Geoffrey S Stavert (RA) was captured in Sidi Nsir, Tunisia in February 1943. He was originally held in the “cage” camp at Bizerta. Then transferred to Campo 66, near Capua, Italy, where, due to overcrowding, he was housed with the French POWs. He was then transferred to Campo 49, Fontanellato, near Parma. He remained there until September 1943 when the Italians surrendered, and due to the impending arrival of the Germans, the entire camp fled. The 500+ escapees split into smaller groups. Stavert and 3 others accepted an offer to stay with a large Italian family in Fontanellato.
After a week, they were advised to move on. The Germans were closing in which risked both their safety and that of their hosts. They headed east towards the Italian coast, aiming to walk up to 20 miles per day. Along the way they hoped the locals would provide them with food and drink, and at the end of the day they hoped to find a friendly farmer who could put them up in his barn overnight. After 6 days doing this they reached the town of Altedo, where they were greeted like returning heroes.
[Digital pages 1-20 refer to the 4 prisoners in this story as Geoffrey Stavert, Harold Magee, Peter Gardner and Ray Pipe. Within digital pages 21-170, the last 2 prisoners are referred to as Peter Kibble and Ray Piper.]
Part 1 of 2. Read part 2 here.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
[Digital page 1]
FOUR FROM FORTY-NINE
|1.||Sidi Nsir, 26 February 1943||1 – 15||22 – 36|
|2.||For You The War is Over||16 – 36||37 – 57|
|3.||The French Hut at Campo 49 [66?]||37 – 55||58 – 76|
|4.||The Last Days of Campo 49||56 – 84||77 – 105|
|5.||Another Four in the Family||85 – 108||106 – 129|
|6.||“Before You Go”||109 – 119||130 – 140|
|7.||Gentlemen of the Road||120 – 149||141 – 170|
[Digital page 2]
[Handwritten summary of all chapters, which are in both Part 1 and Part 2.]
Geoff RN. All told with touches of dry humour and reflects well the language + behaviour of some officers.
Commander G. S. Stavert, A slow march through occupied Italy
– Magee, Stavert, Peter Gardener, Pipe
– from Fontanellato. From N. Africa Feb 1943
– Germans stopped Allies at Green Hill, Bald Hill + Loughton Hill
Chapter 1. Excellent description of Artillery overrun by tanks in N. Africa.
Chapter 2. They march[?] back. The Germans go for a wounded man who had dropped out. They had to stand in pouring rain for the [1 word unclear]. A very mixed German convoy passed – but all stopped [2 words illegible] when 9 Hurricanes appeared. 5 officers are picked up. Green [2 words unclear]. Moved to Bizerta Cage – with the Italians for a week.
Chapter 3. Taken to Naples and to Capua PG 66. G.S. with Magee put in with French + welcomed to an orderly society – compared to British Officers huts. The French played cards all day, 4 Guards officers from the L. R. Decent group from the French end who also continued good [1 word unclear].
Chapter 4. May 1943 Fontanellato. In cattle wagons. They enjoy the march from the station. Good on characterisation + dialogue.
72 De Bergh takes over + beards etc disappear and the camp became organised.
Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony was broken by cries of Armistice. Orders to stay put and endless speculation. 9th de Bergh announcers main Officers camp at Bologna taken by Germans. Prepare for evacuation.
What + what not to pack. Three blasts on the bugle + they marched out.
Chapter 4. After 2 days they begin to disperse. Magee + GS are told there 2 others waiting to go a bundle of old clothes to choose from + 2 girls waiting to take them home.
[Chapter 5.] Usual huge family eating in kitchen + a barn for them to sleep in.
Chapter 6. Padrone arrives coldly – as an old Etonian he offers help but warns of danger but [we] are invited to lunch. They welcomed at a side door – as they were junior officers – by a colleague from F. who orders ?servant to bring more food. Next day he had gone – on his way south to meet 8th Army. Young Padrone urges them to leave which annoys the contadini.
Chapter 7. A tearful farewell. The paths are obvious + easy. They try out their Italian on a man digging – another POW trying to be a local.
They walk through Sorbolo.
Chapter 8. Hospitality + food was hard to come by. Carpi. Meet 4 of 1,200 men in Carpi – who with many had dropped out when the Germans marched them off. The boy who had led them + the ORs produced a map + 100 cigarettes.
’39 + can time ? 7 canals had to be crossed. The hot flat landscape meant hard dull walking till evening. They were again in farmyards.
Another big canal ?basin there s/eastward journey but a cart takes them to Bridge in the middle of rice fields. They get given grapes, figs, apples and walnuts, then bread and guided on their walk from Alteda.
Chapter 8. They see and feel the bombing of Bologna. Grape harvest time and they are fed along the way where there were many refugees from the cities and many women with children who had not heard of their husbands for many months.
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Chapter 8. They left chits all the way. After more rivers the landscape changed and the surroundings poorer. A boy is sent to find them shelter.They follow him but is distraught when a group of men say ‘Mangiare si dormine no’. Germans had searched Bagnacavallo for POWs. They plodded on in the rain. Tempers get frayed. A man takes them to his 12 foot square earth floored room where his wife and one son are eating dry bread and grapes. He claimed an English Officer had shot the German attacking him. He opens a door and shows them his cows in their barn where they were welcome for the night. In a dark drizzle they set off. Sheltering in a farm house 3 POWs from a Working Camp near Verona walk in. Walking carelessly on a road a vehicle stops before they can hide. He speeds them away for many dangerous miles until ejecting them near the Savio river. With a phalanx of villagers organised by a boy they cross the bridge with a caribiniere frightened to take any action. Heartened they march on. A woman [1 word unclear] a loaf of bread from her basket, a man on a bicycle guides them to his home. Mattress and blankets were provided on the floor of their living room.
Chapter 9. With the sea 3 miles away in ? days. To Cesenatico for a boat – told to ask for Fifo. G.S. has to go as he spoke Italian. G.S. encounters Mrs Fifo and is blown backwards who wanted to know when he would be back – already away with one load. A family gives them lunch and a daughter takes over washing their clothes. They spend a jolly evening with a large family. Try Bellaria. Many attractive boats. They find young ex army officer on his boat. Nothing could persuade him to help in their escape. The 4 set off disconsolate, 2 farmers turn them away. But there is a cowshed – and early in morning G.S. is woken by a stray cow.
Chapter 10. They had, literally, crossed the Rubicon. They were among hills for the 1st time. Decided to make it by land. But it is a switchback journey they walk through the state of San Marino.
Food and entertainment in evening and bread and cheese in ham with luck.
G.S. enjoys too much of a sweet and seemingly harmless wine.
They crossed the Via Flaminia. They agreed 4 was too many but did not know how to split. Food supply was being erratic.
Rain and mud so slither on the hills with alternate over supply + under supply of food.
Chapter 11. In sight of Macerata a man lays on a food meal and tells them to avoid Sforzacosta – where there had been a POW camp. A lone worker sees them – a man of 30 – but hopping on a wooden leg roars a welcome to them and with his family they are 11 seated for a meal with the kids on the floor. Parachutists – Eng come in to get them out are definitely around. The sudden appearance of success overwhelms them. and next day they go on hopefully +first a [2 words unclear] and 5 other ranks who tell them it is off. Food and [2 words unclear] women would come each day from the village (2 smartly dressed in uniform and Partisan
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Chapter 11. At last they see + pass Macerata. Warned against Sforzacosta area so many POWs (from the camp there) still around.
Corridonia. Sunday all clean, shaved + in best clothes – but usually bare feet. Meet two well dressed in B. uniform who heard of the 4 of them. They confirm Capt Timothy parachuted in to help evacuate by sea. 2 intend to stay. Lunch was laid on for all – including some 70 Partisans with a large cache of arms, etc – but no guards. G.S. pleased 2 OR [Other Ranks] were not [two words illegible].
They go on with mixed euphoria and anti-climax is it all seems nearly over. They meet boy in Sunday best who tells them it is all off as Germans got on to the Civitanova Exit. They find half dozen cocky POWs who are well supplied with food + other creature comforts. They return to the pleasure of the large family.
Chapter 12. Excellent description of Fermo [Tenna?]valley which they traverse with determination. Well received at midday. Pass over Fermo [Tenna?]+ Monte Urano camp. Next day Ascoli Piceno became the next town to pass. Peter who had ankle trouble persistently. A man brought up the rear. An argument on which path to take. They had heard about parachutists. A young boy with excellent English shows them where the house where they are. The door opens, a well-armed British Officer greets them and says he was expecting them. 2nd SAS (Power). After much chatter plans are explained but not detail + offer of help – as officers not accepted or they were not in uniform. Sent on to help CSM Marshall in the Menocchio valley. Spend night in Aso valley. They leave at 6.30. Montefiore. The contadini are outwardly wary but know who they are + who they are looking for + point to a house. A huge figure with a Tommy gun opens the door + welcomes them.
Marshall however tactfully suggests 4 such dressed officers were best lying low. He finds them a house with a bed for the night – me on the floor.
Chapter 13. The couple are obviously uneasy. They find a big house with lots of people. Given minestrone but no room – refugees from bombing. They have to return with Peter obviously ill. Next day a JU 52 crashes very near. In 2 parties they seek new abodes + find a good house for all four, but with no walking time hangs. Allied Fighters are often to strafe German columns + visible on the coast road.
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Chapter 14. The sound of a vehicle wakens them to immediate exit with clothes pulled on. After 100 yards hidden they found the padrone with his pigs also hidden but one said he must have his boots – they were around his neck. Another billet must be found.
Burst of automatic fire. Is it CSM Marshall + his HQ. 2 set off for information + meet a variety of POWs + by chance Marshall. For he had shot a German. Germans had taken view of the men + found ?one extra but plan still on for some 200 [men] in the area on the Sunday. With nowhere to go – + nothing to do the 4 spend a difficult day + lapse into (artificial) discussion on religion. A 40 year old Staff Sergeant who had walked alone – on the roads from Bologna passes through.
Chapter 15. 24th Oct. They had ‘holed up’ in a rare uncultivated piece of land covered in gorse. Their last meal – cold pasta but all the valley seemed to know of the operation.
They begin the walk to the beach – no moon
They saw + heard German traffic on the coast road which together with the rail is squeezed tight beside the beach.
They arrive early on the beach + wait, cold [1 word illegible] Suddenly automatic + rifle fire. They cowered + thought that was the end of the rescue.
Slowly other groups + some SAS gather.
Start to signal. For 2 hours then a slight sound
A splash + a rubber boat. A variety of Naval + Army officers came in one of whom thinks is an Italian.
[Digital page 6]
Manuscript – [typewritten summary of chapters 4 – 15].
‘Four from Forty Nine – A Slow March through Occupied Italy.’ Good Maps By Geoffrey Stavert R.A. with H.A. Magee, Peter Gardner and Ray Pipe. All told with a touch of dry humour and with realistic dialogue.
When the Germans stopped the Allies at Green Hill, Bald Hill and Longstop Hill, G.S [Geoffrey Stavert] was captured in North Africa. Marched back and made to stand for the night in pouring rain. In Bizerta camp for a week and then taken via Naples to Capua PG 66 and put in with Magee in a hut with French POWs.
Chapter 4. May 1943 to Fontanellato. de Bergh [possibly Colonel Hugo de Burgh] takes over, beards are banned and order takes over. Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony is interrupted by cries of Armistizio. Hearing officer’s camp at Bologna taken over, de Bergh [possibly Colonel Hugo de Burgh] orders prepare for evacuation. GS [Geoffrey Stavert] and Magee are told there are clothes to change into and two girls waiting to take them and two others to their home.
Chapter 6. Padrone visits the farm – an old Etonian and invites them to lunch – via the side door of his mansion. They are welcomed by another Officer POW who orders lunch. Next day he moves on and the padrone urges them to follow. They try out their Italian on a man ‘pretending’ to dig – another POW. They meet four of ORs [other ranks] who dropped out when being marched, by the Germans from the Camp at Carpi. A boy brings them a very useful map and 100 cigarettes.
In marching east through the flat Lombardy plane they have to cross by various means, endless canals. At Alteda the local people almost line up with a variety of food to give them. (Where has this been recounted before?, KK) They see and feel the bombing of Bologna. They compete with refugees from the cities for accommodation. (They left chits with those who helped them.)
After more rivers the landscape changes and becomes poorer. A boy is sent to help find them shelter but the boy is most upset when many say ‘Mangiare si, dormire no.’. There had been many German searches. They meet 3 ORs [other ranks] from a work camp in Verona. Walking carelessly on a road a vehicle stops – but insists on giving them a lift for several hair-raising miles to near the Savio river. With a phalanx of villagers, organised by a small boy they cross the bridge and the carabiniere is frightened to take any action. A man on a bicycle guides them to his home and puts mattresses on the floor for them to sleep on.
Chapter 9. With the three miles to the sea they decide to go to Cesenatico for a boat and are told to ask for Fifo. SS [Staff Sergeant] with the best Italian gets the full blast of Mrs ‘Fifo’ who asks when Fifo will be back. A family takes them in and the daughter washes their clothes. They try for a boat at Bellaria and find many good ones and one very good one with the owner sunning himself on deck – an Italian ex-officer. His engine has been confiscated and he has no intention to help. (Where has this been incident and Fifo been read before?, KK) Turned away from two houses, they are shown a cowshed to sleep in. S.S. [Staff Sergeant] is woken by a stray cow!
They literally cross the Rubicon river and decide to make it by land but it is a switchback of hills. Pass San Marino. Bread and cheese they often find and of course grapes, but little more – except wine which sometimes impedes their progress! After crossing the via Flaminia going to Ancona they agree four is too many and agree to split – but how ? so don’t.
Chapter 11. In sight of Macerata a man tells them to avoid Sforzacosta – on the outskirts – as there was a POW Camp there and there are several POWs still around. A man working on his own and having a wooden leg gives them a huge welcome and takes them back to his family. 11 adults sit down to eat with the children eating on the floor. Parachutists seem to have definitely landed. The sudden approach of possible success almost overwhelms them after their rapid hard slog. The next day they meet five other ranks and a doubtful sergeant, and then another 2 – smartly dressed in uniform. But ‘it’ is off, the Germans having got wind of the evacuation plans. On Sunday all the contadini are washed and shaven and in their best clothes make their way to Church – in bare feet. A small boy in his Sunday best tells them ‘it is off’ because the Germans were on to the Civitanova exit plans. The six under a doubtful sergeant were well supplied with food and other creature comforts!
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‘Four from Forty Nine’ by Geoffrey Stavert (Cont)
Chapter 12. Excellent description of Tenna Valley which they have to cross. Pass area of Fermo and Monturano Camp. Ascoli Piceno becomes next target. Peter Gardner in spite of ankle trouble persistently carries on. They agree a party of four is too many but cannot agree how to split. They hear of parachutists and a young boy takes them to them. The door is opened by a fully armed officer who was expecting them. PO [unidentified] were 2nd SAS. After much exchange of news, plans are discussed but not details. Their offer of help as officers is politely refused. They are without uniform and as POWs should not be armed. Sent on to find Sergeant Major Marshall in the Menocchio Valley. Around Montefiore di Aso, contadini are wary but know who they are looking for and point to a house. A huge figure with a Tommy gun opens the door. SM [Sergeant Major] suggests that dressed as they are they should lie low and he finds them a house – with a bed to offer.
Chapter 13. Having been told there is a week to wait before ‘pick up’, time hangs. They find a big house full of refugees from bombing, are given minestrone but no room. They return to previous night’s space with Peter now obviously ill. A JU52 crashes and goes up in flames very near. Allied fighters often seen strafing German columns on the main coastal road.
Chapter 14. The sound of a vehicle wakes them and they dash out into cover 100 yards away. They find the Italian and his pig similarly hiding. One says he must go back for his boots. They were hanging around his neck. There is automatic fire. Is it S.M. [Sergeant Major] Marshall? (Marshall had killed one German but got away, though had lost his arsenal and supplies in the house – but the embarkation was still on.) A 40 year old Staff Sergeant with a large staff continues on his way having walked from Bologna along the roads alone.
Chapter 15. 24th October Sunday. They had holed up in a rare piece of uncultivated land covered in gorse. Their last meal is cold pasta. All the valley seems to know of the operation. They begin the walk to the beach – with no moon. They see and hear traffic on the coast road which they have to cross together with the railway line all compressed close to the beach. They arrive on the beach early, cold and anxious. Suddenly there is automatic fire. They cower down and think that is the end of the embarkation. (Judging by other accounts possibly of the same attempt it was the end for many who had to make their way back to the Italian families to whom they had made their farewells.) However, slowly other groups arrive and some of the SAS with them. Half an hour after midnight they begin to signal. For two anxious hours there is no response and then a slight splashing and a rubber boat appears. They are ferried off to a waiting ship by a variety of Naval and Army officers and men, one of whom thanks Stavert in very bad Italian for helping ‘Our lads’. At last he had made himself with such a scruffy appearance to look like an Italian – at least to an Englishman.
[Digital page 8]
[Start of Manuscript Part 1 – chapters 1-7]
FOUR FROM FORTY-NINE: A slow march through occupied Italy (PART 1)
Narrative of the adventures of four ex-POWs from Campo 49, Fontanellato, on the run in Italy in September and October 1943.
Lieut. Harold Arthur Magee, RA
Lieut. Geoffrey Scott Stavert, RA
Lieut. Peter Gardner, Lothians & Border Horse
Lieut. Ray Pipe, Infantry
Presented to The Monte San Martino Trust
by Geoffrey Stavert, 20 April 2000.
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From BRITISH ARMY REVIEW, No. 60, December 1978
FOR YOU WAR IS OVER by Geoffrey Stavert
[Lieutenant Commander (retd) Geoffrey Stavert continues his story of his experience as a Gunner officer in North Africa, which he began in The Action at Sidi Nsir in BAR 57.]
“For you der var is over, ja?”
A German soldier actually spoke these traditional words to me. He was the commander of a Panzer Mark III, alongside which I was walking. He looked about twenty; round-featured, fresh-complexioned, not at all Teutonic – he might have been a young British officer but for his green overalls and his soft-peaked Afrika Korps cap. He spoke without a trace of arrogance or I-told-you-so, in a plain, matter-of-fact tone of voice, with the confidence of one who is used to being on the winning side and still believes that he will go on winning. There was no feeling of animosity, despite the fact that half an hour previously we had been trading shot for shot, 50mm [corrected to 88mm in the margin] versus 25-pounder, at ranges down to less than a hundred yards. On the contrary, his face had a half-smile of friendliness with perhaps just a touch of commiseration. After all, somebody has to lose, it might have said.
For a moment, just for that moment, I felt there was a little bond between us; the kind of bond you get between men who’ve been at the sharp end together, who’ve shared physical hardship and danger, or between opponents after a match that’s been fought to the limit. Not that war is to be taken as a sporting contest. Eighth Army veterans (especially those who’d been in the back areas) were fond of saying “Ah, but it was a clean war in the desert, you know”; no war is that clean, but the Afrika Korps seemed to have brought some of that kind of spirit into Tunisia with them.
He didn’t say any more. It was the only English expression he knew, and I had no German. Besides, he was too busy calling directions to the driver as his tank slithered its way along the twisty road. It was February 1943. We had been engaged in a continuous day-long battle, tanks versus field artillery, at Sidi Nsir in northern Tunisia. In the end superior fire-power and, no doubt about it, battle experience as well, had won. In a final charge at dusk the tanks had overrun the gun position, the defeated gunners had been rounded up, and now an untidy little column of prisoners was trudging off in the direction of the enemy’s back areas, shepherded by a couple Mark IIIs.
It was dark, and getting cold. The whine of the tanks’ engines mingled with the squeak and rattle of their bogies over a ground bass of the prisoners’ footsteps. The men plodded tiredly, many of them still half-stunned from the shock and noise of the battle, their shoulders drooping with despondency mixed with relief that the action, their first, was over and they were still whole. One or two had managed to snatch up a few belongings but most had no kit other than the clothes they stood up in, not even a greatcoat. In spite of the slender guard, nobody even thought of trying to leave the column. The fact is, once you’ve given up the contest, once you’ve accepted defeat in your mind, the stuffing has already been knocked out of you and it takes a very big effort to put it back again. Besides, where would they go if any of them did get away? To most of them this part of Africa might just as well have been part of the Moon.
So they straggled along in twos and threes, talking in undertones. Friend clung to friend for mutual security and comfort. Only the BSM [Battery Sergeant Major], grim-faced, mooched silently along in the rear, speaking to no-one.
“D’you think they feel we’ve let them down?” I said to the GPO [Gun Position Officer].
John was a breezy type, unfailingly cheerful even now.
“If they feel anything at all, they’re just damn glad it’s over.” he said. “Win or lose, I bet they don’t want another spell like that for a hell of a long time. Did I tell you I had a great time smashing up all the gear in the Command Post before the Jerries came in! Poured a whole bottle of whisky on to the floor, Criminal, really–“
For perhaps two miles we trudged along. The road led upwards, and we could sense the hills closing in on either side. The sense of entering forbidden territory remained strong. Presently sounds became audible through the darkness ahead, then we could make out a few dim lights, and the shapes of vehicles. Some sort of laager, evidently. The column halted, the tanks moved on, and we were directed into a field at the side of the road. An English-
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[Photograph with caption] A column of German tanks, including Tigers, moves up in Tunisia.
speaking Lieutenant explained that we should be spending the rest of the night there.
“I am sorry dere is no shelter,” he said pleasantly. “It is de same for us.”
We stood about in little huddles, trying to keep warm. It began to rain, thinly at first and then a steady downpour. Surely things couldn’t get any worse….
A Sergeant came up. From force of habit he saluted. He was one of the Numbers One from E Troop.
“It’s Gunner Jones, sir. We had to leave him. By the roadside, back there. Shot through the legs, he couldn’t walk–“
Every organisation has its Gunner Jones, the little man who seems fated from birth to be the one to whom things always happen; the one who, given that there are only two ways, right and wrong, of executing a simple task, will defeat the law of averages by the number of times he comes up with the wrong one. Even as ammunition number Jonesy could contrive to hand up the round backwards way round. Now he had bought it, the only serious casualty in Sgt Noon’s detachment.
“Christ, poor Jonesy,” John said. “We must do something. Better find that English-speaking chap, if we can. I’ll ask that sentry. Er, I say, vous. Ou est the Loitnant that sprecken Doitch, I mean sprecken English, s’il vous plait?”
“Oh, hell. There’s a man wounded, can’t somebody understand?”
“Ach! Verwundet? Ein Verwundeter Kamerad?”
One word in the verbiage the sentry did understand. He turned and shouted something. In a few moments the Lieutenant appeared, his mackintosh glistening in the rain. His face showed genuine concern at the news.
He hurried off, to return shortly driving a motorcycle combination.
“You, Sergeant. Come vith me.”
He roared off with his passenger into the darkness.
In a film, I suppose, Sgt Noon would have seized the chance to knock the officer on the head, commandeer the bike for himself, and drive back dramatically to his own lines, blowing up an enemy headquarters on the way. But things like this seldom happen in real life. Besides, both he and the Lieutenant were far more concerned about Gunner Jones.
In less than an hour they came puttering back. Sgt Noon hauled himself out of the sidecar.
“We found him, sir. We found him.” Relief poured out of him. “He’s all right. They’ve taken him off to hospital.”
We turned to thank the Lieutenant, but he had already gone; well satisfied, no doubt, that another little bit of the battlefield had been tidied up.
“H’m. Not a bad chap, that.” said John. “Quite a decent type, really. For a Jerry, I mean.”
Quiet returned to the laager. The time dragged by. We shivered in our wet clothes, stamping cold feet in the squelchy mud. I walked across the road, just for something to do. A lone sentry materialised from the shadowy mass of a vehicle. Muffled up in his greatcoat, equipment and helmet, he looked every bit as bored, sleepy and fed-up as his British counterpart would have been. He turned his back and melted into the blackness again, and for a moment I felt completely alone. In front of me, not more than a hundred yards away it seemed, rose up the bulk of a steep-sided djebel. In the gloom I thought I could detect the line of a ramp or ledge rising diagonally across it. Five minutes to get to the
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[Photograph with caption] Part of the German PW cage at Tunis.
top and over – it looked easy so long as the sentry didn’t come back….
Instead of going for it I went back to ask John if he’d have a go at it with me. While he was still digesting the idea a searchlight beam suddenly shone out, lighting up the whole mountainside. It shone only for a minute or so, then was switched off again just as suddenly, but that was enough to turn us away. Just another case of might-have-been…. Resolution is most often needed when you least feel like it.
The rain streamed down. There was nothing to do but stand there and endure it, hour after hour. It was a long, long, miserable night.
Well before dawn activity on the road, which had been quiet for most of the night, began to stir. Vehicles came and went. It began to get light, and we watched the German soldiers queuing for their breakfast. The rain stopped, and then, more welcome even than food would have been, the clouds broke up and the sun appeared. Soon, the German support column was coming through in full force and we moved back out of the way on to the rising ground behind us. We sat, gently steaming in our sodden battledress as for several hours we had a grandstand view of the enemy’s army going about its business.
From our position on the hillside we could see about a half-mile stretch of the road as it wound its way between the djebels. From end to end it was crammed with vehicles, of every possible shape and size and in no apparent order: three-tonners, half-tracks, Kubelwagen, pick-up trucks, British quads and fifteen-hundredweights in desert colours, blue Italian motor-buses with toast-rack bodywork, grey American half-tracks still carrying the white recognition star on their sides – bonnet to tailboard they ground their way westward in a seemingly endless crocodile. Practically every vehicle, too, had something hooked on behind: two-wheel trailers, four-wheel trailers, box vans, water tanks, anything. It was as if some Quartermaster down the line with a parkful of stores had stood by the roadside and simply hooked the nearest trailer on to the nearest truck as it passed him. Anything to get the stuff up to where it was needed, no matter who took it. One other thing we noticed, too. Every ten vehicles or so there was one towing behind it not an ordinary trailer but a wheeled platform carrying a quadruple set of 20mm AA cannon on a swivel mounting. In and out between them all buzzed the ubiquitous BMW sidecar outfits, like sheepdogs worrying along a reluctant flock. That German column was more like a mixed goods train on the LMS than a military machine moving up to the front.
“Christ, what a target for a few bombers,” the gunners kept saying.
It wasn’t long before we had a view of a different attitude towards air defence. About mid-morning the sound of aero-engines was heard above the traffic, and we saw the immensely cheering sight of a flight of nine Hurricanes low in the sky to the south, the sun glinting silvery on their wings. At once all was bustle below. The column halted. Men dismounted and scattered up the hillside, ourselves with them. No orders were shouted, but when the first three planes made their run in every single German soldier lay on his back, pointed his rifle or pistol up into the sky and fired it off as hard as he could go. At least four sets of quadruple cannon opened up as well with a tremendous clatter. The volume of fire put up was enormous. The whole barrage, inaccurate as it was, was enough to keep all but the most determined pilot at his distance. Only two aircraft made serious attempts to strafe the column. One well-aimed bomb blew a chunk out of the side of the
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road; another got a near miss on a vehicle. The rest, dropped from a couple of thousand feet up, exploded harmlessly on the far hillside. Two men were hurt. The damaged truck was pushed to one side, and within ten minutes of first sighting the aircraft the column was grinding off again.
As for the prisoners, we just had to sit there and watch it all. None of us wanted to see the RAF shot down, but still less did we want to be on the receiving end of their attention. Not a man but was glad to see them go. It is episodes like this which bring home to the POW the real truth of his position, that he’s been reduced to the status of an utter nobody: the man in the middle, shot at by both sides, wanted by neither. He’s become just part of the junk of war, an encumbrance to all and sundry. Some of our men even got out their yellow recognition silk squares and held them up to the aircraft, as if that could possibly make any difference. You could understand how they felt. A similar occasion arose a week later, when some of us were being taken from Bizerta to Naples, across the Sicilian narrows. Lying in the hold of an ancient Italian coastal steamer, we heard the dull boom of distant explosions which suggested that a submarine was being hunted – one of our submarines. Overhead our escorting aircraft circled protectively, a Junkers 88. We felt very well disposed indeed towards that friendly enemy aircraft then, and I don’t mind admitting it even now.
The column rolled on. Towards midday it thinned out, and it became possible for occasional vehicles to take the road back. After a little while an empty Kubelwagen drew up, and the officer prisoners were ordered down to it. Our escort was a Hauptmann of about twenty-eight, a brisk, energetic man dressed in brown pullover, knee breeches, ankle boots and puttees.
“You are to come vith me,” he said courteously. “If ve are attacked you may chump into ze ditch, but if you try to run away you vill be shot.”
We squeezed together, five of us, into the back of the little VW tourer. It bumped its way off in the direction of Mateur. After a few miles we stopped, and our escort led us over to a van-like vehicle standing by itself among a few soldiers. It was some sort of mobile field kitchen. From somewhere or other tin plates and implements were produced and we were invited to eat. It was liver stew, thick and brown and meaty; the first hot meal we’d had in two days. We ate gratefully and came back for more. It was the best Army meal I ever had, before or since.
In the late afternoon we drew up outside a stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Ferryville. We were dismounted under guard, and told to expect an interview from the Base Intelligence Officer. Another long wait. Prisoners of war are always waiting. Eventually the door opened and out stepped the IO [Intelligence Officer]. The German tenor of operatic legend: medium height, thirtyish, round face, round tummy, round steel-rimmed spectacles, immaculate in beautifully pressed service dress and gleaming top-boots. Franz Schubert in modern dress.
We tensed ourselves for the interrogation. Name, rank and number. that’s all he would get.
When he spoke it was like a singer, too, in those high, syrupy tones which only German tenors really manage.
“Good efening, chentlemen. I am sorry to haf been keeping you waiting. but for you ze var is over now, eh? Zere is only von question vhich I vish to ask you. Ve already know ze name of your unit and all of yourselves, but zere is one officer whom ve haf not yet been able to trace: Lieutenant Magee. Can any one of you tell me vat became of Lieutenant Magee, please? Ve are worried about him.”
We were impressed, not to say taken aback. He hadn’t even said ‘We have ways of making you talk.’ Magee had been F Troop’s OP [Observation Post] Officer on Hill 609, and nothing had been heard from him since the attack had broken at dawn the previous day. We could not have helped the IO [Intelligence Officer] even if we had wanted to.
“Very well chentlemen, thank you. That is all. You vill remain here tonight. I fear ze accommodation is not good, but you will soon be much more comfortable in ze base camp at Bizerta.”
Well, that was something. Maybe there we should be able to get organised properly, and devise a means of breaking out. In the meantime what we all needed most was some sleep.
We were locked into a loft above a nearby guardroom. There was no furniture of any kind, so we disposed ourselves variously on the bare boards. Sleep came readily enough. In the middle of the night the door was thrust open and in came the cheery figure of Magee. We welcomed him like a long-lost brother; it was just like having the family complete again. He told us how an infantry assault with mortars had caused his OP [Observation Post] to be abandoned soon after dawn. He had managed to make his way down the far side of the mountain and had found shelter in some rocks where he intended to lay up until nightfall. Late in the afternoon an Arab shepherd had stumbled across him by accident. On finding that he was alive and therefore not an object of loot the man had gone away, only to return a few minutes later leading a German patrol.
We could visualise the look of quiet satisfaction on the German Intelligence Officer’s face as he ticked off the last name in his book; 155 Battery, all properly accounted for.
Early in the morning we were called by the Guard Commander, a smart young NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] who looked as if he was hardly out of school. He did not shout “Raus” in Colditz fashion; he apologised in good English for not offering us breakfast. They were not provided with rations for such emergencies, he
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explained, reasonably enough. However, he had borrowed his men’s mugs and was able to give us all a drink of ersatz coffee. While thus engaged he treated us to a little homily on the folly of entering the war on the wrong side. As everyone knew, the real enemy was the Bolsheviks. Time would surely reveal the truth of his words. There was absolutely no possibility of Germany’s being defeated, and the sooner misguided persons like ourselves came to realise this, the better it would be for all concerned.
The truck arrived which was to take us to Bizerta, and he saw us off with a smart salute. We were stiff, dirty, unshaven and hungry, but Magee’s return had brought a revival of spirits. The trauma of battle was receding fast, and the feeling was growing in some of us of a need to do something to redress the balance of our present situation. There was some discussion in the back of the truck as to the best way of disposing of the two guards before jumping out and making a run for it, but nothing transpired. For one thing, the truck was moving too fast. For another, it’s very difficult to get a group of officers to agree on anything, unless some individual, by virtue of rank or outstanding personality, is able to emerge as clear leader.
We arrived at the base camp about noon. The word “camp” is not quite the right one to describe what awaited us there. For the Bizerta camp was nothing more than a cage: just a square of open field on the outskirts of the town with a double barbed wire fence around it. No roof, no tents, no shelter of any kind. No latrines, no ablutions, no cookhouse. Between two and three hundred soldiers and half a dozen officers were already in this cage. The sole supply of water for this body of human beings came from a single standpipe at the gate. When we arrived this was dry, and it remained so for the rest of the day and all that night.
An infantry Captain seemed to have appointed himself senior officer among the prisoners. He was a big man, thirtyish, thick moustache, a shop manager in civil life. He didn’t exactly welcome the new additions to his flock.
“There’s no effing water,” he said. “Hasn’t been any all day. I’ve been on at the Eyeties to get it working, but all they do is waggle their hands and say the Raff have bomba’d the works. Useless little bastards. It’s an effing bad show here all right, I can tell you, ‘Domani’, that’s all you can get out of ’em. Everything’s domani.”
He bullied the Italian Lieutenant in charge of the cage unmercifully.
“Now look here, Tenenty. We want mess-tins, tools, and food, see? Food! Quelque chose amanger, comprenny? And PDQ. Chop chop. This whole show is effing disgraceful. Well, are you the responsible officer or are you not?”
The Italian waved his hands and shrugged hopelessly. It was not that he was being deliberately negligent – the problem was simply far too big for him. He looked near to tears. Any one of us could have felt sorry for him, if we hadn’t been more sorry for ourselves.
There was no food, nor water, for anyone that day. After dark it came on to rain, and for the second night in three we had to endure hours of cold and wet. Ironically enough, next morning the water tap came weakly to life; a long queue of men formed, many of them having to drink from their hands. Then towards midday a truck drew up and deposited a huge iron pot at the gate. A thin macaroni soup slopped about inside it.
The infantry Captain seized the ladle.
“Right, line up,” he shouted. Then to my amazement he served himself a brimming mess-tin full, and rather less to any other who had a container. After this he turned to one of the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] who was standing by, expressionless.
“Right, carry on Sar’nt,” he said airily. “See that every man gets a fair share.”
Feeding two or three hundred men out of a single container was the sort of Biblical task that was no concern of his.
Adversity brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, and perhaps it was this little episode which brought some of the rest of us to our senses. We had already recognised some of our own gunners among the soldiers, men whom we knew would respond to instructions from their own officers. The infantry Captain was quietly deposed. We divided the men up into platoons, and shared out the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] among them. We got parties organised for digging and other fatigues. Gradually, the harassed look faded from the Italian Lieutenant’s face. When he was presented, not with abuse but with a piece of paper showing by numbers and drawings a list of the items needed: shovels, forks, dixies, disinfectant – he began to look quite enthusiastic. Within twenty-four hours he had provided them all. Better still, he found some blankets; thin, threadbare, half-sized they might be, poor things indeed compared with the genuine grey British article, but more than welcome all the same.
We stayed in that field for a week, without ever having enough water for a wash, let alone a shave, and on the same semi-starvation rations. If that doesn’t sound a long time – and many prisoners in the desert, both Allied and enemy, had to spend up to a month in the cages – it certainly felt like it.
At the end of the week the first batch of prisoners, including all the officers, was lined up for transport to Italy. The Italian Lieutenant was there to see us go. He ran up and down the line, fussing like a mother hen with her chickens.
“Auguri, auguri,” he kept saying. He even tried to shake hands. And then, on a sudden thought, he came out with the only words of English he knew.
“Forra you da war isa over, si?” His smile was pure envy.
For some of us, he was wrong. But that’s a different part of the story.
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From BRITISH ARMY REVIEW, No. 62, August 1979
The French Hut at Campo 66
Lieutenant Commander G S Stavert MBE, RN (Ret’d)
“Dear Folks,” I wrote, squeezing the writing up to get as much as possible on to the single page of the Airgraph form, “By now you will have heard that at least the worst is over. We were overrun by German tanks and most of the Battery were put in the bag, but we gave them a good scrap for it first. Please note that it was the Germans who captured us, and not repeat not the Italians – they only handed us over to the Italians afterwards for safe keeping. We are at Campo 66, which is at xxxxx near xxxxx. Magee and I are sharing a hut with a crowd of French Foreign Legion officers. I shall be able to write to you once a fortnight. Much love. Keep well, G.”
Campo 66, whose location the Italian censor had for some reason thought it necessary to delete, was outside the town of Capua, some twenty miles north of Naples. It was used as a staging point for prisoners brought over from North Africa, before moving them on to more permanent camps up country. Seen from the outside, the rows of wooden barrack huts and barbed wire fencing looked every bit as gloomy and depressing as you might expect. But, once he’s on the inside, the prisoner doesn’t see his gaol with quite the same eyes; the horizon draws in, the world contracts, and the human creature, adaptable being that he is, adjusts himself to his new environment as far as physical conditions and his temperament will allow.
For officer prisoners at Capua the world was a rectangle of flat, sandy ground measuring about eighty yards by sixty. Inside this enclosure were four single-storey huts, an ablution shed and a crude cookhouse. Huts 1 and 2 housed British officers, between forty and fifty in each. Hut 3 held a similar number of French officers, members of a Regular battalion who had been picked up in the winter fighting in the Tunisian mountains around Pont du Fahs. Hut 4 was reserved as a dining-room, canteen and general “admin” building.
At first the international boundaries were strictly preserved. The French officers never visited the British, and the British never visited the French. In March 1943 however, when a consignment which included the survivors from Sidi Nsir came over, the numbers became too great for the British huts to absorb. Magee and I, as the junior members of the new intake, were detailed to be the overflow and drafted into Hut 3. At first, somewhat naturally, we felt rather put upon. To have to muck in with a crowd of strangers, and foreigners at that, went against the grain. But the French were courteous and friendly. They made space for the extra two places without complaint, even though there was less than a metre between beds already. They showed us how to construct shelves for our few belongings out of bits of string and cardboard from the Red Cross boxes (for a bed and a stool was all the furniture you got). They even shared a cup of precious tea and generally treated us as companions in misfortune.
The initial reaction of the average POW, once he’s reached the static situation of his first proper camp, is to revert to childhood. His spirit has already been weakened by the shock of battle and the privations he has endured in the period immediately following his capture. Now, suddenly, he finds the last vestiges of responsibility taken from him: his responsibility for carrying on the war, for looking after his juniors, even for finding the ordinary necessities of life. True to form, the new intake at Capua lay on their beds all day, neglected their appearance, and went generally to pot. The expression ‘drop-out’ had not then been invented, but that is what the new men became. Like today’s college students, they all grew beards. In many cases this was not altogether avoidable. I had only the clothes which I’d already been living in for three weeks. I had no razor. Toilet gear was obtainable from the Campo canteen, but at ten shillings for a single blade (at home they were less than a shilling a packet), and an Italian blade at that – you were lucky if you got one decent shave out of the two edges – I was going to have to save up for a month before I could even get started.
The French had already passed this stage, if indeed they ever experienced it. They were Le Troisieme Etranger, and proud of it. They had standards to keep up, and didn’t mind showing it. Besides, they all seemed to have plenty of spare shirts. It was not many days before Magee and I
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began to take our cue from them and smarten ourselves up a bit.
The hut was presided over from his bed at the end near the door by the senior Major, a rotund, fatherly-looking man of about forty-five. Discipline was excellent; his authority was never questioned, so he had no need ever to exert it. “Bon joor, mong Commondong,” Magee and I would say politely each morning. ” Bonjour l’Etudiant. Bonjour Monsieur Maggie,” he would reply with a friendly nod. They were keen on nicknames and I became The Student from the day we arrived, but Magee was always Maggie to everybody.
There were two other Majors. Le Medecin, whose real name I never got to know, was a slim, dark, fastidious man in his late thirties, with delicate hands and a toothbrush moustache. Like most of the Frenchmen he was a heavy cigarette smoker, and the Red Cross ration was not nearly enough to satisfy his needs. Every morning, by arrangement with the guards, a young soldier from the troops’ compound would come in and silently present him with a packet. He would then lay out the daily supply on his shelf, so many each for morning, afternoon and evening. When he had smoked one down to about half an inch he would spike it on a pin and carry on for a few more puffs. Then when it seemed that ignition of his moustache was imminent he would expertly flick off the glowing tip and put the microscopic butt away in a little tin. By the end of the day he had accumulated enough to roll one extra for the morning. Like Sherlock Holmes’s pre-breakfast pipe, his first smoke of the day was composed of the previous day’s leftovers.
Le Medecin shared parcels with Maurice, the Adjutant, a young Captain who was every bit as tidy and self-composed as he. The third Major was Le Commandant Lebrun – but I’ll come to him later. The remaining officers ranged from middle-aged Captains down to Lieutenants in their twenties. Not one of their senior officers could speak a single word of English. Nor could many of the others. Those few who could, however, spoke it very well. Magee and I made do in a rough and ready way with our School Certificate French, but there seemed to be no equivalent of this level of attainment among the French. They were either fluent or, mostly, they had no English at all.
The great thing about the French hut was that it was organised. It ran to a system. It was peaceful.
The daily routine began with roll call. This was a movable event which took place at some time between 0800 and 0900, depending, we supposed, upon when the Capitano had got up. After roll call, those who had not yet managed to wash joined the ablution queue. Washbasins were provided on a scale of one to about thirty men and, of these, at least one would not be working. (Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he was a failure as a water engineer.) Then, the French hut was tidied up. Every officer stripped his own bed, folded his blankets and stacked them neatly at the foot in proper barrack style, clearing the rest of his kit from the floor and stowing it on the bed or on his home-made shelf. Then two French soldiers came in from the other compound and swept out the hut from end to end. By 1000 hours the hut, despite its forty-odd beds, was looking clean and almost spacious.
The British huts, on the other hand, always had the appearance of a badly-run school dormitory in which perhaps a couple of grenades had gone off. Not a single bed was made down; most of them were just as the occupants had left them when they got out that morning. The floor would be littered with clothing, boots, Red Cross boxes, half-empty food tins, bits of rotting cabbage and other material, supposed consumable, salvaged from the cookhouse dustbins. Some men would be eating, some stood about wrangling, some just lay on their beds for hours on end. At the far end of one hut Blanco White, a Quartermaster, was making an elaborate cooking stove out of empty food tins. Bang, bang, bang, he went, hour after hour, adding his mite to the general din and confusion. He was still working on it when Magee and I moved on in May.
It was a relief to return to the peace and quiet of the French hut after visiting our friends in Hut 1. By mid-morning it would be largely deserted, most of the occupants having proceeded to the dining hut for the morning’s activity. The professionals of the Legion, having long since discovered that war is ninety-nine per cent boredom, had devised their own way of filling the empty hours at Sidi-bel-Abbes and elsewhere. They played cards. All day and every day, they played. Each officer had at least two packs of playing cards in his kit. The routine was always the same: in the morning they played patience; in the afternoon it was gin rummy; then in the evening they made up their fours for the serious business of the day, Le Bridge.
One man who might have remained behind in the hut was Le Maestro, the Bandmaster. A mild-mannered little man with a bushy black beard, he spent hours at the foot of his bed working away at abstruse exercises in harmony. His working desk would be two stools, his manuscript paper a toilet roll. With pencil and straight-edge he ruled out his staves on each sheet with meticulous accuracy, giving as much care and attention to this preliminary stage as he did to the exercise itself.
One other who was not in the habit of playing patience was the third Major. Le commandant Lebrun was a tall, spare man of about forty, with a florid, mobile countenance and prominent veins on his forehead which stood out as if he lived in a state of permanent mental stress. Dressed always in his field uniform of grey jacket, breeches, puttees and soft boots, he could invariably be found pacing the hut, alone. Up and down the aisle between the beds,
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hands clasped behind his back; left, right, left, right, about turn, to and fro, he carried on his solitary patrol, his thoughts heaven knows where. He spent most of his days in this fashion. Often his footsteps would be the first sounds you heard on waking, for he was always up long before anyone else. He never joined the marchers who sweated it out in the compound, pounding two by two in the sunshine. He never came on the escorted walk which, apart from parcels day, was the high spot of the week. He took his exercise by himself, in the hut.
He seemed to have no special friends, and his forbidding appearance did not encourage conversation. It seemed the form just to accept him as a harmless part of the scenery. Until, one day late in April, a further intake arrived. The beds were squeezed up a little more, and the population of the French hut was enriched by the addition of four Guards officers. They wore Eighth Army gear, with LRDG [Long Range Desert Group] on their shoulder flashes.
Now Guards officers, as we all know, live on a different plane from the rest of us, and are not subject to the same inhibitions. One of these was a merchant banker and another a Baronet, which I suppose represents a fair cross-section. Beyond passing the time of day politely with their immediate neighbours they did not socialise much with the lesser orders. Le commandant Lebrun, however, was a phenomenon worthy of further examination. One morning a week or so after their arrival, therefore, the astounded Major was halted in his tracks by a loud, high-pitched voice from one of the nearby beds.
“Pardong,” it said, “May poorkwa le Commondong marsh toojoors dawns lar hut, may nalley par jamay sure le marsh dawns tar comparney aveck lays owtrers offiziay, see voo play?”
Lebrun glared. His eyes bulged. His hands clasped and unclasped. His face turned dark, his lip curled, his veins stood out like pieces of string. When the words came he spat them out like broken teeth.
“C’est parce que, je ne veux pas marcher avec un monsieur italien qui porte un fusil a cote de moi!”
They left him alone after that.
Around mid-morning Magee and I usually made our first mug of tea. We relied a lot on tea to try and persuade our stomachs that a normal quantity of food was on its way down. We generally made our first brew at about eleven, and then boiled up the same lot of tea-leaves for a second pot after lunch. At tea-time we made a fresh brew, re-cooking these leaves for the evening drink. Treated with care in this way the Red Cross supply could just last a man for the week.
All private cooking had, of course, to be done out of doors. The French were very good at making open-air stoves out of mud and a brick or two, with bits of barbed wire for the griddle. They were far superior to our own crude boy-scout efforts, so we soon gave up the struggle and used theirs instead. Easily the best of the French stoves was Le Maestro’s. It was a model of neatness and elegance, yet it had a draught like a steam-engine. At most times of the day you would find a queue of three or four men lined up at this stove, with perhaps Le Maestro himself among them, a resigned look on his face as he patiently awaited his turn to use his own apparatus.
Now and again some oaf would knock part of the structure away with his boot, or break the grill with too heavy a load. There would then be a period of irritable waiting for the inventor to repair the damage. Nobody ever owned up, but messages would come through from the other hut. “Look here, old Bandy’s stove has bust again. Ask him when he’s going to get it mended, will you?”
From time to time one of the Frenchmen would decide to do a little metalwork. Before starting the job he would gather everything he needed, place it all convenient to hand, and then seat himself at the end of his bed, stool between his knees, so that his task could be accomplished in proper physical comfort. Then he would take a cylindrical biscuit tin, remove the bottom, open the seam, flatten, cut and shape the metal till in a couple of hours or so he had fashioned an immaculate little cigarette case, complete with hinged lid, as clean and neatly turned as a machine-made article. Meanwhile, in the distance, the sounds of Blanco bashing away could still be heard, perhaps it was a complete kitchen range he was building, not just an oven.
And so to lunch. There was no seating in the dining hut, so we had to pick up our stools and cart them in with us. For anyone who has a taste for Italian food, it may be of interest to list the daily POW menu:
Breakfast … Coffee substitute, one cup. Rolls, small, one.
Lunch … Soup, thin, dishes, one.
Supper … As lunch.
(Other ranks got this free, but officers suffered the additional insult of having their pay docked six shillings a day messing charges.) It requires no effort of imagination to appreciate just how much the Red Cross parcels meant. They were issued on a basis of one between two, twice a week. Both kinds, English and Canadian, provided marvellous variety of essentials but our greatest shortage was of bread, or at least of grain in some form. It was a matter for endless discussion with one’s partner as to how to allocate the day’s one bread roll: whether to eat half at lunch and half at supper, or scoff it all at once and starve till tomorrow, or to scrape out the middle to use in making rissoles.
Magee and I used to save up most of the Red Cross food for a meal in the evening. Magee kept the opened tins on a shelf behind his bed. I often wondered if he ever sneaked in and stole a sliver of cheese or a dab of condensed milk when no-one was looking, like I did. Almost anything could happen to
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a tin of corned beef. We would mix it up with breadcrumbs, broken biscuits, bits of old cabbage stalk – anything to give it more bulk and weight than it originally possessed. Men would diligently search the rubbish heap behind the cookhouse, hoping to pick up the occasional potato peeling from which a bit of sustenance could still be scraped.
The Frenchmen, on the other hand, did not strive so desperately for sheer volume. They preferred to use the Italian meals as a basis, and supplement them with Red Cross food on the spot. A tin of bully was a nice, compact package, and they preferred to use the contents in their natural state, rather than convert them into a large but messy hash. For the most part they cooked comparatively little. I used to wonder if it took up too much time from the cards.
The afternoon hours were those which dragged the most. We often talked about escape. Magee had a scheme which appealed to me. Neither of us thought much of the usual idea of travelling north and getting across the border into Switzerland. His plan was much simpler. “We’d make for the coast, near Naples, say, and pinch a little boat. We could sail over to Bizerta, if our chaps had got there. It’s only ninety miles across. Or Malta, even. Have to go round Sicily, of course. No problem – turn left past Palermo, you couldn’t miss it -.”
Neither of us had ever sailed a small boat before. We had no charts or compass. Still, it was a grand scheme.
The French never discussed escape. They had no Escape Committee of their own, and they never bothered the British one. You got the impression that the question had been discussed at some earlier period, and duly rejected. They seemed to have a way of making up their minds on a course of action, of rationalising the arguments and, once a conclusion had been reached, of putting the former objections and alternatives out of mind, so that everyone appeared satisfied with the decision and committed to it.
“Echapper? Comment?” Shrug. “C’est impossible.” End of discussion.
Perhaps they were right. It was not so much that they were resigned to their fate, as that they had learned how to accommodate to it. Captivity was a fact of life, and they adjusted accordingly. Besides, it was not their fault that they had had to oppose German tanks with horses and obsolete artillery. In any case, it was confidently expected that the Vichy Government, whom they all despised, would in due course repatriate them. So why bother?
The British, deep down, never really accepted this point of view. Hence their untidiness, the abortive escape schemes, the sudden outbursts of ill-temper. We tried to do useful things. We gave lectures, organised brains trusts, learnt the Morse code. We started a choir. It was not easy, without any music, to conscript members. Eventually, with the aid of some of the rugger players, we managed to construct a two-part rendition of Cwm Rhondda, with bathtub harmonies –
Bread of hea-hea-ven,
Bread of hea-hea-ven,
Feed me till I want no more -haw-haw-HAW…
The French held auditions, from which they selected about half their volunteers. After a couple of practices the sounds which emerged from the dining hut were of such beguiling liquidity that even the dedicated marchers stopped to listen –
Le jour et la nuit
Compared with us they sounded like the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Perhaps they included singing, as well as contract bridge, in the syllabus at St Cyr.
Easter Sunday was coming, so it was decided to put on a bit of a show, just to show the Italians that we could still do it if we wanted. I slept on my one and only pair of trousers. I even started to work on my boots. But what I really wanted, almost more than anything else, was a collar-attached shirt. In those pre-nylon days shirts were made from wool or cotton and were almost invariably collarless. Other ranks wore the battle-dress tunic done up to the neck, but officers were collar-and-tie men. With one shirt and a set of clean collars you could keep up appearances all week, but with no collar at all you felt horribly undressed and working-class. Tropical shirts, which were designed to be worn open-necked and jacketless, were of course made with collars, but First Army had not been issued with tropical kit. Sweating damply under the Mediterranean sun in our thick green shirts and heavy serge trousers, with our braces tied belt-fashion, we felt uncomfortable, ungainly, unmanly almost. We envied the Eighth Army men in their cool-looking khaki drill, their shorts and their swanky desert boots. We felt that we were the amateurs and they the professionals – an impression which they themselves took no trouble to discourage.
Until that Easter Day, when the French succeeded in upstaging everyone. They didn’t so much come on parade as make an entrance. Every one of their officers was gorgeous in full Service dress, complete with Number One uniform, polished buttons, burnished leggings, coloured kepi, everything. They fell in immaculately, standing stiff as a row of de Gaulles while the rest of us goggled at them. Where had they got all this kit from? Magee and I had known that they were better provided with spares than we were, but not to this extent. What kind of a battle was it, that had enabled each one of them afterwards to walk into the bag carrying two packed suitcases? We asked Maurice, but he was vague. “C’etait arrange,” was all he would say.
Six o’clock. The bugle blew, the second dish of soup was served, then Magee and I made our own meal. A small tin of salmon (John West’s, of course; nothing but the best went into those Canadian
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parcels) ground up with a few cream crackers and cooked over Le Maestro’s fire, could be made into quite acceptable fishcakes. It meant using the last of our precious butter ration, and we had to chisel them off the pan at that, but it was worth it.
Meanwhile the French hut came into its own. Tables were brought in, blankets spread, the cards produced and partnerships settled for Le Bridge. The games went on without a break until lights out at ten-thirty. Sometimes they played with single tables, but very often they ran duplicate tournaments, carrying the boards from one table to the other with as much care as waiters in a General’s mess. In the smoky, dimly lit hut with its crowded beds and festooned walls, we forgot for a few hours the floodlights and the wire outside and lost ourselves in the cheerful company and excited shouts of the players.
All the Frenchmen could play, and some of them were very good. Easily the best of them all was Commandant Lebrun; tres fort, he was, not to say formidable. It was an education just to watch him. Here at last was an outlet for some of his bottled-up nervous energy, something he could get his intellectual teeth into. With the cards in his hand his eyes lit up, animation spread across his features. He didn’t even bother to sort them into suits, but sat drumming his fingers, impatiently waiting his turn to bid. When playing the hand himself he seldom went through more than three rounds in detail; then down would go his own hand on the table – the missing trumps all covered, every finesse and cross-lead worked out, five diamonds called and made with no possibility of argument. When his turn came to be dummy he would leave his seat and stand breathing down his partner’s neck, silently willing the poor man to make the correct play. When the opponents played the hand he flipped out his discards with studied contempt, and was massively scornful afterwards:
“Et pourquoi n’as-tu pas joue le trefle, mon capitaine? Mon partenaire a joue le roi; il faut donc que la reine soit a moi. Pah!-.”
So, the evening at last went by till the bugle sounded once more, the tables and cards were put away, and one by one the French hut prepared for bed. Those who had pyjamas got into them, those who had not got into their spare shirts, and those who had no spare shirt got into the blankets in nothing. “Goodnight Maurice.” “Goodnight Maestro.” “Bonne nuit l’Etudiant.” The sounds in the hut died down. It was silent out in the compound too, save for the occasional footsteps of a lone sufferer hurrying towards the bog. The glare from the floodlights shone in through the open windows casting barred shadows on the opposite wall, a renewed reminder of our status. You closed your eyes and thought of home, food, girls, food, FOOD; you fought your battle over again for the umpteenth time, waiting for sleep to come.
But not quite yet. Two beds away from me lived a wizened little man with a trim spade beard, known as L’Ancien. L’Ancien was harmless but he had a routine which was all his own. His idea of sharing a parcel was to open all the tins the moment it arrived and cut everything in half. He was good at opening tins and took a lot of trouble over it, slicing both ends off the can so that the meat roll slid out in a neat cylinder, instead of having to be dug out piecemeal. Then out would come his Swiss ten-bladed knife and with a single slice the two halves would fall apart, exact to the millimetre. He even counted out the sheets of toilet paper, “Une pour moi, une pour vous…. “
In particular, L’Ancien liked a little snack last thing at night; just a couple of digestive biscuits, after he’d got into bed. You could hear him getting out his tin, rustling the paper lining, plonking the biscuits, one, two, on his plate. Then other sounds: chomp-chomp, snuffle, glump; chomp-chomp, snuffle, glump – there was genuine appreciation in it. Beds creaked, bodies stirred, a muttered “Merde” came from somewhere down the line. But nothing put him off….
Being a prisoner of war may have had its advantages for Harry Flashman, but it’s not a state to be recommended, even in “civilised” war. It’s like being out of cigarettes on a Saturday night in Wales, when you suddenly realise that tomorrow is a Sunday and everywhere will be shut. But the day after that is a Sunday too, and the next, and the next…. It’s the indefiniteness of your sentence which is the worst feature, I think.
In a couple of months Magee and I were moved on to Campo 49, in the Lombardy plain. The French stayed behind, still expecting to be repatriated. We said goodbye to our particular friends, but never went to the extent of exchanging names and addresses. Somehow it didn’t seem an appropriate moment, but I’ve often wished since that we had done. So far as it was possible to enjoy anything at Capua, we had enjoyed their company, and I think benefited from it. Of one thing I was quite sure. Next time, if there was a next time, I’d make certain that one item in my survival kit – besides a clean shirt, that is – would be a pack of playing cards.
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[Map: Detailed map of Emilia-Romagna, centred on Bologna. Going up to Venezia [Venice] in the north, and down to Firenze [Florence] and Siena in the south.]
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[Map: Detailed map of the coast of Emilia-Romagna, the Adriatic Sea, and what is now the north-western part of Croatia.]
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GOODBYE CAMPO 49 (A Slow March through Occupied Italy)
This is a true story. All the events took place just as I have described them. One or two names have been altered, but no character has actually been invented.
I am grateful to the Editor of the British Army Review for permission to include material in the first three Chapters which has previously appeared in the Review.
GSS. [Geoffrey Stavert]
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1. SIDI NSIR, 26 FEBRUARY 1943.
At six o’clock, just as the light was beginning to fade, the tanks came in. Until then it had been a good battle. All day we had managed to hold them off, firing round after round of gunfire at about 3000 yards range. In between we had endured mortar and machine-gun fire and strafing by fighter-bombers, but the tanks had kept their distance. So long as they did, we felt we were in with an even chance; another half hour and it would be dark – with any luck then they’d call it off. But then came the ominous report from the OP [Observation Post] that the tanks had started to move. The gunners exchanged nervous glances, and shifted themselves a little closer in behind the gunshields. For the first time, a finger of doubt about the outcome began to creep in…
The early dash for Tunis in the autumn of 1942 had petered out through lack of men and supplies, aggravated by the onset of bad weather. The Germans had managed to set up blocking positions across the three main routes through the northern mountains: on Green Hill and Bald Hill in the Sedjenane valley, on Longstop Hill above Medjez, and in the hills to the west of Mateur. A period of temporary stalemate had set in, in which relatively slender British and German forces sat in static positions peering towards one another through the curtains of winter rain, while the race to build up reinforcements went
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on behind them. Away to the east Rommell’s Afrika Korps was methodically back-pedalling towards Mareth in front of the advancing Eighth Army. General von Arnim, in command in Tunisia, was flying troops from Italy into Bizerta as fast as he could pack them into his aircraft. On our side we had the French and the Americans to the south; more convoys were on their way from England, and more Americans were pushing their way eastward from Algeria and Morocco. Sooner or later a crunch was bound to come; but what you seldom feel, in this kind of situation, is that it will fall on you yourself.
Into this arena, at the beginning of February 1943, came a battalion of infantry, the 5th Hampshires, and their supporting Gunners, 155 Field Battery RA. Both were fresh out from the UK; a fortnight by troopship to Algiers, an eighteen-hour dash by destroyer to Bone, a week in a transit camp sorting out vehicles and equipment, then a night move over the mountains into Tunisia. They were assigned together to form an advance patrolling base at a place called Sidi Nsir.
Sidi Nsir was no more than a single building, a halt on the single-track railway which threaded its way eastward through the hills from Beja to Mateur. The battery moved up into position overnight. In the early morning light the gunners, weary after the long drive in the darkness, gazed around them apprehensively at their new surroundings. A grey, rain-soaked sky revealed a strange, bare landscape of undulating moorland intersected by steep, rocky hills called djebels, with unpronounceable second names. From Sidi Nsir station the road wound right and then left
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round the shoulder of a low hill, forming a wide s-bend astride which the battery stood: the four 25-pounders of E Troop in rear, lining the road, and F Troop a few hundred yards forward, out of sight over the crest. Battalion Headquarters of the 5th was in the station. D Company occupied the rising ground between our two Troops. The remaining companies were sited to guard the flanks and front of the position. Before us a tumbled mass of hills blocked the way to Mateur and the Tunis plain. Behind us lay the wide green valley to Beja, limp and soggy after its winter wetting, with the solitary road snaking down the middle; a lonely, Scottish Highlands type of road, single width, with very few passing places. Four miles back was Hampshire Farm, where B Echelon and the vehicles were. Twelve miles back, in front of Beja, were the nearest troops of the British First Army.
Away to the right rose Hill 609 – it was easier to call them by their heights (in metres) than to get your tongue round their Arabic names – a rocky djebel from the top of which F Troop’s OP [Observation Post] Officer could see nearly all the way to Tunis, forty miles away. And all around, on either side of the valley and beyond, the lesser djebels pointed their sharp-ridged backbones to the sky, rearing and twisting in saw-toothed silhouettes like the spines of some fabulous monster. E Troop had a rear OP [Observation Post] which was on a knife-edge. You could sit on the top with one leg in 46 Division’s area and the other in 78 Division’s, and from it you could see more djebels at once than from any other point in northern Tunisia. It looked what it was, a country well suited to fighting a war over.
Soon, the petrol cookers were roaring and a hot drink
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brought new life to tired limbs. The guns were properly sited and laid on their zero-lines, and then it was time for the real work to begin: the digging. Whenever the army settles itself for a few hours in one place it starts to burrow its way into the ground as if consumed by a perpetual urge to find coal. Digging in the Tunisian soil was like thrusting your spade into an exceptionally solid Christmas pudding. Large masses of it clung tackily to the blade and refused to be thrown off. Worse, it stuck to your boots in such glutinous lumps that after a couple of days you felt you were developing ballet dancer’s leg muscles. But shelter was an immediate consideration. Not a tree, not a bush rose to break the force of the elements. It was like camping out on the top of Shap Fell, say – without tents. Gradually, as the days went by, a neat rectangular Command Post, properly sandbagged, grew out of the earth, and each gun acquired a semi-circular pit with lean-to shelter attached. By the end of the first fortnight we were beginning to feel quite experienced campaigners.
There were a few local inhabitants, but we tended to regard them as beings from another world. Here and there a little huddle of beehive huts showed where they lived, and now and then a barefoot boy could be seen tending a few dozen goats. Mostly they seemed to live at night, for nobody could have slept through the racket which their awful dogs kept up from dusk till dawn. In fact none of us knew quite what to do about the Arabs. Occasionally a moth-eaten specimen would come wandering through the lines, to be greeted by the customary challenge:
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“Oi, Abdul! Any erfs?”
Abdul would make what passed for him as a smile, and snarl something unintelligible – whether Arabic or French, it was all the same to the gunners. In due course the deal would be done, the eggs handed over, and he would depart on his way clutching his tin of bully. If his way happened to lead along the road towards the enemy, nobody thought of stopping him. In any case, the enemy already knew where we were; he sent a couple of Messerschmitts over every day to look at us.
We got very little real news about the actual fighting during this period. There were rumours that the Americans had run into trouble at a place called Kasserine, but our maps only covered the local area and the name meant nothing. Word spread that the new and fearsome Tiger tanks had definitely been identified in Tunisia. It was true enough, but the story improved in the telling. Someone had come across the mark of a single enormous tank track about four feet wide running down the middle of a road, and had thought it must belong to some novel one-track vehicle that Jerry had invented – until the other track was discovered, yards away in the field alongside. But the OPs [Observation Posts], manned day and night, hadn’t yet seen a single German. We had all points of the landscape ranged on and registered as targets, but the enemy remained somewhere “over there”.
One evening, E Troop indulged in some amateur counter-battery work. It was just after dark, and John, the Gun Position Officer, and I were sitting in the Command Post censoring letters. John had been in the Home Office. He was a keen amateur goalkeeper, the mainstay of the Regimental soccer team,
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and an unfailingly cheerful companion. He and Ken, the Troop Commander, had joined the battery together and been firm friends for a long time. I was the new boy, the junior of the trio. Suddenly, as we sat there, there came a soft rustling noise overhead, followed by a heavy thump in the valley behind. We listened. From far off over the hills in front came a faint, short thud like a very soft tap on a tom-tom. A long pause; ten, twenty, thirty seconds, then that whispering sound again, and another explosion. Nearer, this time.
Surely they weren’t shelling us? Nobody had said anything about German artillery before.
Two more shells came over. Fortunately, it looked as if they were trying to find the station, not us. Hard luck on the infanteers, of course. Still –
“Get on to F Troop’s OP [Observation Post],” said John. “If 609 can spot the flash and get a bearing on it, all we have to do is count up the time… Any idea what the speed of sound is? It should be in the Manual somewhere -“
“One thousand and ninety feet per second at nought degrees, rising by two feet per second for every degree Centigrade rise in temperature,” I said. (Once a schoolmaster, always a schoolmaster, and science had been my subject.)
“What the hell does all that mean?”
“Well, it’s a pretty cool night, say ten degrees, that’s twenty – say eleven hundred and ten feet per second.”
“Jesus… Oh, hello, is that you, Maggie? I say, we’re being shot at down here… No, nothing much, but they might hit something by accident. Can you spot anything of the flash
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from up there?… Right, I’ll hang on… Owe seven six, I’ve got it. Is that compass or magnetic, I mean, is it compass or true?… OK, owe seven six true. How about the time?… Three two seconds flash to sound?… Right. Yes. Thought we’d let them have one back, just to show there’s no ill-feeling… Call you back. Roger out.”
He was rubbing his hands with glee.
“Wait till they hear of this at Larkhill. They’ll make us both Gunnery Instructors on the spot.”
“I’ve worked it out,” I said. “Thirty-two seconds, you said? That makes it just under twelve thousand from Maggie’s OP [Observation Post]. Eleven eight forty, to be exact. That’s some way off -“
“Have to use super charge, that’s all. Now, where’s the map?”
With a protractor and string we laid off the bearing from 609’s position and marked off the distance with a scale. Then we measured the line and range from the gun position.
“It’s over twelve thousand,” I said.
“We can do it. We’ll give ’em a round of gunfire.”
The four 25-pounders roared out just as another shell landed, this time well away on the far side of the valley. We watched as the echoes rumbled round and back from the hills. Four packets of high explosive went winging their way into the darkness. What happened when they landed we should never know. They might hurt somebody, they might not; that would be someone else’s affair. We had exercised our license to kill, and we re-entered the Command Post feeling well satisfied with ourselves. There was no more shelling, though.
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A few days later, almost without warning, the war came to Sidi Nsir. At 0600 hours on the 26th, E Troop got off a round of gunfire before it was fully light.
“It’s tanks,” the OP [Observation Post] signaller said.
In the next hour the gunners, working like slaves, had expended close on 200 rounds per gun. Bit by bit the news filtered down from the OP. During the night German infantry, with tanks in support, had advanced down both the road and the railway so as to converge on the Battalion area from two directions. It was an attack in strength, not just a skirmish. Already the OP on 609 was out of action. On the left E Troop’s OP had been forced to pull back, but could still observe. We were firing at ranges between 3000 and 4000 yards.
At about 0700 there was a lull and we managed to get up some breakfast. For most it was to be their last meal for two days. Then soon after 0730 the enemy began to move in again, and for the next couple of hours both Troops were practically continuously in action. The targets were mainly infantry concentrations; so far the tanks were being withheld. The number of tanks was uncertain; at least half a dozen, the OP had said.
Between shoots there was endless work to be done: empties to be cleared away, boxes stacked, fresh ammunition made ready, more to be unloaded as it came up in trucks from the farm. It was laborious, muscle-straining work, but the gunners turned to with a will. There is a kind of grim satisfaction in watching your pile of ammunition steadily diminishing as round after round is dispatched towards the unseen target. A shoot resolves itself into a job of heavy manual work, with little or no
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thought of the death or destruction resulting at the far end. You begin to feel that war is a matter of expending material, and that the one who gets through his stock of explosives first will be the winner. So they fired away in good heart, and swore they could keep it up all day if necessary.
By now there was a continuous clatter of small-arms fire from the area of D Company and the infantry over the hill in front. To add to the general racket three Me 109s came over and joined in ground-strafing. Then at about ten o’clock the enemy began mortaring. The bombs crashed in a swirl of black smoke on the hillside, sending pieces of metal and rock whizzing through the air with a highly unpleasant skirling noise. In a short time they had the range of F Troop. E Troop, fortunately still untouched, was much occupied in trying to deal with them. But no sooner did we get the range of one target than it seemed that the mortar section moved, only to open up from somewhere else a little later. Soon they were carpeting the area of D Company between the two Troops, and a new and more serious problem was revealed; they had cut the ammunition supply route to F Troop. By midday F Troop was silent, the last of their HE [High Explosive] expended. They were compelled to wait, husbanding their Armour Piercing anti-tank shot until the time for this last resort should arrive.
But still the tanks did not come on, seemingly reluctant to pierce the thin curtain of HE [High Explosive] being put up by E Troop. The tempo of the battle continued unabated. The Messerschmitts came back, but fortunately seemed unable to get a good run in at the guns. In mid-afternoon a fresh development arose. Bullets
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were heard whistling over E Troop from an entirely foreign direction, and a search through binoculars revealed that the enemy had got a machine-gun on to the hill slopes at the right of the valley and was engaging the guns at a range of about a mile. It didn’t seem right that he should be allowed to get away with such an impertinence. We swivelled round Nos 3 and 4 guns, laid them on the target by eye, set on the approximate range, and told them to fire at will, using their telescopic sights. A ranging round, a visual correction, a few more rounds, and the machine-gun ceased abruptly. Immense satisfaction all round; for the first and only time in their lives the gunners had actually been able to observe their own fall of shot.
Next, a report came in that outflanking infantry had cut the road to Hampshire Farm. The position was now effectively surrounded, and no more ammunition could get through. But there was plenty left on the troop position, and the gunners were too busy to think much about their situation. The afternoon wore on, with no slackening in the pace of the battle. Slowly, the range was dropping; 3000 yards, 2500, 2000. Yet still the tanks held off. Maybe if we wished hard enough, they’d go away altogether…
Six o’clock came, and dusk was falling. From somewhere a brew of tea appeared. Once again, the OP [Observation Post] telephone buzzed.
“GPO [Gun Position Officer], sir.”
“John?” Ken’s voice, quiet as ever, held a strange new note. “The tanks are moving. Looks as if they’re coming in.”
Fire orders followed, and tiring gunners once more flogged their muscles into activity. Away went another ten rounds, then
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the OP [Observation Post] came on the line again.
“They’re moving still. Five of them, fanning out towards Freddie Troop. Another minute and they’ll be out of my sight. I can’t help you any more. Good luck -“
So. It was to be a showdown, then. No way of avoiding it. Even if the Quads had been up and the road clear, to pull out now, with the Hampshires looking on, was unthinkable. Well, the odds were five to four at F Troop. Pity it couldn’t have been five against eight. What would it be when they got here?
Once more the OP [Observation Post] spoke.
“It’s not five tanks now. There are seventeen.”
And as John yelled “Tank Alert!” into the Tannoy, we heard the Troop Commander’s voice for the last time that day:
“There are now thirty-two tanks.”
I went out and made a round of the guns. The men crouched behind their shields, tensely awaiting the unknown; their first real experience of bullets coming the wrong way. To say they were quietly confident might be stretching a point – they were certainly quiet. I didn’t tell them how many tanks there were.
I decided that as Troop Leader I would concentrate my attention on the left-hand pair of guns, not uninfluenced by the fact that a useful ditch ran down the slope behind them. Half way along this ditch Battery Sergeant-Major Green, the only regular soldier in the Troop, was setting up a Bren gun. Tanks or not, he was going to have a crack at them somehow. Two brave souls came struggling out of the Battery Command Post dugout lugging between them the Boys Anti-Tank Rifle. This legendary weapon (“Right now, gentlemen, what we’re going on with today
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is the Boys Auntie-Tank Rifle. Right? Right. Right now the characteristics of this weapon is, it is light an’ mobile, capable of delivering a ‘igh and accurate rate of fire with the employment of few men,” recited the elderly Bombardier who had been our instructor at Ilkley) was faithfully carried about in one of the trucks on every exercise, but nobody had ever seen one fired. (Nor had the Bombardier.) The main thing was, apparently, to avoid breaking your shoulder when it recoiled. Well, they were going to give it a try.
The crackle of small-arms fire was swamped in a sudden roar of heavier metal as F Troop opened up in their last act of defiance against the enemy. Long minutes passed while we listened, waiting in the gathering gloom for what must inevitably, it seemed now, be their death agonies. Then, as quickly as it began, the noise of gunfire ceased; and strangely, all the other firing stopped too, as if the remaining combatants, like the Russians are said to have done at Balaclava, had by common consent turned to watch the last act of the drama being played out. In the sudden silence that resulted, we distinctly heard the whine of their engines as the tanks revved up to climb the far side of the hill.
Then, uproar. A noise like a volcano going off at close quarters as tanks and guns opened fire in the same instant. It was impossible to distinguish between the sound of our own guns and that of the enemy’s shells arriving. There was no sense of concussion, as if the two sets of explosions in some way neutralised one another. The air became filled with red streaks of tracer, as the tanks’ machine-guns hosepiped
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everything in sight. A row of little holes appeared across the top of the shield of No 3 gun. The sergeant yelled at his men to keep their heads down. They fired, and the solid shot, its trajectory clearly revealed by its red spark of tracer, struck the front of a Tiger tank a glancing blow and went careering off into space. With a hull-down target and only a frontal shot he had next to no chance of making a kill. I ran down the ditch to No 4, trying not to feel that the tracer which spat into the ground all round was aimed personally at me. But No 4 was already out of action, leaning untidily on a smashed trunnion in the middle of a pile of burning ammunition. Outside the pit a group of figures lay prone and still on the ground.
Back at No 3 there were still men working in the pit, though the shield was now perforated like a pepper-pot. A high velocity shell hit the corner of the Command Post just by my ear. I saw the flash and splinters but didn’t feel the blast at all. A gunner on No 2 collapsed, shot in the legs. Another on No 3 fell into the ditch, his face completely covered in blood. His mate tumbled down beside him, horror-struck.
“What shall I do? What shall I do?” he kept asking.
“Stay with him,” I said. It was the wrong thing to say – I should have ordered him back to his gun, but it seemed the best answer at the time.
Over on the right a most extraordinary thing was happening. The sergeant of No 1 gun, intent like the rest on firing up the slope to his front, had failed completely to observe that the main body of the tank force was coming down upon him by the
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road. The leading tank was already round the corner, not ten yards from his gun muzzle. Its turret was open, the commander leaning out of it, pistol in hand, not bothering to fire. You could almost see the grin on his face.
Yet still the covering tanks lay back on the crest and pounded at the weakening Troop. Each gun-pit now a circle of flames wherein Dante-esque figures ducked and lay, as one after another the open boxes of cordite charges burst like giant Roman candles, sending columns of black smoke upwards, tinged with red. A direct hit on No 3 had folded up its shield like a piece of wet blotting-paper. The remainder of the detachment, incredibly still alive, tumbled into the ditch. Now the last gun had ceased firing. A seemingly endless queue of Panzer Mark IVs, led by a Tiger, rolled slowly nose to tail across our front. If anything looked like moving, they shot it up. There seemed no limit to the prodigality of their ammunition. A blazing Bren carrier, long since abandoned, lay useless by the roadside with a tank not ten yards away still squirting bullets into it for all he was worth.
Slowly the leading tanks rumbled on down the hill towards the station, and the shooting died down. It was dark, save for the light from the fires. Half a dozen sand-coloured tanks with palm-tree emblems painted on their sides were halted just above us. Figures were getting out of them, beckoning. Figures, too, were emerging from the bowels of the earth, out of the wreckage of the broken Command Post and the gun-pits. The dead men from No 4 got up and staggered towards the road, two of them leaning on the shoulders of the others. The BSM [Battery Sergeant Major] came by, ruin and despair
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written all over his face; was this to be the end of all his professional career, The Battery Commander was there too, with a German officer.
“Come along, everybody,” he called. “There’s nothing more we can do now.”
The very last thing that anyone could have expected had happened. We were in the bag.
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2. FOR YOU THE WAR IS OVER.
The Germans wasted no time. While the main tank force carried on down the road and shooting was still going on round the station, the defeated gunners had been rounded up and a quick head count made. A couple of Panzer Mark IIIs were called up, the wounded of both sides lifted on to their backs, and the untidy little column of prisoners was set on its way towards the enemy’s back areas, shepherded by the two tanks.
I felt relieved, bemused, unsatisfied, still physically fit, not in the least hungry though we had not eaten all day; immensely glad to be still in one piece, utterly amazed that so much shot and shell could have done such relatively little human damage, glad above all that it was our own Battery Commander who had ordered the surrender, that I had not actually put my own hands up into the air. Could we have done more? If so, what? It was a feeling that was to persist for a long time.
The commander of the leading Mark III leaned over as we trudged alongside. He looked about twenty; round-featured, fresh-complexioned, not at all Teutonic – he might have been a young British officer but for his green overalls and his curly-peaked desert cap. He couldn’t resist the traditional words:
“For you der var iss over, ja?”
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He spoke without a trace of arrogance or I-told-you-so, in a plain, matter-of-fact tone of voice, with the confidence of one who is used to being on the winning side and still believes that he will go on winning. There was no suggestion of animosity; recognition, rather, with perhaps just a touch of commiseration. After all, somebody has to lose, he might have said. For a moment, just for that moment, I felt a little bond of contact had been made between us; the kind of bond you get between men who’ve been at the sharp end together, between complete strangers meeting on a mountain top, between opponents after a match that’s been fought to the limit yet still within the rules. Not that we had been engaged in any sporting contest. Eighth Army veterans (especially those who’d been in the back areas) were fond of saying “Ah, but it was a clean war in the desert, you know”; no war is that clean, but the Afrika Korps seemed to have brought some of that kind of spirit back into Tunisia with them.
He didn’t say any more. He was far too busy calling directions to the driver as his tank slithered its way along the twisty road; “Links…Rechts…Links…Gut…” The whine of the tank’s engine mingled with the squeak and rattle of its bogies over a ground bass of the prisoners’ footsteps. The men plodded tiredly, many of them still half-stunned from the shock and noise of the battle, their shoulders drooping with despondency mixed with relief that the action was over and they were still whole. Even the sight of a couple of knocked-out tanks in front of F Troop’s position gave them only a temporary lift. One or two had managed to snatch up a few belongings but
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most had no kit other than the clothes they stood up in, not even a greatcoat. Already it was getting cold. In spite of the slender guard, nobody even thought of trying to leave the column. The fact is, once you’ve given up the contest, once you’ve accepted in your mind that the other fellow is the better, the stuffing has already been knocked out of you and it takes a very big effort to get it back again. Besides, where would they go if any of them did get away? To most of them this part of Africa might just as well have been part of the Moon. At home they followed the war news on the radio, but seldom bothered themselves with the sketch maps in the newspapers. The only paper they ever read was the Mirror, and the only parts of the Mirror they read were Jane and the sports pages.
So they straggled along in twos and threes, talking in undertones. Friend clung to friend for mutual security and comfort. Only the Sergeant-Major, grim-faced, mooched silently along in the rear, speaking to no-one.
“D’you think they feel we’ve let them down?” I asked John, worriedly.
John was his breezy self, even now.
“If they feel anything at all, they’re just damn glad it’s over. Win or lose, I bet they don’t want another spell like that for a hell of a long time. Nor me, for that matter. Mind, I had a great time smashing up all the gear in the Command Post before the Jerries came in. Poured a whole bottle of Naafi scotch on to the floor. Criminal, really -“
I was concerned about Magee, who had been F Troop’s
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observing officer at the OP [Observation Post] on Hill 609 which had been silent from the start of the battle. Like me, he had joined the Battery shortly before Christmas when it was mobilised for overseas, and as the two strangers in the Mess we had quickly gravitated together. He was a few years older than me, and much more competent in the arts of soldiering. Where I was bookish, he was the active, outdoor type. He could drive a three-tonner as capably as a private car, could tell at once if the mechanic had skimped his maintenance task, could chat easily to the sergeants off duty and give them proper orders when the time came. Our friendship had been cemented on the voyage out. During the rough passage down the Channel and across the Bay we had been the only two officers in the Battery not confined to our bunks, and thus had to run the Troop Deck between us. When two of you share the responsibility for two hundred seasick soldiers all packed into one frowsty compartment deep down in the bowels of the ship, you soon find out how well you are able to get on together. But of Maggie’s fate, at the moment, we could know nothing.
For perhaps two miles we trudged along. The road led upwards, and we could sense the hills closing in on either side. The feeling of entering forbidden territory remained strong; this was now “over there”, where the enemy had been. Presently sounds became audible through the darkness ahead, then we could make out a few dim lights, and the shapes of vehicles. Some sort of laager, evidently. The column halted, the escorting tanks moved on, and we were directed into a field at the side of the road. An English-speaking Lieutenant
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explained that we should be spending the rest of the night there.
“I am sorry dere is no shelter,” he said pleasantly. “It is de same for us.”
We stood about in little huddles, trying to keep warm. It began to rain, thinly at first and then a steady downpour. Surely things couldn’t get any worse…
A Sergeant came up. From force of habit he saluted. He was one of the Numbers One from E Troop.
“It’s Gunner Jones, sir. We had to leave him. By the roadside, back there. Shot through the legs, he couldn’t walk -“
Every organisation has its Gunner Jones, the individual who seems fated from birth to be the one to whom things always happen; the one who, given that there are only two ways, right and wrong, of executing a simple task, will defeat the law of averages by the number of times he comes up with the wrong one. When we entrained at Camberley for embarkation, at the last minute Gunner Jones was found to be missing; a frantic search had at last discovered him, sitting quietly in the waiting room of the Up platform instead of the Down. Now he had bought it, the only serious casualty in Sgt Noon’s detachment.
“Christ, poor Jonesy,” John said at once. “We must do something. Better find that English-speaking chap, if we can. I’ll ask that sentry. Er, I say, vous. Ou est the Loitnant that sprecken Doitch, I mean sprecken English, s’il vous plait?”
“Oh, hell. We’ve got a man wounded, un soldat – oh heck, what’s the word for wounded?-“
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“Ach! Verwundet? Ein Verwundeter Kamerad?”
One word in the verbiage the sentry did understand. He turned and shouted something. In a few moments the Lieutenant appeared, his mackintosh glistening in the rain. His face showed genuine concern at the news.
He hurried off, to return shortly driving a motor-cycle combination.
“You, Sergeant. Come vith me.”
He roared off with his passenger into the darkness.
In a film, I suppose, Sgt Noon would have seized the chance to knock the officer on the head, commandeer the bike for himself, and drive back dramatically to his own lines, blowing up an enemy headquarters on the way. As it was, however, both he and the German Lieutenant were far more concerned about poor Gunner Jones.
In less than an hour they came puttering back. Sgt Noon hauled himself out of the sidecar.
“We found him, sir. We found him.” Relief poured out of him. “He’ll be all right. They’ve taken him off to hospital.”
We turned to thank the Lieutenant, but he had already gone; well satisfied, no doubt, that another little bit of the battlefield had been tidied up.
“H’m. Not a bad chap, that,” said John. “Quite a decent type, really. For a Jerry, I mean.”
Quiet returned to the laager. The time dragged by. We shivered in our wet clothes, stamping cold feet in the squelchy mud. I felt in my pockets. The Germans had confiscated our
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compasses and binoculars but hadn’t had time to make a body search. Like Inspector Lestrade in the Baskerville case, I still had my hip flask. It held, still untouched, the four doubles of brandy which I had purchased, like everyone else, in a Camberley pub the night before we entrained. (At least, the barman said it was four doubles; I was never in a position to verify his estimate. Even so, I still got plenty of change from my pound.)
I said, thoughtlessly, “Hello. I’ve got some brandy.”
“Oh, good man,” said John. “That’s just what I need,” evidently regretting his earlier extravagance with the Naafi whisky. “I say, Geoff’s got some brandy -“
The brandy gone, I walked across the road, just for something to do. A lone sentry materialised from the shadowy mass of a vehicle. Muffled up in his greatcoat, equipment and helmet, he looked every bit as bored, sleepy and fed-up as his British counterpart would have been. He turned his back and melted into the blackness again, and for a moment I felt completely alone. In front of me, not more than a hundred yards away it seemed, rose up the bulk of a steep-sided djebel. In the gloom I thought I could detect the line of a ramp or ledge rising diagonally across it. Five minutes to get to the top and over – it looked easy so long as the sentry didn’t come back…
Instead of going straight for it I went back to ask John if he’d have a go at it with me. While he was still digesting the idea a searchlight beam suddenly shone out, lighting up the whole mountainside. It shone only for a minute
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or so, then was switched off again just as suddenly, but that was enough to turn us away. Just another case of might-have-been… Resolution is most often needed when you least feel like it.
Hour after hour, the rain streamed down. Nobody slept. It was a long, long, miserable night.
Well before dawn activity on the road, which had been quiet for most of the night, began to stir. Vehicles came and went. It began to get light, and we watched the German soldiers queuing for their breakfast. The rain stopped, and then, more welcome even than food would have been, the clouds broke up and the sun appeared. Soon, the German support column was coming through in full force and we moved back out of the way on to the rising ground behind us. We sat, gently steaming in our sodden battledress, as for several hours we had a grandstand view of the enemy’s army going about its business.
From our position on the hillside we could see about a half-mile stretch of the road as it wound its way between the djebels. From end to end it was crammed with vehicles, of every possible shape and size and in no apparent order: grey-green three-tonners with canvas backs, open pick-up trucks without; enormous half-tracks as big as charabancs; Kubelwagen, the little VW open tourers with slatted sides; sand-coloured British quads and fifteen-hundredweights, dented and battered but still able to move; superannuated Italian motor-buses still in their domestic blue livery; smart new American half-tracks still carrying the white Allied recognition star on their sides – bonnet to tailboard they ground their way westward in a seemingly
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endless crocodile with complete and utter disregard for any form of dispersal in case of air attack. Practically every vehicle, too, had something useful hooked on behind: two-wheel trailer, four-wheel trailer, box van, water tank, anything. It was as if some Quartermaster down the line with a parkful of stores had stood by the roadside and simply hooked the nearest trailer on to the nearest truck as it passed him. Anything to get the stuff up to where it was needed, no matter who took it. One other thing we noticed, too. Every ten vehicles or so there was one towing behind it not an ordinary trailer but a wheeled platform carrying a fearsome-looking set of four 20mm AA cannon on a swivel mounting. In and out between them all buzzed the ubiquitous BMW sidecar outfits, like sheepdogs worrying along a reluctant flock.
One truck pulled out of the line into the field below us. It had big red crosses painted on its canvas cover. Several of their officers and men gathered round it.
“See that?” A gunner nudged his pal. “Typical Jerry trick, look. They puts red crosses on their HQ trucks.”
Several of the others nodded sagely. They’d read about that kind of thing somewhere. Now they’d actually seen it.
That German column was more like a mixed goods train on the LMS than a military machine moving up to the front. To our curious eyes the sight of all that jam-packed mass of transport represented the absolute negation of everything
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we had been taught about deployment in the field. Training had always been conducted on the assumption that the enemy air superiority – as, indeed he always did have up to the time of Alamein. March discipline was the great thing. A column on the road would travel with an interval of 100 yards between vehicles. A field battery on the move could extend over three miles of road. At halts you were directed to park your truck under a tree, or against a hedge, or in some other way that would enable it to merge with its surroundings. You then dismounted your men, put out a sentry to give warning of any impending air attack, and hid the rest. An occasional vehicle might be provided with one spindly Bren gun poking up through a hole in the cab roof, but air defence in the main was conducted on the ostrich principle; you tucked your head out of sight and hoped the pilot wouldn’t see you.
It wasn’t long before we had a view of a different attitude towards air defence. About mid-morning the sound of aero-engines was heard above the traffic, and there came the immensely cheering sight of a flight of nine Hurricanes low in the sky to the south, the sun glinting silvery on their wings. At once all was bustle below. The column halted. Men dismounted and scattered up the hillside, ourselves with them. No orders were shouted, but as soon as the first three planes made their approach run every single German soldier lay on his back, pointed his rifle or pistol up into the sky and fired it off as hard as he could go. At least four sets of the quadruple cannon opened up as well with a tremendous
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clatter. This wasn’t air defence, it was sheer bloody aggression. The volume of fire put up was enormous; inaccurate maybe – some of the cannon fire came nearer to us than the aircraft – but it was enough to keep all but the most determined pilot at his distance. Only two aircraft made serious attempts to strafe the column. One well-aimed bomb blew a chunk out of the side of the road, another got a near miss on a vehicle. The rest, dropped from a couple of thousand feet up, exploded harmlessly on the far hillside. Two men were hurt. The damaged truck was pushed to one side. The two casualties were taken over to the Red Cross truck – yes, it was a genuine ambulance after all – and within ten minutes of first sighting the aircraft the column was grinding off again.
As for the prisoners, we just had to sit there and watch it all. None of us wanted to see the RAF shot down, but still less did we want to be shot up by them. Not a man was unrelieved to see them go. What more inglorious end could there be, than to be cut down by your own side after yielding yourself to the enemy? It is episodes like this which bring home to the POW the real truth of his situation, that he’s been reduced to the status of an utter nobody: the man in the middle, shot at by both sides, wanted by neither. He’s become just part of the junk of war, an encumbrance to all and sundry. Some of our men even got out their yellow recognition silk squares and held them up to the aircraft, as if that could possibly make any difference. I was sorry to see them do it, but you could understand how they felt.
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A little while later we were treated to a spectacle of a different kind. A big armoured vehicle came churning up, men rushed to fall in alongside it – the German commander was about to harangue his Orders Group. The scene might have been straight out of a boys’ comic. He stood up in the front of his half-track, every Hollywood actor’s idea of what a German officer should look like: high-fronted Nazi cap, leather trench-coat nearly down to his ankles, polished riding boots. No doubt, if we had been close enough to see, he had a monocle as well. The spluttering words, each emphasised by a blow of the fist into his palm, came to us indistinctly across the air. For all we knew he might have been saying Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, for in two years of home service none of us had bothered to learn any German. Alongside him sat his driver, stone-faced, gazing rigidly ahead into the far distance from under his coal-scuttle helmet. The O Group stood in a line in front of him, chins in the air, muscles quivering with the effort of holding themselves as stiff as statues. One wondered if they all said “Jawohl, Herr Major!” before they saluted and doubled away.
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Towards midday the column thinned out and it became possible for occasional vehicles to take the road back. After a while an empty Kubelwagen drew up, and the officer prisoners were ordered down to it. Our escort was a Hauptmann of about twenty-eight, a brisk, business-like man with short-clipped hair, dressed in brown pullover, knee breeches, ankle boots and puttees.
“You are to komm vith me,” he said courteously. “If ve are attacked you may chump into ze ditch, but if you try to run avay you vill be shot.”
We squeezed together, five of us, into the back of the little tourer. It bumped its way off in the direction of Mateur. After a few miles we stopped, and our escort, without any prompting, led us over to a van-like vehicle standing by itself among a few soldiers. It was some sort of mobile field kitchen. From somewhere or other tin plates and implements were produced and we were invited to eat. It was liver stew, thick and brown and meaty; the first hot meal we’d had in two days. We ate gratefully and came back for more. It was the best Army meal I ever had, before or since.
In the late afternoon we drew up outside a stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Ferryville. We were dismounted under guard, and told to expect an interview from the Base Intelligence Officer. Another long wait. Prisoners of war are always waiting. Eventually the door opened and out stepped the IO [Intelligence Officer], Richard Tauber to the life: medium height, round face, round tummy, round steel-rimmed spectacles, immaculate
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in beautifully pressed service dress and gleaming top-boots.
We tensed ourselves for the interrogation. Name, rank and number, that’s all he would get.When he spoke it was like a singer, too, in those high, syrupy tones which only German tenors really manage.
“Good efening, chentlemen. I am sorry to haf been keeping you vaiting, but for you ze var is over now, eh? Zere iss only von qvestion vich I vish to ask you. Ve already know ze name of your unit and all of yourselves, but zere iss von officer whom ve haf not yet been able to trace: Lieutenant Magee. Can any person tell me vat became of Lieutenant Magee, please? Ve are vorried about him.”
We were impressed, not to say taken aback. He hadn’t even said ‘Ve haf vays of making you talk.’ I was worried about Maggie too, but I wasn’t going to tell him.
“Very well chentlemen, sank you. Zat is all. You vill remain here tonight. I fear ze accommodation iss not good, but you vill soon be much more comfortable in ze base camp at Bizerta.”
Well, that was something. Maybe there we should be able to get organised properly, and devise a means of breaking out. In the meantime what we all needed most was some sleep.
We were locked into a loft above a nearby guardroom. There was no furniture of any kind, so we disposed ourselves variously on the bare boards. Dog tired, we were soon asleep, heads pillowed on one another. In the middle of the night the door was thrust open and another dusty figure pushed in.
“Morning, all,” said a cheery voice. “Don’t get up.” It was Magee.
“Maggie, you old sod,” said Ken. “We thought you’d had it.”
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We welcomed him like a long-lost brother; it was just like having the family complete again. What had happened?
“They started mortaring us at first light. Must have had the range to a T. Knocked out the set and cut the signal cable. We stuck it out until I saw a platoon coming for us up the rocks, then I decided it was time to abandon ship. I chucked the wireless set down on top of ’em, then legged it down the far side of the mountain. I found this little cave at the bottom, and thought I’d lay up there till night. Everything was fine until this Arab came along. He saw I was alive so there was nothing he could pinch, and went off again. Ten minutes later he was back with a Jerry patrol, and that was that.”
“Did you meet the Jerry IO [Intelligence Officer]?”
“That chap with the fruity voice? Yes. You know, he seemed really pleased to see me -“
Indeed, we could visualise the look of quiet satisfaction on the German Intelligence Officer’s face as he ticked off the last name in his book; 155 Battery, all properly accounted for.
Early in the morning we were called by the Guard Commander, a smart young NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] who looked as if he was hardly out of school. He did not shout “Raus” in Colditz fashion; he apologised in good English for not offering us breakfast. They were not provided with rations for such emergencies, he explained, reasonably enough. However he had on his own initiative borrowed his mens’ mugs and was able to give us all a drink of ersatz coffee. While thus engaged he treated us to a little homily on the folly of entering the war on the wrong side. As everyone knew, the real enemy was the Bolsheviks. Time would surely
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reveal the truth of his words. There was absolutely no possibility of Germany’s being defeated, and the sooner that misguided persons like ourselves came to realise this, the better it would be for all the world…
The truck arrived which was to take us off to Bizerta, and he saw us off with a smart salute. We were stiff, dirty, unshaven and hungry, but Magee’s return had brought a revival of spirits. The trauma of battle was receding fast, and the feeling was growing in some of us of a need to do something to redress the balance of our present situation. There was some discussion in the back of the truck as to the best way of disposing of the two armed guards before jumping out and making a run for it, but nothing transpired. For one thing, the truck was moving far too fast. For another, it’s very difficult to get a group of officers, regular or temporary, to agree on any desperate course of action, unless some individual, by virtue of rank or outstanding personality, is able to emerge as clear leader.
We arrived at the “base camp” about noon. The word “camp” is not quite the right one to describe what awaited us there. For the Bizerta camp was nothing more than a cage: just a square of open field on the outskirts of the town with a double barbed-wire fence round it. No roof, no tents, no shelter of any kind. No latrines, no ablutions, no cookhouse, no nothing. Men living like cattle, only less well cared for. We’d heard horror stories of some of the cages in the desert, where men had been kept for weeks on end, dying of thirst. Was this one of those?
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Between two and three hundred soldiers and half a dozen officers were already in this cage. The sole supply of water for this body of human beings came from a single standpipe at the gate. When we arrived this was dry, and it remained so for the rest of the day and all night. An infantry Captain seemed to have appointed himself senior officer among the prisoners. He was a big man, thirtyish, thick moustache, a shop manager in civil life. He didn’t exactly welcome the new additions to his flock.
“There’s no effing water,” he fumed. “Hasn’t been any all day. I’ve been on at the Eyeties to get it working, but all they do is waggle their hands and say the Raff have bomba’d the works. It’s an effing bad show here all right, I can tell you. ‘Domani’, that’s all you can get out of ’em. Everything’s domani. Useless little bastards.”
He had other worries of his own.
“It’s all right for some of you young blokes, but I’m married. I mean, you don’t realise – this lot might mean I’ll be away from the wife for three, four, maybe five years even. What good is a man going to be after that? I mean, you lose the ability -“
The officer in charge who saw us in and signed for us was an Italian Army Lieutenant. He stood about five feet six. His blue uniform jacket, minus a button, looked a size too big for him. His puttees were loose, his boots grey with dust and mud. There was a generous growth of stubble on his chin, and a harassed look on his face. A dozen or so
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nervous-looking sentries patrolled the wire, holding their rifles in a way which suggested uncomfortably that they were more likely to shoot by accident than in any more formal way. Most of them, like their officer, were smoking on the job.
The infantry Captain bullied the Lieutenant unmercifully.
“Now look here, Tenenty. We want messtins, tools, and food, see? Food! Quelque chose a manger, comprenny? And PDQ. Chop chop. This whole show is effing disgraceful. Well, are you the responsible officer or are you not?”
The Italian waved his hands and shrugged hopelessly. It was not that he was being deliberately negligent – the
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problem was simply far too big for him. He looked near to tears. Any one of us might have felt sorry for him, if we hadn’t been more sorry for ourselves. If our opinion of the German Army had risen mightily in the last two days, our view of the Italians now sank in proportion.
There was no food, nor water, for anyone that day. After dark it came on to rain, and for the second night in three we had to endure hours of cold and wet. Ironically enough, next morning the water tap came weakly to life. A long queue of men formed, many of them having to drink from their hands which were already thick with grime. Then towards midday a truck drew up and deposited a huge iron pot at the gate. A thin macaroni soup slopped about inside it.
The infantry Captain seized the ladle.
“Right, line up,” he shouted. Then to my amazement he served himself a brimming messtin-ful, then the rest of his own officers. After that he turned to one of the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] who was standing by, expressionless.
“Right, carry on Sar’nt,” he said airily. “See that every man gets a fair share.” Feeding two or three hundred hungry men out of a single container was the sort of biblical task that was no concern of his.
Eventually I found myself in possession of a metal can containing about a couple of inches of greasy lukewarm liquid with a few tubes of pasta floating in it. I had no tools, and the thought of drinking it straight from the can was too repulsive to consider. I pulled a loose piece of wire off the fence, twisted it into a two-pronged fork, speared the tubes,
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but couldn’t face the liquid. I gave it to the infantry Captain.
“You sure, old boy? Well, waste not want not -“. He downed the lot.
Adversity brings out the best in some people and the worst in others, and perhaps it was this little episode which jolted some of us back to a sense of responsibility. We had already recognised some of our own gunners among the soldiers, with their Sergeants. The infantry Captain was quietly deposed. We divided the men up into platoons, and shared out the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] among them. We got parties organised for digging and other fatigues. Gradually, the harassed look faded from the Italian Lieutenant’s face. When he was presented, not with abuse but with a piece of paper showing by numbers and drawings a list of the items needed – shovels, forks, dixies, disinfectant, he began to look quite enthusiastic. Within twenty-four hours he had provided some. Better still, he found some blankets; thin, threadbare, half-sized they might be, poor things indeed compared with the genuine grey British army article, but more than welcome all the same.
We stayed in that field for a week, without ever having enough water for a wash, let alone a shave, and on the same semi-starvation rations. At the end of that time the first batch of prisoners was lined up, none too unwillingly, for transport to Italy. The Lieutenant was there to see us off. He ran up and down the line, fussing like a teacher in charge of the infants’ class.
“Auguri, auguri,” he kept saying. He even tried to shake hands. I didn’t mind. Wrapped round my tummy, hidden under my
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battledress, was one of his precious blankets. I hope he didn’t have to account for it, poor man. It was the only piece of loot I ever got from the war.
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3. THE FRENCH HUT AT CAMPO 66.
It was a rough night, and the little coaster rolled heavily as it chugged its way across the Sicilian narrows. Magee and I lay huddled together on the steel plates of the hold, trying to keep warm under my stolen blanket even if we couldn’t sleep. Overhead circled our escort, a lone Junkers 88 bomber. Once, a dull boom or two sounded in the distance. We hoped fervently that it wasn’t one of our own submarines being depth-charged, in those most dangerous waters. We hoped even more fervently that our friendly enemy overhead would keep him away from us.
Naples dockyard on a grey morning in early March. No tourist picture this, with its shattered cranes, broken jetties, and sullen, slouching workmen. To get ashore the prisoners had to line up along a passage outside the ship’s officers’ dining room. Through the open door we could see their table laid for lunch: nice white cloth, polished cutlery, carafes of wine, and oh, most glorious sight of all, a crisp newly-baked roll of bread alongside each place. We looked, and felt, as scruffy and hungry as the Bisto kids.
A bus ride through the back streets of dockland, where members of the population occasionally relieved their feelings by shaking their fists or spitting at the bus windows. Perhaps you couldn’t blame them, seeing the mess our bombers had made of some of their houses. Then northwards along the
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open road, through a surprisingly peaceful-looking countryside. A mile or so past the town of Capua, and there it was: a vast area of wooden huts, sentry posts and high wire fencing, once an Italian army camp, now Campo Concentramento Prigionieri da Guerra Numero 66.
For officer prisoners at Capua the world was a rectangle of flat, sandy ground measuring about eighty yards by sixty. Inside this enclosure were four single-storey huts, an ablution shed and a crude cookhouse. Huts 1 and 2 housed British officers, between forty and fifty in each. Hut 3 held a similar number of French officers, members of a regular battalion of the Foreign Legion who had been picked up in the winter fighting in the Tunisian mountains around Pont du Fahs. Hut 4 was reserved as a dining room, canteen, and general admin building.
At first the international boundaries had been strictly preserved. The French officers never visited the British, and the British never visited the French. But the arrival of the Sidi Nsir consignment made the numbers too great for the British huts alone to absorb. Magee and I, therefore, as the junior members of the new intake, were detailed to be the overflow and drafted into Hut 3. At first, somewhat naturally, we felt rather put upon. To have to muck in with a crowd of strangers, and foreigners at that, went against the grain. But the French were courteous and friendly. They made space for the extra two places without complaint, even though there was less than a metre between beds already. They showed us how to construct shelves for our few belongings out of bits
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of string and cardboard from the Red Cross boxes, since a bed and a stool was all the furniture you got. They even shared a cup of precious tea with us that first very long weekend (the parcels weren’t issued till Monday), and generally treated us as companions in misfortune.
The initial reaction of the average POW, once he’s reached the static situation of his first proper camp, is to revert to childhood. His spirit has already been weakened by the shock of battle and the privations he has endured in the period immediately following his capture. Now, suddenly, he finds the last vestiges of responsibility taken from him; his responsibility for carrying on the war, for looking after his juniors, even for finding the ordinary necessities of life, all gone. True to form, the new intake at Capua lay on their beds all day, neglected their appearance, and generally went to pot. The expression ‘drop-out’ had not then been invented, but that is what the new men became. Like today’s college students, they all grew beards. In many cases this was not altogether avoidable. I had only the clothes in which I’d already been living for three weeks. I had no razor. Toilet gear was available from the Campo canteen, but at ten shillings for a single blade (at home they were less than a shilling a packet), and an Italian blade at that – you were lucky if you got one decent shave out of the two edges – I was going to have to save up for a month before I could even get started.
The French had already passed this stage, if indeed they ever experienced it. For they were Le Troisieme Etranger,
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and proud of it. They had standards to keep up, and didn’t mind showing it. Besides, they all seemed to have plenty of spare shirts. It was not many days before Magee and I began to take our cue from them and patch ourselves up a bit.
The hut was presided over from his bed at the end near the door by the senior Major, a rotund, fatherly-looking man of about forty-five. Discipline was excellent; his authority was never questioned, so he had no need ever to exert it. “Bon joor, mong Commondong,” Magee and I would say politely each morning. “Bonjour l’Etudiant. Bonjour Monsieur Maggie,” he would reply with a friendly nod. They were keen on nicknames and I became The Student from the day we arrived, but Magee was always Maggie to everybody.
There were two other French Majors. Le Medecin, whose real name I never got to know, was a slim, dark, fastidious man in his late thirties, with delicate hands and a toothbrush moustache. Like most of the Frenchmen he was a heavy cigarette smoker, and the Red Cross ration was not nearly enough to satisfy his needs. Every morning, by arrangement with the guards, a young soldier from the troops’ compound would come in and silently present him with a packet. He would then lay out the daily supply on his shelf, so many each for morning, afternoon and evening. When he had smoked one down to about half an inch he would spike it on a pin and carry on for a few more puffs. Then when it seemed that ignition of his moustache was imminent he would expertly flick off the glowing tip and put the microscopic butt away in a little tin. By the end of the day he had accumulated enough to roll one extra for the
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morning. Like Sherlock Holmes’s pre-breakfast pipe, his first smoke of the day was composed of the previous day’s leftovers.
Le Medecin shared parcels with Maurice, the Adjutant, a young Captain who was every bit as tidy and self-composed as the Doctor. The third Major was Le Commandant Lebrun – but I’ll come to him shortly. The remaining officers ranged from middle-aged Captains down to Lieutenants in their twenties. Not one of their senior officers could speak a single word of English. Nor could many of the others. Those few who could, however, spoke it very well. Magee and I made do in a rough and ready way with our school French, but there seemed to be no equivalent of this level of attainment among the French. They were either really fluent or, mostly, they had no English at all.
The great thing about the French hut was that it was organised. It ran to a system. It was peaceful.
The daily routine began with roll call. This was a moveable event which took place at some time between 0800 and 0900, depending, we supposed, upon when the Italian Capitano had got up. After roll call, those who had not yet managed to wash joined the ablution queue. Washbasins were provided on a scale of one to about thirty men, and of these at least one would not be working. (Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he was a hopeless failure as a water engineer.) Then, the French hut was tidied up. Every officer stripped his own bed, folded his blankets and stacked them neatly at the foot in proper barrack room style, and cleared the rest of his kit from the floor and stowed it on the bed or on his homemade shelf. Then two French soldiers came in from the other
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compound and swept out the hut from end to end. By 10 o’clock the hut, despite its forty-odd beds, was looking clean and almost spacious.
The British officers’ huts, on the other hand, always had the appearance of a badly-run school dormitory in which perhaps a couple of grenades had gone off. Nobody ever folded up his bedding; most of the beds were left all day in the state they were when the occupants got out that morning. The floor would be littered with clothing, boots, Red Cross boxes, half-empty food tins, bits of rotting cabbage and other items, supposed consumable, salvaged from the cookhouse dustbins. Some men would be eating, some stood about wrangling, some lay on their beds for hours on end. At the far end of one hut Blanco White, a Quartermaster, was constructing an elaborate cooking stove out of empty food tins. Bang, bang, bang, he went, hour after hour, adding his mite to the general din and confusion. He was still working on it when Magee and I moved on in May.
It was a relief to return to the peace and good order of the French hut after visiting our friends in Hut 1. By mid-morning it would be largely deserted, most of the occupants having moved over to the dining hut for the morning’s activity. The professionals of the Legion, having long since discovered that war is ninety-nine per cent boredom, had devised their own way of filling the empty hours at Sidi-bel-Abbes and suchlike places. They played cards. All day and every day, they played cards. Every officer had at least two packs of playing cards in his kit. The routine was always the same: in the
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morning they played patience; in the afternoon it was gin rummy; then in the evening they made up their fours for the serious business of the day, Le Bridge.
One man who might have remained behind in Hut 3 was Le Maestro, the Bandmaster. A mild-mannered little man with a bushy black beard, he spent hours at the foot of his bed working away at abstruse exercises in harmony. His working desk would be two stools, his manuscript paper a toilet roll. With pencil and straight-edge he ruled out his staves on each sheet with meticulous accuracy, giving as much care to this preliminary stage as he did to the exercise itself. For a while I took lessons from him, to pass the time and live up to my nickname. He made me spend the whole of the first day just ruling staves; not till I could get them properly parallel would he teach me a note.
One other who was not in the habit of playing patience in the mornings was the third Major. Le Commandant Lebrun was a tall, spare man of about forty, with a florid, mobile countenance and prominent veins on his forehead which stood out as if he lived in a state of permanent mental stress. Dressed always in his field uniform of grey jacket, breeches, puttees and soft boots, he could invariably be found pacing the hut, alone. Up and down the aisle between the beds, hands clasped behind his back; left, right, left, right, about turn, to and fro, he carried on his solitary patrol, his thoughts heaven knows where. He spent most of his days in this fashion. Often his footsteps would be the first sounds you heard on waking, for he was always up long before anyone else. He never
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joined the marchers who sweated it out in the compound, pounding two by two in the sunshine. He never came on the escorted walk which, apart from parcels day, was the high spot of the week. He took his exercise in his own way, by himself, in the hut.
He seemed to have no special friends, and his forbidding appearance did not encourage conversation. It seemed the form just to accept him as a harmless part of the scenery. Until, one day late in April, a further intake arrived. The beds were squeezed up a little more, and the population of the French hut was enriched by the addition of four Guards officers. They wore Eighth Army gear, with the letters LRDG [Long Range Desert Group] on their shoulder flashes.
Now Guards officers, as we all know, are different from other people. Besides being extraordinarily brave, they are invariably well-spoken, well-educated, well-connected, and well-heeled. They live on a different plane from the rest of us, and are not subject to the same inhibitions. One of these four was a Lord and another was a merchant banker, which I suppose represented a fair cross-section. Beyond passing the time of day politely with their immediate neighbours they did not socialise much with the lesser orders of Hut 3. Le Commandant Lebrun, however, was a phenomenon worthy of further examination. One morning a week or so after their arrival, therefore, the astounded Major was halted in his tracks by a loud, high-pitched voice from one of the nearby beds.
“Pardong,” it said, “May poorkwa le Commondong marsh toojoors dawns lar hut, may nalley par jamay sure le marsh dawns lar comparney aveck lays owtrers offiziay, see voo play?”
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Lebrun glared. His eyes bulged. His hands clasped and unclasped. His face turned dark, his lip curled, his veins stood out like pieces of string. When the words came he spat them out like broken teeth.
“C’est parce que, je ne veux pas marcher avec un monsieur italien qui porte un fusil a cote de moi!”
He resumed his march, fuming, without further interruption.
Around mid-morning Magee and I usually made our first mug of tea. We relied a lot on tea to try and persuade our stomachs that a normal quantity of food was on its way down. We generally made our first brew at about eleven, then boiled up the same lot of tea-leaves for a second pot after lunch. At tea-time we made a fresh brew, and re-cooked these leaves for the evening drink. Treated with care in this way the Red Cross supply could just last a man for the week.
All private cooking had to be done out of doors. The French were very good at making open-air stoves out of mud and a brick or two, with bits of barbed wire for the griddle. They were far superior to our own crude boy-scout efforts, so we soon gave up the struggle and used theirs instead. Easily the best of the French stoves was Le Maestro’s. It was a model of neatness and elegance, yet it had a draught like a steam-engine. At most times of the day you would find a queue of three or four men lined up at this stove, with perhaps Le Maestro himself among them, a resigned look on his face as he patiently waited his turn to use his own apparatus.
Now and again some oaf would knock part of the structure away with his boot, or break the grid with too heavy a load. There would then be a period of irritable waiting for the
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inventor to repair the damage. Nobody ever owned up, but messages would come through from the other huts. “Look here, old Bandy’s stove has bust again. Ask him when he’s going to get it mended, will you?”
From time to time one of the Frenchmen would decide to do a little metalwork. Before starting the job he would gather everything he needed, place it all convenient to hand, and then seat himself at the foot of his bed, stool between his knees, so that his task could be accomplished in proper physical comfort. Then he would take a cylindrical biscuit tin, remove the bottom, open the seam, flatten, cut and shape the metal till in a couple of hours or so he had fashioned an immaculate little cigarette case, complete with hinged lid, as clean and neatly turned as a machine-made article. Meanwhile, in the distance, the sounds of Blanco bashing away could still be heard; perhaps it was a complete kitchen range he was building, not just an oven.
And so to lunch. There was no seating in the dining hut, so we had to pick up our stools and cart them in with us. The Italian daily menu does not take up a lot of space:
Breakfast … Coffee substitute, one mug. Rolls, small, one.
Lunch … Soup, thin, one dish.
Supper … As lunch.
Other ranks got this free, but officer prisoners suffered the additional insult of having their pay docked six shillings a day messing charges. But for the parcels – oh, those parcels… no wonder every returned POW still says his prayers for the Red Cross every night. Sometimes they were English,
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more often Canadian, occasionally Scottish – those were the ones that had porridge in – but they were all marvellous. The one great shortage was of bread, or at least of grain in some form. It was a matter for endless discussion with your partner as to how to allocate the day’s one bread roll: whether to eat half at lunch and half at supper, or save some up for a cake, or to scrape out the middle to use in making rissoles. One British officer I saw had abandoned the struggle in despair. He would take his roll back to his bed straight away, slice it down the middle, spread it first with his butter ration, then with his jam ration, then with a paste of cream made out of his milk powder ration, gaze at it dreamily for a few moments, then scoff the lot and live the rest of the day on his memories.
Magee and I used to save up most of the Red Cross food for a meal in the evening. Magee kept the opened tins on a shelf behind his bed. I often wondered if he ever sneaked in and stole a sliver of cheese or a dab of condensed milk when no-one was looking, like I did. Almost anything could happen to a tin of corned beef. We would mix it up with breadcrumbs, broken biscuits, bits of old cabbage stalk – anything to give it more bulk and weight than it originally possessed. Men would diligently search the rubbish heap behind the cookhouse, hoping to pick up the occasional potato peeling from which a bit of sustenance could still be scraped.
The Frenchmen, on the other hand, did not strive so desperately for sheer volume in their food. They preferred to use the Italian meals as a basis, and supplement them with
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Red Cross food on the spot. A tin of bully was a nice, compact package, and they preferred to use the contents in their natural state, rather than convert them into a large but messy hash. For the most part they cooked comparatively little. I used to wonder if it took up too much time from the cards.
The afternoon hours were the ones which dragged the most. I often talked about escape with Magee, walking round the wire or sitting on the steps of the hut, in the rapidly warming sun. “I know it’s our duty and all that,” I said, “but to me – well, it’s a more personal thing than that. I mean, well, it would at least do something to even the score, wouldn’t it?” He had a scheme which appealed to me. Neither of us thought much of the usual idea of travelling all the way up the leg of Italy and then getting across the border into Switzerland. His plan was much simpler and more direct. “What we’d do is make for the coast, near Naples, say, and pinch a little boat. We could sail over to Bizerta, if our chaps had got there. It’s only ninety miles across. Or Malta, even. Have to go round Sicily, of course, but that should be no problem. Turn left past Palermo, then just head south-east – you couldn’t miss it -“
Neither of us had ever sailed a small boat before. We had no charts or compass. Still, it was a grand scheme. Unfortunately, we were completely devoid of ideas of how to get out of the camp first. The four huts stood on piles, there wasn’t a square inch of unexposed ground in the tiny compound. It would have to be guile, some way of fooling the sentries on the gate. But how could a couple of six-footers do that?
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The French never discussed escape. They had no Escape Committee of their own, and they never bothered the British one. You got the impression that the question had been discussed at some earlier period, and duly rejected. They seemed to have a way of making up their minds on a course of action, of rationalising the arguments and, once a conclusion had been reached, of putting the former objections and alternatives out of mind, so that everyone appeared satisfied with the decision and committed to it.
“Echapper? Comment?” Shrug. “C’est impossible!” End of discussion.
Perhaps they were right. It was not so much that they were resigned to their fate, as that they had learned how to accommodate to it. Captivity was a fact of life, a hazard of a military career, and they adjusted accordingly. Besides, it was not their fault that they had had to oppose German tanks with horses and obsolete artillery. They should have been given better equipment. In any case, it was confidently expected that the Vichy government, whom they all despised, would in due course repatriate them. So why bother?
The British, deep down, never really accepted this point of view. Hence their untidiness, the abortive escape schemes, the sudden outbursts of ill-temper. We tried to do useful things. We gave lectures, organised brains trusts, learnt the Morse code. Our Lord, to the amazement of many, gave an absolutely spellbinding talk on the history of Association Football. We started a choir. It was not easy, without any music, to conscript members. Eventually, with the aid of some of the rugger players, we managed to construct
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a two-part rendition of Cwm Rhondda, with bathtub harmonies:
“Bread of hea-hea-ven,
Bread of hea-hea-ven,
Feed me till I want no more, haw – haw – HAWER…”
The French had a choir too. Nearly every man volunteered, and they had to hold auditions to select the best. After a couple of practices the sounds which emerged from the dining hut were of such beguiling liquidity that even the dedicated marchers stopped to listen:
Le jour et la nuit,
Compared with us they sounded like the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Perhaps they included singing, as well as contract bridge, in the syllabus at St Cyr.
Easter Sunday was coming, so it was decided to put on a bit of a show, just to show the Italians that we could still do it if we wanted. I slept on my one and only pair of trousers. I worked for hours, with spit but no polish, on my boots. But what I really wanted, almost more than anything else, was a collar-attached shirt. In those pre-nylon days shirts were made from wool or cotton and were almost invariably collarless. Other ranks wore the battle-dress tunic done up to the neck, but officers were collar-and-tie men. With one shirt and a set of clean collars you could keep up appearances all week, but with no collar at all you felt horribly undressed and working-class. Tropical shirts, which were designed to be worn open-necked and jacketless, were of course made with collars, but First Army in Tunisia had not been issued with tropical kit.
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Sweating damply under the Mediterranean sun in our thick green shirts and heavy serge trousers, with our braces tied round the middle to act as belts, we felt uncomfortable, ungainly, unmanly almost. We envied the Eighth Army men in their cool-looking; khaki drill, their shorts and their swanky desert boots. We felt that we were the amateurs and they the professionals – an impression which they themselves took no trouble to discourage.
Until that Easter Day, when the French succeeded in upstaging everyone. They didn’t so much come on parade as make an entrance. Every one of their officers was gorgeous in full Service dress, complete with Number One uniform, polished buttons, burnished leggings, coloured kepi, everything. They fell in immaculately, standing stiff as a row of de Gaulles while the rest of us goggled at them. Where had they got all this kit from? Magee and I had known that they were better provided with spares than we were, but not to this extent. What kind of a battle was it, that had enabled each one of them afterwards to walk into the bag carrying two carefully packed suitcases? We asked Maurice, but he was vague. “C’etait arrange,” was all he would say.
Six o’clock. The bugle blew (late), the second dish of soup was served, then Magee and I made our own meal. A small tin of salmon (John West’s, of course, the Middle Cut; nothing but the best went into those Canadian parcels) ground up with a few cream crackers and cooked over Le Maestro’s fire could be made into quite acceptable fishcakes. It meant dry bread in the morning for we had to use the last of our butter ration,
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and even then we had to chisel them off the pan, but it was worth it.
Meanwhile the French hut came into its own. Tables were brought in from the dining hut, blankets spread on them, the cards were produced and partnerships settled for Le Bridge. The games went on without a break until Lights Out at ten-thirty. Sometimes they played with single tables, but very often they ran duplicate tournaments, carrying the boards from one table to the other with as much care as waiters in a Generals’ mess. In the smoky, dimly lit hut with its crowded beds and festooned walls, we forgot for a few hours the floodlights and the wire outside and lost ourselves in the cheerful company and excited shouts of the players.
All the Frenchmen could play, and many of them were quite expert. Easily the best of them all, however, was Le Commandant Lebrun; tres fort, he was, not to say formidable. It was an education just to watch him. Here at last was an outlet for some of his bottled-up nervous energy, something he could get his intellectual teeth into. With the cards in his hand his eyes lit up, animation spread across his features. He fanned them out as he picked them up without even bothering to sort them into suits, then sat drumming his fingers, impatiently waiting his turn to bid. When playing the hand himself he seldom went through more than three rounds in detail; then down would go the rest of his cards on the table – the missing trumps all covered, every finesse and cross-lead worked out, five diamonds called and made with no possibility of argument. When his turn came to be dummy he would leave
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his seat and stand breathing heavily down his partner’s neck, silently willing the poor man to make the correct play. When the opponents played the hand he flipped out his discards with studied contempt, and was massively scornful in the ensuing post-mortem:
“Et pourquoi n’as-tu pas joue le trefle, mon capitaine? Mon partenaire a joue le roi; il faut donc la reine soit a moi. Pah! -“
So, the evening at last went by and ten-thirty came. The bugle blew (late again), the tables and cards were put away, and one by one the French hut prepared for bed. Those who had pyjamas got into them, those who had not got into their spare shirts, and those who had no spare shirt got into their birthday suits. “Goodnight Maurice.” “Goodnight Maestro.” “Bonne nuit l’Etudiant.” The sounds in the hut died down. It was silent out in the compound too, save for the occasional footsteps of a lone sufferer hurrying towards the bog. The glare from the floodlights shone in through the open windows casting barred shadows on the opposite wall, a renewed reminder of our status. You closed your eyes and thought of home, often; food, all the time; girls, occasionally; and FOOD. You fought your battle over again for the umpteenth time, winning the VC [Victoria Cross] three times over, but never able to forget that you had stopped short of the ultimate effort…
But not everyone was ready for sleep just yet. Two beds away from me lived a wizened little man with a trim spade beard, known to all as l’Ancien. L’Ancien was
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harmless but he had a routine which was all his own. His idea of sharing a parcel was to open all the tins the moment it arrived and cut everything in half. He was good at opening tins and took a lot of trouble over it, slicing both ends off the can so that the meat roll slid out in a neat cylinder, instead of having to be dug out piecemeal like a housewife would. Then out would come his Swiss ten-bladed knife and with a single slice the two halves would fall apart, exact to the millimetre. He divided the tea, and the sugar, and the milk powder. Nestle’s condensed milk gave him a bit of a problem at first, but he solved that by acquiring an empty tin to pour his partner’s half into. He even counted out the sheets of toilet paper. “Une pour moi, une pour vous …”
In particular, l’Ancien liked a little snack last thing at night; just a couple of digestive biscuits, after he’d got into bed. You could hear him getting out his tin, rustling the paper lining, plonking the biscuits, one, two, on his plate. Then other sounds: chomp-chomp, snuffle, glump; chomp-chomp, snuffle, glump – there was genuine appreciation in it. Beds creaked, bodies stirred, a muttered “Merde” came from somewhere down the line. But nothing put him off. He chewed away blithely, while forty-six pairs of ears and forty-six sets of grinding teeth waited for him to finish.
A prison, any prison, is a dreadful thing from the outside; confining, restricting, dispiriting, degrading. But it’s different on the inside looking out. Your horizon draws in, your world contracts, and the human creature, adaptable being that he is, adjusts himself to his new environment as
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far as physical conditions and his temperament will allow. Nevertheless, although being a prisoner of war may have had its advantages for Harry Flashman, it’s not really a state to be recommended, even in what passes for “civilised” war. It’s like being out of cigarettes on a Saturday night in Wales, when you suddenly realise that tomorrow is Sunday and everywhere will be shut. But the day after that is a Sunday too, and the next, and the next… The POW’s sentence has no fixed term. For a fortunate few in Italy, however, there did come some remission.
Campo 66 was officially designated as a staging camp. The popular view was that this merely gave the Capitano a ready-made excuse for not carrying out any improvements, but in May a batch of officers, including Magee and me, was moved on to Campo 49, in the Lombardy plain. The French stayed behind, still expecting to be repatriated. We said goodbye to our particular friends, but never went to the extent of exchanging names and home addresses. I’ve often wished since that we had done. One thing, though, I had learnt. Next time, if there was a next time, I’d make certain that one item in my survival kit – besides a clean shirt, that is – would be a pack of playing cards.
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4. THE LAST DAYS OF CAMPO 49.
On a fine morning towards the end of May a goods train drew into a small country station a few kilometres west of Parma, in northern Italy. A reception committee consisting of an officer and a squad of armed soldiers waited expectantly on the platform. The officer was immaculate in a beautifully pressed service dress of light blue gabardine and shiny black top-boots, the whole topped off with three days’ growth of black stubble on his chin. He was leaning negligently against a shady part of the station building, smoking a cigarette. The soldiers stood uncomfortably at ease in the hot sunshine. Their blue serge uniforms and dusty boots had a well-used air about them. Most of their jackets, and their rifles, looked too big for them.
The doors of two closed box-cars were unpadlocked and slid open. Out of each car there stumbled between thirty and forty men, blinking their eyes in the unaccustomed sunlight. The latest draft of prisoners from the south had arrived, en route for Campo 49.
The men moved stiffly, easing aching limbs. They were tired, grubby and unshaven. They had spent two days and nights locked in those box-cars on a ration of one bread roll and one bottle of water each. Despite the heat of early summer most of them were clad in thick British army battledress, because this was the only clothing they had. Each man carried what few personal possessions he could, done up untidily in a miscellany of Red Cross cardboard boxes.
Gradually, with deliberate slowness, the prisoners formed themselves into a semblance of three ranks on the platform. One of them exchanged a few words with the Italian officer, then turned
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to address the remainder.
“Officers, officers – shun. Move to the right in threes, right – turn. By the left, quick – march!”
The column drew itself up, turned right, and shambled off in the way that only a crowd of officers can. The escort hastily pulled itself together. They had to run to take up their places around the column.
It had been a rough journey, not as rough as many a one in wartime but best forgotten about now. Magee had been sick for most of the way, and our vaguely optimistic plans for making a break from the train had come to nought, as well they might. Nevertheless it wasn’t long before a feeling akin to cheerfulness began to spread through the column. It was good, if only for an hour or two, to feel the freedom of the fresh air, to breathe in the atmosphere of the countryside. Pleasant agricultural noises sounded above the crunch of booted feet. Birds twittered in the trees. Somewhere a tractor puttered invisibly. The white dusty road wound its way along a low embankment. All around, in every direction as far as the eye could see, stretched the plain of Emilia, the Pianura Padana, flat and green as a billiard table; the green of poplar trees, orchards, vines, fields of cabbage and maize. Here and there the pink-tiled roof of a farmhouse peeped invitingly above the greenery. Above was a cloudless blue. At houses along the roadside, doors opened and curious faces peered out as the column straggled by. But they didn’t scowl or spit, like the villagers around Naples and Capua. One or two of them even smiled encouragingly; it seemed curious behaviour for an enemy population.
One man voiced the thoughts of several of the marchers.
“They look different up here, somehow, don’t you think?
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Still Eyeties of course, but – well, not so woggish, if you know what I mean.”
There was another reason for the feeling of relative optimism. After more than three years of war it was at last possible for even a POW to feel that he was on the winning side. Tunis had fallen, Africa had been cleared; surely the next step could not be long delayed. Not that anyone had ever doubted the eventual outcome, but it was an immense relief to feel that you were over the hump. In Italy, in mid-1943, there was every reason to believe that the country might be out of the war in a matter of months. Then surely, that would be the end of our sentence. Every man in the column knew how fortunate he was to be there, compared with his brothers locked away in some remote Oflag deep in Poland – let alone the Far East.
Somebody at the back started up:
“She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes;
She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes…”
The tune caught on. Heads lifted, backs straightened, the pace quickened as feet began to step out rhythmically together. The short-legged escort, hopping alongside, had to keep breaking into a trot to keep up. But they didn’t mind. The prisoners were cheerful, so they were cheerful too. Besides, they all liked this music.
“Cantare! Cantare!” they shouted.
The column responded, willingly enough. Well, maybe these little men in blue weren’t such bad types, after all.
“She’ll be wearing silk pyjamas,
Wearing silk pyjamas,
Wearing silk pyjamas when she comes…”
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The way led into a pleasant little village. Fontanellato, said the escort, eager to be helpful; Fon-tan-ell-a-to. There was a tree-lined avenue, a shady square, and at one end of it a grey church-like building with a convent adjoining it. Round the next corner and set back some yards from the road was a large substantial looking brick building, four storeys high, with the word ORFANOTROFIO chiselled in big letters on the front facade. Barbed wire fencing, elevated sentry platforms and a temporary-looking wooden guardroom signified clearly enough that this was the weary marchers’ destination.
Curious faces lined the windows of the Orfanotrofio, eager to get a sight of the new intake. An exchange of essential information took place across the wire before they were even inside.
“Where’re you from?”
“Eighth or First?”
“First, mainly. What’s it like here?”
“Could be worse. Better than most, I guess.”
“Plenty. Squats, but clean.”
“Beds or bunks?”
“Beds. Sheets, too.”
“Once a week, regular as clockwork. But you won’t see ’em. Centralised messing – none of your messy private cooking. All you get to yourself are your fags and your chocolate. But there’s some quite decent Vermouth in the bar.”
“Sure, the bar. We’re civilised here, you know.”
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The double gates swung open, the prisoners filed through, the gates closed again behind then. Back in the bag again, their brief interlude of freedom was over. We lined up for the search, taking in the scene. At the rear of the building a patch of bare sandy ground about eighty yards square had been wired off as a recreation area. At the far end a group of men were playing an extremely violent game of rugger. In the blazing heat they were all wearing army issue winter underwear, thick buttoned-up vests and long woollen pants; with their limbs thus protected they hurled themselves at one another with frightening abandon. Nearer the building a smaller group of men in casual clothes were making nearly as much noise, jumping up and down and shouting wildly, though there was no obvious game to be seen. They were racing wine-bottle corks along a little stream which trickled through the field, and laying bets in cigarettes on their favourites. Standing a little apart, watching them, was a grey-haired, thickset man in the uniform of an Italian army Colonel. Puffing at a big black pipe, Il Commandante gazed silently at the antics of his charges, pondering no doubt upon the inscrutable mysteries of the Anglo-Saxon character. Elsewhere in the compound or on the field, other men lay about in startling stages of undress, toasting their bodies in the sunshine.
The search was perfunctory, in the best Italian style. The new men were required to turn out their pockets, but their kit, which lay in heaps on the ground around them, was ignored. An officer in Eighth Army uniform with Captain’s badges then called the roll, detailed off their room numbers, and the joining routine was over.
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Magee and I were directed to Room 19, on the top floor. We went indoors. Much of the ground floor was taken up by a lofty hall in which men were sitting about at tables or lounging against the walls, reading. Around the room at first floor level ran a gallery with more tables where other men sat writing. Some of them wrote for days and days on end, I was to find. Journals, they called their productions, though I was never ever offered one to read. One man was actually writing a book (it was Michael Gilbert, whose ‘Death in Captivity’, one of a long line of successful thrillers, came out after the war). From somewhere beneath our feet came vaguely the sounds of music. It was the Campo band, rehearsing. The tune was a slow waltz; you could feel the heavy UM-cha-cha of the drum, but the rest of the instruments seemed to be behind the beat in different degrees, and uncertain of some of their notes.
“I know that tune,” I said. “Wait a minute – it’s on the tip of my tongue -“
“You’d know it all right if you lived above them,” said a man passing by. “Every bloody day they practise it, and they still can’t play the damn thing.”
(It was Eric Coates’s ‘By The Sleepy Lagoon’. Every time I hear the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme I think of Campo 49’s band, even now. Later on I joined the band myself, and we got a better drummer, but we still played behind the beat.)
We set off up the stairs, lugging our boxes. At the first bend we were pushed aside by a mob of half a dozen men coming down at the double. They reached the bottom, turned round and immediately began to race up again. Slap, slap, slap went their
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feet on the marble steps as they took them two at a time, sweat pouring down their naked backs. At the top, still without a pause, they turned and hurtled down again.
“All right, men,” the leader gasped as they passed us for the third time. “That’ll do for now. Ten more after supper, OK? See you then.”
Room 19 was a large, airy dormitory extending the full width of the building. It contained about two dozen iron beds, a tiny locker for each, and a few tables and chairs for general use. It was evidently one of the bigger rooms reserved for lesser types of no particular importance, but with its high white ceiling and pale grey walls it was a palace after the stuffy, crowded huts of Capua. From the windows on the north side you could see the foothills of the Alps; they seemed to beckon, Switzerland this way. To the south, across the road and the trees, the dim line of the Apennines marked the other horizon.
A Lieutenant was sitting on one of the beds, practising shuffling a pack of cards.
“Hello, you two,” he said. “Welcome to the penthouse. You can use those two beds there. Name’s Barnard, usually known as Barney. Either of you play bridge?”
Thankfully we dumped our kit.
I said, “What time’s lunch? I’m starving.”
Magee said, “Did somebody say something about a bar? Can you actually get drinks here?”
“Lunch at one, supper at six-thirty. Dining hall’s in the cellar. Bar’s on the first floor, off the gallery. They’ve got a sort of white Vermouth, sweetish but quite alcoholic. Like gin and It, without the gin. It’s rationed. You buy it
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on tickets, one per man per day, but you can generally get a few more if you’re keen enough. Five fags a ticket is the going rate just now. Now, about this bridge. We’ve got about half a dozen players in here, some better then others of course, but you don’t need to worry about that. If we can make up another four, we might have the nucleus of a tournament -“
We settled in. Campo 49 was a soft camp, as POW camps go. It was provided with all mod cons: running water (if at somewhat irregular intervals); three meals a day, if you didn’t mind half portions and rice as the staple base; clean tiled floors, bare of any covering; adequate bedding (a sheet was all the covering you wanted) but an acute lack of stowage space. From the outside it looked modern, substantial and imposing – provided you were not close enough to notice the areas of cracked plaster and peeling paint. Altogether, in fact, it was just like a hotel I once stayed at in Rimini.
Except that you couldn’t get out. The inmates existed in a state of limbo, locked in suspended animation in a permanent no-man’s-land between friend and enemy; a sort of perpetual package holiday, for bachelors only, indefinitely prolonged by a transport strike. But most men managed to fit themselves into the system somewhere, and explosions were rare. It’s easy to become institutionalised if you don’t want to fight against it, and there were enough distractions to fill in all the hours of free time. You became an actor, an artist, a student, a fitness maniac, an entrepreneur, a general layabout, or whatever, according to temperament and inclination. A few men did manage to resist the temptation to civilianise themselves. These were the Escape
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Committee and their team, busying themselves with plans, forging documents, tailoring disguises and so forth. At least one tunnel was in progress at the time we arrived. Someone had discovered a way into a large loft through the ceiling of Room 19, and from time to time a procession of men carrying bags of earth would file in to dispose of them, somewhat to the annoyance of Barney and his bridge players. I never found out where the tunnel was; in any case it was abandoned long before it got anywhere near completion.
Magee and I used to talk about escaping, just as we did at Capua, but we never hit on any concrete plan. We were the amateurs, ready and willing to take any opportunity which might present itself, but lacking the means or the wit to make one.
But mostly it was the enforced holiday kind of atmosphere which prevailed. Men lounged about on roll call parade, read books while being counted, wore any kind of dress. Many didn’t even bother to put up their badges of rank – though you could always tell the colonels by their moustaches. On the whole I suppose it was the students who were the happiest, labouring away at their books all day, making little private timetables for their reading so that not a minute of precious time should be wasted. They generally wore glasses and serious expressions, and traded their cigarettes for extra food. (It’s surprising how brainwork seems
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to make some people more hungry than physical activity does).
“Coming out on the circuit?” said Magee one morning after breakfast. “It’s a smashing day. Before it gets too hot.”
“OK,” I said, “but I can only give it half an hour or so. I must get on with some reading after that.”
“Not going to watch the basketball? Our room’s top of the league.”
“No can do, I’m afraid. I’m nearly a chapter behind schedule already.”
“How about bridge tonight?”
“Sorry. Band practice -“
Not that I was a genuine student. For me, the most deeply appreciated service which the Red Cross provided at Fontanellato – after the food parcels, that is – was the library. At Capua there were only three books in the whole of the officers’ side, and one of these was the Bible, which nobody read. Here there were several thousand. All the English classics were there. After years at school and university where life had been dominated by the demands of scientific textbooks, I was suddenly discovering the pleasures of literature. Dickens, Austen, the Brontes – I devoured the lot. Other men did, too.
“I’ve finished Hardy,” said one, while we were prowling the shelves together. “I’m thinking of trying Gissing next.”
I’d never heard of Gissing until then – and I still haven’t got around to him – but you see what I mean. It was not exactly a case of relax and enjoy it; enjoy is not the right word. But at least we felt we were making the best of a bad job. As for learning Italian – well, it seemed rather a bore when
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there were so many more interesting activities available. Too much like real work.
Life had its little irritations, of course. One of ours was Smudger. Nearly every table had its Smudger. He was the one who was always first down to meals; no matter how early you got there, Smudger was in the queue in front of you. With food supplies being what they were, the mess staff went to great trouble to avoid any grounds for argument. On the tables would be the rations: the butter, the jam, the tinned pudding, each carefully divided into ten portions. Or rather, nine; the tenth was already on Smudger’s plate. If there was one which could be seen to be microscopically larger than the others, that was the one. We knew that he always did this, and he knew that we knew, but nothing was ever said. He just sat there, glaring defiantly around, guarding his bone.
Evening. Band practice in the cellar. Play rehearsals somewhere else. The hearties are gathered in the bar, fighting their battles over again.
“- came across one of our old tanks near Knightsbridge. There was a pair of legs still sitting in the driver’s seat. Just the legs -“
“- got out of his car. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I am General Montgomery.’ Just like that. You could have heard a chicken fart -“
“- hear about poor old Fetlock? His very first day in action. He arrived as a replacement early one morning, got to the battalion area, asked a guard to show him where the adjutant was, and found himself talking to a load of Jerries. They’d moved in overnight, and left the old Div signs in place on the road. Never fired a shot himself -“
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“- You should see their MT [Motor Transport]. No repair problems there; if a jeep gets a puncture, they just push it off the road and send back for another -“
“- the Jerry dressing station at Tebourba. Just like a butcher’s shop -“
“- coming up through the Red Sea. The CO [Commanding Officer] fancied himself as a bit of an educator. ‘Look, there’s Mount Sinai,’ he said to some of the chaps. ‘That’s where Moses preached the sermon on the mount’ -“
“- they have ice cream dropped to them every day by parachute. It’s true, I’ve heard it. Seventeen flavours, too -“
“- sent half a Company at us, straight across the new minefield. We could hear their screams a thousand yards away -“
“- came across some of our chaps digging. ‘What are these men doing?’ he says. ‘Preparing alternative positions, sir,’ I said, ‘in case we have to withdraw again.’ ‘There will be no withdrawal,’ he said. ‘Send them back to their unit at once.’ You should have seen the blokes perk up -“
“- one of their Generals was actually rude to Monty. Name of Patterson, or something like that -“
“- that’ll soon change, when Monty’s in charge for the invasion -“
In Room 19 a bridge four was in progress.
“Right, cut for partners. Ace counts high, highest two play the others.”
“King here. You and me, eh, Barney? That’s good.”
“Yes. Ah well, could be worse, I suppose.”
“Huh. We can’t all be second Culbertsons, you know. Besides, I seem to remember Fred and me taking quite a few lire
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off you and Maggie the other night.”
“You know bloody well you’d never have done it if I hadn’t had such filthy cards all evening. One call I made, and that was on a bare two and a half, with five hearts to the nine. Even then you were too scared to double me.”
“Now then, Barney. A bad workman -“
“Christ, hark at him! If you’d made that small slam in clubs, you’d have taken twice as much off us. I could have told you my partner had the King of diamonds.”
“We made five.”
“What’s the use of five when you can get six?”
“Can’t expect me to know where every card in the pack is -“
“It’s only a question of counting up to thirteen. I thought any fool could do that.”
“Thirteen four times over’s a different thing.”
“Yes, I know it’s difficult when you’ve only got ten fingers. Ah well, let’s get on. Whose deal? -“
Room 19 was a friendly enough collection of souls, but the backgrounds and habits of its occupants, all of them non-regulars, were too diverse for it ever to achieve the mateyness of the French hut at Capua, where tradition and discipline still had a large part to play. By ten o’clock one or two men were already making preparations for bed. Sherlock Holmes, who was fond of saying that he could deduce a man’s occupation from the shape of his trouser knees, might have had some interesting observations to offer from the way a man took his trousers off, had he dwelt for a time in Room 19. First to go was usually Hipbone, one of the exercisers. He would come swinging in soon after ten, shed his clothes in a heap on the floor, march out to the shower with a towel round his waist, march back again
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with it over his shoulder leaving damp footmarks all down the passage, flop naked on to his bed, and be fast asleep in five minutes. At about the same time Wilson, a bespectacled young infantry lieutenant, would be making his own preparations next door. Unlike the rest of us, he slept with his feet to the window and his head nearest the light, the better to be able to read. Turning his back modestly (in so far as this was possible, with beds on three sides of him), he got undressed like someone on a crowded beach, removing his garments one by one and taking care to put on his pyjama trousers before taking off his shirt. He then folded them tidily on top of his locker, combed his hair, spread half an inch of toothpaste on his brush, replaced the cap on the tube, disappeared into the washplace, returned, ate two squares of his chocolate ration, polished his glasses, wound up his watch, and got into bed with an Italian textbook on organic chemistry. He generally fell asleep over the aldehydes and ketones just before Lights Out was sounded.
The two bridge fours always played right on until the guard had broken the main switch, and made their way to their beds in darkness, still wrangling over the last hand. Last to pipe down, just when everything was quiet and settled, were Alexander and Mose. These were the two officers in the far corner who belonged to a famous foot regiment based in London, and who, charming chaps though they were, seemed to have been drafted into Room 19 by mistake, so little did their interests and aspirations have in common with those of the remainder. Alexander, in particular, had an appetite for social gossip which seemed to come upon him most strongly in the quiet of the evening, when the lights were out and it was too warm to sleep. Even when he
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tried to whisper, it carried clearly through the darkness.
“I say, Anthony.”
“Yes, Hugh?” (It may have been Hughe).
“Did you ever meet Guy’s aunt?”
“My dear Hugh, Guy had so many aunts.”
“Yes, but you know the one I mean. Aunt Lucy, the one who always frightened him so much.”
“Guy was frightened of all his aunts.”
“Oh, pipe down, you two!”
“Aunt Lucy was the one who made him break off his engagement with the Cummings girl.”
On certain nights the Lights Out routine had a feature which, novel at first, soon became something to anticipate. At ten-thirty, when the guard was about to pull the switch, the duty trumpeter would come into the hall to sound off the call. One of these was a little man of about five feet two, known to all as Joey. In his shabby blue uniform and wretched cardboard boots gaping at the toe, Joey was the picture of an unhappy conscript. He hated the army and the war and everything to do with them. Standing there, looking smaller than ever in the big, high-ceilinged room, he would nod and smile nervously at any last-minute six-footers noisily making their way upstairs. Joey was no enemy; he just wanted to be everybody’s friend, like a mongrel puppy in a strange household. But he was a musician, if not a soldier. Not for him the perfunctory riffs of his colleagues, fluffing their way through the call in the shortest possible time.
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With his trumpet to his lips, he took his time. Every note of his simple arpeggios was invested with as much lingering care as if he had been on the stage at La Scala. Often, not content with the plain call, he would go on to improvise a little continuation of his own, con espressione; and as the pure, silvery notes came floating up the dark and empty corridors, both player and audience lost themselves in a wave of nostalgia. We lay on our beds and let the sound wash over us, floating in spirit out into the warm, heavy air, over the Alps to families and home. Too soon, the last note died away. A moment of silence, then the whole building shook as a storm of spontaneous applause and shouts of Encore! descended about the player’s ears, sending him back to his guardroom flushed with pleasure. Maybe he still didn’t understand the British; but at least he felt they liked him.
July came and went, and after saving up my cigarette ration for a month I was at last able to buy a thin, collar-attached shirt, on sale at Opportunities Limited, the barter shop. Day succeeded day of endless sunshine. It got hotter and hotter, till even the athletes moderated their exertions, and the students forsook their books and sauntered about with the rest, exposing their pale chests to the sun. Gradually, an atmosphere of uncertainty and impending excitement spread through the camp. The artists took down their best pictures and began to experiment with wrappings. The sunbathers fried themselves more thoroughly still, as if they knew that their days in the heat were numbered. The entertainers continued rehearsing, but there was no longer the same feeling of inevitability over the dates of future productions.
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August, and the invasion of Sicily. One wondered how the fellows could move at all in this heat, let alone fight a campaign. We followed the progress of the armies on a big map in the hall, with daily news bulletins supplied by the Italians. It was announced that all official attempts to escape would cease, and that attention would be concentrated on maintaining good relations with the Commandante. August, too, brought a new SBO [Senior British Officer], a regular army colonel whose brain had not yet been softened by months of easy living in the bag. He stood on the steps his first morning, gazing down his nose at the weirdly attired collection of indolent loafers which constituted his new command. It wasn’t long before a notice couched in the following terms appeared in the hall:
1. Officers will at all times appear on parade correctly dressed, including boots, uniform top, and headgear. The practice of carrying books and other impedimenta on parade is to cease forthwith.
2. Beards are not repeat not to be worn. With immediate effect all beards are to be shaved off and moustaches trimmed to a modest length. The barber will attend for this purpose in Room 17 between 1800 and 2100 hours this evening. An inspection will be held at roll call tomorrow.
The resentment and muttering which ensued was widespread. Some men hadn’t read language like that for more than two years. But orders were orders, and many a pale and ordinary countenance saw the light next morning which had formerly sheltered behind a forbidding display of fungus. Nor did the Colonel stop there. He had the camp organised on battalion lines, with majors as platoon
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commanders and lieutenant-colonels as company commanders. More resentment; it was a great nuisance to the First Army men to have to turn out in full battledress with the temperature in the high eighties, and besides, the Gunners and other non-infantry types disliked being designated in bodies called platoons. “Sheer imbuggerance,” I heard one man say in the library as he helped himself to another Western. “He’ll have us saluting next!” Fortunately the only drill movements we were required to execute were to come to attention and stand at ease. The first morning was a shambles, but things began to improve in a day or two. Slowly, some of the old adrenalin began to flow again.
A month after the landings, Sicily fell. Accustomed to the Eighth Army’s rate of progress in Africa we had given it rather less time, but the result of course was a foregone conclusion. Was not Monty in charge? Give him a few more weeks to sort out the shipping, and there would be landings all over the place in Italy.
Mussolini fell, and there was dancing all night in the streets of Fontanellato as euphoria overcame the villagers. “Finita!” they shouted; “Finita la guerra!”, and tried to shake hands across ten feet of wire. But in the morning the sentries were still in their boxes, and the gate remained locked. Rumours of an armistice abounded. Surely it couldn’t be long now? What would it be like to be out, to walk down to the end of the road and back, to peer round corners never visited before? The prospect was almost unnerving.
In the evening information filtered down from above. An
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official instruction had been received – exactly how it came was not revealed – from the War Office. “In the event of any cessation of hostilities,” it began, using the language of all official messages, however urgent, and went on to say that all prisoners should remain in their camps and await the arrival of proper representative bodies. In no circumstances was any unofficial evacuation to be attempted; correct relations with the Italian forces should be maintained. In retrospect this instruction might seem about on a par for helpfulness with the Admiralty’s fateful direction to Convoy PQ17, “Convoy is to scatter”. Nearly all the camps obeyed it faithfully, and the majority of them were found sitting meekly waiting when the German convoys called to pick them up several days after the armistice. At the time, though, it seemed reasonable enough to most of us, and it is entirely due to the foresight of our wide awake SBO [Senior British Officer], and the old-fashioned military conscience of the Commandante, that the same fate did not overtake Campo 49 as befell the others.
Gradually, the excitement and rumour died down, and normal activities went on. Then on September 3 the Eighth Army landed at Reggio, and the tension rose again, only to subside once more as nothing changed. The days dragged by with tantalising slowness. On the evening of September 8 the writers were back at their journals, the athletes were pounding the stairs, the actors had a dress rehearsal. Down in the cellar, as far as could be got from all the other sounds of the camp, a gramophone recital was in progress. Several dozen silent, slightly sweating men sat packed on uncomfortable wooden chairs, listening to the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky. They listened because they liked the music without understanding much about it, or because it was
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something to do on a blank evening, or for a variety of other reasons. One man was there because he lived in the room above and had to hear it anyway, so thought he might as well get it at first hand. Another was reading a book; his own room was so crowded, he said, that this was the only place where he could get a bit of peace and quiet. One even had a miniature score, and followed it through trying to hum the oboe part, much to the annoyance of his neighbour. Most were there because the music drew on their emotions, and made them think of home. The strings were playing the big violin tune of the second movement. Softly at first, the rich melody came flowing out, flooding the bare stone-flagged room with warmth and tenderness. It swelled, subsided, then began again. Now the tranquillity gave way to urgency and passion. Up, up, up went the theme, striving in cross-rhythms, two against three. Up, now, it went in semitones, clawing through the leger lines to the very top of the violins’ register, drowning the hiss of the fibre needle in a mighty surge of power. The penultimate note of the climax was reached, the audience held its breath.
With a click and a harsh rasping noise the needle ran into the central groove as the record came to the end of its four and a half minutes. Hastily the operator leapt up to turn over the disc and slip in a new needle before his audience’s concentration should lapse. Faintly through the wall, in a different key, came the stumbling sounds of ‘By The Sleepy Lagoon’. But the second half of the movement never got played. There was a loud shout outside and the sound of running feet in the passage. Armistice! It had happened at last; Italy had surrendered.
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Rehearsals, cards, band practice were abandoned. Outside, the compound was a blaze of light. The sentries leaned out of their boxes, jabbering to other members of the guard while their rifles lay unattended. People ran to and fro in the street, shouting and waving their arms. Within an hour all officers were ordered to report to their platoon commanders.
Major Teagarden held his conference in a corner of one of the upstairs passages. He was a slightly built man of medium height with fair, wavy hair growing long over his ears, and spoke in a high-pitched voice with many feminine flutterings of the hands. One of the actors, evidently, as was confirmed by his polka dotted silk scarf. It was only after this that you noticed the MC [unidentified] ribbon on his grey battledress top.
“Sit at ease, gentlemen, and smoke if you want to. I’ve little enough to tell you, but the main thing is that for the present at least, we stop on here. Italy has signed an armistice. Theoretically, all Italian soldiers should now lay down their arms and surrender to the nearest Allied commander, but obviously there are a good many practical difficulties in the way of this happening all at once. It’s pretty clear, however, that there’ll be a much bigger landing almost at once, and an occupation of the whole country as rapidly as possible. Until then, all prisoners of war are to remain in their camps. We stay here, under the SBO [Senior British Officer], just as we are now. It’s difficult to see, in all conscience, what else they could do with us.”
“What, still with Italian guards?”
“Well, no, actually they won’t remain in the same relationship to us as before. But they can’t surrender to us, and so until someone arrives who can take charge of them they’ll remain here as well. Of course, the boxes won’t be manned.”
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“Shall we be able to go out?”
“The Colonel’s going into all that with the Commandante tomorrow. It seems quite likely that they’ll arrange some system whereby you can go into the village in small parties provided that there’s always a certain minimum number, say seventy-five per cent, left behind actually in the camp. They might improve the food, too. What we must avoid, at all costs, is having everyone swanning about the countryside regardless. There are still some Jerry troops in the country, and that’s just the sort of thing they’ll be on the lookout for.”
Room 19 seethed with the buzz and counter-flow of speculation. Even the bridge fours joined in.
“Well, what d’you think of it?” I asked Magee.
“Sounds pretty reasonable to me,” he said. “Personally, I’m damn glad we’ve got a firm hand at the top. I hate to think what might have happened to this rabble if there’d been no discipline at all.”
“Um. But what I really meant was, how d’you feel about getting out again, being free and all that? It’ll shake a good many of these fellows to the core.”
“Well, look at the life we’ve been leading. Early to bed, late up, unbroken nights, regular meals, no work, no responsibility, please yourself what to do and all day to do it in. We’re all dead soft. If we had to go on a scheme now, I’d fold up the first night. I don’t think I’m fit to face up the outside world.”
“Oh, surely it won’t be as bad as all that. There’s always somebody to hold your hand in the army. A few days outside, and you’ll wonder how you ever managed to stick life in a place like
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this without going crackers.”
“Well, I hope you’re right,” I said. “But I can’t help thinking how much more freedom there actually is inside a prison.”
The lights went out at the usual time, but there was no serenade from Joey, and no halt to the buzz of talk.
“Wonder where they’ll land?”
“Several places at once, probably. Rome, Naples, Genoa, and somewhere on the Adriatic coast – you bet they’ll try to trap as many Jerries as they can before they’ve a chance to pull back out of it.”
“Balls. They couldn’t mount that many assaults.”
“Couldn’t they? You never saw the dumps at Bone, old boy. Five miles – five miles, on both sides of the road, nothing but ammunition, oil and petrol, and that’s not counting any of the Yank stuff. The Ites have had this coming to them ever since last November.”
“What about those representatives they’re sending out for us? Old Bennett was very mysterious about that War House message. Shut up like a clam when we tried to pump him tonight.”
“Parachutists, of course. Couple of planeloads to each camp, and Bob’s your uncle. Shouldn’t be surprised if we saw some of ’em tomorrow.”
“Bennett says they’re going to fly all prisoners straight back to UK. We might even be home by Saturday!”
“Wonder how much leave they’ll give us?”
“Straight off to Catterick, more likely. They’ll say we’ve been on leave for the last eighteen months.”
“Bloody good show they’ve remembered us, what? Personally, I thought they’d have written us all off long since.”
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“I wonder if Georges is still maitre d. at the Piccadilly, Hugh? How about celebrating with one of his seven-course specials?”
“Listen to him! Doesn’t he know there’s a five bob limit on all meals?”
“Just imagine, eh? Knock on the door, walk straight in, and there’s the wife making a cup of tea. ‘Hello dear, I’m back!’ Can’t you see her face?”
“Go on, Henry. ‘Come upstairs and see my sunburn,’ eh?”
“Don’t forget your big pack, Henry!”
“You filthy-minded sod, Saunders! Cut it out, can’t you? My God, there aren’t many men in this camp who’ve spent more hours leching at the local popsies than you have!”
“Aw, pipe down the both of you and let a fellow get some sleep!”
“Bennett says -“
There was nothing about the getting-up drill of Room 19 on the morning of September 9 to distinguish this from any other Campo day. At 0625 precisely Hipbone awoke, stretched, yawned, said “God! One more day in this bloody place and I’ll go completely round the bend,” put on his shorts, and stamped downstairs for his half-dozen circuits of the exercise track. Since he wore sandals consisting of a solid wooden sole kept on by a single cloth strap over the instep, the manner of his going was not calculated to preserve the peace, and a sort of ripple went round the rest of the beds as one after another their occupants turned over for another half hour. From seven o’clock onwards three individuals
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got up in succession. First came Wilson, anxious to be at his books again, then Flackman, and then me. Flacky was a big man, hearty and genial, but not suitable company for a sensitive soul before breakfast. He was a compulsive pipe smoker. The last thing he did at night was to take his pipe out, and his first semi-conscious movement in the morning was to put it back in and relight the dregs. He even kept it in his mouth while shaving, sticking out from the surrounding mass of lather like an Indian totem pole in winter. There was just time, after he had finished, for one man to shave in peaceful solitude before the main rush began.
I turned on the hot tap. It spurted and guzzled, and eventually emitted a tired dribble of lukewarm water. Just in time. A few minutes later and the rush of men on the floor below would cut off the flow altogether, leaving only the cold. Just like that Rimini hotel, again… I was still only on the second cheek when a loud, single blast rang out on the bugle.
“What the hell’s that?” Angry voices from the room, only half awake. Then a shout from the stairs:
“Everybody out on parade in ten minutes. Special announcement by the SBO [Senior British Officer].”
To add to the confusion there was the irritating nuisance of having to put on full battledress, and there were a good many unshaven chins sheltering discreetly in the rear ranks as we formed up in the courtyard. The Colonel came to the point at once.
“Gentlemen. Early this morning the main officers’ camp at Bologna was taken over by a German column for immediate removal to Germany. We may well expect that they have the same fate in store for us. Now the Commandante’s view is that we are still his responsibility, and he is prepared to use his guards, if need be,
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to defend us. Nevertheless, we must be prepared to evacuate the whole camp at short notice, possibly in the very near future. Already we have sent out reconnaissance parties to find a suitable place where we can lie up, perhaps for two or three days. Immediately after breakfast an issue of emergency rations will be made from the parcel store, and every man should then prepare himself to leave. The villagers are sending out bicycle patrols along the roads, and as soon as we hear from them the alarm signal will be sounded. You will fall in by companies in the exercise field. Dress, correct uniform with headgear, greatcoats carried” – greatcoats, in Italy, in midsummer! – “and haversacks slung. Over the right shoulder. Pack only essential kit for a few nights out. We may have to march several miles, and no man will be allowed to carry more than he can get into his haversack.”
He paused a moment, then resumed quietly.
“It’s hardly necessary, I hope, for me to remind you to keep calm and behave like soldiers. In a day or two, we expect, the Germans will have cleared the country and the emergency will be over, but for the moment our future lies in our own hands. Common sense and proper discipline alone will ensure that we make the most of this opportunity to do our duty by getting back to our own side. That’s all.”
Well. It was like the morning of an important interview, or a new teacher’s first day in front of his class – that slight quickening of the pulse, and a feeling of looseness inside. The thought of sudden action, of actually having to make a positive decision, to think for oneself after so many weeks of lassitude and security, could easily bring on a flap. Lack of confidence due to unpreparedness, that’s what it was. You could read it on mens’ faces round about, despite all the bustle and chatter.
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Breakfast was bread and jam. Shortly afterwards we queued up for the last time to draw the emergency ration: a half-pound tin of English digestive biscuits and a tin of Canadian luncheon meat. Upstairs Room 19 was in a shambles, with beds unmade, floor unswept, and clothing, food, books and other possessions scattered everywhere as men surveyed the treasures and relics of their captivity, reluctant to leave any souvenir behind. I did the same, spreading everything out on the bed, and made my selection in a surprisingly short time. Uniform, boots, army shirt, thick vest and thin pants – they would go on. Greatcoat to be carried, spare pair of socks in each pocket. Toilet gear in the blue Italian army issue haversack, including the quarter of a cotton sheet which had to serve as a towel. Room still for my thin shirt and one piece of spare underwear made out of a pair of long pants, cut off above the knee (with scissors, and no hem-stitching). Three spare handkerchiefs, knife, fork, spoon, mug and water-bottle – the job was done. How delightfully simple life could be on a minimum of worldly possessions.
For good measure I added my own pack of playing cards, a pencil and a small notepad; it might be of interest to keep some sort of diary of the next few days. My locker also contained a quarter-pound block of Canadian milk chocolate, religiously saved from the days when escape was a romantic speculation. But my pack was already full, and in any case it would soon melt in the sun. I ate it.
Other men were striving to get quarts into pint pots by tying up their haversacks with string and even hanging spare clothing from the straps, regardless of the extra weight. I noticed Magee cramming a huge book, minus its binding, into his pack.
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“What on earth are you packing that for?” I asked.
“Thought I might get a chance to finish it,” he said. “I’ve had it four weeks and only got halfway through. Besides, it may come in useful. You never know.”
Somebody said, “Anything happening outside?”
“The guard’s still there, not looking too happy. Nothing much else.”
Somebody else said, “Any idea what they’re going to do about Eric?”
Eric was an officer in the sick bay with a broken ankle. He had damaged it on the stairs only two days before. More fool he, I thought, for indulging in such stupid exercises, especially at a time like this. I was very glad it wasn’t me in his place, and still more so that he wasn’t my responsibility. (How he made out is engagingly described by Eric Newby in his book, ‘Love and War in the Apennines’).
By ten-thirty everyone had completed his packing. We sat on our beds to wait, gently sweltering. Eleven o’clock, and nothing had happened. “Oh, come on, somebody,” said Barney impatiently, getting out his cards. “It’s probably all a false alarm anyway, just to try us out. Like fire drill.” Soon a couple of fours were playing, watched idly by the rest. Twelve o’clock, and the spectators’ interest was no longer artificial. Barney, eight hundred points down after a succession of poor hands, had suddenly opened with two clubs and was clearly going out for a slam.
“Four no-trumps,” with an intimidatory glare at his partner.
Long pause. Eventually, hesitatingly, “Five – diamonds.”
“Five no-trumps.” Telepathy working overtime.
Another pregnant silence. The unfortunate partner shifted nervously in his seat as he strove to remember the rules.
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“Six, er, clubs.”
Barney’s brow darkened. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words never came. There was a shout and a scuffle from the guard below, and three loud blasts from the bugle split the air.
The cards were gathered up in a single sweep. Men grabbed their packs and greatcoats, trying to move quickly without appearing to be in a hurry. We joined the throng on the stairs. Out on to the exercise ground poured the mass of over five hundred prisoners. Eric was there too, mounted splendidly on a horse.
It was all perfectly quiet and orderly. A huge twenty-foot gap had been opened in the double fence at the far end of the field. Campo 49 fell in in threes, came properly to attention, turned right, and marched, more or less smartly, through the gap in the wire and out into the open world.
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5. ANOTHER FOUR IN THE FAMILY.
The little fat man in the smart gabardine suit, pork pie hat and bare feet put down his sack on the grass, wiped his face with a bright red handkerchief, leaned forward confidentially, and began to speak as soon as his hands were free.
“Napoli ha tombata,” he said. “Americani hanno preso Napoli!”
“Hear that?” cried an officer in shirt sleeves, as he helped himself to a large bunch of grapes from the sack. “They’ve got Naples.”
“You sure?” said another. “He’s not romancing?”
“Si, si, e vero,” said the fat man. “Nostri bravissimi soldati hanno entrata in la citta a cinque ore oggi, doppo grande bombardimento. Dieci mille Tedeschi catturati.”
A dozen excited men had gathered round the one with the sack, who was now handing out fresh peaches, figs and loaves of bread.
“I like that,” said one. “Our brave soldiers, eh? Hasn’t taken him long to join the US Army. Any news of the other landings?”
“There’s fighting going on at Ancona,” said the translator, “and the other one’s at Spezia, not Leghorn, he says. What’s that again, Pa?”
“Paracadusti in Milano. Combattimenti nelle strade.”
“Parachutists in Milan! That’s less than seventy miles
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away. Boy, it can’t be long now!”
It was early evening on the day of the exodus, not quite dusk and still very hot. The five companies of Campo 49 lay dispersed along a deep, dried-up river bed which wound its way between artificial banks through the countryside some three miles from Fontanellato. The steep grassy sides and floor of the watercourse were plentifully covered with bushes and undergrowth, and branches from the trees either side met overhead forming a shady tunnel. It was an excellent hide. Our march from the camp might well be described as uneventful, for we neither heard nor saw a sign of German troops, but it was an exciting experience. Villagers lined both sides of the road outside the wire, laughing and cheering and trying to shake hands as we passed. Young children ran behind as if we were a Salvation Army procession. Thickly clothed and uncomfortably laden, we nevertheless swung along cheerfully at a good pace in the brilliant heat. At one time a twin-engined Me 110 flew low overhead and caused the whole column to make a rapid dive into the hedge, but we were on the march again a moment later when it continued undisturbed on its way north. It was impossible now to feel any qualms; all fear was gone in the exhilaration of the escape, our own private little victory in the invasion.
We reached the hide early in the afternoon, and simply settled in to wait and make ourselves comfortable for the night. Within half an hour every peasant for miles around must have had the news. At first they merely peered curiously over the edge of the bank and went away again. Then one man brought a loaf, another some fruit, and very soon
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there was in operation a voluntary supply service which must have aroused the envy and admiration of every RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] officer in the battalion. Together with the supplies came the information; divorced from authentic sources, we devoured rumour and fact impartially and waited in high optimism.
The little fat man took up his empty sack, shook hands all round, and departed with promises of a further bulletin after the next broadcast from London. Magee and I sat down on the grass with a loaf each, some cheese and salami and a bottle of water. We had just got started when along came John with his arms full of more bread.
“Any of you chaps like some more parney? We’ve got enough for a week along here.”
“Better try one of the other companies with that lot,” I said. “There’s more than enough here already. Have a spot of cheese?”
“Thanks, don’t mind if I do. Heard the latest?”
“Naples, you mean?”
“No, we heard about that an hour ago. This is much bigger. A man’s just been in to say an enormous armada of ships and landing craft has been sighted in the Channel. It’s the real invasion!”
“The real thing, old boy. The Second Front’s actually started, and we’re all part of it!”
“But they can’t possibly have all the ships, not with these other landings as well. You sure it’s not wishful thinking on this chap’s part, just to please us?”
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“He seemed a decent enough sort. Swore blind he heard it on the BBC and came straight here.”
“Well, it’s certainly caught ’em with their pants down if it is true. Where are you off to now?”
“Down to the farm there. Might as well see if they can knock up a cup of tea while we’re here. Coming?”
“No, thanks. Bit too conspicuous in the open, for my liking. There may be some m/c [motorcycle] patrols about. But you might bring us the pot back if you have any luck.”
We were still eating when he returned about ten minutes later. He clambered down over the bank, waving his water-bottle.
“Good Lord, you two still at it? Started on your Spam yet, Geoff?”
“No fear. I can last out on this stuff easily if we’re only going to be here for a couple of days. I want to keep the Spam to take home. They say the rations aren’t too good just now. Where’s the tea?”
“Tea? Some hope. Might as well ask for the Moon as expect a cup of char in one of these places. They filled my bottle with vino, though. Try some?”
The wine was coarse, red stuff, leaving a dry, tingling surface on the tongue.
“Um,” I said. “Rather vinegary, don’t you think?”
“Obviously you haven’t acquired the taste. A connoisseur like Maggie, now – hey, leave some for me!”
Magee removed his lips from the bottle with evident reluctance.
“Not bad,” he said speculatively, still savouring the
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taste. “Might almost say quite good, in fact. They got much more where this came from, John?”
“Gallons!” John spread his arms wide. “Only enough to last them for another six months or so. Why don’t you go for a fill?”
Magee was already tipping out his own water-bottle.
“Excuse me, gentlemen. Be back in a few minutes.”
The night was dark and cool. Down in the bottom of the gully the shadowy forms of the bushes stood guard, each with its little circle of sleeping men; two by two mostly, with one shared greatcoat underneath and one on top. It was good to feel the friendly roughness of the earth, and the stillness of the countryside all around. Hardly a breath of air moved to disturb the leaves overhead, and even the mosquitoes had an optimistic whine.
One after another the trains went by, rattling at speed along the main line somewhere to the south of us. Troop trains, no doubt, packed to the doors with German soldiers pulling out in front of Monty’s advancing invaders. Heading north for the Alpine Passes, that’s where their defence line would be. We slept on peacefully, with our boots off, blissfully unaware that they were all travelling in exactly the opposite direction.
All next morning the flow of food and rumour continued. There was no further support for the man with the cross-Channel invasion, and there was evident doubt about the airborne
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assault on Milan, but everyone confirmed that the landings at Ancona and Spezia were going well. During the afternoon a number of peasants turned up with bundles of old clothes, offering shelter on their farms to such prisoners as would care to break away from the main body and seek safety in greater seclusion. Several, chiefly the better linguists, did in fact obtain permission to go, but all companies were still substantially intact at the end of the day.
Meanwhile the SBO [Senior British Officer] and his headquarters were busy. He had gathered together all members of the Intelligence Corps, fitted them out with plain clothes and sent them into the village to obtain first-hand information. They soon reported that a German motorised column had indeed arrived at the camp less than an hour after we had quitted it, and after venting their displeasure by destroying all the furniture and remaining belongings, had retired with threats of an immediate search of the whole area. Having already seen enough of the Emilian countryside to realise that it would take an army to do this effectively, we remained cheerfully unimpressed. For the second night in succession, well over five hundred escaped prisoners slept unmolested in the midst of enemy country.
“Well, cheery-ho, you chaps. Anybody’s address I haven’t got?”
“Cheer-ho, Flacky, old boy. Don’t forget to write.”
“All the best, chum. See you at the Piccadilly sometime – I hope.”
“So long, Flacky. Remember, if you can’t be good -“
Dressed in an old baggy jacket and cast-off trousers
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two sizes too small for him, Flackman, with a miniature campfire of dried grass and wood chippings crackling furiously in the bowl of his pipe, followed his partner up the bank and set off in the wake of a thirteen-year old boy.
It was mid-morning on the third day, and they were the third pair to leave our section of D Company. Magee came over to where I sat lazing in the sun.
“Listen,” he said. “How about making up a pair ourselves and going off to one of these farms? What d’you think?”
“Um,” I said, reluctant to contemplate such a drastic step. “Well, if that’s how you feel -“
“Twenty men went from D Company yesterday, and they’re queuing up all along the line this morning. I’m damn sure we’ll never get anywhere as we are.”
“But we can’t speak the language, that’s the problem. What -“
“Nor can Flackman.”
“No, but Withers can, and he’s gone with him.”
“We’d get along somehow. If it wasn’t for that I’d have suggested going long before. Sooner or later Jerry’s going to find out about this place, and when that happens, I want to be somewhere else.”
“Me too. But – well, it would help if we knew what’s really going on outside.”
“Come on. We’ll take a walk along to Company HQ and see if they’ve got any clues.”
We found Colonel Gibbs standing in a shady clearing with a list of names in his hand. He was a tall, slim man with the obligatory moustache, a dark red face and a startlingly
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white neck. His manner was efficient but kindly and courteous.
“Very well, Magee. I’ll put you on the list. In my opinion you’ve done the right thing, too.”
“Why’s that, sir? Aren’t they getting out as quickly as we thought?”
“They’re not getting out at all. They’re reinforcing.”
“Oh! But all these landings -“
“A lot of balls. You ought to know the Italian’s capacity for exaggeration by now.”
“That means it may be some time before anybody gets up here for us?”
“A few weeks rather than a few days, at least. As a matter of fact the SBO [Senior British Officer] has just decided that after tonight we can no longer stick together as a proper formation, and there’s a messenger on the way to all platoons at this moment. He feels that those who want to get fixed up locally should take every opportunity of doing so today, while there are still some farmers coming forward. The remainder will have to decide what they want to do by tonight, and tomorrow morning the Camp will break up for good. After that it will be every man for himself -“
There was much excitement already in the platoon as we returned to pack our haversacks.
“- Several weeks, the Old Man said. Well, I give Monty a month from now. If he’s not on the Alps in four weeks’ time, I’ll eat my boots -“
“- Half A Company have gone already. The Colonel’s taking the rest off after dark tonight. He wants to get across the Via Emilia and into the hills before morning -“
“- Personally, my bet is Switzerland. It’s only ninety
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miles. Counting twenty miles a night, you could be there in less than a week -“
“- Hear about Carr and Palmer, the two I Corps chaps? They went down to the railway station last night, told the booking clerk who they were, and he gave ’em a free ticket each to Brindisi! First class, too -“
We were still stuffing our bags and wondering how best to handle our greatcoats when another message came down.
“Magee and Stavert? There’s an offer for a party of four just come in. If you want to be in on it, get your kit and double along right away.”
So the break had come already. Well, no turning back now; just a quick handshake with John, Ken and the others with whom we had lived and fought since leaving England nine months ago (was that all it was?). No time for speeches or false regrets. Every man for himself, and the first one home would write to the families of the others…
The Colonel wasted no time.
“Ah, here you are. About thirty yards through the trees there you’ll find a couple of girls with some clothing for you. Piper and Kibble are the other pair – know them? Well, Goodbye, and the best of luck to you.”
He turned back to his list of names to tick off another two.
We found Piper and Kibble standing half undressed amid a pile of miscellaneous rags. Ray Piper was a Lieutenant in the Hampshires; dark hair, shortish, neat moustache. He and I had done a turn together in one of the Campo concerts. He
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introduced Peter Kibble, a tall, sturdily-built Scot. He had very fair curly hair already going thin, and a round, pale face, the roundness and paleness of which were accentuated by a large pair of transparent-rimmed spectacles. He wore a black Tank Corps beret.
“Were you First Army too?” I asked, eyeing the beret.
“Lothian and Border Horse,” he said, in soft, economical tones. “Six Armoured Div. Excuse me while I find a pair o’ pants.”
There were only four sets of clothing, and the pile was already down to the rejects when I got to it. I was left with a pair of City pinstripe trousers, a schoolboy’s blue silk shirt, and a black lightweight jacket. My deepest suspicions about the trousers were soon confirmed. They were narrow, and even with the turn-ups folded down came barely to mid-calf length; it was just possible, by pulling up my grey Army socks, to avoid a show of leg. In addition there were several important buttons missing from down the front. The shirt clung tightly over my woolly vest and was too short to tuck comfortably into the trousers top. The jacket, unlined, was threadbare; its sleeves ended in tatters at the elbows, and there was a long tear in the fragile back.
I put on the outfit somewhat mournfully. The others were only slightly better served. Piper, the best off on account of his size, was a slick Fascisto in black shirt, dark jacket and pinstripes, complete even to a sinister snap-brim hat, but the effect was somewhat marred by the sight of white underpants through a gap in his trousers seat. Magee and Kibble had no proper jackets, only sleeveless waistcoats which hardly covered the holes in their shirts, but at least their baggy flannels
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made a reasonable fit. With some misgivings we made a hole beneath some bushes and buried our brand-new battledress and greatcoats, keeping only the shoulder badges in the fond hope that if arrested we could use them to demonstrate that we were not spies. Thus were our boats burned behind us. Picking up our bags, we turned our backs on the comforting shelter of the ravine and started out into the great wide world.
It was then that I noticed the girls for the first time. They had been standing on the bank, backs modestly turned, while we were changing, and they looked round now at the sound of our voices. The younger one took one look at my long legs in their ridiculous pants and burst into a howl of laughter. The ice thus effectively broken, they led off along a footpath.
Soon the last signs of the army had been left behind. The path led along a little elevated causeway, with flat, open fields on either side. The girls walked on confidently enough, but it was hard not to feel exposed and uncertain, with the initiative entirely in their hands. Ray’s feelings, however, were somewhat different.
“Freedom – at last!” he breathed expansively. “This is the life all right. No barbed wire, no rules and regulations, no parades, no army – I feel almost back in civvy street already!”
“Personally,” I said, “I feel more like a new boy at school than a valiant escaper. What are we going to do when we get to this farm? Sit around like dummies while they talk to us in sign language?”
“Oh, the British soldier always gets on with the natives, wherever he’s at. Surely you know that?”
“I know: ‘Shout loud enough, they’ll understand.’ That
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may be all right when you’re in charge of a gang of coolies, but this is different. We’re going to live with ’em.”
“Not to worry. Pete can speak a good bit of Italian.”
“Och, I went to some o’ the lessons, but I canna speak all that much,” Peter said, hedging.
“Go on. Try a bit on them now.”
“Um. Might as well have a bash, I suppose. Er, I say, lassies. Scusez moi. Dovey le vostrey cazza?”
The elder girl looked back.
“Non piu lontana. Cinque minute da camminare.”
“Says it’s not far. Five minutes or something,” Peter said, looking well satisfied with his performance.
I noticed that he walked with a slight limp.
“Hallo. Hurt your leg?”
“Och no. It’s bin like that ever since I left the hospital at Bari.”
“Got caught on a patrol down towards Bou Arada. A grenade went off inside ma tank. I was standing in the turret, an’ it all went into ma leg. They got most of it out, but the bloody surgeon at Bari left a piece behind in the knee. It’s no trouble. I can walk fine.”
We came out on to a little narrow road. There seemed to be farmhouses everywhere, tucked away in the corners of the fields or hiding behind trees and hedges, their pink and white walls showing patchily through the greenery. Already their shutters were closed against the sun. We made a little procession on the road, the two girls in front, we four tramps behind. Now and then we passed a boy on a bicycle or a couple
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of women with their baskets, and it was an effort not to turn round to see if they were still staring at us. Of Germans, or motor traffic of any kind, there was absolutely no sign.
Before long the girls turned off through a gap in the hedge and we found ourselves at the rear of a house. It was a fairly large two-storey building with whitewashed stone walls, square in shape with a lean-to at one side. It faced on to a wide, flat field of short grass planted with row upon row of vine trees. The sides of the field were marked by low hedges, with some taller trees in the far corner. Opposite the house was a large, pink-bricked barn.
We entered the yard. The girls disappeared into the house without saying anything, leaving us standing there, feeling rather foolish.
“Well, what do we do now?” Magee said. “Sit tight and wait for something to happen?”
“Suits me,” I said, unslinging my pack. “Best leave it to them to make the first move.”
We sat on a log for nearly half an hour, watching members of the family passing to and fro across the dark doorway. There seemed to be quite a lot of them. Occasionally one came outside to get a better look and then quickly went back in again, but nobody ever spoke. There was a very old lady in black, who eventually had a chair brought out and placed in the shade, whence she could keep us under more continuous observation. There was a very much larger, middle-aged woman dressed in a white sort of overall, who seemed to be the mother of the two girls, and another woman who kept in the background. The girls themselves we guessed to be about nineteen and sixteen.
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The elder one was dark and pretty in the Italian way, with thick eyebrows and a wide mouth, and her plain blouse and skirt had some pretensions to femininity. The other was fair and boyish, and wore her old green dress as if she would much have preferred to be in trousers. We also saw at least five smaller children, and a baby. Nobody, from the old lady downwards, wore either shoes or socks.
After about fifteen minutes a third girl came riding in on a bicycle. She dismounted in front of us with gratifying carelessness, kicked off her sandals and padded inside to join the others. Ten minutes later four men came in from the fields, and the family appeared to be complete.
We sat on. Eventually the big woman reappeared in the doorway, beckoning. At least, we assumed she was beckoning, though it was done with a curious, downward motion of the hand more suggestive of pushing away.
“Eh!” she called in a loud, hearty voice. “Volete mangiare, ragazzi? Venite, venite in casa.”
“Manjarey?” I said. “That sounds like eating. Let’s go.”
The doorway led directly into a living-room, comparable to an ordinary English farmhouse kitchen. It was dark inside because of the closed shutters, and seemed to be very full of people. The first thing I noticed was that the men all kept their hats on in the house, like American detectives. The second thing was the flies; they covered the tablecloth like fur on a rug, while hundreds more circled around above like aircraft in a stack, waiting their turn to land. It was also pleasantly cool.
The woman effected introductions.
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“Io – Mamma,” she boomed, pointing to herself, then went on to identify Nonna, the old lady; Papa, and a younger man, Dismo; the two girls, Nina and Bice (she pronounced it “Beachy”); and a small boy, Piero. The others, it turned out, including the sexy girl on the bicycle, who was called Ebbe, belonged to another family sharing the same house.
Magee did his best to respond.
“Me – Maggie. Him Peter, Ray, Geoff. Very pleased to meet you, and I’m sure we’re most grateful to you for inviting us here.”
“Si, si,” said Papa, nodding vigorously. “Allora – mangiare!”
He sat himself at the top of the table, and indicated seats for us down one side while his family ranged themselves along the other. Mamma scattered the flies and lifted off the cloth to reveal another laid with plates for eleven. She accepted a steaming bowl of spaghetti from one of the girls and ladled out a large dishful each.
“Mangiate, mangiate!” shouted Papa, as if we were on the other side of the road, and, still with his hat on, prepared to tackle his portion. He was a small but immensely wiry man of about fifty, with a skin like corrugated leather and a pair of bright, humorous brown eyes which twinkled whenever he spoke. He had a grey, straggly moustache and a sharp chin covered with prickly stubble like a hedgehog’s back. He wore shapeless flannel trousers turned up to the knee like a fisherman’s, revealing bare legs and feet the colour of grey dust.
Peter felt thirsty and indicated his glass.
“Er, avetty voy un poco aqua, s’il vous plait?” he enquired politely.
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“Aqua?” cried Papa, astonished. “Vino! Vino! Bevete vino!”
He seized a straw-jacketed flagon and made to pour some out. Peter withdrew his glass quickly.
“No thanks. Never touch the stuff. Er, nenty buvarry vino. Preferio aqua, s’il vous plait.”
“Aqua?” shouted Papa again. “Ma questo vino e buono! Bevete! Bevete!”
But Peter’s hand remained firmly upraised, and one of the girls rose to get him some water. Papa turned to Magee.
“Thanks very much. Si, si.”
He helped each of us in turn and then himself. Instead of filling his glass, however, he poured about half a pint of wine on to his spaghetti, and then began to eat. Startled by the noise, we all looked up. The technique consisted of raising a long streamer of spaghetti by the fork, sucking fiercely at the edge of it to remove the adhering liquid, and returning the dehydrated material to the plate for a repeat performance. The girls ate the same way, losing glamour rapidly.
“Si piace, la minestra?” cried Papa, moustache glistening.
“Si,” we said. But we still felt rather like children at a posh tea party, anxious not to let Mummy down, and used our spoons decorously.
The meal concluded with grapes from a large dish in the middle of the table. Papa leaned back in his chair, chewing vigorously, pips and all.
“E siete soldati, si?” he demanded.
“Oui,” said Magee. “Si, si.”
“Officers,” Peter said. “Uffeycharley.”
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“Ufficiali!” A respectful stir went round the family.
“Tenenty,” said Peter “Tutti tenenty.”
Another gratifying reaction. Mamma then asked, “E quanti anni avete?”
“Wants to know how old we are,” Peter said. “Er, Io – ventyquattro. How about you, Ray?”
“Twenty-six. Vingt -“
“Twenty-two. Ventyduo, I guess.”
“Ventidue!” More surprise, and much rapid chatter.
“What’s that?” said Magee. “Tell ’em to speak more slowly.”
“Allegro non troppo,” I said, hopefully. “Andante. Parlez andante.”
Nobody took any notice; evidently they were not musical.
Papa tried a new tack.
“E dove catturati?” he demanded.
“Africa,” said Peter. “In Toonisia.”
“Ah!” said Papa, with enthusiasm. “L’Ottava Armata, eh? Buono, buono!”
Peter said, huffily, “Primo Armata buono too!”
“Si,” said Papa. “L’Ottava Armata!”
So they had the Eighth Army complex even here. But it was too difficult to explain the difference, and we resigned ourselves to the reflected glory of our illustrious colleagues.
Conversation lagged, owing to the complete absence of any lead from ourselves, and the women rose to clear away. It seemed the most natural thing, as non-paying guests, to help them.
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Ray and I began piling up the dishes.
“No, no!” cried Mamma, horrified. “Restarsi! Bice, prende gli piatti!”
“That’s all right, Ma,” Ray said cheerfully. “I always do the dishes at home. You just show me where to take ’em.”
“Ah, non capito.”
“Pardon? Oh, hell -“
A confused discussion in two languages followed. Then Ray had an inspiration. From his back pocket he produced a much-thumbed and treasured snapshot of a young woman holding a baby. At once he was surrounded by a circle of admiring, chattering females, and the dishes were forgotten as his picture was passed from hand to hand and the names and ages of his family were extracted from him. Magee took the hint and found a snap of his wife, Pat. Soon they turned to Peter and me.
“E voi, Zgheff? Marita?”
“Allora, fidanzata?” hopefully.
Grave disappointment all round. Peter had a steady girlfriend and was therefore not quite beyond the pale, but it was clear that the ladies all subscribed heartily to Miss Jane Austen’s views regarding the needs of unattached young men, and that one of us at least was failing in his duty.
The party broke up when Papa retired upstairs for his siesta, and we gathered outside in the sunshine.
Ray said, “You know I think I’m going to like it here. They’re not so different from us really, are they? I mean, family life and all that. I like that one with the long black
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hair. Pity we can’t talk to them a bit more, though.”
Magee said, “You were supposed to be good at school, Geoff. Why not try a bit of Latin on ’em?”
“Latin?” I said. “Some hope. What’s the use of going on to them about things like cohorts and centurions, or Caesar building his bridges? Anyway, I’ve forgotten it all.”
Peter said, “Och, it’s easy enough. All ye do is speak ordinary English an’ add ‘o’ on to the end of every other word. The pronunciation’s dead simple.”
“Ordinary English? It’s that subtle rolling of the r’s that I can’t manage -“
While the family slept we lazed away the afternoon, strolling among the vines and helping ourselves liberally from the big, black bunches of luscious fruit. When the time came for the evening meal we could still answer their questions only in monosyllables, but by dint of helping out with odd jobs about the house, chopping wood, stoking the twig fire, and carrying dishes for the two girls, we began to make ourselves at home. At about nine o’clock Papa led us over to the barn, indicated the loft, and bade us a cheerful goodnight.
It was warm and comfortable in the straw. The still air carried the late sounds of the countryside; a guinea-fowl honked, a train hooted briefly in the distance, somewhere a tractor was chugging. We pulled up the ladder behind us and soon fell into a quiet, untroubled sleep.
We awoke before seven to another brilliant day. The tractor was still chugging; it seemed to go on all day and all night as well, a permanent hypnotic backing to the Lombardy scene. The men were already out at work. We washed and shaved
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at the pump, watched by a row of silent, pop-eyed children to whom such a ritual was normally only a once-a-week affair. When the men came in we joined them for a breakfast of bread, grapes and milk, then accompanied them back to their work. They seemed to spend all day, every day in the fields, cutting, tending, hoeing, planting, weeding, working almost entirely with their hands and often on their knees. We wanted to help them, to be useful, but when after half an hour we all had to retire with aching backs Papa pensioned us off with good-humoured tolerance. So, we lived an easy-going, al fresco life, all the more enjoyable by contrast with the months of prison camp existence that had gone before, in an atmosphere of warmth, friendliness and security. False security maybe, but this wasn’t apparent in those few early days. There seemed to be no shortage of food; no doubt an extra four in the family is less of a burden when your household numbers eighteen already. In the evenings we did our best to get on terms. The English weather always provided the best opening lead; Maggie would spend hours over a glass with Papa, trying laboriously to describe the appearance of snow. Ray chatted up the girls; both of them were engaged -even Bice, at thirteen. Her man was a soldier in Corsica, though indeed she showed little enough sign of pining for him. Peter even got a few words out of the old lady. She was something of a local celebrity; seventeen children she had borne, no less – and what’s more, thirteen of them actually lived. I began to spend long periods in a corner with Dismo. He was a thin, sharp-featured, alert man in his late twenties who had been ruptured at an early age and was only able to do light work about the farm. He patiently took on the
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job of teacher, repeating in slow time and with exaggerated pronunciation the elements of what was being said. After an hour or two of this I found the words beginning to come. I was picking them up with an Emilian accent, but that was a point of detail which escaped me at the time.
The other family also had a guest. He was an Italian soldier, or rather ex-soldier, who had actually been one of our Campo guards. Neither of us felt the slightest embarrassment at meeting the other. Like us, he was dressed in somebody’s cast-offs, but being a soldier and therefore fit he was allowed to work. He had little obvious thought of returning to his home, and none at all about rejoining his unit, but plenty of ideas about Ebbe, the third girl. Ray, noting the signs, thought it best to keep off the grass.
We sat on a bench against the whitewashed wall of the house, taking the evening sun.
“Bloody stupid, isn’t it?” Magee said. “A few weeks ago we were sworn enemies, and Soldato there was holding a gun over us. Nobody had a good word to say for the Italians. Now here we are living under their roof as if we’d been friends of the family all our lives. I can think of plenty of folk back home who wouldn’t have done this for a crowd of strangers, even if you’d paid them.”
“You can bet your life they wouldn’t have done this in Germany,” Peter said. “I’ve said it before – the only good German’s a dead ‘un.”
“That’s rubbish,” I said. “There’s good and bad in all of us.”
Ray said, “It’s all the fault of the politicians. What they
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should do is, put all the politicians into one big field – preferably a wet and muddy one – and let ’em fight it out among themselves, while the rest of us just got on with our lives in peace.”
“There’d be no laws then -“
“No income tax either.”
“What I mean is,“ Magee said, “Suppose an escaped convict, say, fetched up at your home after a couple of days on the run. What would you do? Hand him over?”
“Call the police,” said Peter immediately. “The man’s a convicted criminal. He should be put away.”
“But wouldn’t you feel a sneaking sympathy for him? Geoff?”
“I suppose I’d hand him over,” I said doubtfully. “One should be a law-abiding citizen. But I’d give him a damn good dinner first.”
Ray said, “I’m not so sure. Depends – O-oh, look who’s coming to join us. Bonna sarah, Ebby.”
“Buona sera,” smiled Ebbe, brightly. We made room on the bench so that she had to sit between us, instead of on the end, which she did cheerfully enough. For a few moments we admired her knees in silence.
“E quando finita la guerra,” said Ebbe, “venite ancora in Italia?”
“Depends where we all are, I suppose,” Magee said. “What are you going to do, Ray?”
“Me? Get out of this lot as soon as possible and back into my cosy little office. Insurance. Nothing startling, but it’s steady, and you get home to the wife every night. How about you Pete?”
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“Reform school. There’s a big one quite near to ma home, and they’re always wanting staff in those kind of places. What ye need more than any degree there is a strong arm and firm principles, and I’ve got those all right. I’ve got it all worked out. I’ve seen the secretary of the Management Committee, got ma testimonials – you’ll see, I’ll be Head there one day.”
“Crikey, sounds a pretty grim prospect to me. What does the girlfriend think of it?”
“It’s what I think that matters. I’m going to do the job, not her.”
“But you might want to get married. She’ll have something to say then.”
“Oh no. First a car, then a house, then maybe I’ll think of getting a wife, not before.”
“Have you told her that?”
“No. But I think she’ll be agreeable to wait.”
There was no answer to such inexorable logic. Ray turned to me.
“What’s your choice for a post-war career?”
“Dunno,” I said vaguely. “Haven’t given it any proper thought, I’m afraid. Teaching, probably. The only thing I was ever any good at was school work, so I might as well carry it on. A little Grammar School up north would suit. Two hundred and fifty a year you start at, as a graduate. You can run a car on that.”
Magee said, “I’m thinking of staying in.”
“Staying in? In the army?” Incredulous voices in chorus.
“Why not? I never did much at school; too fond of sport,
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I suppose. Went into the bank when I left, but I could never settle down to that now. They’re bound to want a large army of occupation after the war. I could get Pat over to Germany, with a good chance of a married quarter – that’ll be a hell of a lot easier than finding a house at home. If you ask me, there’s a lot to be said for a regular commission.”
“And sign away your freedom for the rest of your life? No fear. Not me.” Ray was almost indignant.
“Who’s signing away any freedom?”
“All those parades and shouting. Ridiculous. And the duties; Saturday afternoon, the big match on, and you find you’re duty boy all day.”
“Only once in a blue moon. I’d rather have that than catching the eight-owe-something every morning for evermore. Besides, a job in Germany would give the best chance of getting down to Italy. Might even look up Ebby again.”
“Not if Soldato has his way. Here he comes, too.”
We shifted up, and Soldato joined us on the bench. Once again the conversation degenerated into a discussion of the English climate, which according to the Italians consisted of a permanent alternation of rain and fog. After a while, as Ebbe’s and the soldier’s interests polarised, we left them and wandered slowly off to our bachelor beds in the barn.
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6. “BEFORE YOU GO.”
On the fourth morning we observed a stranger approaching the house. It was just after breakfast and the men had not yet returned to the fields when one of the small boys came rushing in, semaphoring wildly.
The effect on the family was rather like that in a stage farce when the Vicar calls unexpectedly for tea. Papa and the brothers grabbed their tools and disappeared round the back of the house. Mamma swept the cloth off the table, bundled the girls into the kitchen with it, and rushed off to find a clean apron. Nonna took up her chair and retreated to the far corner. The small children simply melted out of sight.
A tall, slim young man came walking quickly into the yard. He was smartly dressed in a well-cut, grey worsted suit, a white silk shirt buttoned up to the neck with no tie, a blue trilby hat, and shoes. He wore his black hair cut short, without sideboards, and his chin was smoothly shaved. His skin was fair, like a northerner’s.
Dismo greeted him with fussy deference, like a shopwalker to his best customer, but the young man brushed him casually aside with the air of one who only ever speaks to the top man. He addressed us directly.
“Good morning,” he said in English. “Are you the English officers?”
The question seemed a bit superfluous, but we were pleased.
Magee nodded. “That’s right.”
“I wish to say that you may stay here with the peasants for as many days as you wish, but please do not allow yourselves
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to be seen. The Germans are very clever and there are many spies in the village. You know, of course, that they have said they will shoot any peasants found sheltering prisoners?”
His manner was polite but cool, like a wife handing her husband a letter addressed to him in a strange handwriting. His voice was thin and liquid, with hardly a trace of accent.
“Oh?” Magee was giving nothing away.
“Yes, it is true. There is also a reward of twenty pounds for anyone giving information leading to the capture of a prisoner, so you see we have much to lose by keeping you here. However, you need not fear that we shall give you away. My family have always been for the Allies. Before the war we had many business connections with England. I myself went to your Eton School; that is why I speak your language so well. It was a great blow to us when our Government declared for the Germans, but what could we do? That Mussolini, he betrayed us.”
His eyes blinked rapidly as he warmed to his speech, and native emotion began to show through his careful self-control. He stopped suddenly and began a rapid exchange in Italian with Dismo, whose contribution was limited to “Si, si,” many times over, then turned to us again.
“My house lies that way, through the trees. It is best that you should not be seen about this farm during the day, but you may visit my house at lunchtime if you are discreet. This man will show you the way. We shoulda be glad to provide you with food and any other needs for your journey before you go.”
Without another word he turned and walked rapidly off across the fields.
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“Before we go?” Ray was indignant. “Who said anything about going? I thought we were just settling. It’ll be several weeks before Monty’s anywhere near here.”
“Nobody said we were going,” Peter said. “Maybe that’s why he said it for us. Kinda giving us a wee push, like.”
“That’s about the size of it,” Magee said. “But we’ll go in our own good time. We might take him up on that lunch invitation, though. Might be a change from tomatoes.”
Padrone’s house was only ten minutes walk away, but so set about with trees and hedges that we should have missed it without Dismo’s help. It was a large and confidently prosperous set of buildings, spaciously laid out around a stone courtyard. The house itself occupied one end, tall and square with bright pink walls, with its main entrance on the far side. Along either side stretched the cattle sheds, each with a double row of stalls wherein the animals, carefully protected from the midday heat, stood motionless except for their jaws and tails. The yard itself was unswept, and dirty with old straw and the droppings of chicken and guinea-fowl, but inside the sheds the straw was clean and fresh, and the tubes and nozzles of the electric milking machines gleamed with polish. At the nearer end was a huge double-storeyed loft and garage. The whole establishment was ringed about by a narrow irrigation ditch, like a moat.
We crossed a plank bridge and entered the courtyard through a wooden gate by the loft. The first person we saw was Hipbone, standing in a doorway on the far side. He waved.
“Hi, you men. Oh, it’s you, Magee. Come for lunch? No, not that way. That’s reserved for the big game; majors and
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above only by the front door. Lesser types like us feed in the back. Heard you might be coming. Step inside and be my guest.”
Back room or not, here was real civilisation: polished rosewood sideboard and tables, cream-papered walls, gleaming silver and glassware, soft carpets on the stone floor. We felt improperly dressed for such magnificence.
“Come in, come in,” urged Hipbone again. “What’re you waiting for? My God, it’s little enough comfort after some of the stuff we’ve had to put up with from these bods. You should see where they live; we’re slumming in this, I can tell you. Let’s get sat down, I’m hungry.” He banged a silver bell-push repeatedly with the flat of his hand. “Hello there? Manjary, manjary!”
We sat down, still somewhat overwhelmed by this reception. You get accustomed, in the army, to arriving at places in advance of your movement order, (“Oh, hello, old boy. We weren’t expecting you. I’m afraid it’s too late for dinner, but you might find a sandwich in the cookhouse. Somebody must have slipped up.”) and it was doubly novel to find everything, apparently, arranged here at less than a morning’s notice. The Chianti bottle caught Magee’s eye.
“Help yourself, old boy,” said Hipbone generously. “There’s a couple more bottles to follow, and they’ll only scoff it themselves if we leave any behind. Ah, here we are. Dig in.”
A woman entered from an inner room bearing a china dish piled high with steaming spaghetti running all over with melted butter. She set it on the table and padded silently out again. Hipbone helped himself to about a third of the dishful, then
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passed it to his partner who did the same. By the time it got round to me supplies were running low.
“Dig in,” said Hipbone again. “Here, give me that dish.” He banged the bell. The woman immediately appeared. “More pasta, quick, OK? Look sharp, chop chop, subito. And we’ll want some more after that, ancora, see?” The woman nodded quickly and took the dish away. “Only one way to treat these people; tell ’em what you want and tell ’em you want it now, or sooner. Damn it, look at the way they treated us when they were winning. Were you chaps ever in Benghazi? No, First Army of course. By God, you missed something there, I can tell you. I’ve seen good men dying for want of a drink of water, and the effing Eyeties standing by laughing at ‘em. Why, -“
More pasta came, and he stopped. The dish was emptied and refilled once more, while we put away Dickensian quantities. Conversation did not resume till we were well on the way through the second bottle.
“Met the big man?” Hipbone asked.
“Padrone, you mean?” said Magee. “Met him this morning. Young chap. Talks like a schoolmistress. Blinks his eyes all the time so he can’t look at you properly. A smoothy.”
“Oh, him. No he’s only the son. You don’t want to take much notice of what he says -“
“Our family were scared enough of him. Good types on their own, but it was yes sir, no sir, three bags full when he came along. Practically kissed his feet.”
“I meant the old man. He’s the real boss. Looks like another edition of King Victor, only smaller and more dried up.
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Don’t see him much, he sticks to the house all day. Stinking bloody rich. Owns all this, half the farms in the parish, and God knows what else besides. No wonder your blokes were on their best behaviour. One word from the old man and they’d be out on their ears; no house, no farm, no pension, no nothing. You’ve heard of the feudal system – this is it!”
“Have you been here all the time, sleeping as well?”
“Sure thing. Nothing like going right to the top, I always say. We’re off tomorrow, though. I should move in if I were you; make yourselves unpopular enough, and they’ll give you anything you want to get rid of you. You should have seen the son’s face when we told him we were leaving; the bastard nearly wept for joy.”
“You’re off? Which way are you going?”
“South. Straight down till we reach the hills and then probably along the eastern slopes of the Apennines to wherever the Eighth have got to. You can have the Fifth Army; I want to get to my own unit.”
“It’s a hell of a long way. Must be four hundred miles, near enough.”
“Better than sitting doing nothing. Can’t stand inaction. With good walking we should do over twenty miles a day – say three weeks for the whole lot. It’s going to take Monty a bloody sight longer than that to get here, believe me. Heard the news?”
“Not since a fellow told us they’d got Naples a few days ago.”
“Naples nothing! My God, you chaps are out of this world. Why, – well, just wait a sec and you can hear for yourselves. It’s nearly one o’clock.”
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In a far corner of the room, carefully hidden behind a bowl of flowers, was a battery-powered wireless set. Hipbone switched it on. Waves of powerful nostalgia vibrated through the air with the booming of Big Ben.
“Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it -“
The news was bad. Fifth Army had not got Naples, nor anywhere near. They weren’t even moving forwards, but fighting hard to preserve a toe-hold on the beaches of Salerno. The Eighth were still miles away out of the picture.
We walked home very thoughtfully. Next day the lunch table was laid for four only; Hipbone and his partner had gone. Young Padrone’s greeting in the courtyard lacked cordiality:
“Gooda morning. I see you are still here.”
The news was much the same. Despite the good food it was not a cheerful meal. On the way back we stopped and stretched out under the vines as usual, just to let the time pass by. Bees were humming somewhere, the sun filtered warmly through the leaves, the invisible tractor was still chugging. ‘Take it easy,’ they all seemed to say. ‘Tomorrow is another day.’
“Give me a couple of pages from the book, Maggie,” Ray said.
“What again? I told you what would happen if you kept on at the grapes the way you’ve been doing.”
“I know. You were right, too.”
Ray set off to find a convenient hedge. Magee said,
“I’ve been thinking.”
“Well, which way we’re going to go, for one. Might as well make our minds up to it. It’s going to be months, not weeks,
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before the Eighth get anywhere near here, and things will be very unhealthy when they do. For the locals too, let alone us. Sooner or later we’ll have to do something about it. This good weather won’t last forever – in any case, I’d rather do something positive than just stick around without any aim. Question is, which way; north, south, east or west?”
“If it’s north,” I said, “First thing you come to is the River Po. If we have to swim that you can count me out. Then there’s the Swiss border – even if you get across it, they’re bound to intern you, at least for a period. Might not be all that unpleasant, but it’d be a disappointment after all this.”
Peter said, “If ye go west, it’s mountains whichever way ye turn, and we’d only end up waiting around again.”
“South means following Hipbone,” I said, “and that’s no recommendation to me. Think of the trail of resentment he’ll leave behind -“
Magee said, “Right. That leaves east, and that would be what I’d choose anyway. It’s a hundred miles to the east coast, near enough, and flat as a pancake all the way. We could walk it easily in a week. Once there we can find some small unguarded fishing village, borrow or pinch a boat, nip down the coast overnight, and there we are on Monty’s doorstep the next morning. The walking is no problem. Provided we keep off the main roads and away from the towns there should be no real danger. We can pretend to be Italian deserters if any suspicious characters turn up. In the evening we look for a place with a nice-sized barn, watch to see what the folk look like, and if they’re OK, just move in. Getting across the lines will be the problem whatever route you take. My idea would be to go round ’em.”
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Ray came back, looking relieved. He sat down and made himself comfortable against a small tree, with his hands behind his head, as Magee put his scheme to him.
“Well, personally,” he said, “I’m in no hurry to move. Nobody wants us to go except this Padroney fellow, and I’m not going to he pushed around by him. How are you going to get your boat, anyway?”
“Can’t say yet. But I still say we ought to think about it.”
We agreed to think about it. Later that evening Padrone called at the farm. He came, he said, for our special benefit, to pass on a warning. News had reached him from the village that the Germans were planning a complete house-to-house search of the Fontanellato area within the next two or three days. He himself had no wish for us to leave, but if, as he had no doubt it would, our own good sense suggested that we should, he wanted to assure us that anything we needed would be provided.
There was angry muttering among the family when he had gone. They could not understand the words but his meaning was clear enough. “Stay,” they said. “Stay here. We will look after you.”
We agreed privately to ignore Padrone’s warning but to carry on with our own preparations all the same. Next morning Soldato went into the village and from somewhere managed to acquire a quarter-inch map of the area. Meanwhile I sat down and roughed out a sort of travellers’ phrasebook for Padrone to translate into Italian. ‘Have you a barn with straw in which we could sleep tonight?’ ‘How many kilometres to the main road?’ ‘Are there any Germans in the vicinity?’ etc. (Phrasebooks are often held up to ridicule for their language, yet it’s
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curious how, the moment you start to compose one yourself, it seems to fall naturally into phrasebook terms). At lunch the news was still poor. Padrone’s face lifted when I produced my draft. He brought it back again, translated, before we had finished, shook hands and wished us good luck. In the evening he called round again, presumably to check up that we had actually gone, and was very disagreeably surprised to find we had not. He made a long speech, enlarging upon the consequences that would befall if we should be discovered, through leaving matters too late. Not only would our kindly hosts be shot; retribution might fall upon his father as well, or worse still, himself. Surely it was not compatible with our honour as British officers, etc.
He departed, watched by a fiercely scowling Mamma. Next day there were no places laid for lunch, and we returned to the farm unfed. In the evening he called for the last time. The search, he said, was definitely on. It was to start tomorrow, and this would be the first part of the area to be dealt with. Did we need money? He snatched out his wallet, spilling notes all over the table. Food? He would authorise the peasants to provide as much as we could carry. Anything else, we had only to name it.
This time the family did not trouble to conceal their feelings. Mamma surged to and fro, banging dishes furiously, snapping angrily at the girls or anyone else in her way. None of the menfolk got up to see the visitor out. “Stay, stay,” they said again when he had gone. “We will hide you. It is safe here. Stay.”
“Well, what about it?” said Magee later.
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Peter said, “I’m fed up. Let’s shove off.”
“How much in the kitty?”
“About five hundred lire. That’s about seven pounds by Campo standards – say thirty bob when the Yanks get here.”
“Give it to them here.”
“They wouldn’t take it.”
Ray said, “I wouldn’t want them to run into any trouble from Jerry on my account.”
“Nor from Padrone, which is just as likely,” I said.
“OK then. We’ll go tomorrow. Right?”
“Right. Let’s tell them, then.”
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7. GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD
Saturday 18 September 1943
In the space of a week we had grown very attached to “our” family. Nobody wanted the leave-taking to be a protracted affair. We were all ready for the road well before eight. Each of us had a six-foot staff with a blue and white check bundle tied to the end of it containing the provisions which a tearful Mamma had packed for us; butter, cheese, salami and tomatoes rolled about together, slowly melting in the morning warmth. Our haversacks bulged with bread so much that spare socks and what few other accoutrements the owner possessed had to be tied on the outside.
“Deputation’s waiting,” Peter said.
They stood there in a line against the front of the house: Papa in his gumboots, Mamma in a clean apron, Dismo showing his surgical belt over his singlet, Nonna in her black, the girls, the children, and all the other family as well. We shook hands with them all, then went round and shook hands again. Papa stood very straight, saying “Auguri!” over and over. Mamma, still protesting, looked as if she wanted to hug all four of us at once. The old lady was quietly crying.
Their cries followed us as we turned and strode off across the field, four of the unlikeliest Dick Whittingtons ever to set foot on the long road to London. We reached the end of a long avenue of vines and turned for a last look back. They were still there. A final wave, and we set off along a path heading roughly east.
I was surprised to feel a great relief to be on the move, and wondered why we had not had the sense to break away sooner. For the first time since leaving Campo 49 I felt I knew what
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it was like to be really free: not of responsibilities, but of obligations, and dependent only on oneself. The soft life in camp, and the open-hearted friendliness of the peasants, had promoted a false sense of security and indolence. We needed to keep the initiative, and this was only possible on the move. We had a simple task to accomplish: to cover a given distance without being seen by a German soldier. As for what would happen after that – well, that could wait until we got there. For the present it was sufficient to keep on walking.
The path ran straight for about half a mile and then came out on a little open road. We crossed with timid haste, then found another track leading off at a slight angle to the first one. All around the stumpy trees with their fat, black bunches of fruit stretched endlessly. It was ideal country for walking. Between the trees the ground was cultivated for corn or vegetables, and the whole was criss-crossed with grass tracks running in straight lines like the streets of an American city. Direction-finding was easy. Ray had a little compass set into the base of his collar-stud (he had no collar), and with the aid of this it was a simple matter to pick out which track ran nearest to the direction we wanted. We walked in a long zigzag, changing direction every half mile or so like a convoy at sea, but never getting more than about thirty degrees out for line. The paths were flat, and comfortable underfoot: secluded, yet not deserted. All around were the sounds of life, and every few minutes a farmhouse showed through the trees. It was good to know that shelter was always so near at hand. It was equally clear that if the population had been unfriendly we could not have remained at large for half an hour.
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In a short while we came out of the trees into an open field and suddenly saw, about a mile to the south, the square bulk of the Orfanotrofio standing at the edge of the village, looking silent and dead. A lone peasant was working among the vegetables, hoeing away with his back to us. Ray gave me a nudge.
“Now’ s your chance. Try a bit of your Italian on him.”
I got out the phrasebook and read out with care:
“Buon giorno ,signor. Sono i Tedeschi nel’ vicino?”
The peasant straightened his back and turned, grinning.
“Tedeschi yourself, you silly bastard. You’ll have to do better than that before you can open up an ice cream shop.”
“It’s Duggie Turner!” Ray said. “Hello, Duggie. Nice to see an officer doing a bit of honest work for a change.”
“Sorry I can’t say the same for you. What’s your plan, then? Just moving house, or have you chaps decided to make a long trip of it?”
“That’s about it. No use sticking around here for good.”
“Well, maybe.” Duggie was unperturbed. “I think I’ll give it another week or two, all the same. But don’t let me discourage you.”
“You don’t. You just carry on with the food production, then. And don’t go in for any other kind of production, either.”
“So long then. Have a good trip.”
We marched on again with determination, full of righteous confidence and feeling sorry for Duggie and his mistaken sense of security. Half an hour later we met four other men with long sticks, marching with equal determination in exactly the opposite direction. We halted briefly, made a few polite exchanges, then each party resumed its original course without inviting the
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other to join it. Already we felt that more than four would prove to be too many when it came to finding a billet for the night. No doubt, so did they.
At about eleven-thirty we stopped for a meal out of our rations. All through the rest of the day we pushed on regardless of the heat. Our general aim was to keep roughly parallel to the Via Emilia which ran some miles to the south of us, and avoid all the larger towns and villages. This course would bring us to the Adriatic coast somewhere south of Ravenna. We met four British soldiers who had escaped from a working camp near Carpi, and made a mental note to give that place a wide berth. At another brief halt we met a couple of officers, looking very clean and military, sheltering from the afternoon sun in a handy barn. One of them insisted on wearing his khaki Service Dress cap, complete with freshly polished badge, above his old Italian shirt and flannels. It was his best cap, he said; he wasn’t going to chuck that away for anybody. We crossed the river Taro, which at this time of year was reduced to a thin trickle of water running down the middle of a two hundred yard wide bed of gravel. At the far bank we met a couple of Italian soldiers en route from the Brenner garrison to their homes in Genoa. They had already been walking for over a fortnight; it seemed an awfully long time.
Towards evening we came up to the outskirts of a small village called San Martino, and began to think of the night’s lodging. A largish farm on the southern side suggested possibilities. We walked up to it through the trees and found a shady spot from which we could observe it inconspicuously.
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The yard was deserted. It was reassuringly quiet. In a few moments a man came out of a doorway and began to tidy up some implements. He was smaller than any of us, and looked very inoffensive.
“He looks OK,” Magee said. “Try him.”
We stepped out from the trees in a body, and I made our carefully rehearsed speech.
“We are four English officers, escaped prisoners of war. Have you a barn with straw, in which we could sleep tonight?”
The man was clearly taken aback, but he bore up well. He looked us up and down, as if counting the odds, and then nodded. “Si,” he said simply, and waved his hand to a building at the end of the yard.
I thanked him sincerely, and we climbed up a ladder into a small loft. There was plenty of straw, and room enough for four men to stretch out. We took off our packs a little stiffly, stripped and washed at a pump before the admiring eyes of two small boys, changed into our second shirts, and sat down hopefully at the edge of the loft to await an offer of supper. In about ten minutes the man came out again and motioned us into the house.
They were a small family, only the man and his wife and the two children. For a time they were unnaturally shy, and with our limited powers it was very difficult to generate any conversation. However, we wore them down gradually with our stories of wet, foggy England, and before the evening was very old we were sharing their supper of bread (no butter), grapes and white wine, and listening to the BBC news on their old battery radio. The Eighth and Fifth Armies had just joined.
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Sunday 19 September 1943
We slept soundly, with the feeling of a good day’s walk well done – though it had amounted to less than fifteen miles. The morning was fine and clear, and before eight o’clock we had left San Martino astern, albeit walking a little stiffly. The man and his wife gave us each a glass of warm milk for breakfast, and saw us through the village to the edge of the trees.
For some hours we marched steadily onward through the unchanging green of the Emilian countryside. Not a hillock interrupted the surface of the Plain in any direction. The farms looked big and prosperous, though sometimes their appearance was misleading. It was not until later that we came to realise that the main building in substantial brick was usually the grain loft and cattle shed, and that the family lived in the grubby-looking, tumbledown construction across the yard, or tacked on alongside more or less as an afterthought. The tractors were still chugging; all around were the signs of organised, fruitful industry. The whole atmosphere of the Plain, with its heavy, characteristic scent – compounded chiefly of grapes and tomato sauce – breathed opulence and plenty.
Towards midday we were walking along a short stretch of road, past some small houses. A big man came out of one of them. We kept to the other side, avoiding his stare, but he shouted after us:
“Si.” We stopped. No point in trying to deny it.
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“Oh, si si. Ta very much.”
Inside the house we found a table already laid, and within five minutes we had quartered a great dish of pasta, while the woman went back into the kitchen to make her midday meal all over again. The man gave little explanation. He knew all about Campo 49, had made the obvious guess when he saw us, and had sacrificed his Sunday dinner on the spur of the moment. After all, he said, his own son was a prisoner in England, and he could sympathise. We began to realise, as he talked, how long the war had been going on for these Italian families. It had started with Abyssinia, and continued with Spain; World War II was merely a tedious and severer sequel. For six years this couple had been deprived of their son’s services on the land. They had not even seen him for three.
We thanked them gratefully, left a note of our names, and pushed on into the fields again. Soon we came to a new kind of obstacle: a single-track railway, running between a wire fence and a high hedge directly across our path. We walked up to it quickly, ducked into the hedge and took a cautious look out the other side. The line ran straight for several hundred yards either way, and there was no one in sight. One by one we squeezed through, jumped easily across the rails, climbed the fence and dropped down into the friendly shelter of the trees the other side.
“Simple, what?” Ray said, as we waited for Peter.
“Can’t think why we expected anything else,” Magee said. “They can’t possibly guard every mile of track in the country.”
Ray said, “Look, I’ve an idea. There’s still nobody about.
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Why don’t we sabotage this bit of track? That would be one in the eye for old Jerry, all right.”
Peter scrambled heavily over the wire and landed with a bump.
“Sabotage?” he said. “Don’t talk balls, man.”
Magee said, “How d’you suggest we do it?”
Ray said, “There should be some way. Pull up a sleeper or two, or – er, well, we might find a few loose bolts to undo -“
I said, “But you can’t go around doing that sort of thing all over the place. Ten to one it’s only the locals who’d suffer. They’re certainly not going to send masses of troops along this line. It wouldn’t be fair – especially after that smashing lunch.”
“It’s a waste of bloody time,” Peter said. “Come on.”
We had been trending to the northward for some time, making what we thought was a long detour to avoid the village of Sorbolo, where there was rumoured to be a German detachment. Sorbolo lay astride the main road to Parma from the north-east, and as we had already walked off the edge of Soldato’s map we were now travelling mainly by guesswork and hearsay. The trees thinned out, and we came upon a little lane running between high hedges. We rounded a corner, and there fifty yards in front was the main road and a cluster of houses. Instead of avoiding the village we had walked slap into the middle of it.
A group of women stood gossiping at the crossroads. One of them immediately saw us, and pointed. It was too late to turn back. We walked towards them slowly, trying to look the other way. But now the woman was waving, holding her hand up. A stop signal. We waited. Two large, military-looking
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lorries went by, one of them towing its own motive power on a trailer of gas cylinders. The woman waved again, smiling and beckoning with her hand turned downwards. We advanced and crossed the road in close order.
Heads turned, voices chattered excitedly.
“Auguri, ragazzi. Auguri,” some of them called.
“Thanks, Mamma,” we said, putting on speed. Down the road to our right was a square, official-looking building with a Carabiniero standing outside it. Over the entrance was a flag carrying a big, black swastika.
We continued eastward as the hot afternoon wore on, going more slowly as Sorbolo fell astern. At the end of an hour the pace fell to a crawl, and though the time was barely four o’clock it felt much later. The unaccustomed exercise of continued walking was beginning to tell, and in the quiet of the vines there was time to appreciate how tired we all were. Peter’s knee was obviously giving him trouble, though he testily refused to admit it, and Ray was limping painfully as well.
“Bit early to stop,” Magee said doubtfully, pausing for the tail-enders to catch up.
“Not for me,” Ray said with feeling. He leaned on his staff, standing on one foot at a time. “These Eyetie boots are growing needles on the inside.”
“Give it another hour, then we’ll find an early billet. I’ll take it easy.”
Ray said, “Look, there’s a place. It’s got their name on it.” He spelt it out slowly. “Es-tratto di Pomo-dori.”
“Ho-ho,” I said. “Try again. It’s a tomato sauce factory.”
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Peter said nothing as we pushed on again. In a little while the track led by a small house, partly sheltered under a bank in which a middle-aged peasant and his two sons were digging. The man straightened up at our approach and nodded appraisingly. Magee halted, asked for a glass of water, agreed with a fine show of reluctance to take vino instead, and one by one the rest of the convoy came to a thankful halt behind him. The man told us he was digging himself an air raid shelter, in case of attacks on Parma. Two more sons and three daughters came out of the house, and before long we were sitting down to a tea of bread and cold meat at a trestle table outside the front door.
While they satisfied our thirst, we satisfied their curiosity.
“Dove andate?” asked the man.
“E da dove venute?”
“Fontanellato. Prigionieri, escapato delli Tedeschi.”
“Ah! Soldati, eh?”
“Ufficiali! Ma! Quanti anni avete?”
And so on. Under the influence of the wine the conversation ran merrily along despite our limited powers of expression, and even Magee’s enthusiasm for mileage began to wane. He leaned back happily with his fourth glass, stretched out his legs under the table, said “Si” every now and then to keep his end up, and left the real work to somebody else. Seizing the opportunity we began to bring the talk round to more practical matters, and Peter came out hopefully with the sentence about the barn with straw.
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The man said “No”, and abruptly the conversation lost its point. He regretted, not altogether to our surprise, that his house was full already, but said we should easily find room farther on, where there were plenty of larger farms. Magee downed his glass and we left.
We walked for another hour without seeing a likely place; what houses there were looked smaller and poorer than the one we had just left. Though the food and drink (and the cheerful company) had put new spirit into us, they had not helped Ray’s sore feet, and he was now lagging well behind Peter. At length we met a big, burly man working at the side of the track, and Magee asked him outright if he could put us up for the night. The man refused. He was sorry, he said, but he had no room. However, he knew where there would be a place for us, and he pointed to a very small house nearby.
The occupant of the very small house was a little old man who seemed to have no family at all. He looked at us very dubiously at first and seemed about to shake his head, when he suddenly noticed the big fellow hovering menacingly in the background. He changed his mind quickly, and indicated the loft over his cowshed. We dumped our kit with relief, had a wonderfully cool and refreshing wash in the cattle trough, changed and went into the house. The old man left us strictly alone; supper, evidently, was not part of the contract.
The dull evening was enlivened by an extraordinary performance from a neighbour who dropped in as soon as the news got around. This was a young man with a very loud voice who insisted on speaking in French, thereby adding considerably
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to our linguistic difficulties. We had almost to think in three languages at once. The ostensible purpose of his visit was to warn us against the local Fascists. He began by closing all the shutters and bolting the door, so that the room was dark and stuffy, and then launched upon a speech lasting for close on an hour. Marching up and down the tiny room in a state of great agitation – now declaiming grandly, hand on chest, now leaning forward across the table, breathing heavily into our faces, now darting to the window, finger on lips -he enacted a scene of such exaggerated melodrama as would have delighted the heart of Mr Vincent Crummles. His hands waved, his voice cracked, his eyes revolved, he spat. He warned us against the Germans, the Fascists, the police, even against the little old man. Nobody, nobody could be trusted. His body shook with nerves. Was he the typical product of a totalitarian state? Did they all turn out like this, after years of propaganda and miseducation? Far more likely, I thought, he was the Fascist himself, and beginning to regret it before he was too late.
We got very tired of it all in the end and went off up to bed. The loft was small, and we had to arrange ourselves in a narrow, L-shaped space around the top of the stairway. It was draughty and full of mosquitoes, and a dog barked outside for hours on end. It wasn’t a very good night.
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Monday 20 September 1943
The old man got us up at seven, obviously keen to get us out and away, but we forgave him when he produced a glass of milk each and some cheese for breakfast. We were soon on the way, into the close vine country once more, but our quartet had lost something of its homogeneity on this third morning. We tended to walk in file, instead of as a group, with first one and then another taking the lead. I myself was content to remain in the middle; I was not physically tired, just mentally lethargic.
The walking had its difficulties, too. There was much artificial irrigation in this part of the Plain, and every track we took seemed to end up at a deep weedy ditch of water just too wide to jump; this meant a right-angle turn and a search along the bank to find a crossing place and a new track. Irritating decisions had to be made:
“We’ll turn right here.”
“We turned right last time. I’d say left is better.”
“Right is nearer the direction we want to go.”
“We’re too far south already. Left is far better.”
Sometimes the man in front would make the decision without waiting for the rest to come up, and there would be bad-tempered mutterings from behind; whichever way he took was wrong. We felt we were progressing like the knight in chess, two miles forward and one mile sideways.
It was a bright, glaring day. The little trees gave shelter from the direct rays of the sun but failed to keep out the heat, and our thin clothes were soon soaked with sweat. Ray had a vicious blister on each heel, and was walking with
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handkerchieves stuffed into his boots. We had many halts for rests. We crossed another main road and railway line; a German truck went by just as we were clambering through the hedge, but we were too occupied with our physical discomforts to pay any heed to it. We wandered for a long time in a fruitless search for a friendly house which might offer a hot lunch like yesterday’s, but eventually had to settle for the last of our own cheese and meat. It was not very stimulating.
But at least there was never any risk of going thirsty; nor of going unnoticed. Every passing labourer had his flask and glass. Every person who saw us wanted to know the story. An Englishman, seeing a child crying in the street, will pass by on the other side, minding his own business. At best he may slip him a coin, quickly, so as not to draw attention to himself. An Italian could not bear to leave without knowing the reason first. Men dropped their tools, women put down their baskets, even children came running up to accost us as we wound our way through the vineyards. A dozen times in an afternoon the same old catechism was trotted out: Where’ve you come from? Where are you going to? How many days walking? Did our men treat you well? Is it far to India? – our son is a prisoner there. And always, hopefully: E quando finitera la guerra? – When is the war going to end? As officers, presumably, we were experts, and therefore in a position to know.
Towards evening, when the others were all very tired but I was feeling somewhat better, we fell chatting to an old man at a farm somewhere to the north of Reggio. The barn with straw was plainly in view and so I asked him the usual question. Ah, no, he said, unfortunately his own house was full, but he
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could confidently recommend his neighbour’s, which was just over there. At the neighbour’s we were greeted by a second man who at once agreed that we could sleep there. Nothing would give him greater pleasure, he said, and he set off upon a nice little speech dealing with the friendly relations between Italy and her new allies. Ah, that Mussolini, how he had betrayed them. He was still in the middle of this when he suddenly broke off and walked rapidly away as a third man appeared. This of course was the real occupant of the farm, who was, not unnaturally, somewhat put out at finding four hungry strangers on his premises making obvious preparations to spend the night there. Fortunately, however, he decided that actually to turn us out at this stage would reflect too much discredit upon him in his neighbours’ eyes, so he grudgingly accepted the fait accompli. But we must remain indoors at all costs, he said, for fear of informers.
It was a cooperative farm, worked by several families who all appeared extremely poor. Three-quarters of the main building was taken up by their animals. The families shared a single living room at one end, furnished with little more than a deal table and some wooden benches. We played bridge for an hour until supper time. The men were rough and aggressive at first, but their native hospitality soon showed through, and we joined them for their meal of bread, grapes, hot milk and vino. The man wanted us to sleep in the cowshed, where he said it would be warm and soft, but we eventually persuaded him to let us use the loft. I never found out where he and his family slept.
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Tuesday 21 September 1943
It got very cold in the small hours, and we were up and away early, breakfast nil. There was another road and railway to be crossed, and then we made good steady progress for a couple of hours. A man working by the roadside invited us into his cottage, a cramped, stone-built, two-up and two-down affair. His wife had died, leaving him with a teenage daughter and three younger children. The girl thus found herself forced into the role of housekeeper for her own father. Dark-eyed, good-looking in a sultry sort of way, she obeyed his commands instantly without saying a word, putting a welcome selection of white wine, bread, nuts and apples on the table for us. In the process she managed to give each of us a full inspection up and down. Was she wondering if she would ever have a man of her own, or be tied to this sterile life for good?
Despite this refreshment we again made relatively poor progress. We wasted further time in the middle of the day trying to scrounge a lunch. We were not very efficient at it. None of us had the face to knock on a door and ask outright for four hot meals, free. Our only method at this stage was to go up to a likely-looking house, ask for a drink, which was always given, and then sit outside looking hungry. It would soon be apparent whether an offer was going to be made; if not – try somewhere else. Later on we improved this technique significantly, for generally it failed miserably; in our first fortnight we got only three proper dinners. One felt, sometimes, that escapers should be made of sterner stuff; that
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a party of German officers, say, would have gone about it much more efficiently. Hipbone certainly would have done – but none of us was a Hipbone.
In the evening we were taken in by a kindly family at a smallish, poor-looking farm not far south of Carpi. Life looked somewhat better when they produced a very unusual dish for supper: potatoes. Just potatoes, that is; nothing else, not even salt. They were half cold, too – the Italians seemed to prefer their hot food to be cool – and the one dish was shared between fourteen of us. But the barn was warm and free of mosquitoes, and we had a good night.
Wednesday 22 September 1943
Just as we were about to leave a bright-looking, bespectacled youth came riding into the yard on a bicycle. He accosted us without preliminaries.
“Are you the English?”
“Come. I will take you to some of your friends.”
He took us to a farm less than a mile away where we met four British soldiers who had escaped from the working camp at Carpi. There had been about twelve hundred men in the camp. In accordance with the same instructions given to Campo 49 they had stayed put on the day of the Armistice, only to wake up next morning to find the Germans already in possession. Some hundred and fifty of them, it was thought, had managed to leave the column during the march through the village, and most of
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them were settled on farms round about.
Our new acquaintances had no thought of moving on. Having got their feet under the table, and their eye on a girl or two, they were strongly disinclined to do anything but wait and see. We tried to persuade them to take a longer view, but not very convincingly. It might be thought that, as officers, we should have exercised leadership, organised them into parties, and sent them all off trekking south, but, truth to tell, we were more concerned with our own future than theirs. At that stage we had almost ceased to be officers and remained only gentlemen: gentlemen of the road, members of what was obviously a pretty large fraternity in post-armistice Italy.
Meanwhile the bright youth with the bicycle was turning out to be a real treasure. He was himself the local organiser (self-appointed) for escaped prisoners, he said; was there anything we needed? I said, not very hopefully, that we could do with a map to take some of the guesswork out of our travelling. Off he went. In less than half an hour he was back with two items more valuable to us than gold dust: an excellent road map of the whole of Italy, and a carton of 100 cigarettes – cigarettes, in a country where tobacco was scarcer than money. Magee and Piper fell on them avidly.
The morning, having started well, continued to improve. Back at our own farm there was hot coffee and new bread for breakfast. We set off late but feeling in fine fettle for a change, much refreshed and fortified. Good progress ensued. Better still, we had a rare success with lunch. A peasant Mamma, coming out of her house and seeing us sitting all forlorn on her garden wall, immediately took us in and set four platefuls of minestra in
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front of us. It was probably the meal intended for her menfolk, still out in the fields. We ate up quickly, said “Gratsey, Mamma,” with feeling, and made ourselves scarce before the men came back. Walking steadily on good tracks, we had passed Modena by tea-time. We waded a shallow river, crossed a main road, took in some apples, and got taken in at a farm just short of the next river.
It had been a good day. When supper arrived it looked even better. The dish was rabbit stew – or, rather, it had originally been rabbit stew though all that was left now was the gravy with some sad-looking dumplings of maize bread floating in it. The thick, brown liquid had a nostalgically English and appetising appearance.
“By God!” exclaimed Peter. “This looks good, and I’m starving!”
He dug in his spoon and took a large mouthful.
“Urgh!” He choked and swore violently, unmindful of the company. The gravy was stone cold.
But the barn (with straw) was comfortable, and it was another good night.
Thursday 23 September 1943
This was the day we met the canals.
It was a day of contrasting weather, starting with a damp, misty morning which sent a chill through our threadbare clothes. We left early, negative breakfast. First there was the river to wade, then a stretch of dark, dripping vines in which we soon got soaked. For over an hour we walked steadily on through this, then sat down for a rest and a snack of stale bread and some
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tomatoes which we found growing at the back of someone’s house.
Shortly after this the trees thinned out and we found ourselves confronted by a wide expanse of open, sparsely cultivated country, flat as ever and completely shelterless. There being no alternative we started across it, following a cart-track. Gradually the sun rose higher, clearing away the mists, and it began to get warm. A single line of poplar trees appeared in the distance, stretching into infinity either side. As we drew nearer we saw that they marked the line of an embankment. It was the bank of a canal; not shallow and clear like the rivers had all been, but deep and vaguely sinister. Rivers could be waded. This could not.
We climbed the bank, turned left and marched off along the towpath to find a bridge, feeling unpleasantly exposed and conspicuous at first. In contrast to the vine country, however, there was little sign of life anywhere. In about a quarter of a mile we came to a bridge, crossed it with relief, and set off eastward again over the flat. But the relief was short-lived. Before long the way was barred by another line of poplars, marking another canal. This time we had to go much farther out of our way to find a bridge. It was getting irritating. We marched another mile, and there was a third canal, from the banks of which two more were visible. It was maddening.
By midday we had crossed seven canals, and walked something like ten miles to cover five on the map. We were hot, tired, and fed up. The ground was still bare and open, with only a few poor, well scattered houses showing. We were sitting on a bank by the side of a rough road, kicking our heels to ease our cramped toes and wondering what to do about lunch, when a
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flashily dressed youth rode up and started the usual catechism. He seemed to be the aggressive, Fascisto type for he went to great lengths to warn us off any of the local houses, but we changed our opinion when he rode off and came back in a few minutes with some thin slices of pressed meat wrapped up in greaseproof paper. We thanked him sincerely, watched him go, and ate the meat with some more of our old bread.
But it was poor fare, dry and unappetising. The sun beamed down now from a cloudless sky; but while sensible men closed their shutters for the siesta, we rose to continue the march. There was no shade to be seen for miles in any direction, so there was nothing for it but to keep on going. For four hours on end we plodded on, over hard-baked tracks and dried-up fields, in the atmosphere of a moderate oven. The sun was like a burning glass on the back of the neck. Our clothes clung stickily under our packs, so that it was like walking with a heavy sack of hot water on your back, which bumped and leaked wetly at every step. We marched dully, instinctively, placing the feet automatically, each man seeking a rhythm and pace best suited to himself. At the end of a mile we were already so spread out that each became an individual, isolated with his own thoughts. Magee, the eldest, conscientious, efficient, determined, a military leader in the making, possessed of a recurring thirst which was the cause of endless little delays and sidetracks in search of reviving vino. Piper, the family man, ever ready to display his precious snapshots, and the object of heartless ridicule since it was he, the infanteer, who was the only one to suffer with bad feet. Kibble, the Scot, pink, pop-eyed and prematurely solemn,
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a non-smoker and non-drinker, who preferred to talk with the old men of the family. And me, unmilitary soldier, unscholarly academic and now the official translator of the party, just keeping on to even the score.
Numbed by the heat and the dull flat country, one’s mind turned inward, and focussed on irritating little details of personal discomfort, magnifying them. Magee chewed endlessly on an empty pipe. Ray draped a handkerchief under the back of his hat, Foreign Legion fashion, and it kept on flapping against his ear; every few yards he stubbed his toes to ease the pain of his damaged heels. I had no hat, and frequently a lock of overlong, uncut hair fell forward just far enough to leave a smear of sweat on my glasses, so that I had to keep stopping to wipe them, thus getting farther behind. My belt would slide up off my trousers, so that I had to stop for that too, and when I did a little trot to catch up it slid off again. Peter just limped, and swore; softly, fluently and continually.
Not until early evening did the familiar dark green colour appear along the horizon. There was no gradual transition; at a mile away the edge of the vines was sharp and distinct. Another fifteen minutes, and they closed in on all sides of us, warm, friendly and comforting. It was like getting back home. The desert was passed, we were in civilisation once more.
At once we began looking for a billet. The track led straight into the middle of a tiny village, where our weary and worn appearance immediately caught the eyes of a couple of old ladies at their cottage door.
“Eh! Ragazzi! Volete buvare?”
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“Si si! Molto gratsey, Mamma.”
“Andiamo in casa.”
An hour later we were still sitting indoors relaxing over nuts and wine, listening to the old girls’ affectionate chatter and admiring two ancient jackets which they had found for Magee and Piper, when a young peasant farmer dropped in. He was a breezy, brash type, apparently full of information about other escaped prisoners.
“Yes,” he said. “Only the other night two Inglesi slept at a house quite near to my own. And they were officers. One was a Captain.” His chest stuck out importantly.
“That’s nothing,” Ray said. “We are officers too.”
The man showed interest, and Ray suddenly thought he would push his point home.
“And this gentleman,” he said, pointing to Magee, “is a Major!”
“Certainly. We two are Captains, and he -” Ray hastily modified his scheme of advancement as the man looked disbelievingly at me – “is a Lieutenant.”
The young peasant still registered doubt.
“In the British army,” I said, keeping a straight face, “promotion is on merit, not by age.”
“Ah! Capito, capito!” He nodded knowingly. He was impressed, despite himself. However, he was equal to the occasion, and rising grandly to his feet, made his offer. If the Major and his companions would do him the honour, he would be pleased to shelter them for the night at his own farm.
“Come on, lads,” Ray said. “We’re in.”
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The young peasant was the eldest of three brothers, all of them deserters from the army, who ran the farm between them. Together with their own wives they had the wives of two other brothers who were absent soldiering in Greece, presumably not having been able to desert yet. With children in proportion we sat down to supper some two dozen strong, at a large rough table. To our considerable disappointment there was only bread and cheese to eat, but there was plenty of vino and in a short time a furious party was in progress. The men, hats on, shouted at one another across the table. The women shouted louder still, and all of them shouted together at us. The eldest brother sat with his arm across Magee’s shoulders, slapping him on the back at special points in the conversation. “Eh, Maggiore!” he would shout, beaming around with a proprietorial air at the rest of the company. ‘I saw him first. I asked him here,’ his expression said. He helped himself to another of Maggie’s precious cigarettes. Magee, comprehending little of the general verbiage, kept his eye on the wine bottle. Ray passed round his snaps for the third time. Peter and I yawned and wanted to get to bed. The jokes became broader, the laughter got louder. Since the Major had not seen his wife for many months, our host said, and since there were two ladies here who had not seen their husbands for even longer, why, it was only right that the Major should sleep with one of them. He could make his own choice. Or both, if he preferred, ho-ho! The room dissolved into uproarious laughter. The two women blushed and looked coy, but not entirely discouraging either. The young children thought it was the best joke of the whole evening.
When, far beyond our usual bedtime, we retired to the loft,
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it was cold and there was not enough straw to go round. But we were too exhausted to care.
Friday 24 September 1943
On this day we got our first lift. In the morning our host, who looked as if he’d had a rough night, saw us away before eight without breakfast. It looked like being a bad start. Though we had long since ceased to think of bacon and eggs, or even Red Cross porridge, it needed a considerable effort to start serious walking without even the stimulus of a cup of hot milk or acorn coffee. However the empty feeling did not last long. A hundred yards down the lane we met the next door neighbour standing outside the open door of his house, evidently determined not to be left out of the act. Would the Major and his companions care to take a little refreshment before continuing their journey? Bread, cheese, vino (at eight in the morning) and a sort of blancmange made out of grapes awaited us on the table. We decided that Maggie’s promotion should be permanent.
The sun promised another bright, hot day, but the plain food put some life into us and we set off for the second time in good spirits. We waded the next river, found out that it was the Reno, and map-spotted ourselves. Bologna must be only about ten miles away to the south-east. Yesterday’s march must have covered at least twenty miles; once past Bologna, and we should begin to think seriously of the sea.
We made good progress all the morning, marching along cheerfully enough through the vines. Again, we wasted time looking
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for a lunch in vain, but we pushed on through the afternoon, walking, resting, walking again. The miles dragged by. Only another two or three to the Bologna road; we should pass it easily before nightfall.
Then the trees thinned out, and we were in open country again. Ahead, a single rank of poplars looked ominous, and soon our worst suspicions were confirmed.
“Oh, no. Not another blasted canal -“
There it was, right across our path, stretching for miles in either direction, and not a bridge to be seen. The obvious way to deal with the obstacle would of course have been simply to jump in and swim across. We could all have managed it with a struggle. A slight dampening would have done the remains of our stale bread ration a bit of good, though not perhaps the cigarettes. But we had none of us reached that stage of desperation; it seemed too drastic a step at this stage of the journey. Irresolution set in. Ray took off his boots and cooled his feet in the water, Magee lit up, Peter leaned on his stick cursing.
About a hundred yards to our left a small brickyard lay tucked in against the canal bank. The men had already stopped work to watch us. While the arguing was going on I went up to speak to the foreman, a huge, muscular type who in my schooldays would immediately have been christened Primo Carnera. It soon became apparent that he had a well-developed sense of humour of the nudge-nudge type. He gave me a knowing look up and down.
“Yes. We are four English -“
“Anybody can see you’re not Italians. English prisoners,
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eh? We should hand you over to the Germans, shouldn’t we lads? Twenty pounds a head they’re paying, ho-ho…”
Some more in this vein. Then:
“Maybe you’re not English. Maybe you’re really Germans in disguise, come to trap us. Look at him -“He pointed to the indignant Peter, whose colouring, even under his suntan, would have been a credit to any true Aryan. There was a good deal more of this good-natured ribbing before I could get them to admit that the nearest bridge was a good three miles to the north. Then the vino flask was produced and we lingered more, loath to start on the long unprofitable detour. Nearly half an hour passed, and then the foreman said,
“Here’s your transport.”
A large horse-drawn dray drew up at the brickworks. The driver was another big, grinning workman like the foreman. At a sign from him we got up, hardly able to believe our luck. A wave to the others, and we were off, all weariness shed in an instant. Suddenly, it was a beautiful evening. The old wagon bumped on springless wheels along the elevated roadway. On every side stretched the Plain, as flat as ever. Instead of green the land was now yellow, with field upon field of waving crops; not golden like wheat, nor silvery like barley, but something in between. Ahead, a single line of poplars came marching over the skyline from the west, crossing the line of the canal and disappearing into a large village. On the right the yellow fields extended farther, broken here and there by small clumps of trees, each marking a smaller village, a few pink roofs clustered around a square church tower. Here and there in the fields could be seen the bent figures of men and women, but
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there were no sounds of intense activity such as we heard in the earlier stretches of the walk. Somewhere in the distance a single bell tolled. This, and the creaking of the cart, breathed the essence of rural peace.
We leaned back against our packs with our boots off, content to surrender all the initiative to our new leader. It was as good as a Sunday school outing. Four girls came cycling along the lane below the towpath, their baskets laden with freshly picked grapes. Without a word from us they dismounted, unloaded their baskets, ran up the bank, put all their fruit on the cart, said “Auguri. Buona fortuna,” and rode off again. The driver meanwhile kept up a flow of information. The strange crop, he said, was rice, of which there was a great deal grown hereabouts. The large village was on the main Bologna road. Yes, traffic often passed along the road, but we should have no difficulty in crossing it. He radiated such confidence that we felt no alarm even when he reached the bridge, turned right across it, and started along a lane which clearly would lead right into the town.
At a corner in the lane we stopped. Standing there ready, as if by prearrangement, was a labourer, flask and glass in hand. He cocked an eyebrow, the driver nodded, and when we moved on again the flask was half empty. Another halt, and a man with a bicycle got on board. “Evening,” he said conversationally. “Going far?” just as if we were ordinary fellow passengers on a bus. We came to an orchard on the outskirts of the town, and the driver shouted for some fruit. At once a smiling woman handed up a large basket full of beautiful red apples, followed by another of figs and walnuts. The back of the cart was
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beginning to look like a greengrocer’s shop. “More food!” shouted the driver. He turned off the lane and drove round to a house at the back of the orchard, where again the whole family were standing, as if by order. The men and boys gathered round, laughing and chattering and shaking us by the hand, while the women heaped up loaves of bread and still more grapes and fruit. “Viva Montgomery! Viva Churchill!” they shouted, and of course, “Viva l’Ottava Armata!” We felt more like conquering heroes, than fugitives from the law.
We wanted to stay, but the driver said there was no time to waste, and as soon as the food was loaded up he drove out again and into the main street of the village. It was busy, and many strollers turned to stare curiously at us. We grinned and waved cheerfully back. By now I was quite sure that we were going to carry straight on over the main road and perhaps a good deal farther, but at about fifty yards before the crossing we stopped and the driver made signs to get down. He gave parting instructions while we struggled to gather up all the goodies.
“What’s that?” said Magee, dropping apples down the front of his shirt.
“He says not to talk as we go across,” I said. “Help me into this pack, somebody. They’re passing the word that we’re Italian deserters. Personally, I feel more like Santa Claus under this lot.”
Meanwhile the man with the bike got down and went forward to the crossroads. He stood there now in full view, waving his arm like a traffic policeman. We formed up and marched off, trying hard to ignore the stares, but it was not easy to feel normal with a bundle of fruit on each end of your stick, like
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a Spanish onion seller, and three whole loaves sticking out of your pack at the rear. The man with the bike nodded encouragingly, and pointed across the road to a narrow street which led straight on out of the town. Once in this we began to walk more normally, though still breathing quickly. The population relaxed as well. A woman smiled pityingly, another called ‘Auguri’ from a window. The cyclist came up, grinned, called ‘Buona sera, signori. Auguri!’ and pedalled away before we had time to say anything back. Old ladies turned, shaking their heads, and we heard a sort of collective sigh, repeated over again: ‘Ah! Poveri ragazzi! Poveri ragazzi!’ Two young schoolboys overtook us on bicycles, and insisted on giving us two more highly superfluous loaves. We shook hands, wished them goodbye, and three minutes later they were back again with a carton of cigarettes. Men grinned, and pointed encouragingly down the lane. We came to the last of the houses, and then there were more orchards where the men and women tried to press still more fruit upon us. Gone was the pretence of Italian deserters. The word ‘Inglesi’ was the one we heard everywhere. Perfect strangers turned to greet us like long-lost sons. People who had never set eyes on us before, and never would again, found time to forget their own troubles and wish us good luck with ours. We might have been a liberation army; indeed I think some of them thought we were.
The name of this place was Altedo. Just an ordinary little town on the Pianura Padana, but an imperishable memory still.