, we walked on a mule track high above the Atina-Isernia road. Angelo had ideas on demolitions.
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We crossed a col by a long climb then we were looking South and East where the great grey masses of the Miletto rolled away; over to the West we could see, outlined in the setting sun, the Monastery of Cassino on a great flat height looking South over the Cassino ‘plain’. The track was wide and easy for half an hour then we passed along a rocky hillside path to walk across flat fields. Here Angelo picked up some sticks and gave us each one. We rose again, along a wide path then passed down near a village set in a valley. The going steadily worsened. We kept close behind each other in the dark as we stumbled along paths made of great rock lumps, zig-zagging up and down hill.
I was thankful for the good wife’s shoe repairs, my feet were better so I didn’t hold up the show. My chief preoccupation was with the son who caught me for a long stretch in a heart to heart talk at the tail of the column, speaking Italian. He would stop to ask my advice:
1. His little girl had died in hospital from Peritonitis, she had complained of a bellyache for three days before, they’d operated in hospital but she’d died 24 hours later. Had the surgeon made a mistake? I made a suitable honest reply.
2. ‘Another little girl kept wetting her bed. What should he do?’
3. One of his testicles was larger and lower than the other. What disease was that? It was all charmingly informal.
At about 9 o’clock we were at the last slope, it was never ending. Angelo was puffed which wasn’t surprising as he’d done the opposite journey that morning. Come on to a road and they were as galvanised. Angelo and son on each side of the moke, each seized the saddle with one hand keeping the other free for beating. They almost lifted the little chap up in their efforts to get quickly along the road.
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After 100 yards they turned on to a track which led in a few minutes to the charcoal burner’s cabin, built of logs and corrugated iron, with sloping sides 10 x 6 yards, 10 foot high in the centre. There was a hearth in the centre, the main part of the space was filled with rough beds. The wife, expecting, 30-ish of pleasant features, looked as if life had got her down. She was offhand in manner and produced a few cold beans as great concession for her menfolk. The family consisted of 5 small, pale dirty children.
Angelo, the artist, conscious of the poor reception, did his best by talking, offering beans and polenta. The wife said that there was a rumour that Venafro was taken. Angelo made up a bed on the floor for himself, so that we might sleep in his usual bed. I felt very kindly towards him as his little old head, almost babyish like many old heads, stuck out of the coverings on the floor. I expected all sorts of absorbing things to happen that night under the slum conditions. A child screaming or son easing that enlarged testicle. The baby gurgled once or twice. Otherwise, all was bliss and not even fuggy.
Next morning we were up early but a smith arrived who said that he would show us the way. The son had a piece of scrap metal from a wrecked German plane which he was trying to sell in part exchange for shoeing the moke. The shoeing, then haggling, went on for some time, finally he gathered up his tools and we were off.
We wandered along a mountainside, Acquafondata was pointed out. Our guide stopped to show us a slip of paper bearing orders to him from the mayor of the village to report for service. He said that he wasn’t going to work and that he would keep the slip to show to the British. Finally we were shown the direction of Viticuso; we clambered across a small cultivated plain then up a slope.
At the top we sat down to rest, eat and discuss plans. We were expectant. Everyone seemed to think that Venafro was taken, we had heard the night before that the British had lost 6,000 at the bridge at Isernia. Aeroplanes flew over the Volturno some miles away followed by flak.
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A local man came to talk; he said that Jerry was still in Venafro. We continued to Viticuso where we stopped for water and had word with an Ite ex-soldier who said that he’d been employed by the Germans digging positions on the Volturno. He showed us his German pass book. Which led me to ask ‘What do you think of the Germans?’ Looking extremely impressive he said ‘They are a bestial race’ but it didn’t ring true.
Skirting the outside of the village we clambered up the next hill but missed the path. Possibly as a result of my groans I was told ‘Well! You lead, anyhow you seem to walk quicker when you’re in front’, as had happened before. We’d walk for 10 minutes or so, then somehow Ack-Ack would be in front. He was right more often than I was about the paths but not always, and I was vocal with groans or polite remarks.
At one-ish we entered a broad cultivated plain and went out of our way to call at some farms for food. A woman at the first said ‘We are refugees, we have none’. At the second an old woman almost screamed ‘Can’t you see we’ve hardly got any’. From the appearances we didn’t agree.
We plodded down the path to Pozzilli, meeting various people ‘out refugeeing’. They said that the Germans were in the village and were laying mines; we could hear explosions now and again which were due, they said, to house demolitions.
It took 2 hours over rocky hills and valleys to get to the Pozzilli valley, we made one false turn which we corrected with difficulty. At about 3.30 we entered the dry river bed which ran through a deep gorge to the village. Here was the typical wartime scene. Little family groups sitting around a basket on the ground, lines of women walking along the path with bundles, baskets, mattresses on their heads, fires being kindled near caves where straw was laid. Father sitting on a chair in the middle of nowhere in particular, Mother crying as some child had been mangled by a mine, Daughter fetching water in a pitcher, the son waiting to be liberated, the children thinking it a novel form of game but puzzled why everyone looked so sad.
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Nobody took notice of us, their own troubles were pressing in on them. We came to the first houses of the village, there were two Germans rooting in a cabbage patch below the path. We retired to an empty house for a council of war. Ack-Ack wanted to go through the village. We wouldn’t be noticed in the movings. Both of us were fed up with the false starts we’d made that day. It would save time and trouble.
I took off my glasses. We walked along the village street, a house had been blown up – the rubble blocking a curve. Two women were pitifully searching among the rubble, a German soldier was idly staring at the wreckage. The smell of burnt explosive was wafted up, recalling memories. We slouched past, there was a German voice talking in a stable, we bore gently to the other side, where a wireless truck could be seen backing into a stall. We tended right coming to a bank by the river bed; after a few yards notice boards ‘Achtung, Minen’ warned us to keep away from there, so left again behind some buildings past some groups of German soldiers.
Into a street, more cars and trucks camouflaged or in stables. At a cross-road we turned right, a staff car passed. At a cross-road we turned right, a soldier turned into a house ahead. There was a TCP (Traffic Control Point) duty man at the next cross-roads, we turned on to some open ground to avoid him. As we passed cottage an Ite looked out, one of the few, he made some remark ‘Buona Sera Inglesi’, he’d recognized us.
Soon we were in the olive groves outside the village. We walked over open fields, Ack-Ack guiding to avoid digging parties. I put on glasses again, we made towards the bottom of some slopes on our left. From the top of the mountain came sounds of explosions regularly, we’d heard them all day presuming that they were blasting gun positions.
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After 20 minutes we halted at a quiet spot on the hillside. We could see the main road, the beginning of the Miletto, the valley of Capriati ahead. We would lie down until dusk when we must cross the Volturno. Ack-Ack wanted to keep watches at which idea I demurred as being pointless after the recent risks. He defeated me by saying that he wouldn’t sleep unless there was a watch, so neither slept nor kept watch finally. I decided in my mind that the risk taken had not been warranted, the result of being tired although stimulating. I resolved that I wouldn’t do the same again.
As the sun set we ate bread and apples. A few trucks with men aboard went by, going to Pozzilli. As soon as visibility was down to 100 yards we set off across the fields. There were few buildings to avoid. We crossed the railway line, first testimony to the thoroughness of German methods of destruction, all sleepers snapped across the middle, rails twisted and torn. Across a field we came to the main road, a truck passed at a most convenient moment lighting up the way and showing us our approach. So we crossed the last important road. We hoped so. At the worst the British were on the Campobasso-Benevento road. The going was flat, through fields mainly along great avenues of fruit trees with occasionally a path to help. We saw tank tracks on one path but there were no alarms.
After half an hour we saw the river; soon walking over the great pebbly expanse of the Volturno bed. The stream was about 50 yards wide and rapid, swirling in it speed. It would take our legs away. We walked up for 200 yards where it was wider and slower. Taking off our shoes we waded across knee deep, the pebbles were there but not so troublesome as at the Taro. We crept out, dried our feet, ate some bread and moved on coming to another stream, wider, slower with thick sludge on the bottom, across that we were in marshy farmland.
We walked across a muddy field, then sat on a distorted tree trunk lying on the ground while we wiped the mud off our feet. After a few minutes’ walk a barn loomed up, we went inside and to sleep on some grain.
We had slept for many hours, the sky was lightening in the East when we set off again.
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More walking through fields led us to the Capriati road which we crossed and climbed a slope, reaching a path running East along the Capriati valley. We passed groups of people living in the woods; there were few vehicles passing on the road below although we heard a tank. Past Capriati we crossed a road bearing left through the mountains to Isernia. Just across we found a vineyard and an apple tree. Our bellies were empty so we sat down and ate about 4 bunches of grapes apiece, then filled up our pockets with apples as we watched trucks and a huge ambulance go by. There was sound of drilling on the road above us. Much refreshed, we kept walking along cultivated slopes or rocky hillside.
An old woman was in tears. ‘Those devils have just taken my pigs. Do you take some apples, they are no use to me. They will only take them’. In a deep cleft in the mountainside was a small village extending tier above tier on the hillside. We could see Jerry in the lower part of the village. The sides of the cleft were so steep that we couldn’t get around the village and were led down a cobbled step-way, coming on to the village street where we must turn left around a house. From just around the corner came sounds of hammering and German voices. Back up the alley wall a council of war was held. Ack-Ack wanted to walk past. I would not. We had been fortunate once. There was not far to go and the weather was good.
I went out to try to find another way but it was quite impossible. Some old people merely gazed in terrified awe when asked how long the Germans had been hammering. ‘I don’t know’ was the limit of their powers of speech. After half an hour of chewing the cud we went to listen again. There was no noise. We walked on to the street, turned left and shambled briskly the hundred yards to a small bridge, then we were on the path winding up away from the village.
Some women at a house gave us some tomatoes with reluctance. The old mother sewed up the knees of our trousers and my seat as we stood before her. Hardly left them, Ack-Ack stopped to rear. Some fighter bombers flew overhead weaving to avoid flak, for no obvious reason one dropped a bomb about 300 yards below, not far from our house.
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We had been warned that Jerry was blowing the ‘Centrale’ power station which lay above the next village. Its position could be judged by a great tube coming down the mountainside.
At length we were overlooking the gorge in which the tube ended, a Jerry truck was standing in the road. At another place we sat down to view the hydro-electric station (that had been). It was utterly destroyed, one side building had been left but the main sheds were a mass of rubble and twisted metal. A Jerry left the wreckage and went to the gate where he fiddled about for some 10 minutes. He came out and closed the gate with great care then bent down and did something to it before walking away. We said ‘Booby Trap’.
A path ran up through a cleft East-West in the mountain starting just to the North of the power station. We made for it, passing the manager’s house then down some steps hidden from the ruined buildings by a spur of hill, across the bed under the massive tube. On the path and we were climbing into the next valley – Valle Agricola. After half an hour the path became faint in rough grass and we lay down to rest. I was awakened to answer some inquisitive fellows who meant well but received short answers. They said ‘Go to the village, cross the valley and up that path’. We struggled up the path; after an hour we needed another rest and lay down on some cultivated terraces among the trees, eating apples.
A short distance further on an American speaker said ‘Don’t go to the village, cross the valley and over that neck to San Angelo. The Americans are there. In the village there is a German patrol of 14 men who scout the far end of the valley’. His son was anxious for us to hide ourselves as an armoured car passed along the road across the valley. We didn’t bother.
So we made down the valley side again, many families were out in retirement, some had been so for 8 days. The women or children went to the village for food. One old man working in a vineyard said that we were Germans. ‘You should be manacled. I will kill you!’ I tried to be reasonable but he kept on and I burst out in English at him. He was still blathering after we were out of sight.
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Crossed the valley bottom after a few difficulties and the next climb began. A noise on the road high above attracted our attention, an armoured car passed back to the village. Night approaching we came to a hut with straw compartment, somebody had made a rough bed in the main part but there were no coverings. We ate then tumbled in the straw.
Two tracked vehicles passed up the road towards the village, followed in half an hour by sounds of gunfire and shells passing over our heads down the valley. After a few minutes the sounds ceased. That night I dreamt that I was at a railway station, seemingly Windsor Great Western Railway, looking at train times prior to going on leave.
Up at about 3 am we climbed the path to the road, along the road towards the village then began climbing in earnest. One false cast for path was made and finally we climbed straight up the slope coming to an excellent path after an hour which led straight over the rolling mountain top.
Down in the valley to the South, guns started up, we saw flashes but could only judge by sounds as to main dispositions. A ‘refugee’ rooster crowed – the dawn of hope. We pushed on, keeping height but bearing West across tree covered slopes.
A charcoal burner’s hut was filled with evacuees; a cleanish, intelligent fellow looked us over. We said ‘Where are the British?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘British Officers.’ His expression of unbelief was spectacular. ‘British Officers!!’ These people with the aspect of brigands! ‘No! Impossible!’ We said our piece. Ack-Ack showed up his BD blouse. The effect was even more spectacular. ‘Won’t you sit down’ (brushing dust off sacks). Would you like some cold pasta, or we will heat if you wish! Wait a few minutes and we will kill a chicken for you!’ The new Herrenvolk had arrived.
We ate the cold pasta while they packed up their mules. German patrols were in the area, said to have shot two prisoners the day before. Our interviewer described how he’d seen a German soldier take valuables from an Ite ex-officer.
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Refusing further offers we set out for San Angelo. Our friend would show the way. After a short walk we were on a path where we joined a family going back home. The women were carrying enormous loads on their heads, we became involved with the pig which would insist on trying to pass us on the narrows.
The convoy stopped at another cabin where we were announced and given water – on request – by a small child who brought a tray, jug and glass in the approved fashion. Below us, people were collecting with mules and ponies. ‘They are going to Piedimonte d’Alife, there is an American HQ there’. We decided to join them, saying goodbye to our friend who took off his hat – poor devil.
Among the 8 or 9 mules all was activity loading up packs, cauldrons, mattresses, chicken coops, galvanized iron, with much shouting. We said ‘Good morning’ to Dad as he stood amid the throng, dressed in black trilby with large droopy moustache, lined face and shot gun slung over his shoulder. We felt safe. He looked at his watch ‘We’ll be off in a minute’. Clearly we were in the grip of an efficient organization. We became mirthful about Dad.
Another chap was waiting separately with his donkey ready loaded up – gramophone tied on top. He looked like Alistair Sim (long-faced film comedian) with moustache, his wife joined him carrying baby in a cradle on her head, the daughter in stout long boots carried a door on hers, the son had a sheep on a leash.
After checks, the column began to form up, while the last sheet of galvanized iron was being lashed on. We started down the path following Alistair Sim’s family. Someone shouted down that there was a German patrol at so-and-so, killing all the livestock. Uncertainly, the mules were stopped, discussion and argument followed interspersed by long silences. Alistair told them and us that it was all damn silly, the village was not on the route to Piedimonte.
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At last Alistair was having no more nonsense, amid resounding cheers from us he set off down the path followed by mother, son, daughter, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
We went 100 feet down the slope, there was a shout from above, Alistair answered, then a pause; Alistair decided to go back to lock up his boxes saying ‘Wait. I’ll be back soon’. We waited. The daughter returned for the door. They were going ‘to-night!’ The muleteers were coming down the path to the mule hide.
We asked the way to San Angelo. We were off. Easy paths led down the hillside into a valley running South. We passed various groups of evacuees. At one group we were assailed by ‘You are Germans’ ‘No we are English’ ‘You are Germans, you should be killed’. As we walked away my legs were shaking, it seemed in keeping that in their fear they would shoot you in the back.
The way was easy along a narrow gorge. We met some women one of whom had a husband POW. They said ‘The Americans are in San Angelo. The Germans have left Raviscannina – the village at the end of the gorge’. We sped on. A little man caught us up to show the way to Raviscannina.
All was quiet except for an occasional shell passing overhead; rubble, strands of telephone wire, the smell of cordite, chickens picking around. We thought of mines and stared at the ground as we walked along the cobbled street. In the centre of the village was an old woman in black standing behind a well. She said ‘San Angelo – there!’ pointing to a tower on a hill where shells were bursting. ‘Up that path’. At the side of the street was a small bridge which we crossed, then walked along a lane which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. We turned back to the bridge and set off along another alley way. The old woman shouted ‘Don’t go there! Wait for me!’ We looked back, anxious and irritable. She was walking over the bridge carrying a huge wine bottle and bread. She said ‘Be careful of the mines. Follow me’, and led us to a path between walls some 10 yards away. She pointed to the ground ‘Those fiendish sons of the devil. Look at their work! A child is dying because of these swine’.
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There, along the track were 6 mines, Schuh and another type and booby traps, in a row along some 20 yards of the path. We stepped gingerly in her tracks. At each one she pointed in turn, then to the wire and swore softly. We needed a Russian cameraman. At the bottom of some steps she said ‘There are no more now. Your way is up there’. Ack-Ack burst out ‘We’ll follow the old woman. I’m not going there. You can blow yourself up if you wish like a damned fool.’ The old woman divined the truth. ‘Come up the path with me’ and went on. Our tempers were rising. Perhaps it was wise.
We walked for a short distance up the path then climbed into the vineyards saying heartfelt thanks to the old woman. We skirted the steps and came out on the path above. There was half a mile to go to the tower. We walked on the edge of the path staring at the ground.
The path was on an open slope. Suddenly Ack-Ack said ‘Do you know, I don’t put anything past that German forward observation officer, after all it would seem strange seeing two figures walking towards the other side.’ So we got below the path and walked in dead ground.
Shells were still pitching around the tower above. A small plane hovered about the valley. Otherwise all was quiet as we looked away to the South across the wide plain, the Volturno winding through it. Far away we could see the gap of a demolished village in the dead-straight road.
We rejoined the path in a dip then climbed the crest, relieved of apprehension as we entered dead ground. We heard voices – American voices, and kept on. On the left some soldiers were standing around a position. Two groups ahead had collected for distribution of mail and bread. We stopped. Someone glanced towards us. ‘Say! Who are these guys?’
‘We are British Officers. Where is your Officer?’
‘You must have come through the German lines. What does it feel like?’
‘We’ve made it!’
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We were just over the ridge of San Angelo with the castle on our right.
There was no answer to ‘What’s it like?’ Another GI said ‘We must get our officer’ and shouted ‘Macdonald!’
We forbore to say ‘Give him his title!’ He hurried up with his hands in his trouser pockets, asked us one or two civil questions, then escorted us to the battalion CO, a Lt Colonel who had time to talk with us as all was quiet. We were joined by another officer and a padre and all sat around on the ground in the morning sun. We told him about the mined alleyway in Raviscaninna and suchlike useful information. We learnt that they belonged to the 36th Texas Division and had been in England which the Colonel, a young and likeable man evidently knew well, so we heard some domestic news while eating ravenously tins of their ‘K’ ration for which they apologized but we thought superb. Then he said ‘Regiment is calling for you and we’ll send you back. Excuse us but we must search you first because these Germans are mighty clever people’. There was little to search. We said thanks and goodbyes, got into a Jeep with armed guards and were taken away.
We were interviewed by Intelligence officers at Regimental (our Brigade) and Divisional Headquarters where our photograph was taken ‘for the networks in the USA’, lighting directed at our footwear, while a US Sergeant was assigned to be offering [illegible] I was put in the middle to demonstrate my shoes, so Ack-Ack has his mouth at the mess tin and not grinning like me. In the evening we arrived at Corps Headquarters which seemed huge. A young Intelligence Officer took charge of us and we were lent mess tins for an excellent evening meal; then, completely stuffed and content, we were interviewed by the Colonel (Counter Investigation Corps) with the IO and a clerk writing notes.
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We related all that might help, the mined alleyway, armoured car patrols, Pozzilli, house demolitions, hillside blasting for gun positions, the line-laying party north of Atina. Italian and German morale and attitudes, and much else through 4-5 hours. We were impressed by their manner and thoroughness.
So to sleep in a farmhouse, with blankets. Next morning out in the farmyard washing and shaving, the IO told us that a squadron of Liberators passing overhead was going to Pozzilli; certainly the direction and sound of the ‘crumps’ fitted in with Pozzilli.
Later that morning we were taken to the British HQ at Caserta where a cavalier officer in a smart great coat said ‘Hullo’ and passed us on to an ex-POW Reception Centre run by a South African unit in a palace on the bay of Naples. We registered, bathed and were issued with some uniform, then with great difficulty obtained some money (BAFs – Armed Forces Currency for use in Occupied zones). There were not many ex POWs around, a Russian soldier complained to me about British Army issue soap, not perfumed like theirs. The next meal was hours ahead so we thumbed a lift into Naples which looked in a sorry state, buildings neglected, no electricity, no public transport, food shortages and much illness. The only food we could buy at that time of day was apples and walnuts, so we bought a few kilos of each and put them in a box in the back of a one-horse carriage which we hired for a tour. Eating apples and walnuts, bursting with good cheer, we surveyed the sad city until the food was finished.
We returned, cleaned up and dressed as well as possible to forgather in a magnificent room lit by candles which added mystery to the beautiful walls and ceiling glimpsed in the shadow. We chatted away with the South African officers who were dressed in well-creased light gabardine. I made friends with the young doctor who sat down with us when dinner was finally announced. We talked on in the candle-light. Army biscuits and margarine set out on the table quickly disappeared and more was handed over from another table. We sat and looked forward to the dinner for a long time.
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Finally the Mess President announced that the hired Neapolitan cook had disappeared with all the rations, no more had been obtained so there would be no dinner. Rumblings of discontent were scotched by the young doctor, who said he felt very ashamed they could do no better, so he invited us to the Sick Bay for a meal of medical comforts from Red Cross parcels. The proposal had our earnest agreement and we ate tinned meat, rice pudding, jam, biscuits, chocolate, washed down with tea, and thanked him very much.
Next day normal meals appeared and our hunger soon abated. One day we thought we’d climb the side of Vesuvius without going round to the road. We got half way up but the next meal called so down we came.
We were told that we must wait until ‘recognized’ by ‘recognition’ officers, meanwhile my future was allegedly doubtful because I had entered my army number as 106118 instead of 106811 on my joining slip.
One day we went to Herculaneum which was charming but only partially excavated.
Pompeii seemed vulgar and, apart from the house of the Vetii brothers, the bodies, bread loaves and rutted streets, I can only recall the crablike guide to the Casa di Tollenanza with his eyes close to the wall pointing out scratches representing words of praise and accounts. I had imagined something exotic, decorated by tapestry or wall painting of the many suitable classical subjects available; but scratches on the wall seemed a mean basic set-up.
The two well covered ‘recognition’ officers arrived from the War Office and next day we were told we would be travelling to Bizerta in a tank landing craft. That was a good voyage. In Bizerta we stayed in a tented camp remarkable for me because cleaning mess tins was performed in dixies of hot water over fires fuelled by scores of packets of issue army biscuits.
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Our next stop would be Algiers, normally reached by a 12-hour train journey, said to be tiresome. Ack-Ack was keen to fly and obtained places for us on a Dakota.
In Algiers, we lived in tents on the racecourse and got to know some Canadians. We used to go the Arletti hotel and visited the ‘Casbah’ which was ‘out of bounds’ but memorable because it had been the scene of a pre-war film ‘Pepe le Moko’. Algiers looked a charming French Mediterranean city.
Ack-Ack found a gunner friend ‘Ronnie someone or other’ and disappeared to stay with him for a day or two. It gave me a pang, ‘Ah well!’
Finally we embarked on an American ship which was ‘dry’. The voyage was good, except for frequent interruptions by a worried OC Troops always on the tannoy with fiddling complaints and instructions.
Anchored in the Mersey, peering through the fog for occasional glimpses of the Liver Birds, sparked Ack-Ack to speak again of a young chap, a scouser, in his regiment, killed in North Africa, who had frequently spoken with affection of the ‘birds on top’.
We walked around the decks in the fog or lay on our bunks, waiting to berth.
The OC Troops came up on the tannoy ‘Attention all troops! Attention all troops! General ‘Buzzfuzz’ has come with a message from the War Office’. Pause. ‘Hm. Is this it? I have come from the War Office to welcome you all back to the old country and to assure you that all is ready for your leave and travel home tonight. I would like to offer a special welcome to those of you who have escaped from the clutches of the enemy. Be assured that after leave you will be given every opportunity to get to grips with him again’.
A marvellous derisive cheer arose which increased in volume and shuddered through the ship for a full half minute.
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All worked out as he forecast, not that everyone accepted his invitation to ‘get to grips’ in the event.
On the dockside I was missing a wicker basket of lemons and dried bananas bought in Algiers. Back in the hold I found it tucked away with other interesting looking parcels. No-one was about. Rightly or wrongly I blamed a docker or two. ‘Just for the kids!’
All went well and by late evening we were saying ‘Goodbyes’ at Lime Street Station. The night sky was lightening in the East when I was arousing my parents. It was Christmas Eve.