Part 2 of Geoffrey S Stavert’s story (RA) details his journey South as he hoped to escape via the sea. He was accompanied by three other PoWs. They reached the coastal town of Cesenatico and looked for transportation across the Adriatic. Unable to obtain a boat either here or in nearby Bellaria, they set off walking again in a roughly southerly direction. Through their latest host for the night, they heard of 2 British soldiers nearby and their plan to get POWs out on fishing boats from Civitanova. That mision was cancelled as the Germans spotted the last escape boats. Once more they walk south, and they meet an SAS party, who have been flown in to coordinate a Navy evacuation of all the escaped prisoners in the area. They are then sent to find CSM Marshall, who would find somewhere for them to stay for the 10 days leading up to the evacuation attempt.
[Digital pages 1-7 refer to the 4 prisoners in this story as Geoffrey Stavert, Harold Magee, Peter Gardner and Ray Pipe. Within digital pages 8-156, the last 2 prisoners are referred to as Peter Kibble and Ray Piper.]
Part 2 of 2. Read part 1 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
|8.||Getting Close||150 – 174||8 – 32|
|9.||If At First…||175 – 192||33 – 50|
|10.||Keeping On Keeping On||193 – 221||51 – 79|
|11.||Umberto||222 – 238||80 – 96|
|12.||“Paracadutisti!”||239 – 257||97 – 115|
|13.||Ten Days To Go||258 – 269||116 – 127|
|14.||“Tedeschi!”||270 – 286||128 – 144|
|15.||Der Tag||287 – 298||145 – 156|
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[Handwritten summary – chapters 1-14. See Part 1 for chapters 1-7]
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 unclaear] 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.
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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.
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[Start of Manuscript Part 2 – chapters 8-15]
FOUR FROM FORTY-NINE: A slow march through occupied Italy (PART 2)
8. GETTING CLOSE
We left the lane and stopped in a field to reorganise our packing. A man working with a woman and some small children accosted us cheerfully, and soon we popped the usual question. They took us to their house, already crowded as it was with relatives who had evacuated themselves from Bologna. It was supper time and the table was already laid, with a small plate of cold meat at each place. They made room for us down at one end, and we had the embarrassing experience of sitting, like pet poodles waiting for scraps, while our empty plates were passed round for contributions from all the others. We ate heartily all the same, without a trace of shame. They wouldn’t even accept any of our surplus bread or fruit.
One of the evacuees showed us to the barn. Unlike the villagers he was in a constant state of fear, and warned us over and again to beware of Germans. So far, we hadn’t seen a single one.
Saturday 25 September 1943
This was the day we saw the Fortresses. It had been a bad morning, very much of a letdown after the uplift of Altedo. The scared one woke us at six-thirty, more or less ordering us off the premises at once. There was no point in refusing, so we left. We even had to make use of someone else’s rainwater butt for our morning wash. It was damp, misty and depressing. We aimed vaguely south-east, hoping to cross the next north-south road somewhere between Molinella and Budrio, but the morning walk was a fatiguing, zigzag trek over rough, open country with all the tracks going the wrong way. Not until nearly noon did the sun finally clear away the clinging
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vapours from the ground, and it was shortly after this that we saw the aircraft.
They were American Boeings, seventy-five of them in two waves, high in the sky to the south-east. It was just possible to make out their silvery wings against the bright blue background. The sight was a marvellous tonic, almost like a glimpse of home. It showed that our side were still in being – still winning, indeed. We stood and gazed admiringly as the bombers wheeled to port, heading for Bologna. Then, still watching, we carried on walking, and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a farmyard, almost on top of an excited group of peasants. Intent on the planes as they were, they failed to notice us at first. Ray gave me a quick nudge.
“Make sure they know we’re British, not Americans. They might be a bit, er, well – touchy, you know -“
There was no need. One of the men saw us.
“See!” he cried, pointing aloft. “Inglesi!”
“That’s right,” I said in English. “So are we!”
“Eh?” The man nearly fell over backwards. “Inglesi! Voi?” Immediately we were surrounded by incredulous men and women all trying to ask questions and keep an eye on the aircraft at the same time. Only when the planes droned out of sight beyond the barn roof did we get ourselves sorted out, and then out came the vino and together with the Italians we celebrated the impending bombing of their own countrymen. In the midst of the conversation there was a sudden, dull concussion in the distance; you could feel it through your feet, not broken and scattered like a London blitz, but thump!, all at once, with a terrible feeling of finality about it. The talk stopped abruptly.
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One or two of the men winced, as if from a blow. The women all crossed themselves, and gazed at us with fearful, wide-open eyes. There was a hushed, expectant pause, then thump! again as the second wave let go. Then gradually the tension relaxed, and the chattering built up to its former volume.
“Many Germans in Bologna,” said the old farmer, with satisfaction.
“Italians too,” I couldn’t help correcting him.
He shrugged, wordless. His face registered an infinity of disdain. Townspeople, it said: men who’ve forsaken the plough for the pen, hard work for hard bargaining, love of Nature for the love of lire. It’s their war, not ours. And he started to ask me how things had been in camp.
By and by the bombers came in sight again, sailing serenely away to the southward, untroubled by fighters or gunfire. Up there, with the sun glinting on their aluminium skins, they looked utterly clean and hygienic, the more so by contrast with our own grubby and ill-fitting rags. I shouldn’t wonder if they’ve got flush toilets and chromium fittings, I thought, with ice water on tap. Been after the railway station, probably. Of course, some of the bombs would have missed, but you have to expect that. After all, there is a war on. Peter, gazing after them through sweat streaked glasses, voiced the thoughts which all ground forces feel about their airborne colleagues:
“Lucky bastards. Back home in the Mess in time for tea -“
With the departure of the aircraft we now became the whole centre of attraction. We heard shouts from another house, and the farmer said we were expected over there for lunch. We
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followed him through the trees, speculating greedily on the possibilities of minestra, and were introduced to another excited company composed mainly of women. They were refugees from various towns, living with relatives at the farm to escape any bombings. There was a fair-skinned girl from Milan, a young woman from Bologna whose husband was in Yugoslavia, another who had not heard for a year from her man in Greece, and others like them. None of them showed any animosity over the bombing. They seemed to regard it as something to be expected, and simply congratulated themselves on having got away from it in time. The Milanese girl thought the same; she was sure, she said, that the RAF would take care to avoid hitting the Cathedral. Their enthusiasm and pleasure at meeting us was remarkable. They brought out the best white Sunday cloth, laid out clean plates and cutlery, and piled on bread, salami, grapes, wine and nuts. One of them put out a half-kilo slab of cheese, cut off a few slices, and thrust the remainder into my bag. “Take it,” she urged. “You may need it another day.” They fell over themselves to help us to more meat and fruit than we could manage. And all the time, the catechism went on.
“But when will it all be over?” asked the pretty girl from Milan.
“Oh, can’t be long now,” said Ray authoritatively. He had won easily in the scrum to get the seat next to her. “You’ll see. We’ll have them out in no time.”
“You won’t forget us, when it’s over?”
“No fear. Rather not!”
“You will come and see us again? Here?”
“Eh? Well – of course we will.”
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“I have heard that it is a long way to England. But you will be able to come. All English people have plenty of money.”
Ray thought for a moment, finding the words. He took another grape, watched what the girl did with hers, and spat out his own pips on to the floor in the same fashion.
“Well, not all of us, you know,” he said, articulating carefully, like a teacher with a small child. “We have rich and poor in England, just like any other country.”
“But you are an officer. A Signor. You must be rich.”
“Me? No fear! You should ask my wife that one!”
“But you have shoes? English shoes?” reverently.
“Oh, yes. A few pairs, not many. But -“
“And proper clothes, that do not fall in pieces? All English cloth is good. You do not dress like that at home?”
“Yes. I mean, no -“
“And money to buy things also? Cigarettes?”
“But those are only ordinary things. They’re necessities. They don’t make a man rich.”
“In Italy they do.”
Ray looked as if he would have liked to continue the discussion but did not know what to say next, either in Italian or in English. He took a third bunch of grapes, then suddenly changed his mind and put them back again, and started off about the weather.
They wanted us to stay all day, but their enthusiasm only made us more keen to get on, and we started out at about two-thirty despite the afternoon sun. The welcome vines closed in, but we made poor progress. All the paths went the wrong way, and there were many ditches. Ray’s feet were still bad, and the
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rough going made them worse; he limped and clambered about in obvious pain. Other holdups occurred. It was grape harvest time, and many family parties were out among the trees, gathering the ripe bunches. They all saw us. Women shouted at us through the foliage, men and boys intercepted us on the paths. Time and again we broke away from one excited group, only to be accosted five minutes later by another. At some houses we were almost dragged in by force, and made to sit down until the vino had been passed. It was impossible to get on. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble for these generous, erratic, curious people. There was no question of disguise. “Eh! Inglesi?” would come a shout as we strode along an avenue. Then running footsteps, a panting for breath, a clink of glass on bottle, and five minutes’ walking gave way to another enforced halt of ten.
It was nearly evening when we got across the Molinella road. Soon afterwards the sky clouded over and a light rain began to fall; the first rain since – nobody could remember when. This, together with Ray’s poor condition, decided us to look for shelter early. At the second attempt we found a convenient barn, asked permission to rest in it until the rain stopped, and quietly stayed there until they asked us in for the night.
The invitation was made casually, but there was nothing wanting in their hospitality. They produced buckets of hot water for our feet, and showed us to a comfortable loft after we had first declined, with thanks, the cattle shed. Like the others before them, they were sheltering various evacuated relatives. One woman from Bologna was respectfully designated, a Signora. One of the kindest was a mother of two small children, whose husband had last been heard from in Greece over a year ago.
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Another girl performed a miracle of mending on my jacket, so that although there was now more patch than original material, it no longer threatened to split open right up the back.
There was a heavy thunderstorm in the small hours, and the leaky roof of the house let a lot of water into the main bedroom. In the loft, though, we slept snug and dry.
Sunday 26 September 1943
The day began well. We awoke late to a fine, fresh bright morning, and were greeted with a drink of warm milk for breakfast, a godsend. The night’s rain had cleared the air, and a stiff easterly breeze which blew in our faces moderated the effects of the sun. Ray had broken his blisters after bathing his feet, and now he went capering ahead with glee, while Peter resumed his customary place at the rear. Magee had plenty of cigarettes and was cheerfully smoking them two at a time, broken up into the bowl of his pipe. It felt quite good to be out on the run.
At first there was water to cross: three shallow river beds, nearly dry, then a canal. This one was little more than an irrigation ditch, and looked quite shallow. “Oh, come on,” said Ray, full of his new fitness. He took off his boots and socks, jumped in, and sank up to his knees in thick black mud. We followed, and all emerged in a fine mess at the far side. A few yards on we came to yet another. However, this one had a firm bottom and we came out of it reasonably clean again.
The country opened out, and for the rest of the morning and afternoon we walked steadily on over miles of flat ploughland.
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The breeze reminded us of the sea, and what lay ahead. It was quite clear that with ordinary caution we should be able to reach the coast in another three days or so. Exactly where was not certain; we had no intention of entering a city the size of Rimini or Ravenna (from our map, it looked as if Ravenna was actually on the coast), so it would be best to make for one of the small ports in between. At one of our halts we had a little conference.
Magee: “What we should do is, go straight through to the nearest harbour, pick out the first suitable looking boat, lay up and take it out as soon as it’s dark. No messing about. Take the first one, and off.”
Piper: “Isn’t that a bit risky? There are bound to be people about. What I think we should look for is a nice, quiet, lonely beach; far better to start from somewhere like that.”
“People don’t leave boats lying about on quiet lonely beaches, fathead.”
“They might. They do at Clacton -“
I said, “All this about stealing a boat. I suppose we’ll have to, but it does seem rough on them after all that the Ites have done for us -“
Kibble said nothing at all, indicating pretty clearly that he considered the discussion was a waste of effort, since the situation was still far too vague. By and by we came to agree with him. As to the actual handling of the boat and the navigation, this never entered the argument. We were all so abysmally ignorant of anything to do with the sea that nobody could make an opening contribution.
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At various farms along the way we were entertained in what now seemed to be the routine manner. Jovial, hearty family groups gathered round, passed the wine, wished us good luck. We began speaking in a little more detail about our plans, since the coast was near enough for the place names to mean something to the country folk. At one house they had some new white wine which was so sweet and innocuous that even Peter drank a glass, and then a few more, grudgingly admitting in the end that it was no’ bad. At another we at last got a definite point of aim. One of the men remarked that many prisoners had already passed this way, hoping to escape by sea. Cesenatico was the place they made for. From the map it looked as good a place as any, so Cesenatico it became.
Evening came. We had got as far as the river Santerno, a shallow stream winding its way northwards between high artificial banks. We waded it, with our boots on, in front of another admiring group of women, and began looking for shelter. A homely looking farm tucked away among trees under the embankment suggested itself. Two very presentable young men in smart suits and snap-brim hats at once invited us in. They made us comfortable in the best chairs, helped themselves and us to wine, and for half an hour we engaged in amiable conversation before they excused themselves and left. A few minutes later the real owner came in, and for a while we had some awkward explaining to do. We had forgotten the old game.
There were only the man and his wife and one grandfather. In this quiet company we sat down to a supper of salami and grapes. Conversation was not very easy, but things began to look up when,
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just after dark, half a dozen young men and girls and several small children came in. Whether they all belonged to the old man, or had just got the word and invited themselves, I never clearly discovered. At first they were all uncharacteristically shy, and all the conversational gambits had to come from us. But soon Ray’s snapshots were in circulation, heads were bent over the baby’s picture, and the decibel count rose to normal.
Monday 27 September 1943
We rose latish, taking our time, hoping for breakfast. Suddenly it appeared; hot black coffee, another godsend. We left our names and set out after a very friendly farewell. All morning and afternoon we plodded on under a cloudy, lowering sky, making to pass to the north of Lugo. The air was fresh, with almost an English feel about it, but there was little freshness in our step. We walked slowly despite the easy flat ground, speaking little, perhaps feeling the cumulative effects of ten days’ more or less continuous travelling.
We crossed a river, the Senio, sat for a while in a vineyard while pushing down stale bread and cheese, and plodded on again. At about three o’clock we were hailed by a man working in a field. His enthusiasm when he found out who we were was so remarkable that he put down his hoe and there and then offered to take us to his house for the night. We were tired, and the temptation was strong, but Magee held out against it.
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“No,” he said, “It’s too early. Let’s push on a bit more first.”
We felt he was right, and regretfully trailed off after him. Another river, the Lamone. At the far side we were met by a man and some girls, all in a great flap over some Carabinieri in a local village. Other prisoners had been this way, three South Africans and two Australians the previous night, and it was supposed that they had caused the policemen to be drafted in. A couple more hours, and as evening drew in we began to notice a change in the pattern of the country. The fields were drab, much broken up by hedges and not so intensively cultivated as previously. The scattered farms were small, incorporating all their functions into one rough, poorly whitewashed building. There were no big brick barns. The grapes hung in stringy green clusters, instead of the fat black bunches of Parma and Bologna. Tractor noises were absent; instead, it was the braying of donkeys which filled the air. The people looked surly and poor. The cool evening and dull skies accentuated the generally depressed air of the district, and we began to have gloomy doubts about the wisdom of our refusal earlier on.
Things began well enough. Maggie [They were keen on nicknames and Magee was always Maggie to everybody] strode off ahead to a house he saw through the trees, and when we caught up with him he was already standing outside the door, glass in hand. Contrary to expectations the family gave us a cheerful welcome. The farmer apologised for not being able to put us up himself, but suggested that we rest for a while there while he sent his young son off to find a billet among the neighbours.
We agreed, and the boy ran off eagerly on his important
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errand. Meanwhile it had started to rain, and we sat inside watching the drops splashing in the yard and dripping off the leaves, congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. Once the rain set in for the night there would be less chance than ever of striking lucky in this poor district.
Soon the boy came running back, wide-eyed with pleasure at the success of his venture. There was a large farm not far away where the family were prepared to take us in. He was so confident that we waited for the rain to ease off before thanking the man for his help, and it was beginning to darken when we set out. We followed a grassy track, now damp and slippery, for some minutes, and then rounded a corner to see a group of men standing waiting. The boy ran up to meet them. Instead of turning to beckon us, however, he stopped and began to argue. We could see the mens’ heads looking towards us and then turning away again. The sound of their voices made a grumbling bass below the boy’s excited chatter.
Magee said quietly, “Something’s gone wrong. I had a feeling this was too good to be true.”
The boy turned to us and commenced a flood of apologetic Italian while the men stood, sullen. It was impossible to understand him. I gave it up and spoke to the leader of the men, a big, surly peasant with a straggly moustache.
“We want a barn to sleep in,” I said.
The man shook his head. “Mangiare, si. Dormire, no.”
“We want shelter, not food.” I pointed to the threatening sky. “We don’t want to sleep out in this.”
“Mangiare, si. Dormire, no.”
The boy tried again, practically bullying the men on our
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behalf, nearly in tears with disappointment. The argument broke out again. With much difficulty, we got the drift: some prisoners had been seen in the area the previous day, and German troops had been searching the village, four miles away. It would not be safe to let us stay the night.
I began to get angry. “Look,” I said. “We don’t want to come in your house, we don’t want to take anything, we don’t want to get you into trouble. We just want a roof, to keep the rain off. A barn, anything -“
The man shuffled and looked down uncomfortably.
“Tedeschi cattivi! Abbiamo paura!”
“Si, cattivi! Tedeschi cattivi!” They took up the cry behind him.
“Tedeskey nothing! We’ve walked a hundred miles and haven’t seen one.”
“Tedeschi in Bagnacavallo. Oggi!”
It was no use. Evidently this was no ordinary letdown. There really was a German scare on, and though the boy was still doing his best the look of mingled misery and disgust on his face showed that he was making no headway. Maggie said flatly,
“We’ve had it. Don’t argue any more. Tell the kid we know it’s not his fault, and we’ll start again. It’ll be dark in a few minutes.”
It started to rain again, heavier than before, as we turned our backs on the men and moved off down another track. Tired and disheartened, we tramped along, not caring in what direction the path led. The rain came down steadily, soaking our thin clothes like paper and making little rivers of mud either side of the path. Eight o’clock came, and there was
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just sufficient light to make out the hedges and the darker bulk of trees beyond. The track led into a field, and we had to retrace our steps to find another. We knocked at two poor looking houses without result. Ray had the door of a third slammed in his face by a fat woman in black before he had even started to speak. The path was wet and slippery, the heavy soil absorbing little moisture.
Peter grumbled, “Remember that Johnny this afternoon? Why the postman were we such bloody fools to turn him down?”
Magee snapped, “I only said it was too early. You could have stopped there if you’d wanted to.”
“All right, man, keep your shirt on. We want to stick together, don’t we? I never said it was your fault. But ye’ll admit that we’d be better off now if we had done?”
“I didn’t notice you saying so then.”
“Ye’ll not find me bein’ the first to give in, thank ye. All I said -“
“All right, all right.” Maggie controlled his own temper with an effort, then suddenly peered through the darkness. “Look, there’s a place. Go and ask at that house if you really want to be helpful.”
“What, that? What a hope. It’s no bigger than a bloody chicken house.”
We stopped and stared glumly at a small, square building set back about twenty yards off the path. While we looked a man came out of a shed by the side. He must have seen the four dim figures standing there, for he straightened up, and then called out:
“Eh! Dove andate?”
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I ran up and told him the story, hardly daring to hope for sympathy. He stood there in the rain, listening quietly, interrupting only with exclamations of indignation as he heard how we had been turned away by his neighbours. When I had finished he paused a moment, making up his mind, then suddenly went over to the door and opened it wide.
“Venite. In casa.”
The door opened directly into a room about twelve feet square. It had bare whitewashed walls and an earth floor, and was furnished with a plain table and a few hard wooden chairs. An old-fashioned, open spirit lamp shed a dim, smoky light on the scene. A woman and a boy were sitting at the table, and they rose with startled looks as we entered, but the man calmed them with a few words of explanation. He told us to take off our wet packs and make ourselves comfortable on the chairs, and introduced his household with a wave of his arm. There was a curious mixture of pride and sadness in his voice as he pointed to his son.
“My family,” he said. “See, I am poor. He is my only one.”
We sat down, and the woman brought in supper: a few pieces of dry bread and some bunches of grapes. It was their normal evening meal. They ate rapidly, hungrily, without paying much attention to the food, and listened with amazement to the tale of our walk. The mother and her son were quiet, but the man grew more and more enthusiastic, until he could contain himself no longer.
“Ah, that Mussolini!” he burst out. “How he has betrayed our country! Betrayed, I say. We Italians have always been
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friends of Britain. Why, I myself have fought with you in 1914. See -” He jumped up, planted his bare foot on the table, and pulled up his trouser leg to show a long scar on his left calf. “A German soldier did that, with his bayonet. But he was unlucky, aha! A British officer shot him dead. I saw it! Ah, it was terrible that we had to fight you this time, terrible. The Italian people did not want the war. It was only that rascal Mussolini, he and his German friends, that made us. Now he is gone, and we are friends again, eh?”
His voice rang with sincerity. Old excuses they may have seemed to us, but they were real to him. He sat down, straight-backed, not afraid to look at any of us eye to eye.
“We are poor,” he said again, “but you will be safe here. We are not afraid.”
After supper he lit a candle from the lamp and opened a door behind him. The flickering light shone directly on to the rear end of a large cow, fast asleep in her stall. The rich aroma of several others wafted into the room.
“Here,” he said. “It is all I have, but you will be warm and dry.”
We thanked him quietly, took the candle, and closed the door behind us. Inside in the semi-darkness it was close and mysterious, like a dungeon. There were two rows of four stalls each, on either side of a stone gutter. Two on the near side were vacant, and there was a pile of fresh straw in one corner. I pushed open the door of the first stall.
“Two in each,” I said. “They ought to have a notice on these, like the French railway wagons. ‘Deux hommes, un vache.’
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Une vache, I mean.”
Ray said, “I was on a scheme in Ireland once where we had Company HQ in a pigsty, but this is the first time I ever heard of cows living with the family. Come on, Pete. Which side of the bed would you like, dear? I prefer the left myself, if it’s all the same to you.”
The rain streamed down outside. We hung our wet clothes up on nails, used the gutter for the same purpose as the animals, and lay down in pairs in the straw. Once under our half-sheets, with the candle blown out, we relaxed and surrendered ourselves to the darkness. We forgot the cows and the dirt and the smell in becoming part of it all. The straw, and the roof, were comfort enough.
“Let’s hope the old boy doesn’t make an embarrassing mistake when he comes to milk ’em in the morning,” came the voice from the next stall. “Goodnight all. Mooo!”
The cows slept peacefully on.
Tuesday 28 September 1943
We awoke to a depressing sort of morning: grey skies laden with heavy banks of cloud now and then breaking into a thin drizzle, a chill breeze, the ground soaking underfoot. “Just like Ireland,” Ray said. We must have looked unduly forlorn in the early daylight as we stood at the path ready to leave, for our friend was visibly affected. He shook hands fervently, and implored us to take care. When I gave him the customary
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piece of exercise paper with our names and units, and a special little note in English, and tried to express our thanks to him, the tears came rolling down his cheeks. And as we shouldered our packs and turned away down the track, he stiffened to attention; in his bare feet, grimed and hardened like an animal’s, in his patched, coatless clothes which were all he had, with his right arm raised in a perfect military salute.
It was Peter who said, “There’s one man I’d like to shake hands with again, someday,” but we all felt it.
The morning dragged on. We crossed the Lugo road and headed south-east through dripping vines and along soggy lanes. A heavy shower came on, and while we were sheltering in a friendly farmhouse three more escaping prisoners walked in. The peasants cheerfully put out bread and milk for all seven. The new boys were Scotsmen from a working camp at Verona, who had managed to dodge the column after the Germans had taken over. They had already tried several times to get away by sea, they said, mainly from small villages in the coastal strip between Lake Commachio and the sea, but had now given up the idea and were making vaguely south towards the mountains. They were a cheerful trio, little perturbed at the thought of spending all winter or even longer in the country. I asked them how they got on with the language.
“Och, sorr,” said one, a tall, raw-faced lad still in his khaki drill and with tattered plimsolls on his feet through which all his toes showed,”’tis naething. Ye soon pick up the manjarry and the dormeery, an’ after that – well, what more d’ye want tae get on?”
We spent a matey hour with them, then went our separate ways.
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For an hour or more we scrambled on over rough, open country. We crossed the river Lamone by walking straight through it, and then had to take shelter from another shower. The farmer took us in without hesitation. We drank his wine and told him of our plans, and he said what a good idea it was. They all did. It was easy to get encouragement when they saw how it pleased us.
When it was time to go Ray was missing. I eventually found him in the big kitchen at the back of the house. He was standing gazing with rapt attention at the farmer’s wife, who was busy rolling out some pastry and keeping up a high-speed but one-sided conversation with him at the same time. Her dialect was so different from that of the Parma region that it might have been a new language.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s stopped raining. We’re off.”
“Not yet,” he said. “You just watch this.”
The woman had finished rolling and was now cutting the flattened pastry into narrow strips with quick, deft strokes of a dangerous looking knife. She nodded and beamed, chattering away faster, though neither of us could follow a word of what she said.
“It’s pasta,” I said. “Lunch! It can’t be -“
Food! It was our first proper hot meal for over a week, and we set off afterwards for the afternoon march almost at the double. In less than an hour we had exceeded the whole morning’s mileage, and felt that we were only just getting into our stride. The clouds broke up, the sun came out, the whole world had a rosy tint because of that warm lining in our stomachs. We were happy.
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By mid-afternoon we had crossed the Montone river and were aiming straight for our next objective, the Ravenna-Forli road. Long safety had made us careless, and we were swinging cheerfully along a little approach road which wound between high, thick hedges when a sudden increasing noise behind made us all stop.
“Christ!” said Maggie. “A vehicle!”
We looked round like startled hens, trying to find a way through the hedge, but it was too late. With a yell Ray dived into the ditch, but before the rest of us could move, a small open pickup truck had swept round the bend and come squealing to a halt. The driver leaned out of his cab, grinning.
“Eh! Dove andate?”
“Send him away!” Maggie said urgently.
“Er – Questo la strada per Cesenatico?” I asked, looking innocent.
“Si!” He jerked his thumb backwards. “Montate.”
“No,” I said. “We’re prigioneery. Inglasey. We’ll be seen. Pericolo -“
“Si, si.” He nodded, grinning wider than ever, and waved his hand again. “Montate. Subito!”
A lift! I turned round. “He wants -” but the others were already aboard.
We sat in a row with our backs to the cab, feeling without a care in the world as the driver bowled off down the lane as quickly as he had come. The wind blew through our hair, the hard floorboards bumped our seats, our belongings came adrift and rolled all over the place, but we didn’t give a damn. At thirty miles an hour along that lane it felt like riding in
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an aeroplane. We came up to the main road and without slackening speed the driver swung right and began to career down it at an ever increasing rate. With one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn button, he tore along like an American police car in a gangster film. Pedestrians and loafers turned agape, boys on bicycles shook their fists, but we left them astern regardless. In five minutes we felt we had covered a whole day’s march. A couple of miles, then he turned off and headed east along another lane. In that moment I had a sudden realisation that this was our farewell to the Plain. Our last day of easy marching had gone. With every succeeding mile the speeding truck was carrying us nearer to the difficult part, where action, maybe danger, or at least the need to make a proper decision, would arise. Whatever the result, success or failure, we would not be coming back.
The feeling was momentary; the hard springs shook it out of me as quickly as it had come. Wild merriment returned. We sped through hamlets and along by open fields in a cloud of dust and little stones. We passed a group of girls on bicycles, and hooted and waved at them in the best traditions of the Service. (Soldiers always whistle at girls from the back of a vehicle; it’s one of the very few pleasures of military transport). And Peter, the taciturn Scot, was the merriest of all.
“Boy, this is the stuff!” he yelled. “Why couldn’t we do this – Ooer, look at that!”
“Aah, it’s only the police,” Ray said. “Yoo-hoo!.. Oh my, tell the driver, quick!”
But the driver had seen the Carabinieri foot patrol as well. He shot round the next corner on two wheels, even as
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one of them fumbled for his pistol, and pressed on harder still. We shot through one village, scattering dogs and chickens right and left. Another mile, a second village, and just as we were hoping to get clear of it he pulled up with a screech of brakes, right in the middle of the main street. He leaned out.
“Get down now. Not safe with me. Walk. That way.”
We got down, not liking the idea in such a public place. An old woman in black took one look, threw up her hands, and burst into a flood of tears. The driver let in his clutch and roared away without another word. We looked around. Already it was becoming embarrassing. Spectators were gathering from nowhere, as if we were a bad accident. We started off along the way the driver had indicated, being followed by an interested group of youths and girls. The road led straight for a hundred yards, past houses and shops. I noticed a sign over one: Castiglione di Ravenna. The road bore round to the right, and ascended to a bridge over a wide river; the Savio, last river before the sea.
We halted uncertainly, wondering whether to be bold and march straight across or whether the bridge would be guarded. One of the youths came up and said something about Carabinieri. That settled it. We turned away quickly and commenced walking along the river bank, upstream. The houses receded. A barefoot girl in a brown dress stopped hoeing to watch us. Ray, always the gentleman, raised his shapeless hat.
“Bonna Sarah,” said he.
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She shook her head and spoke rapidly, waving downstream again. Back to the bridge we trailed. The spectators were still there, waiting to tag along with us as before. This time, somehow, we found ourselves in the middle of them instead of leading. We marched boldly over the bridge in a body. There was a sentry box there all right, and there was a policeman in it, complete with rifle. I looked at him, he stared right back, but he didn’t move. At the far side the Italians all halted, and the youth made signs that we were to go on without them. If you ever want any real help, I thought as we watched them go back over the bridge, get a schoolboy on your side.
But now other people were getting the idea. One or two men came up alongside as we walked, shepherding us like frigates with a convoy. A woman, approaching from the opposite direction, stopped and without saying a word held out a loaf from her basket. A man came up on a bicycle, shouted something with a big smile, then rode on ahead to a crossroads where he stationed himself in the best army Don-R fashion, with his bike lined up along the right road. He sat there waiting for us, his chest fairly bursting with pride in his job. It began to rain slightly, and it was no surprise at all when he rode on again, dismounted and leaned the bike against the railing of a small front garden. A large, smiling man in shirt sleeves came out of the house to open the gate just as we got there.
We spent one of our best evenings with this family, in an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness which banished all thoughts of German soldiers and policemen from our heads. There was the large man himself, his wife, three pretty daughters, an indeterminate number of small boys, and Grandfather: a very
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grave old gentleman with a white beard, who sat in his chair all evening and listened to our tales of waterlogged England with perpetual (and highly gratifying) astonishment. The house was built on the now usual plan – we recognised the door to the cowshed as soon as we got inside – but the furniture was above standard: a carved sideboard, a polished table, some leather seated chairs, and a few religious ornaments. The man helped us off with our packs, showed us into the kitchen where there was a proper sink, then pointed out of the window to a hedge which bisected the field. Gentlemen used the right-hand side, he said, ladies the left. His wife made us all a splendid supper of hot stew with new bread and grapes, and sat us in alternate places round the table in accordance with the rules of polite society, instead of all together on one bench. This way, conversation sustained itself right through the evening. There was always something new to say, or at least somebody new to say it to. Yes, Cesenatico would be an ideal jumping off place, they said. Why, there was practically a bus service for escaped prisoners operating between Cesenatico and the Dalmatian ports. The names of any boatmen running the enterprise eluded them just now, but we should be sure to find someone who could tell us when we got to the port.
When bedtime came there was no mention of the cowshed. Instead they fetched blankets, pillows and a mattress from upstairs, and spread them out in a corner of the living room. Maggie and I were both tired. We got up and said goodnight, and then, as nobody moved, undressed where we were, in full view. They didn’t seem to mind.
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We stretched out luxuriously, enjoying the unaccustomed feel of the mattress. At the table Ray was still going strong on the weather; Peter, back on the wagon, refusing his umpteenth offer of vino. Maggie gave a big ho-hum sort of sigh.
“Well. That’s that, eh? Nothing more we can do now. In the morning – we shall see what we shall see.” He rolled over, taking most of the blanket with him. “Eleven days. It’s been a long walk.”
It had. The sea was less than three miles away.
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9. IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
Wednesday 29 September 1943
The last lap. The unknown. The time for actually thinking, when all the soft months in camp would show their effect. The moment of decision, the time when commitment could not be put off any longer. Well, I thought, there are still four of us, and it might easily be one of the others who has to do the deciding.
It was still raining in the morning, but only lightly, with promising patches of brightness in the sky. We shook hands all round and set off down the road to a round of cheers, as if we were the home side coming out on to the field. For a time it was just like any other day on the Plain. We left the road early and turned into the country, heading well to the south of east rather than direct for the sea. The going was heavy over wet tracks and ploughed fields, but not unduly difficult. After an hour or so the trees thinned out and the ground lay suddenly wide open in front of us, flat bare fields divided by narrow hedges no more than a few feet high. There was a touch of sand in the soil, and a new tang in the air. Farther south, we could see the foothills of the Apennines, less than twenty miles away.
Peter said, “Can’t be far now. What d’ye propose to do, Maggie?”
Magee said, “Don’t know for sure. Keep on for a bit, then ask somebody else, I suppose.”
Indeed it was as easy as that. We walked for a while in silence, watching the bare horizon and the few isolated farms for signs of civilisation, until the track passed close by a small house where a man was working outside.
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“Morning,” Magee said, in the best Italian he could muster. “All right for Cesenatico?”
“Si.” The man looked him up and down and then at the rest of us.
“British prisoners,” Maggie explained. “We want to get a boat, to take us down to our friends.”
“Si.” He seemed to be a man of fewer words than most of his compatriots. “It can be done.”
“You know how?” Suddenly we were all attention.
“Oh yes.” He spoke as if it was all routine to him, in the same way as he reached for his wine flask. “Many have done so. Russians, Serbs, and English too. The fishermen take them.”
“You know these men? Can you tell us the name of one?” Maggie could hardly contain himself. “Oh, thanks. Gratsey. Good health.”
The man finished his own glass comfortably before he went on. “Yes, I will tell you. You must go into the town and ask for a boatman called Fifo. He is well known. Anyone will tell you. He knows what to do.”
“No Germans in Cesenatico?”
“A few. But Fifo will arrange matters.”
“When? Soon? A few days?”
“Maybe. Perhaps tonight.”
He showed us the way to an old dried-up canal, which he said was the best means of entering the town. We found it easily enough and nearly began running along its rough, grassy bed. It sounded almost too good to be true.
The canal cut a groove through the fields in a series of long zigzags. On either side the land was bare and shelter less,
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and I had to fight off a ridiculous impulse to walk in a crouch. I felt like I did on the first day out of camp, excited, with a suspicion of wobble at the knees, and a strong desire to be able to see out of the back of my head. The sky had cleared, it was sunny and hot, and I was sweating a little as we stumbled along the rough earth. I wanted to get there now, and get on with it.
We came upon the town almost before we were ready for it. There was a long straight stretch, a bend, then the first buildings came in sight less than half a mile ahead. Between us and the house was a bridge, and as we approached we could see a number of figures leaning on the parapet, watching us. There was no chance of avoiding them, so we climbed up the bank and spoke to them. They were town youths, half a dozen of them in the middle teens. They had fair skins and thick black hair with long sideburns. They wore flashy clothes; silk shirts, gabardine trousers, and jackets which they wore slung cloak wise over their shoulders, like members of the chorus in The Desert Song. They had no hats, but had sandals on their feet. They strutted about importantly and argued in loud, aggressive tones, but as soon as we spoke they were friendly enough. Yes, they knew Fifo. Yes, they would even take us to his house. Things were going right all along the line.
“Uno,” said the boy called Guiseppe, holding up one finger. “One only.”
“He’s right,” Maggie said. “One’s enough. Be much less noticeable that way.”
I knew who it was going to be even before three pairs of eyes turned my way.
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Maggie said, “It’s got to be someone who’s better at the language than me.”
Ray said, “Peter’s limp won’t help him, either.”
Peter said, “Aye, that’s a fact.”
Well, that was the decision; at least I hadn’t had to make it.
“Better leave your stick with us,” Ray said.
“Oh. All right.”
“And your pack,” Maggie said. “You look enough like a tramp as it is, without advertising it.”
“Put some things in your pockets, if you like. But you’ll have to leave the main stuff with us.”
I hadn’t any pockets. There were flaps in my jacket where the pockets should be, but if I put my hand through it simply came out the other side. Reluctantly, I handed them over: razor, spoon, socks, the one spare shirt that I had saved up my cigarette ration for, everything – the very essentials of life, should I be put in the bag again. It felt almost as if I had given them my trousers.
They knew this as well as I did. “Find out what you can,” said Maggie as I got ready to go, “but listen now. Don’t go sticking your neck out too far. It’s information we want, not action. Once you’ve seen the old boy, come straight back here. Bring him with you if you can. That’ll be enough.”
It was a strange feeling, walking openly into a town when for weeks past our movements had been aimed at avoiding them. Guiseppe played his part well, wheeling his bicycle alongside me and chatting away as if we were old school chums. There was little traffic, even on the main road, and what few people were
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about were intent on getting home for the midday meal. Quite soon we came to a row of suburban villas on the right, and here he told me to stop while he went on himself to fetch Fifo.
I sat down to wait behind some sand hills on the other side. It was quiet and peaceful; I could hear the sea rolling gently on the shore not far away. Presently I heard voices. It was Guiseppe all right, but with a woman. She was very big and round, and panted heavily with the exertion of stumbling over the soft sand. The wind blew her hair about and ruffled the coarse black material of her dress; she smoothed it down with hands as big as a navvy’s. She halted and stood glaring, with a look that made me finger doubtfully the grubby stubble on my chin. We had been following a routine of shaving once every three days, not just to conserve our few remaining blades but supposedly also to give ourselves the authentic Italian image. However, the motherly concern we usually aroused in the peasant Mammas was markedly absent from this lady’s features.
Mrs Fifo, Guiseppe explained.
“Noi siami quattro -” I began on the old formula, and came as quickly as I could to the point of Fifo and his boat. Just as soon as I stopped, Mrs Fifo spoke.
“NNNO!” she snapped, with female finality; and then while I was still translating my next sentence before giving it utterance she went over to the attack.
What did we want with Fifo’s boat?
Why, to escape, I told her.
But we had escaped already, she said. Why go into the harbour, where there were German soldiers, instead of staying in the country, where it was plain that we were safe?
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We wished to join our friends, I said. The Eighth Army. I repeated it, hoping that the magic words might still work; L’Ottava Armata, where we could be proper soldiers again.
To fight again, she said grimly.
I had the answer to that one ready. To finish the war more quickly, I corrected her.
The word “war”, unfortunately, acted like a cue. Mrs Fifo heaved a great breath and then gave me a broadside. War, she was sick of it; sick of the whole idea and anything or anybody to do with it. If men could think of nothing better than fighting one another, well she could, and she would be the last person to help anyone who wanted to go on with it. Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill – they were all as bad. If they wanted to fight they should do so among themselves, with fists – she shook a muscular arm at me which could itself have dealt creditably with any one of the antagonists named – but they had no right to drag poor, peace-loving people into it with them. Great Britain had said that she and Italy were now friends, but what did they do but bring the war ever nearer, so that conditions now were worse than they had ever been.
There was much more in the same strain. It was as if the curtain of propaganda, drawn tight for so many years, had only now been lifted away for her to see the light, and she was pouring out her pent-up feelings on me in a flood of indignation, mock righteousness and self-pity. I answered with great difficulty, understanding less than half of what she said. My supposed command of the language, adequate for an evening’s elementary conversation on the farms, was woefully insufficient to deal with this sort of thing. I fell back on bribery. I offered money,
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hundreds of pounds which I hadn’t got. Petrol. Unlimited rations from the Eighth Army’s bottomless larder. I even tried to hint at a medal.
But it was like using a peashooter against a tank. Mrs Fifo went about and raked me with her other side. How did we propose to get out of the harbour, when it was guarded night and day? Every boat was searched, entering and leaving. How would we escape the aircraft which patrolled the Adriatic coast? How, even supposing we succeeded, did we think Fifo would get back? And finally, with tardy but unanswerable logic, how did we propose to make contact with Fifo in the first place, when even his wife could not? For, a week ago he had sailed for Dalmatia, and was still there, unable to move, with his cargo impounded and himself under suspicion for smuggling.
With this last shot she hove to, breathing deeply in triumph. For a few moments I did not know what to say next. It was clear that the Fifo plan was out, but was there any alternative? Not in Cesenatico, but elsewhere possibly? I asked, and at once Mrs Fifo brightened up. She suggested Bellaria, a few miles down the coast. It was a much smaller place than Cesenatico, and there would be no Germans there at all. With the prospect of my departure she became positively encouraging. She looked at Guiseppe, who took his cue smartly and agreed. Yes, Bellaria was the place, not Cesenatico.
They went off together, leaving me alone on the sand. It was still quiet; no traffic on the road, only the sea and the gulls breaking the silence. I thought: should I go back with the news now, or should I go on into the town and see for myself how things really were? Why not take a look at the harbour, and chance the
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sentries? Examine the entrance, pick out any likely-looking craft, make a little sketch of the way in and out? It should be feasible. Take an hour or two, of course; already it was one o’clock, and I had had no food since the previous night, but that need not matter. Time spent in reconnaissance was seldom wasted…
Even as I thought I was turning away, stepping gloomily along the road out. I went back to the bridge feeling fed up, a failure. Not enough push, they would say. Too easily put off, too ready to take another’s word. What real information had I to give? And what excuse for not getting any more?
But they were glad to see me, and not really surprised at the news. It had all been too good to be true, they said. Can’t expect things to be handed to us on a plate quite like that. If the Fifo plan was off we would try another; Bellaria, say – that had a more likely sound about it. There was even a measure of sympathy for Fifo’s wife.
“She’s probably short on the housekeeping money by now,” Ray said, as one who knew about these matters. “That always makes a wife bad-tempered.”
Better still, they had even fixed up lunch at a farm not far away. They were a large, cheerful family and their friendly chatter did nothing to dispel the air of indecision which now assailed us; and the impetus of our attack on Cesenatico, already weakening, melted away completely when the farmer came to show us our room for the night. Yes, he said, it would be much better to try Bellaria tomorrow. Nobody had got away from Cesenatico for many days past.
We spent the afternoon on maintenance. Ray and I borrowed a piece of home-made soap, something like a cross between pure
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soda and pure pumice, and a bucket of cold water, and started to wash our socks. We squelched away messily for a while until the farmer, horrified to see grown men demeaning themselves with such work, put his daughter on to the job. She was a pretty girl of fifteen called Inis, slim and leggy in a simple print dress. She took the socks out of the tub a pair at a time and bashed them, native fashion, on a big stone slab. We enjoyed watching her working.
In the evening there was a merry family party in the living room, which unusually was on the first floor, directly above the cowshed. Besides the genial farmer and his wife and the four of us there were two boisterous teenage lads, Inis and her younger sister, two or three small boys, and three old ladies in black. Everyone took part in the fun. One of the old ladies gave us a demonstration of hand spinning. She took a ball of raw wool in her hand, wound some of it on to a bobbin, and then let the bobbin fall, spinning. It drew out the yarn, imparting a twist to it at the same time. Soon she had it going up and down like a yo-yo, spinning the yarn and winding it up on itself in the one operation. We all had a go, and of course got in a hopeless mess. Later, after supper, I saw the same one nudge Inis and say something to her, cocking an eye at us. The two girls got up and went out. Bedtime, we thought; what a shame. But in a little while they returned, bringing two more girls with them, so that there was now one for each of us. We ranged ourselves opposite them along the table, and tried to teach them some English.
“Uno – one. Say ‘one’.”
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“Now two. Due – two.”
“Not bad. Tre – three.”
“No, three. Like this – thththrrree.”
They were not very good pupils. Then the sprightly old lady took a hand in the game. We would organise a beauty competition, she said. Each of us would write down his own name on a piece of paper, together with that of the girl he fancied. The four slips would be put into a hat and one drawn out; the winning pair would then spend the night together. The girls giggled and blushed, the women cackled, and the men cheered at this romantic scheme. Amid great excitement the ceremony was performed, and the names of Peter and Inis duly drawn forth. (It later transpired that we had all put in for Inis). For a while they tried to laugh it off. Inis affected not to hear the jokes passing back and forth between the men, and Peter didn’t mind because he couldn’t understand them, but as the evening wore on they both looked increasingly uncomfortable. But at last the joke wore thin. Mamma took hold of her girls and firmly piloted them out of harm’s way, while the four of us shared a bale of straw on the floor of the sons’ bedroom.
One of them woke me in the night with his snoring, and I began to think of the next day. I was surprised to find that I had forgotten altogether about being an escaping prisoner.
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Thursday 30 September 1943
Another sentimental parting. Handshakes, “Auguri”s all round, a hint of tears; how often I’ve wished it might have been possible to retrace our steps and greet again some of these warm-hearted, open-handed friends of a few hours, but none of us ever did. I turned for a last look as we entered some trees a quarter of a mile from the house; a lone figure in a print dress still stood in the doorway, watching.
It was early afternoon when we got to Bellaria, after a morning of irritating detours and misdirections. We found a deserted house outside the town, and I got ready to go in.
“I’ll come with you,” Maggie said, taking off his own pack. “No need for so much security in this place.”
That’s right, I thought. Make sure the job’s more than half done this time, you mean. But I was unashamedly glad of the company.
“First step,” he said firmly, “is to find the local priest. He’s the one chap who can really help us. You know what they are in these Catholic countries – know everybody, go everywhere, practically run the whole town. He’ll put us on the track if anyone will.”
It seemed a sound idea.
We walked towards the town along a pleasant, shady, tree-lined road. Almost the first building we came to was the church; pink, square towered, cool and sanitary looking, set in an open square of green lawns and bright flower beds. We marched boldly up to the studded door and knocked. But there was no response, nor would the door yield to our pushing. A small side door was likewise locked. It seemed that we would have to revise
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our medieval ideas about sanctuary.
The little town was dozing in the afternoon heat. (No doubt, so also was the priest, but we hadn’t thought of that.) There was the wide, pavement less street, its metalled surface fading away into beaten sand at either side. Trees, tropical plants and a palm or two in the square. White, green shuttered buildings elbowing one another for more breathing space. There was a dusty, unswept air about the place, but not the squalor and sordidness of some of the French North African towns.
A few scattered loungers hung about the doorways, but no one took any notice as we crossed the square, then the main street. We plunged into a narrow side street, hemmed in by high, window less walls which shut out the view ahead, made for what we thought was another street, and all at once found ourselves out in the open again on a small promenade. There were the usual tubular railings, a stretch of sand, and then the sea.
Quickly, not looking to either side, we crossed the roadway, ran down a flight of stone steps, and walked out to the water’s edge. Eyes seemed to bore into our backs as we stood gazing at the empty horizon. Little waves washed around and under our boots, gently swishing away the grime of over a hundred miles of Lombardy roads and tracks. Away from the shore the sea was mirror smooth and sharply dazzling. There was hardly a whisper of breeze.
To the north of us the beach curved away, flat and bare and boatless. The main part of the town lay to the south. There, about a quarter of a mile away, a concrete breakwater ran out from the promenade. I could see a flight of steps leading up it. We set off along the beach, our size tens sinking heavily in the
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soft sand. Little groups of fat Mammas sat about in deck chairs, fanning themselves and gossiping, following us with their eyes. Numbers of brown, near naked children ran in and out among them. A few men in blue jerseys leaned on the railings, sucking at empty pipes. Everyone must have seen us, must have been talking about us, speculating. We were the only strangers in the place. But no one made a move.
“Makes you think,” said Maggie. He stepped aside carefully to avoid disturbing an embryo sandcastle, and the small girl, unperturbed, went on digging, using an old stick for a spade.
“Yes,” I said. Seaside holidays at home, the shores of Morecambe Bay, Blackpool for preference…
We climbed up the steps of the breakwater. It formed the near wall of a small river mouth which had been dredged to make a little harbour. The tide was out. Small craft of all kinds lay about at angles on the mud: rowing boats, fishing smacks, fat cabin cruisers, dinghies and small yachts. Many were daubed with red lead. Some had their gear lying untidily about the deck, others had no gear at all. All presented an air of neglected immobility. We looked at one another. This was it, all right.
We turned and followed the wall inland, looking keenly for a sign of something seaworthy. Quayside and craft alike were deserted. The river narrowed and became more congested. Now the water was deeper, and more of the craft were actually afloat. We came in sight of the bridge carrying the main coast road across the river, and then we saw her.
She was a small cruiser, about thirty feet; covered forecastle, single mast, open cockpit, auxiliary engine. She lay floating gently, a single plank running from her side to the wall.
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She was not rigged, but her woodwork was clean, freshly scrubbed and varnished as if she was actually being prepared for sea. On her deck a young man dressed in white flannels and a blue sports shirt was standing, doing nothing.
Magee said, “By golly. Just what the doctor ordered. Come on.”
We trod gingerly down the plank, jumped on board, and introduced ourselves. The neat young man returned our greeting, carefully showing no emotion. The poker-faced, Bogart type was his pose. He looked about thirty. He had the thin lips and fine features of a Frenchman, and his dark hair was neither too thick nor over long. His hands were clean and well-kept, with long fingers which he continually rubbed against one another. He looked as if he was the owner of the boat, but not as if he was the man who kept her clean.
I told him we wanted to borrow his boat for an escape.
The young man said he was pleased to meet us. He himself had been an officer in the Italian army. Had we not heard of the famous Bersaglieri regiment?
We said we had, and asked him about the boat again.
Perhaps we had fought against the Bersaglieri? Of course, they had not wanted to fight the British, but the regiment had its reputation to maintain. It was only that Mussolini who had dragged them into the war, and he himself had taken the first opportunity to desert when the Armistice came. English people had been his greatest friends before the war.
Then he would help us? I asked.
Nothing would give him greater pleasure, he said. However, the Germans had taken away all the sails from his boat.
The engine, then?
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Ah. unfortunately, they had taken away all his fuel as well.
Could he not buy some more? We had money, and would pay.
He cheered up at this, but would not change his mind. It would not be possible for him to get all the way down to Manfredonia and back on the engine alone.
I said he need not worry about the return trip. The Eighth Army, our friends, would give him all the fuel and anything else he needed. Alternatively, he would be welcome to stay and fight with them until the war was won.
His face clouded at once. Too late, I knew I had said the wrong thing. He shook his head firmly. No small craft could attempt such a trip. German aircraft patrolled the skies continually, and shot at anything venturing too far from land.
So it went on. In vain we argued, wrangled and pleaded with him. “Try him again,” urged Maggie. “This is our big chance. You must persuade him.” But there was no persuading him whose mind was already made up. The young man’s pose of self-possession fell away. He no longer implied that officer types should stick together. His excitement grew as he tried to picture the hopelessness of our plan. Zoom! Zoom! he went, describing the attacking aircraft. He ducked and weaved, arms stretched out sideways for the wings. Now he was the pilot: Yatatatatatatat!, thumbs pressed to imaginary firing buttons, gunning the hapless sailors. Now the victims: Aaaaagh! he screamed, clawing madly at his chest with fearful realism…
What finally decided us to move was the sight of an open Volkswagen passing by over the bridge, with four khaki clad figures in peaked caps sitting upright in it. Heavily, we crossed the plank and shaped course for the town. It was cooler now, and
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the main street was fairly crowded. Two uniformed Carabinieri turned as we passed them and began to saunter along behind us, trying to look casual. I was glad when we were across the square and out on the little road past the church again.
We said little to Peter and Ray. They had enjoyed their afternoon rest, but Maggie and I were tired, disheartened and morose. We picked up our packs and set off slowly along the road away from the town; deflated, aimless, the bottom knocked out of everything. Quite soon we were in the country, and from habit began casting practised eyes about for a suitable house. Maggie was the first to try. He dived off through the trees to a place which caught his eye, but was back again in five minutes.
“No good. The vino’s shocking.”
Half a mile farther on we saw a biggish farm and were just going up to it when a man came out and shouted at us. He was a big fellow; he stood there in the middle of the lane with his feet planted firmly in the dust, but his body swayed from side to side like a tree in the wind. He wore an off-white collarless shirt open all the way down to his waist, a waistcoat torn nearly up to his neck at the back, and flannel trousers rolled up above his knees. His hat had no crown. His feet, legs, hands, arms and part of his face were stained a dark purple colour. Little pips and bits of black grape skin clung to the hairy parts of his limbs, and were spattered over most of his clothes. He had a black moustache which curled round the corners of his mouth as if the ends were trying to meet again underneath.
“Hey!” he shouted, weaving and semaphoring. “Wear yugwin, fellas?”
“Eh?” I said.
“Wear yewguys gwin, eh?”
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“Good God,” I said. “He’s trying to speak American.”
“Shure. I b’nin sgoodole Yewessay. Say bo, yeah.”
Slowly, with much more difficulty than if he had spoken in plain Italian, we deciphered his conversation. After all, we weren’t going anywhere in particular. It seemed as good a place to stay as any. He led us across the yard to a large shed, the interior of which was nearly filled by a huge wooden vat standing on trestles. The bottom of the vat was pierced with holes like a colander, and from it the grape juice dripped and dribbled into another tub below.
“Vino! E buono, eh? And how, sez me!”
He passed round his flask. But our chance to get as drunk as he was faded when the owner of the farm came out with a scared look on his face and started on a long yarn about German soldiers visiting nearby houses looking for turkeys. We moved on again. A bright youth in town clothes offered to take us to a safe house, and having set us on the way, quickly left us. By now we knew what to expect, and were hardly surprised when we got there to be given the thumbs down again. Two attractive girls came cycling by, and enlivened the evening for a while with their presence; but they were from Rimini, and could offer no practical help. It was getting dusk and we were in vine country again when we met a party of peasant women and girls harvesting the crop. In the half-light they mistook us for Italians, until they noticed me, and then their welcome was as warm as the others had been cold. A boy of eleven took us to their house.
“You married?” he asked Ray, man-to-man fashion.
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“You better sleep with my sister, then. Her man’s in the army. She’s had no husband for two years.”
“Ye gods. These kids learn more through not going to school than ever my education taught me -“
It was warm and stuffy in the cowshed. Too warm. Perhaps that’s why I awoke, or maybe it was the cold fish and grapes we shared for supper. A cow turned over in the darkness, breathing heavily. Inconsiderately, it blew straw in my face… No, not a cow, of course. Cows didn’t snore. That was Peter stretched out next to me, and then Ray… But that wasn’t Peter’s foot, planted with unfeminine hardness between my knees. And that wasn’t him eating the straw. What -?
I struggled, half sitting up. The blackness above me moved, and something started dragging at my bare foot. There was a swishing sound, as of a heavy pendulum, above my nose –
“Hey!” I called out in panic.
“Eh? What -? Who’s that?”
“There’s a cow loose,” I howled.
“Wake up. There’s a cow loose.”
“Well tie her up again.”
“I can’t. It’s standing right over me. It’s eating my foot! Do something, one of you!”
I lay petrified, while someone at the end got up. How did you deal with a sleepwalking cow? Would it get wild, and trample us all over? Or use its horns, like a bull? I was under its back end; suppose… oh no, not that! I lay back, sweating in silent, unreasoning fear as they led her quietly back to her stall.
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10. KEEPING ON KEEPING ON.
Friday 1 October 1943
From the top of the first hill the Plain lay spread out before us like a map, paper flat from horizon to horizon. Far away to the north the green finally disappeared in the heat haze. To our right we could see the line of the coast and the sea glinting beyond, with the town of Rimini at the southern extreme. The winding shingly bed of the river Marecchia bordered the base of the hills below us. Beyond it the Via Emilia ran north-west, straight as an arrow for miles, like a strip of white tape through a minefield. Between the river and the road, on an isolated little pimple of a hill, was the curious little town of Santarcangelo di Romagna, looking thoroughly out of place, a hill town not in the hills.
I peered at the map again. There it was, a thin wiggly blue line running into the sea just to the south of Cesenatico.
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” I said. “You know. Like Caesar.”
Nobody was impressed by this remnant of classical lore. They stood gazing silently at the Marecchia’s wide course.
“Not that,” I said. “Yesterday, I mean. It must have been one of those ditches we hopped over on the way to Bellaria.”
“What’s so special about that, then?” grumbled Peter, still blown from the climb. “Anyway, if the old bugger did cross it, I bet he wasn’t so effing stupid as to go the whole way on his own bloody feet.”
It was mid-afternoon. All morning we had wandered vaguely southward, without a plan, just hoping for something to turn up. We had crossed the Via Emilia and the main railway line, which for so long had represented the southern boundary of our activities (there was no Autostrada, then) and, faced with the first of the
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foothills, had carried on upward, just because it was there. Now, seen from the first crest, Bellaria looked so far astern that we felt encouraged to go on. We followed a little dusty road, keeping the sea on our left. The gradient was not severe, the firm surface gave a good grip for our boots, the air was fresher, and I for one found I was enjoying the change; not in the same class as walking the Cumbrian fells, perhaps, but one degree better than slogging along the flat. The road wound round the shoulder of a hill and on to the next incline; past a block of mean-looking, shuttered houses whose doors opened directly on to the roadway; then it bore to the left, down, round several more bends, and seesawed its way up the next hill. When finally we got to the top of this we found the sea was now at our backs, so we turned off and plunged straight down the hillside, skirting orchards and ploughed fields till we found another road in the next valley. In this winding manner, getting lost from time to time, we covered several miles through confused and sharply undulating country. There were plenty of farms about but they looked poor and shabby. The menfolk were friendly enough, but cautious and reserved; we had no offer of food all day.
It took an hour of repeated enquiries in the evening before we found a billet for the night. It was a small farm near the top of a steep ridge, on the far side of the main road from Rimini to San Marino. The man agreed readily enough but without any outward show of enthusiasm, and showed us straight into his cowshed. We unloaded, leg-weary and dry-mouthed, and sat around hopefully awaiting the invitation to supper. Meanwhile I got out the map again. Our position now was at the top of Italy’s calf. Nearly three hundred miles to the south, Eighth Army were
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at Foggia. It was a long way, especially if the country continued as rough as it had been today, but if we could keep up the pace, and if the weather held, well, it could be done… Quite quickly, we agreed to give up the sea and make for the lines by land. The great thing, we all said, was to keep moving. Even Peter said so. Walking was something we knew about. Walking was safe. There would be a problem when we came to the lines, but that would be sorted out when the time came.
There was no invitation, but bread and cheese, with good wishes, were sent down to the cowshed. I went out afterwards and sat down for a few quiet minutes on a heap of stones at the top of the ridge, from where I could look down into the next valley. The air was warm and soft, and smelt sweetly of earth and hay. In the fading light the ranks of woolly topped fruit trees on the far slope were just merging into darker, more solid masses. On the valley floor beneath me was a little church. The sound of singing floated upwards; a plainsong, unharmonised and strangely hypnotic… The war was miles and miles away.
I heard a sound behind me, turned, and saw two small boys sitting quietly watching me from a respectable distance. One by one other children, in ascending order of age, came out and joined them. Then last, with suitable dignity, the man and his wife. We got talking. Native curiosity triumphed in the end, and as we trotted out the old stories once more, the whole family spent the rest of the evening with us – in the cowshed.
Saturday 2 October 1943
In the morning we lost our way again. We followed the
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valley road from the church. It wound in and out among orchards and vineyards which effectively shut out any view of the landscape, so when after a mile it seemed to be bearing too much to the right we took the next left fork, and this brought us back to the church again. Rather late in the day we fell back on the old Army technique of picking out a prominent object to march on, and thereafter did somewhat better. But it was hard going all the same. The houses were all poor and small; gone forever were the fine brick barns with straw. The only offer of food we got was bread, as dry and crumbling as the stale old stuff we were carrying. We seemed to have left the butter and milk country behind for good, and even the bread was coarse and hard, not easily got down. By hard walking all through the afternoon we got abreast of Cattolica, and at about five began house-hunting. But we were still making the mistake of asking the menfolk for shelter, and there were always refusals; shuffling feet, downcast eyes, mumbles about Tedeschi or Carabinieri or Fascisti – it was ‘Mangiare, si; Dormire, no’ all over again. Finally we found a small place run by a quiet, unresponsive family similar to that of last night. This time they gave us supper in the house, but again they all went outside leaving us to eat our bread and grapes alone. Halfway through I noticed a strange face peering in at us through the window. It disappeared, and was replaced by another, then another. There was a buzz of many voices in the yard. I went outside to have a look. There must have been about two dozen neighbours gathered in the yard, men, women and children. The old farmer was bustling about organising them into some sort of line, and there they were, taking their turn to inspect the strange animals feeding
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in his house. I wondered if he was charging them a fee.
For a change we slept in the stable, in the company of a young mare who munched hay with astonishing resonance the whole night through. Chomp, chomp she went, steady and rhythmical, like a policeman’s boots on loose gravel. She was still at it when we got up at six the next morning.
Sunday 3 October 1943
Sunday, the day when the men of the family shaved, the women put on their best black, and everybody went to Mass. We met several parties on the road, and were pleased when some of them stopped to pass the time of day. It was good to be sociable again. One dignified old man in a pony and trap told us how he had lost one son killed in Africa, had another wounded in Greece, and a third taken prisoner in Sicily. He had his vino flask on the seat beside him, and we drank one another’s health before we parted on our separate ways. A young man standing at his cottage door invited us in to rest, and his mother, affected by our scruffy appearance, found a few carefully hoarded slices of ham to put before our greedy eyes. She was a widow, struggling to maintain a smallholding with the help of the one son left to her. While we refreshed ourselves the son stood outside giving out the news, so that other passers-by called in to shake hands and wish us well. One was a mother who had last heard from her son many weeks ago, from Sicily. Where was he now? Tears fell as she begged us for news, for anything that could give her hope. We tried to tell her that in all probability he was wandering the country, the same as ourselves, but this only made things worse, and soon
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the lady of the house was weeping too, in sympathy. We left the two of them trying to console each other at the folly of it all.
Not everyone was prepared to take us at face value. It was a bright, fresh morning but with a lot of cloud about, and we had found for once a good road heading in more or less the right direction. We were swinging along in good heart after the last visit when a man came round a corner behind us on a bicycle. He braked sharply as he saw us, dismounted, and followed up on foot, wheeling his bike with long, creeping strides as if he thought that by this means he would escape notice. Eventually he plucked up courage and drew level, grinning; broken teeth showed below a straggly moustache.
“Soldati, eh?” he said, leaning confidentially over to Maggie, eyeing his torn waistcoat, collarless shirt, and shapeless flannels.
“Si.” It was hot. Maggie, though refreshed, was badly in need of a cigarette, and at the same time keen to get on without further delays.
“Pescara.” It was as good a town to name as any.
“Going home, eh?” Persistent.
“Ha-ha, that’s good! Anybody can see that you’re not Italians!” He beamed at his own cleverness, and gave Maggie a knowing poke in the ribs. “Come on, now. You can’t fool me. Yugoslavs, eh?”
“No we’re not. We’re British, if you must know. British officers.”
“British! Officers! Oho-ho-ho-ho!” That was funnier still.
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“Whoever saw officers dressed like that!” And he jumped on his bike and pedalled off, still hooting with laughter at the best joke he’d come across in months.
The road bears round to the right, going inland… Better leave it here and carry straight on down the hillside. Down, down, slipping and skidding on the steep slope… An orchard, green figs and walnuts. A ploughed field. More fruit trees, and rough stubble. Now it’s the valley floor, half a mile across. A field of maize, vines, bigger trees, a dusty road. The river bed, wide and pebbly, a trickle of water in the middle, and now the ground is rising again… Soon it is as steep as before; five, six hundred feet up, maybe more. Queer how they always turn out higher than you first thought. Almost easier on hands and knees, but keep at it, it’s straighter this way… The top at last, and a few yards of level ground before the switchback starts all over again. Pause for a minute or two, deep breathing, easing the heartbeat, wiping the sweat off your face. What a view; an endless succession of steep, sharp topped ridges running out from the spine of the Apennines and ending at the sea, one after another like bones in a kipper. The land is a huge cloth model, with canvas hills, sponge rubber trees, and little wooden blocks for houses. Here and there is a patch of yellow or green, but the land as a whole is coloured brown; the light, dusty brown of earth dried hard and crumbly at the end of a long hot summer. A brown sea rolling down into the southern haze, over whose gigantic corrugations we are now struggling, like ants crossing a ploughed field… A couple of miles off there’s a village, not tucked away in the valley but perched up on the highest part of the ridge. One or
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two of the houses have overflowed and dripped down the sides, like treacle on an army pudding (and when did you last taste one of those, eh?). A slender church tower rising from the congestion of buildings. Narrow, crazy streets. High, shuttered walls. You can almost see the dust and flies…
Ready now? Best get moving, then. That church will make a good point to march on. Down we go… Don’t look at the map too often. Progress is slow enough as it is, without reminding yourself that two miles for your feet is less than one actually made good.
But covering the distance, though tedious, was relatively simple. It was in the early evening that the only real problem would arise, that of dumping ourselves on some unsuspecting family for the night. And in this part of the country, where every farm seemed poorer and smaller than the last one, four of us was beginning to seem too many –
“There’s a fellow. Ask him.”
“Ask him yourself. I got the house last night.”
“Well it’s not my turn. Where’s Peter?”
“No use waiting for him. He’s miles back.”
“You ask the chap, then. You know they understand you better then me.”
“Personally I don’t see the point. That place is obviously far too small -“
“Try him anyway. He can only say no. We’ve got to start somewhere.”
“Not here, as far as I’m concerned -“
This Sunday evening we were lucky. Hard walking all through the afternoon again had got us well to the south of Pesaro,
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and we found a largish farm pleasantly situated on the top of a ridge with a good view over the next valley. They were a bright and cheerful family. They invited the neighbours in, and put on a little party for our benefit. Among the children were two intelligent and clean little boys called Carlo and Giuliano. Carlo was the object of considerable respect, because he was musical; he could play tunes on the accordion, quite well. He could also read and write with some competence so that, although he was ten, they were keeping him on at school in order that he might become a great musician. We listened gravely while he went through some of his practice pieces, and joined in the applause at the end. Then someone said it was the turn of the Inglesi. None of my companions volunteered, so I took hold of the accordion and managed, with some difficulty, to render a chorus of “O Sole Mio”. To my surprise and disappointment, no one joined in. Apparently they were not acquainted with this well-known melody. The only other Italian tune I knew was “Come Back to Sorrento”, but no sooner had I started fumbling at this when a very jealous youth from one of the other families leapt to his feet and at the top of his voice began singing something completely different. He not only sang, he danced, waving his arms and leaping about with a tremendous display of energy. The more I squeezed, the more blatant his scene-stealing became, so in the end I gave up the struggle with dignity and handed the accordion back to Carlo.
“I can’t understand it,” I said in the cowshed later. “I thought every Italian knew ‘O Sole Mio’.”
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Monday 4 October 1943
Not a good day; I got drunk.
We had started as usual with no food, and struggled on for a couple of hours through the same formless, steeply indented country, looking in vain for any path that would lead for as much as half a mile in the right direction, when a middle-aged peasant accosted us outside his farmyard. The sun was high, it was as hot as ever, and we were all glad of the break. He was another of those who had served his time in the States, twenty years in his case, before returning to his native village, and this rare chance of airing his English was too good for him to miss. In fact he could converse quite intelligibly, interspersing his remarks with corny Americanisms that made him sound straight out of a gangster film of the thirties. “Say bo, mister,” he would lead off with at every sentence, and at the end, “Yessir. Sez me.”
Maggie said we were thirsty, and asked him politely for a glass of water.
“Say bo, mister, you wanna drinka water? Gee willakins, I gotta da besta noo vino dis sidea Firenze. Yessir. Sez me.”
His white wine was almost like syrup. It was so sweet and innocuous to the taste that I had several glasses; in fact I drank a whole round to myself while the others were talking. Ten minutes after we had resumed walking the effects came on. My feet felt as if they had been converted into bags of sand. Heavy bags. My head felt like another; it rolled about, and needed a big effort to lift it straight before it fell over the other way. I could still think, but only at about a quarter speed, as if the works really had got sand in them. We came
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down into a valley in which the river carried more water than usual, and had to be crossed on stepping stones. It took me a long time, stepping carefully and deliberately, one at a time, into the gaps between them.
For the rest of that day I was no more than a passenger. I tailed along far behind, well astern even of Peter. I took no part in any route finding decisions, and when Ray and Peter found a friendly farm one of them had to wait outside to guide me in. At supper I just lolled about, toying with the bread and grapes. Vague snatches of the conversation came filtering through the alcoholic haze…
“- Gratsey, senyor. Mercy bokoo per nostro dinner. Oh, thanks very much. Si. Cheers. Salootey -“
“- No, gratsey. Nentey per Io. Solio aqua, s’il vous plait -“
“- Now then. Uno – One. You try.”
“Good. Due – Two.”
“This’ll test you. Tre – Three.”
“Oh, well. Quattro – Four.”
Ray’s language instruction generally broke down at this stage, because of his confusion with the phonetic alphabet. At this time the British army was still in the throes of converting to the American alphabet; the time-honoured Ack, Beer, Cork, Don on which we had all been brought up had now become Able, Baker, Charlie,
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Dog and so on. (There were exceptions. Nobody ever called an Ack-Ack gun an Able-Able gun.) The figures Five and Nine, not being easily distinguishable over the radio, became Fife and Niner. Unfortunately, Ray not only mixed up these two with one another, but also with the older version of Five, which was Fiyiv, so his Five came out as Fifer, and his nine as Nyin…
There was a fearful fug in the cowshed that night; the air was so thick and hot that we all had difficulty in breathing, and slept badly. I remember wondering how the animals could stand it, and whether they would feel better in the morning when we had gone.
Tuesday 5 October 1943
Another rugged day, but with a happy ending.
The morning was fresh and cool, with a heavy dew on the ground, the herald of another hot day. We had barely time to drag ourselves awake, sluice our faces in the cattle trough, and struggle into our stiff boots, before the farmer came along. He was in a terrible state of nerves, trembling all over; he couldn’t see us off his premises quickly enough. We set off unwillingly, an ill-assorted, disgruntled quartet.
The fact that the house was in a valley, so that our first half-mile of the day had to be a steep climb, didn’t make matters any easier. We were now well into the province of Marche, the Marches, an area known to tourists today for its beautiful beaches and ancient, historical cities, neither of which we were in a position to appreciate. The road we had crossed yesterday was the Via Flaminia, one of the old radial routes out of Rome, which meets the Adriatic at Fano. Our general aim, in so far as we had any
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at all, was to keep well inland at first so as to cut off some of the corner made by the elbow of Ancona, and then trend south, keeping well outboard of the line of the big towns of Macerata, Ascoli Piceno, and Teramo. By then we should be well into the Abruzzi, where according to our map the way was blocked by a huge purple mass called the Gran Sasso, a range of mountains going up to more than three thousand metres. It still looked an almighty long way, especially if we were never going to make good more than about twelve miles a day.
The morning drag was as hard as ever. We talked of splitting up, of separating into smaller parties so that progress might be faster, and food and shelter easier to find. Two would have been the ideal number. One man alone could have done it; the knowledge that he himself was responsible for his own actions would often sustain him, but it would be a very strong-minded individual indeed who could do without the relief and resolution that a good partner would provide. There would often be times when he was tempted to think back to his easy life in prison camp – the company of his own kind, the security… Three would still be a good number; it would offer more variety, and be a stronger force, but there is always a risk that the characters may polarise into two and a singleton. Four, however, was definitely too many; too many for the average family in this poverty-ridden part of the country to accommodate, and also too conspicuous. One evader or even two might be hidden safely, but four was a different matter.
Fortunately, we could never agree who was to go with whom. In pairs, any pairs, we felt we could make good time, but as a quartet there was always one man who was a drag on the pace. In
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the mornings it was usually me. Having a considerable degree of inertia built into the system, I always found starting difficult and needed a good hour or two to shake down into full marching gear. Maggie was the steadiest, so long as a regular shot of lubrication was supplied to maintain his pace and good humour. In the evening it was often Ray who was the first to call for a halt. But most times, it was Peter.
For him it was the hardest. He had a full share of that independence and self-reliance which is the foundation of many a Scottish character, and enables them to follow solitary careers in remote parts of the world as ships’ engineers, or plantation managers, for example; which makes them brave, honest and reliable, but at the same time proud, intolerant, and somewhat puritanical. Peter was all of these. Never an easy man to get on with, his difficulties were exaggerated by his injured knee which, though he would die rather than admit it, was really holding us all back.
See him now as, hot, tired and pinkly sweating, the last man in the column, he laboriously hauls himself up the steep and crumbling footpath. A long way ahead leads Piper, now easily the lightest footed of the four; leaping nimbly from tuft to tuft, he is already near the top. Behind Piper the two bigger men follow more slowly, keeping well together though they have no breath to spare for talk. Now all three have reached the crest, and sit reviving themselves while he struggles up the last and stiffest hundred feet. At last he reaches them, and, thoughtlessly, they rise at once and plunge off down the next slope. Gritting his teeth, he follows. For him the downhill path is even worse than the climb. He cannot now trail his bad leg
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comfortably, and every jarring step sends little stabs of pain through his knee. His pack, carrying all his belongings mixed up with a few tomatoes and a lump of stale bread, bumps unevenly against his back. His clothes are sticky, his glasses streaked with sweat. His battered hat falls over his eyes, and it is all he can do not to crush it in his fist and hurl it savagely away. He makes much use of his staff, swinging down with it to land on his good leg. He takes more energy out of himself this way. By the time he reaches the valley, panting and red, he is already as far astern as before. Along the valley floor they walk more slowly, and by pressing hard he is able to catch up again. Now it’s the next hill and the party divides, each man choosing the route he thinks will suit him best. One, more thoughtful for a moment, turns to offer a hand. He refuses, rudely. Once more he commences the weary climb alone. Between steps he pauses, gazes angrily up at the retreating backs of the fitter men. Look at Piper, he fumes, dancing about like a tom-cat; what does he think this is, a bloody fell race? And Magee, another smug Sassenach. And Stavert, bloody overgrown schoolboy. Not a scratch between ’em… All right, look back at me if you want to. I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t bloody care either…
Once more, at long last, he stumbles up over the crest. A short pause, then:
“Ready? Oh aye, I’m ready all right. I don’t mind goin’ straight on at all. Break into a double if ye like.”
“Oh. Sorry. I mean, didn’t know we’d left you behind a bit on that hill -“
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He slings his pack furiously on to the floor.
“God blast it man, where d’ye think I’ve been these last ten minutes while you’ve all been sittin’ here on yer arses? Standin’ on ma effing head? Somebody’s gotta be last, haven’t they?”
“All right, all right. No need to get shirty. I only said I forgot. Don’t mind having a bit of a rest myself, come to that. How’s the leg?”
“None the better for your askin’. Ye can leave my leg out of it, thanks all the same. Just because we can’t all go running up hills like a bloody rabbit it doesn’t mean we’re paralysed, does it? Some of us got something to remember our battles by, ye know.”
“Look here, if you’re insinuating -“
“I’m insinuatin’ nothing. We didn’t all go walking into the bag on our own two feet, that’s all.”
“No, and we didn’t all spend all day sitting in a tin box listening to a few stray bullets rattling on the outside of it. Some of us were actually out there among them -“
Even the land had a bad-tempered air, as if it resented the efforts of the men – and women – who grubbed a subsistence living from it, cultivating incredible slopes which would hardly be used for sheep pasture in Britain. Tractors could not have worked these fields; they used ancient, primitive ploughs dragged by pairs of great white oxen. The animals were never put out to graze, since there was no grazing ground. They spent their whole lives, day and night, tied up in their stalls, except when they were actually out at work. You could hardly blame the men, or the animals either, if they found life a bit depressing at times.
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By early evening we reckoned we were somewhere to the south of Senigallia. Just one more hill, perhaps, and then -? This one had a road running along the top of it, and a few houses, almost a little village, in fact. The people were friendly. Wine flowed. They were delighted to meet such interesting travellers. Eighteen days, and walking all the time, indeed? Magnifico. It would be a pleasure to render assistance. How unfortunate, however, that past this very place, along this road, a vehicle – Yes, an armoured car, some said. Two days ago. For your own safety, you understand – Farther on, no doubt, things would be different – Buvare, si – dormire, no, regrettably – Oh, goodbye, goodbye. And our very best wishes for your journey…
Halfway down the far slope was a small cottage, tucked away by itself in a fold of the ground. We were about to pass it without a second glance when the man came leaping out like a jack-in-a-box and barred the way; five feet six in his bare feet, muscles like rope, wide shining eyes, and a voice as clear and strong as a tenor trombone. Where from? Where going? What, eighteen? Santa Maria! He dashed inside to tell his wife, and dashed out again to hear it once more. He radiated vigour and confidence and good cheer. By sheer personality he dragged our flagging spirits up from the depths. Armoured cars? Rubbish! What about food? Somewhere to sleep, maybe? What was wrong with his house, here?…
Indoors, his wife and two boys were already seated at the table, in front of the a great bowl of spaghetti. Their big moment of the day; two good helpings each for a family of four – but less than half that if shared with four more. But share it they did, heaping our plates up without stint. It was impossible
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to resist such a marvellous treat; we’d been living on grapes for nearly a week. Strangers and former enemies that we were, we ate everything they gave, feeling better every minute as the rich, warm food brought new heart and strength to our weary bodies.
Wednesday 6 October 1943
Our good friend of the night lined up proudly with his family to see us off. We had shared their breakfast of dry bread and an apple each, then at the last minute his wife produced a brew of black acorn coffee, hot and stimulating; we suspected that she had had to send out for it, having none of her own. They stood waving as we descended until a bend in the path cut us off forever. I never knew his name, nor could I identify the exact place now. We always left our own names, in the hope that some recognition might later be given to those who had befriended us, but I was careful never to carry any details with us which might enable the enemy to identify them should we be recaptured. We were to meet at least one other of his calibre on our way down, but there must have been many hundreds of them up and down the country; the poorer they were and the less they had to give, the more willing they were to give it.
All morning we walked hard along the valley floor, heading roughly south-east. We felt cheerful and fit, and eager to make up for the miles lost yesterday. Towards midday we called at a large farmhouse in the hopes of getting a meal. We had decided to introduce a little subtlety into our technique, which to tell the truth had been pretty unimaginative so far. Instead of asking outright for a meal we knocked on the door and requested a piece
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of bread, which was produced readily enough. We then sat down in the open eating just this and looking very doleful. It worked. Out came the Mamma, all motherly concern.
“Eh, ragazzi. In casa.”
She led us upstairs to where her family, fourteen of them, were just sitting down to their meal. Quietly they made room for us on the benches and found four extra plates as if this was an everyday occurrence. The dish was a sort of hash made out of potatoes and cabbage, and it was nearly cold, but it was really fortifying. In spite of the heat we pushed on strongly through the afternoon. The valley opened out into a larger one some five or six kilometres across. There was a road which we identified as the main road to Jesi, a single-track railway, and the usual wide stony river bed. We sat and watched a truck go by, full of Italian soldiers carrying rifles.
Ray said, “Look, a patrol! D’you think they’ve been on the lookout for us?”
Maggie said, “Fatigue party, more likely. Just waiting for their first chance to desert, I bet.”
At the river’s edge an old woman in black was kneeling with her back to us, busy with her washing. She worked mechanically, taking the pieces one at a time from the pile at her right, scrubbing vigorously, twisting them up into a roll, bashing it on a stone, rinsing in the river, and dropping them on to the clean pile at her left. Ray crept up quietly behind her and put his four grubby hankies on to her pile. She didn’t even look up. He waited patiently while she put them through the treatment, then retrieved them clean from the other side.
“Thanks, Mamma,” he said, politely doffing his battered
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trilby. “Merci. Molto gratsey. Buono buono, eh? Cheerio.”
Collapse of stout party.
Then it was into the hills again and hard going, but we kept at it with a will. We walked right through one little village, said “Good Afternoon” in English to several girls in passing, and enjoyed the startled glances we got in return. On the way we got good news too; Eighth Army had made a seaborne assault round the Gargano peninsula, and fighting was going on around Termoli. If this was true it would shorten the walk by more than fifty miles, though I still couldn’t see how they were going to get past the Gran Sasso. Nor us, for that matter. At length, weary and blown, we fetched up at a small farm near the top of another high ridge. The man accepted us for the night without hesitation, but without any obvious enthusiasm either. Shortly afterwards he disappeared, and we began to think it was part of the old game. We hung about in the yard, wondering what to do. Men came in from their work, a dozen or more of them. For a while we stood apart in two groups, until suddenly their curiosity overcame them, and we became the centre of an excited, noisy crowd, each one of them shouting questions at us as he tried to outdo the efforts of his neighbour. One loutish youth got me in a corner and delivered me a lecture on the virtues of the Allies and the Italian people in particular. “Uno Italiano, uno Inglesi!” he yelled, with his nose about six inches from mine. “Uno Italiano, quattro Tedeschi!” “Oh, si si,” I said. “Sure, sure.”
All at once the noise died right away. There was the sound of a motor car approaching along the road. A whisper went round: “Padrone. Padrone.”, and within seconds the crowd of labourers and hangers-on had melted away like unruly boys at the approach of
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the Head. An old upright Fiat saloon rolled into the yard, and the farmer rematerialised himself to greet the driver. Padrone was a short, plump man, neatly dressed in a light brown suit. His manner was quiet, friendly and matter-of-fact, very different from that of the young landlord at Fontanellato. He asked us a few polite questions, whispered some brief instructions to the farmer, then got into his car and drove off with a cheerful wave. With the master’s approval thus established, the atmosphere became very different. The man’s wife came out with an old counterpane, to spread over our straw in the cowshed. The man, chatty now, invited us in and told us about his family: his two sons absent in Albania and Montenegro, and his various married daughters. In due course his wife confronted us with two enormous dishes of pasta, obviously laid on by the Padrone. “Eat! Eat!” they shouted, but they refused to join us themselves, saying that they had eaten theirs at midday. We scoffed the lot. In the last twenty-four hours we had had three proper meals.
Thursday 7 October 1943
I emerged, blinking, from the cowshed to a close, threatening type of morning. Heavy banks of cloud covered most of the sky, and I had an uneasy feeling that our luck was beginning to run out.
I went into the house while the others were still getting dressed. The woman was busy over a large cooking pot on the fire. Now speculation over breakfast was normally confined to two questions: first, would there be any, and second, would it be black or green grapes, so I brightened up at the thought of a
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change. I watched with interest. She was stirring away at something, but it was hard to see what through the smoke. Presently she left the pot, took up a large board the size of a small door which was standing against the wall, and placed this on top of the table. Then she took the pot from the fire, gave it a final stir, and poured the whole hot mess straight out on to the board – just like a Lancashire housewife emptying a bucket of soapy water down her front step. A thick, yellow porridgy liquid spread out over the board and solidified, forming a layer all over about half an inch thick.
“Ugh!” I said.
She gave me a beaming smile. “Polenta,” she said, nodding vigorously. “Si piace, la Polenta?”
I didn’t know whether it pleased me or not, so said nothing. She took a plateful of scraps of fatty meat and scattered them over the polenta. They landed with a soft plopping sound, like pebbles thrown into wet sand. It looked not unlike wet sand, anyway.
Maggie came in, and saw our breakfast looking rather like a map of the UK with the towns marked out in little lumps of fat and gristle.
“Good Lord, what a mess. Looks like someone’s been sick all over the table. Why haven’t they wiped -“
“Don’t be like that,” I said. “That’s polenta. Mean to say you’ve never heard of polenta, the really original breakfast cereal?”
“Course I haven’t. You tell me.”
“Must be some kind of maize porridge,” I said. “Very hygienic, anyway. Has its own special board. You just make it and tip it out. Never mind the plates. Saves washing up and everything.”
“How d’you eat it, then? Get down and lap it up, or what?”
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“Dunno, I’m not sure. We’ll have to see. Here comes the old man now, so try not to look so ignorant.”
We all sat round and the woman dealt out the cutlery: one fork apiece. The method was simply to carve out a slice from the nearest bit of coastline and thus to advance, forkful by forkful, inland. The quicker you ate the more you got, and so the meal developed as a race, ending with a clashing of forks over the last little bit in the middle. We did our best but the farmer and his wife, being old campaigners, won easily, accounting for a good half of the map between them. It tasted rather like wet sand, too.
We set off rather slowly down the hill, turning often to wave back at the old couple standing at their door. The sky looked no better. The air was hot, yet cold, with snatches of wind coming down from the mountains which filtered through our threadbare clothes and laid chilly fingers about our ribs. Somehow our cheery mood of yesterday had evaporated, despite the friendly treatment we had just received. Maybe it was the threatening weather. Maybe it was the unaccustomed load of ill-digested maize flour rolling around our stomachs. In a short while Ray was sick. I wasn’t, but I wished I could have been.
We pushed on, up hill and down dale, for a couple of hours. The clouds darkened with depressing steadiness. Finally they overflowed, and we took shelter from a heavy shower in a handy grain store. Several men were working inside, stacking up great bags of threshed corn. They were a cheerful crowd and their company did us good. We seemed to be increasingly needing the company of others these days, to revive our flagging spirits, to take us out of ourselves and help us forget one another’s
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petty irritabilities. Perhaps the long strain of the walk was taking its toll. We did not suffer any great hardships, we were never in any real danger, but there was still the ever-present threat that the enemy might one day turn up unexpectedly. Perhaps it was the constant need to keep out of the towns, to avoid all contact with the kind of society which we were used to, which gave rise to an irksome sense of isolation. The succession of one-night stands, the feeling that you never knew in the morning where your head would rest that night, had at first been an adventure but was now a nagging uncertainty. Above it all there was still the problem of crossing the lines – when we got there.
The shower ended. Right in front of us was another steep hill, and by the time we got to the top it was threatening to rain again. Ahead the country was as tumbled and disorganised as ever. We passed a large farmhouse where the man was taking his ease at the door. I asked him the best way to Macerata, the next large town on our track. He regretted he couldn’t help; he had never been that far in his life. However, if we were in no hurry, would we care to take some food in his house before going any farther?
It was too early for our midday halt, but we knew better than to refuse. The house had a large, airy living room with a splendid view over the hills from its two windows. There was a deep, wide fireplace in the far wall with a wooden crucifix over it and a religious calendar at either side. A strip of matting relieved the bareness of the earth floor. A big, smiling woman brought in bread, walnuts and apples, and somewhat to our surprise we fell to with quite good appetites, notwithstanding the ominous sight of the polenta board leaning in one corner.
The rain came on again, steadily. Downdraughts of cold
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air made us shiver in our thin clothes. Nobody felt like moving on in these conditions. For a while we just sat, watching the woman and her two daughters going about their household chores, getting a friendly smile and a nod every time one of them passed us. Gradually, we made jobs for ourselves to do. Ray, always the gentleman, noticed the old lady lugging a sack of flour across the kitchen and rushed off to help her; much to the amusement of the two broad-shouldered, muscular girls, either of whom looked as if she could have lifted the sack with one hand and Ray with the other. One of them was making tomato puree, and Peter took over the wooden spoon from her. “No, no,” I heard him say. “They Inglesi. Me Ecossay.” Maggie found the other girl operating a small wine press in the kitchen, and forthwith absorbed himself in this congenial task. Meanwhile somebody had to keep the fire going. Every farmhouse had its fire no matter how hot the day, for this was the wife’s only source of heat for cooking. It was sustained by dry brushwood and twigs, and needed frequent refuelling. The fireside stool was cosy. The job of stoker offered warmth and light, and had the merit of being useful with very little physical effort involved. It suited me down to the ground.
The afternoon wore on. We cast many a glance at the window, but the rain was now pouring in sheets, with the landscape across the valley completely shrouded in mist. I asked if it would last long. The woman smiled and shrugged, and said that if it did we had better stay the night. I began to hope it would. Dusk came, and as the light of my fire came to predominate in the room – they had neither lamp nor oil – we gave up all thought of moving till the morning. The man came in from the barn, and we started our round of conversation topics all over again. Supper was put
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on the table, a savoury concoction of potatoes and some curious, onion like substance which was later identified, to our alarm, as garlic. It was cold and the portions were small, but it was good. Our sleeping quarters were in the grain store, a small windowless room opening off the main room. The woman brought in two old bed covers, bade us a cheerful goodnight, shut the door, and we sorted ourselves out on the corn in pitch darkness. Outside the rain beat down as hard as ever.
Friday 8 October 1943
A bean bag may make a fine bed for your dog, but will be found far from ideal if you try it yourself. Sweetcorn grains are not hollow, and once the pile has accommodated itself to your original shape it gets more and more unyielding as the night goes on. By morning I felt as if I had been sleeping on an S-shaped piece of granite. I awoke with stiff limbs and a thick head. The room was still as black as night. I groped for my boots, found someone’s ankle and was told what to do with it, struggled upright, set going a river of corn kernels and more curses, hopped over to the door, lifted the latch, and recoiled from a shaft of blinding sunlight. Marvellous to behold, the rain had gone. The sky was a clear blue, the air washed clean and fresh. Away to the west beyond the head of the valley was a line of purple heights; the main range of the Apennines.
We survived another polenta breakfast, said our goodbyes, and set off down the hill. The first man only just avoided sliding all the way down on his bottom. The rain had left all the hill
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paths covered with an inch of wet mud beneath which the clayey soil had set into a hard pack. Even a moderate hill would now demand the use of hands as well as legs to surmount its slippery slope. We decided to stick to the valley roads but soon found we couldn’t do so entirely, and so another day of hard slog ensued. It was enlivened late in the morning by another village reception. Arriving, all sweaty and blown, at the top of one hill, we encountered a lone peasant working his patch alongside a hedge. An Englishman in similar circumstances, seeing four disreputable figures approaching on his horizon, would turn his back and get on with minding his own business, hoping they would pass him by. Not so the Italian. To him the advent of four strangers was a big event in his long, monotonous day. He could not wait to find out all about them, who they were, where from, where were they going; to pump them dry of news, so he could be the first to carry it on to his friends and family. A loud shout, a wave, then growing astonishment as he heard our story. What, officers? A lieutenant, two captains, a MAGGIORE! Out came the invitation:
No answer; none was needed. On the other side of the hedge was a little road and a row of cottages. He went straight into the nearest without knocking and came out with flask and glasses. The owner followed behind, grasped what the situation was, went back in to tell his wife, and came out again carrying a long bench which he set down at the side of the road. Nothing loth, we took a glass each and sat down. Meanwhile, the news travelled. First one door opened, then another, and within minutes the whole population of the village, men, women and children, was assembled in front of us, all firing questions as hard as they could go.
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There were old men with pitchforks or long rakes, stout ladies in aprons, younger ones with babies, and a mass of small children pressing forward to get a view. Everyone was in bare feet, and most were in clothes nearly as bad as ours. We certainly didn’t feel like presentable specimens of the British army ourselves, sitting there rather stupidly like chimps at the zoo, but the effect was considerable. As curiosity declined, it was replaced by compassion. One man gave Maggie a loaf of bread. His neighbour, not to be outdone, went and brought a bigger one, and ostentatiously presented it to Peter. The next man brought two for me. Others fetched more wine, then bunches of grapes, and soon there was an absolute deluge of food, making us feel more like zoo animals than ever. It only wanted someone to throw a bun, for one of us to take a snap at it.
The best part of an hour had passed before we were able, grossly overloaded, to take our leave and start off down the road. Round the first corner we deposited the surplus outside a small, poor looking house, and took to the country again. Progress was still difficult but we kept at it in fairly good heart. While crossing one valley we saw a sizeable town away to the left which we took to be Osimo, though now I think we may have been farther south than that. There was still no sign of Macerata, however. In the afternoon we walked for a long way along a valley which led rather out of our direction, purely for the relief of keeping on the level for a few miles. The news we gleaned continued to be good. The capture of Termoli was confirmed. Someone said there was fighting already around Vasto. One man had a much more fanciful rumour. British parachutists, he said, had been dropped right up country; he mentioned a town some two days
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march to the south, where some of them had been seen. They were there for sabotage, he supposed, or perhaps to contact some of the gangs of partisans in the mountains. We listened to him with polite interest, then moved on with knowing smiles; we knew better than to give any credence to that one.
Late in the day we left the valley and started up another steep thousand footer, but the effort was too much. Halfway up we found a small, pink washed farmhouse where a woman working outside accepted us at once for the night. We unloaded and washed in a tool shed, thankful for the rest. The farm was quiet, and seemed to have no men belonging to it at all. There was another middle-aged woman inside, and these two appeared to run the place between them, as far as we could see. They greeted us cheerfully but made no attempt to stop and chat, and so we settled down quietly and somewhat glumly, with little appetite for a supper of bread alone. For about an hour we sat in the gathering gloom discussing ways and means of circumventing the fighting lines, when there was a knock at the door and in came one of the women bearing a tiny spirit lamp and a huge dish of pasta. We divided it into four, devoured the lot, and were soon asleep on the straw.
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Saturday 9 October 1943
The pink farmhouse was not, after all, halfway up the hill. It was only halfway up the part that we could see from the valley floor. The morning was fine and clear but the ground was still wet and treacherous, and as each tough and slippery bank gave way on to the next one, the early climb seemed never-ending. It was nearly an hour before we assembled, a blown and ill-tempered quartet, on the top of the ridge.
A satisfying view unfolded itself, however. A large, fine-looking town, its walls and roofs showing greyish pink in the sunlight, was spread over the top of a hill not much more than a mile away to our right front. Gazing at it I felt a renewed pang of annoyance at our enforced exile, and a real longing for the experience of paved streets and artificial lighting.
I got out the map.
“Well, there it is,” I said, as if taking all the credit.
“That Masserater?” Ray said.
“Si,” I said, pointing. “Dovey la – oh hell, I’m even beginning to think like a native -“
Peter said, “Masseratty, eh? Well, what of it?”
“Well, you must admit it’s not a bad landfall, after all this time,” I said, peeved at his tone.
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“So what? Whaddo we do now, then?”
“Go round it, of course,” said Maggie. “Same as we’ve done with everywhere else.”
“Round that lot? It’ll take half the bloody day to do just that -“
“What’s another day, more or less? You’re not suggesting we go marching in there, and say hello to the Mayor? Come on -“
We bore off to the left, but as usual we could not find a direct path, and most of the morning was gone by the time we were able to halt on the top of another hill and take a last look back at the town. Macerata was a good long way down from Bellaria, where we had last given up the sea, and to me it represented a significant milestone. There might only be another hundred and fifty miles or so of walking left. Why, it was almost as good as being on the back straight of the last lap.
A little farther on, still on the hill, we came to a small farmhouse where a man was busy sawing wood in the yard.
“Ah. Scusay moi, senyor,” said Maggie politely. “Avetty voy un poco aqua, s’il vous plait?” His eyes meanwhile rested firmly on the vino flask standing in the shade of the wall.
The man gravely returned his greeting and handed round the flask without further preliminaries. He was tall, about
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fifty, with thick greying hair, and carried himself with a certain quiet dignity despite his rough hands and bare feet. Of his womenfolk there was no sign, for after enquiring if we would care for food he brought out from the house a small table which he set in the shade of a fig tree, and then of all things a clean tablecloth on which he placed another flask of wine, a heap of walnuts, some apples and a few thin slices of pressed meat. Finally he went over to a square stone structure adjoining the house, removed a couple of blocks from the front, and withdrew from the inside a steaming hot loaf of new bread.
We sat on logs around the table and enjoyed an impromptu picnic lunch. The bread was almost too hot to touch, but we carved it up all the same and, regardless of the threat to our digestions, ate the whole loaf. It was almost better than feeding at home where, in my case at least, new bread was strictly forbidden by a thrifty mother, so that we were always eating up yesterday’s. Our friendly host stood by. He had no radio, so could only give us the local news. He warned us off the nearby town of Sforzacosta, where there had been a large working camp for British soldiers. Many of them had managed to evade the takeover, and search parties and informers were constantly on the lookout for them. We promised him solemnly to keep clear.
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Refreshed, we walked on all through the hot afternoon, while the rest of the world took its siesta. We descended into a wide valley, crossed the Sforzacosta road, waded the river, and climbed again. For a while we followed a road which took us right beneath the walls of a large hilltop village, Corridonia. Descending again, we were overtaken by a postman on his bicycle. He got very excited when he found out who we were, warning us off with many sweeps of his arm. “Pericolo!” he bellowed, with his finger to his lips at the same time. “Fascisti!” – tapping the side of his nose. “Cattivi!” – chop, chop motion with the hand. “Due!” Two fingers held up, and so on.
“Si. Thanks very much. Cheerio!” we said, and off he went, well pleased with having done his day’s good deed.
Down again, up another rise. On the far slope we were passing a ploughed field where a lone figure was working in the far corner. It was too early to stop for the evening and we paid him no particular attention, when an enormous bellow rang out across the field.
“EH!” it said, for all the world to hear. “PRIGIONIERI?”
A short, wildly gesticulating figure was hobbling over the ground towards us on a peg-leg. Even before he reached us and halted for breath, it was obvious that here was another ally. He was a young man, not yet thirty, below average height even for an Italian but broad in the chest like a gorilla and looking every bit as strong. I never saw a man radiate energy and vigour so much. His whole body was a bundle of muscle, like nothing so much as a human Jack Russell terrier. When he walked he performed incredible gyrations upon his wooden leg, but we never had to slow down our pace for him. With all this went a cheery heartiness that was impossible to resist. His mouth split in an infectious
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grin when he greeted us, then opened wide with ingenuous amazement as we identified ourselves.
“Ma! Inglesi! Ufficiali!” And then, without a moment’s hesitation, “Mia casa? La notte?”
It was only four-fifteen by Ray’s watch and we felt good for another couple of hours’ march, but there was no gainsaying such an offer. We set off to find the house, content to let Umberto take charge from now on. This he did as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him, shouting and laughing excitedly as he seesawed violently along. We soon found that escaping prisoners were already a regular feature of the landscape. Four British soldiers had actually spent the previous night at Umberto’s, travelling east. Two more had passed by this morning, apparently on their way to the coast like the others. Another pair were more or less permanently lodging at a neighbour’s. All of them had been at Sforzacosta. Every now and then, too, the word Paracadutisti came into Umberto’s conversation, but he rattled on with such speed and energy that it was impossible just then to get the drift of what he was trying to say about them.
The farm was set on a shoulder of the hill. It began to rain as we approached, and we sheltered in the small cowshed while Umberto went on into the house. At once the whole family came out to see, all of them crowding into the shed, laughing, shouting, shaking us by the hand. There were the father and mother, Umberto himself, his two elder sisters, four brothers including two under ten, and another small sister. The word Ufficiali went round and round in respectful whispers. The children just stared at our Army boots.
The rain soon ceased, and while the family went about
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their evening tasks we decided to treat ourselves to a good clean-up, even though it was not our proper day for shaving. A big wooden tub constituted the household bath, and with this filled from the pump we began to strip. The children gathered round, staring goggle-eyed and unashamed as we scrubbed our bare chests and backs with some of their home-made soap. It was difficult enough to work up a lather for this, let alone for shaving. One of the youngsters chattered something at Maggie, struggling with a blunt razor.
“And the same to you, Antonio,” said Maggie. “What’s he saying, anyway?”
“Asks why you’re shaving, when it isn’t Sunday,” I said. “After you with the blade.”
“Use the other side. This one’s just about had it, as it is. How many’ve we got left?”
“Two.” I stropped the blade on the palm of my hand. “Soap’s pretty low too. Only one whole Red Cross tablet left. We’ll have to keep that for shaving when the other’s finished, and do without for washing. Might be weeks yet before we’ve finished walking. Unless there’s anything in this parachutist rumour.”
“What rumour? I heard Umberto saying something on the way up, but damned if I could tell what it was.”
“Nor me. I’ll ask him again. Later.”
We sat down after dark to a supper of potatoes – hot, too – in a living room which must have been about twelve feet square. There were eleven of us ranged about the table on rough forms and chairs. There was no room for the children, so they sat on the floor underneath, like pet dogs; I even fed one of them with titbits on the end of my fork, to his great delight. A bare spirit-
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lamp shed a flickering half-light on the scene. But the meal was only a prelude to the evening’s party. Hardly was it over when the door opened and in came the first two neighbours. It was a tight squeeze already, but that didn’t stop more, and still more from joining in, until before long well over a score of men and women were crowded into that tiny room. All of them, the men with their hats on and the women in their aprons, shouted at one another like football spectators, and all of them tried to speak to each of us at the same time. From somewhere one of Umberto’s brothers unearthed an ancient wind-up gramophone. He had only one loud, screechy record of some Italian popular song, but he insisted on playing this over and over again, to add to the general din. Eventually I found myself squeezed up against one corner of the table with a quiet-spoken, bespectacled youth dressed in a long black robe. He was a son of one of the nearby families, had done well at school and was being allowed to read for the church. He had to work on his farm during the day and do his reading at night, no doubt in conditions similar to those of this evening. He was a modest, if somewhat sanctimonious lad, but he was patient and it was a relief to talk to someone who was prepared to listen and help me out with the words. Something he said made me seek out Umberto, and then Maggie, but it was not until late, after most of the visitors had gone, that I was able to get all four of us together.
I said, “Look. This parachutist business. It’s all over the place, and they all say the same thing. It seems a British officer was dropped some days ago, and he’s travelling round the countryside trying to contact prisoners with some scheme for evacuation. It might be worth following up, you know.”
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Maggie said, “What sort of scheme?”
“By sea. Taking people off from the coast in fishing boats, or some such idea. Apparently they can just make it in a night from hereabouts.”
Peter said, “Huh! We’ve tried that one before!”
Maggie said, “Has Umberto seen this chap?”
“No. But he knows someone who has; those two lads he mentioned earlier, staying farther over the hill. They told Umberto about him. Umberto wants to take us to see them tomorrow.”
Peter said, “We’ve come this far all right. Ah’m not sticking ma effing neck out for some effing parachutist wallah at this stage, I can tell ye.”
Maggie said, “Nobody’s sticking his neck out. But at least it can’t do any harm to meet these two. Let’s not bank on it. We’ll hear what they’ve got to say, and make up our minds then whether it’s genuine or not. If not – we’ve only lost a day, and we can carry on walking again. OK?”
“Right. Pass the vino, then. Time for just one more.”
Umberto came up with a candle, and led us to a small outhouse across the yard. It was draughty and cold, with not enough straw for either warmth or comfort. I slept uneasily. In a matter of hours the whole tempo of our march had been changed; it seemed that the last stage was coming much more quickly than any of us had expected.
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Sunday 10 October 1943
It was late before we could get going in the morning, for Italy was a country in which Sunday was still taken seriously. The men all shaved and put on their best suits, complete with tie, jacket and stiffly pressed trousers, but no boots, these having long since been confiscated by Mussolini for the army. The women turned out in uniform black. Every peasant mother had a reason for wearing black; if she hadn’t assisted at the death of a parent or an in-law, at least one of her own children had gone before her. However, at about nine Umberto’s Mamma produced black coffee and the very welcome surprise of an egg each, poached in olive oil.
Soon after this we were ready, all packed up for the road as usual without yet knowing which way it would lead us, south again, or east to the sea. The family all came fondly to see us off, just like the Carraras at Fontanellato, though we had known them for little more than twelve hours.
“Stay, stay,” they all said. “Why leave when it may be dangerous? Stay with us, till the war is over. Then you can go home in peace.”
They stood waving and calling as Umberto led us off over the shoulder of the hill. In about a mile we came to the next farm, standing by itself on a little plateau. About a score of Italian young men, smartly dressed, were lounging about in the sun outside. They waved familiar greetings to Umberto. Then, as we came up to the door, two figures in Eighth Army uniform of khaki drill shirts, shorts, polished – yes, polished – boots and gaiters emerged. They came to attention, drew themselves up, and saluted.
We looked down at our own incongruous Dick Whittington
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outfits, but the thought of returning their salutes was too much. Instead we burst out laughing, shook hands all round, and introduced ourselves, giving our proper ranks. They were both young men in their early twenties. They looked clean, healthy and distinctly well-fed. Taffy was from Tonypandy; Jim, who did most of the talking, from Lancashire.
“Vurry pleased to see you, sirs. Word come up last night that you was around. The Eyeties is all right, but it does you good to hear a bit of proper English again.”
“Same here. You been here long?”
“Over a mouth, sir. Ever since t’Armistice, in fact.”
“Aye. Haven’t come as far as you have, by a long chalk.”
“Did everybody get away from there?”
“No, but quite a lot did. When Armistice came they took all t’guards away but we were all told to stay there, quiet like, till it was safe to come out. Some did, but a lot didn’t. Me and Taffy slipped out after dark. Took all our kit and a parcel each and scarpered up the ‘ill. Next morning early on we heard that Jerry was coming, and beat it.”
“Are there many of you around here now?”
“Must be a few hundred, all told, that’s if they haven’t all bin caught again. Most of ’em’s farther in towards t’mountains, where they reckon it’s safer.”
“Now what about this parachutist chap that everybody’s on about? Is it real?”
“It’s right, sir. We’ve met him. Four days ago, it was. Captain Timothy. We thought that, being officers like, you might
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know him. Showed us his I.D. card and everything. Said he was dropped at night, a week ago. They had the idea there might be a lot of POWs in this area, since there was quite a few working camps between here and Fermo, and he was to contact as many as he could, and organise an escape.”
“You’re sure he was genuine? How was he dressed? In civvies, like us?”
“No sir. Hardly.” Big grin. “Full uniform, camouflage jacket, boots, gaiters, issue revolver, the lot. We tried him out hard as we could ourselves – he didn’t complain. I think he’s straight all right.”
“What’s the scheme?”
“They’re running a couple of fishing boats down the coast from Civitanova. Pick up off the beach after dark, and get ’em down before Jerry’s plane is out next morning. Off by the river mouth, it is. Did you cross a wide valley yesterday? That’s the river, and they lie off just below where it comes out. Every second night they’re supposed to go; last one was Friday, day before yesterday.”
“They’re running already, then. That means there’ll be one tonight?”
“Oh aye, it’s on. There was quite a bunch of chaps by on Friday. None today, so far.”
“D’you know if they got away all right?”
“Well, not for sure, sir. But they haven’t been back!”
“How about you? Are you going?”
“Well -“. Hesitation, then resolution. “Well it’s like this, sir. Taffy and me’s well in here, got our feet under the table, like. They feed us, we do a bit of work to help out – almost part of the family now. We’ve thought it out, but things
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is safe enough just now, and we reckon it’s best to stay put so long as they are. It’s not that we’re shirking getting back to t’war or anything like that – it’ll be here itself soon enough, anyway – just that we’d rather take our chance when it comes, not before.”
We talked some more, advising caution, but without seriously trying to change their minds. Then Maggie said,
“Well, what d’you think?”
Ray said, “What d’you mean, ‘What d’you think?’ We can’t pass up a chance like this. Why, in less than twenty four hours we could be through. Just think: eggs and bacon -“
Peter said, “Sounds fine to me. I’m all for it.” His earlier doubts seemed to have gone. Almost, anyway; “Let’s hope there’s no bloody cock-up, this time.”
I said, ever ready to go along with the majority, “It’s less than ten miles to the coast. Get into the valley, walking along the level – we could do it comfortably in an afternoon. It’s a bit second-hand, though -“
Maggie said, “Agreed. No proper rendezvous, no fixed time, no signalling arrangements – there’s a lot missing. But it’s more promising than anything else we’ve tried so far. I’d hate to pass it up, and then lose out later on. Let’s give it a go.”
It was still only halfway through the morning, and Jim said firmly that lunch was laid on for us. Meanwhile there was something else to see, for the house was also the headquarters of the local band of partisans. Their leader was a former Italian Army Lieutenant, introduced to us simply as Giovanni. Already he had a little army of about seventy young men, most of whom seemed to be lounging about doing nothing very much, least of all any
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useful work on the farm. Giovanni was immensely proud of them, and of himself as well. He showed us his arsenal, a converted barn stacked to the roof with boxes of small arms ammunition and red plastic grenades, not to mention well over a hundred rifles and a couple of Breda machine-guns. With many sweeps of his arm he enlarged upon the role he and his troops would play, how they would be the rock on which the waves of retreating Germans would break and founder. What about his defences, we asked; slit trenches and so forth, of which his hilltop was entirely devoid? Oh, those would be built in due course. In any case, his men were so brave that they would not wish to use them…
It was noticeable that Taffy and Jim had no part in Giovanni’s organisation. I was glad that we didn’t, either.
Replete with pasta, we shook hands all round and set out for the coast. The two boys again declined our invitation to join us; indeed, I think they felt sorry for us, wandering off into the unknown instead of settling down at some nice cosy farm. It was not a pleasant afternoon. A heavy shower had fallen, turning fields and tracks into masses of mud which clung in heavy clods to our boots and made each step a physical effort. Now the sun beat down oppressively, as if to make up for its former lapse, so that we plodded along slowly and in silence. It was certainly not the way you would expect a group of men heading towards their liberty to behave. For some reason which I couldn’t explain, I didn’t like it. Maybe it had all come too quickly for my reactionary temperament; whatever the reason, I got steadily more unhappy.
A mile, two miles, three. Siesta time, and the fields were almost deserted. Certainly we saw no sign of any other parties
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of escaping prisoners. Another laborious mile, then suddenly we heard a loud shout in a shrill, treble voice, and saw a small figure running towards us from the far side of a field of stubble. It was a young Italian boy of about twelve, neat and clean in his white Sunday shirt and grey flannel shorts, his bare legs hopping nimbly over the ploughed furrows. Without preliminaries of any kind he launched at once, panting, into his message.
“Andate a Civitanova?”
“Niente… Finito… Tedeschi… Bombardamenti… Caput…”
By and by, as he got his breath back, we were able to fill in the details. The scheme was off. The boats had been spotted by aircraft, and sunk. Tonight’s, and all subsequent operations, were cancelled. Who had sent this young Mercury, whence had come his information, or how had he found us, never became clear. But his whole manner was so positive and sincere that I for one had no thought of questioning his authenticity.
He beckoned, and said something about a house nearby, where some other prisoners were staying. We followed him, and in ten minutes came to a small, square stone built house standing by itself on a patch of bare ground. The door was opened by a tall, sandy-haired soldier, hatless, in crumpled battledress and dirty plimsolls. He took one look at us, then shouted over his shoulder into the dark interior.
“Oi, lads, come an’ ‘ave a look. ‘Ere’s some more of ’em!”
Boots clattered on bare wooden stairs, and half a dozen young soldiers in various combinations of uniform and cast-off plain clothes gathered behind the speaker, grinning a welcome. Maggie introduced us.
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“Oh,” said the tall one. “Flint’s my name. Sergeant, RASC [Royal Army Service Corps]. You been tryin’ for this ‘ere Civi’anova stunt?”
“Yes. We gather it’s all off.”
“Sure it’s off, and no effing wonder, either. Never see such a effing cock-up in all my life, even for the effing army.”
“You’ve tried it already, then?”
“Last Friday. All seven of us. We gets the buzz from this Captain all right, an’ gets down to the beach like ‘e says, round about ten. ‘Ad to cross a effing river up to our armholes on the way, but we gets there anyway, an’ whaddo we find? No effing boat, no effing parachutists, no effing Commandos, sweet eff-all. Six effing hours we sits there on that beach, wet through and cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Then along comes this Eyetie an’ says they bombed a couple of smacks out to sea that morning. So back we comes before it’s light, and ‘ere we stays. Jerry’s no dope. If you ask me, ‘e’s got wind of the ‘ole thing and it’s knackered from now on. Never again for us, eh boys?”
“Is anyone else here with you?”
“Naow, just the lads and me. But we gets looked after. They fetch us grub up from the village, twice a day. Parney, veeno, grapes, meat – anything we want, an’ as much as you like.”
“And the comforts too, eh, Charlie?” said a voice.
“Yeah. And the comforts, too.” Flint grinned. “Cor, she was a lovely bit o’ stuff all right, and could she take
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it! Came up with the rations last night, and forgot to go back! ‘You first,’ she says to me, and before you know what she ‘as me on the floor with ‘er and the others waiting in a effing queue outside the door. All seven of us she ‘ad, then asks if we’d like ‘er to come again tonight! Cor, what a dame! Care to join us for a night or two?”
The attractions, in Flint’s description at least, did not seem compelling. Like the men from the Sunday paper, we made our excuses and left.
“That type deserves all he’ll get,” said Maggie. “Sergeant, indeed. He’s as much a genuine sergeant as – as -“
“As you’re a real Major, ho-ho,” I finished.
“I know, I know. You’ve been dying to get that one in for ages.”
Suddenly we were all cheerful again. For myself I was unashamedly relieved that the attempt was off. Maybe it was just the feeling of satisfaction at being thrown back on to our own initiative once more, maybe there was an element of funk in it as well. What would have been truly galling, after over a month on the run, would have been to be let down in the end through someone else’s error.
The small boy had gone; we never saw him again. There was no argument over our own next move: back to Umberto’s. On the way we met two other small groups of lads, and duly turned them back. I was surprised how easy it was to recognise escaping Britishers; you could pick them out a mile off. It was dark when we got back to the house, after passing on the news to Jim and Taffy. Nello, the little boy of six, was the
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first to see us, and ran into the house screaming with delight. They welcomed us back as long-lost brothers, and Umberto at once put in train arrangements for another party. After supper of lettuce and cold meat the visitors began to roll in, the gramophone started up with its one record, and everyone shouted and sang till the building rocked. This time we joined in unaffectedly. The tension was over, we knew what the morrow would bring, and I for one slept a good deal sounder in the cold cart shed that night.
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Monday 11 October 1943
It was not easy to get away from Umberto and his family. First, the old lady made us some black coffee. Then, when we had shaken hands and got ready to leave, she got out the polenta board. Nor would she be satisfied until each had taken his proper share. Fortunately she had decorated the base layer with blobs of tomato puree instead of the more usual scraps of fat, which made it rather more palatable – though I’m not sure that I’d care for tomato sauce on my corn flakes now. It was well after nine-thirty by the time we were actually on the move.
We immediately started walking hard, making for the top of the next ridge. The view from this was extensive and picturesque, but not encouraging. Ten miles of corrugated landscape stretched away southwards into the haze, with every prospect seemingly of a similar ten beyond, and more after that. We could see at least five separate and parallel ranges, each with its village and church perched on top of the highest point at the seaward end. Other villages were dotted over the hills inland; I counted more than twelve in view at one time. The hills were brown, the villages grey and pink, the sky bright blue and white. Far out to the left was a strip of green and an occasional flash of silver from the sea. To the right the high mountains were hidden in a bluish haze. It was already very warm.
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We walked hard all the morning; down into one valley, across a flat stretch of scrubby ground or sometimes through a small river, up the next hill between the villages, then down again. Stopping only to enquire the best way, or to ask if the hills became any easier to the south (they were always going to, but never did), we wasted no time over refreshment, intent only on clocking off the miles. It was an arduous, but at the same time a very satisfying spell of progress. Towards one o’clock we spotted a likely-looking house, and tried out a new variation in our lunch getting technique. I knocked on the door, asked for a drink of water, and also the loan of a knife with which to cut our bread. A flask of rough red and the knife were duly produced without demur. Curious eyes watched while I handed the knife to Ray, who then dug out from the bottom of his pack a horrible piece of filthy old mouldy bread, from which he solemnly carved off a chunk for each of us. We sat, munching mournfully, careful not to look in the direction of the farmer. Instant success. Word was sent back indoors; out came Mamma, all motherly concern and fuss.
“Ehh! Pavori ragazzi! Pavori ragazzi! Venite, in casa -” Chairs were placed, and in a very few minutes we were sitting down to a big plate of minestra each. I never really discovered whether we were eating their lunch, or whether they kept a ready for use supply in the kitchen from which four extra dishes could be drawn at short notice any time; we just ate it up regardless. They were a cheerful and generous family and would have had us stay with them, but we were naturally keen to push on. Instead, they pressed meat and fresh bread on us for the road. Yes, they had seen several other groups of prisoners making their way south
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in the past few days. Yes, they had heard of the paracadusti too; more of them, somewhere near, were helping the prisoners to escape. It seemed to be quite a local industry.
We pushed on hard again, encouraged by the thought that the Army had not forgotten us completely. By the end of the afternoon we had drawn level with Fermo, the site of another large camp from which nearly all the men had been taken off to Germany, due, it was said, to a traitorous deal by the Italian Commandante. It lay, sprawled over its hilltop like just another overgrown village, about a mile away to seaward of us.
Another couple of hours, and we all began to feel that yesterday’s delay had been amply made up, so that when an old peasant, slightly tight from trampling grapes, offered us his barn for the night we were glad enough to accept. It was a small, poor house set well up on a hillside, and as the family, though friendly enough, were not over inclined for conversation, we were soon bedding down on the straw.
Tuesday 12 October 1943
On the move again just after eight, negative breakfast. It wasn’t a good start. We were all stiff after the long trudge of yesterday, and the lack of even a hot drink to stir up the innards made me, at least, an even slower starter than usual. Peter was stumping along, irritable.
“What’s next on the chart?”
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“Place called Ascoli Piceno, whatever that means. Never heard of it myself, but it’s printed in bigger letters than the others.”
“Huh. Another place to keep out of.”
“Well try an’ make sure we don’t hit it in the middle first time. Aim off it a wee bit to the left, OK?”
“Sure. As much as you can aim off for anything in this crazy country -“
We crossed the ridge and the narrow valley beyond it, and climbed the next hill by a steep and rocky path. A confused mass of country confronted us, twisted and broken with ridges and valleys leading in all directions. The hills were not high, but excessively steep, often with deep rocky ravines in between and frequent patches of cliff face, and the ridges had lost their regular parallel form of yesterday. Yet every spare patch of ground was still cultivated, with immense and primitive labour. I saw one pair of huge white oxen struggling up a slope on which they could barely keep their feet; the single share plough lashed behind them was no more than a crudely hewn branch of a tree, with the blade held in by wooden pegs.
A road led off to the left, descending gradually; we followed it, thankfully. Some peasants resting in a field passed the time of day, but there was obviously no food in the offing so we did not linger. I heard the word Paracadusti several times, and the figure three, but I couldn’t make out whether it referred to three men or three places or what. All the same I decided privately not to give up the idea
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completely, but to make cautious enquiries when we got a little farther on. Shortly after this we came by a small house with an old man working outside. He stopped willingly enough, and handed round his flask. Still thinking of breakfast, I dug into my pack. The only food I had left was a piece of stale bread and a raw onion. I started on these, looking hopefully at him. It was a strong onion, and soon real tears began to flow, but the effect was lost on him.
“Buono!” he beamed, nodding enthusiastically. “Buono!”
The road made a hairpin bend to the right above a deep ravine, beyond which rose a steep ridge leading almost due south. We left the road and scrambled down, grudging every foot of height lost. Up the other side we had to clamber at times on hands and knees. A track on the top led straight for about a mile, then ended in a T-junction at the very edge of another ravine even deeper and steeper than the last one. I was up with Magee when we got there. Ray was a hundred yards astern. Far to the rear toiled Peter; red-faced, his stick digging savagely into the earth at every step, the air around his head faintly tinged with blue.
“D’you think he’ll make it?” Maggie’s face showed concern.
“He’ll make it,” I said. “That type always does. A bit slow maybe, but he’ll get there.”
“Yes, but later. Suppose we have to go into the mountains, really high. Suppose the weather turns. It can’t last like this forever.”
I didn’t reply. I was still thinking of the parachutists. Our only recipe for getting across the lines, after many discussions, was to go into the mountains. There must be some sort of No Man’s Land along the main chain, where neither side
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could maintain full surveillance. We had not touched our emergency rations, so we could vaguely imagine ourselves sitting hermit-like in some convenient cave, eating Red Cross spam and biscuits while the tide of war flowed by – though I wondered how Maggie would last out if there was no vino – until it was safe to emerge and surrender ourselves to the welcoming arms of the nearest Eighth Army outpost. It still seemed a long way off.
Peter came up, wet with sweat. We let him get his breath back, under no pressure. Eventually Maggie turned to lead off, taking the path to the right. Peter stood his ground. The other path was obviously far easier, he said; any fool could see that. All at once a violent, bitter quarrel broke out between the two of them. The accumulated nervous tension of weeks erupted in waves of blasphemous recrimination. For half an hour they stood and swore at one another – there’s no point in writing it all down here. In the end Ray and I set off, taking the first path. Magee followed, leaving Peter standing where he was. For a few moments I really thought he was going to leave us. Then at the last minute, he picked up his staff and, still cursing, limped off in pursuit.
Down in the valley we found another road, and followed it as it hairpinned its way up the next hill to a walled village. A carter was on his way down, sitting at ease on a rickety wagon behind his pony. There was no chance of avoiding him, so I accosted him straight out. Had he heard of any parachutists in the district? Why yes, he said, everybody knew about them. Three groups of three, there were. One party, indeed, was
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not more than a couple of miles from here. He himself had seen some, but he was suspicious on account of their unfamiliar green uniforms, so different from ordinary British battledress. Germans, he guessed, tapping his nose; a cunning trick, to trap unwary prisoners. But we would soon find out for ourselves if we enquired farther on.
All at once we forgot our quarrel, and thrust on to the top of the hill with renewed energy. We left the road at the last hairpin bend, with the high walls of the village looming above our heads, and struck across country again. The reverse slope was not so steep, and we covered another mile or so at good speed. Leading over to the next patch of high ground our path ran through a farmyard, and a young boy came out of the house as we approached. We bade him a cheerful good morning, and to our astonishment he replied in English. Yes, he knew of the English parachutists. He led us to the end of the yard.
“See,” he said, pointing out a small white house on a hillside about a mile away inland. “Ask there. They will tell you.”
Once again, it seemed too easy to be true, but the lure was irresistible. Now Ray was the excited one, striding out ahead as if he had a bus to catch. A deep valley separated us from the house. Halfway across we met some peasants in a field, and shared a bit of their bread and cheese while they gave us further directions. We climbed up the far side and came out on a small road. A priest in long black robes smiled in a knowing sort of way and said we should find what we sought a few hundred metres farther on. Round the next corner a small boy called out:
“Inglesi? La casa!”
and pointed to a small square house, standing by itself just below
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the road. We marched up to it, trying hard not to run, and just as we reached it the plain wooden door was opened from within, and a tall, slim figure in green overalls with a revolver at his waist and captain’s badges on his shoulders, strode out.
“Good morning,” he said heartily, holding out his hand. “My name’s Power, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see you.”
“Great! Great! How de do! How are you?” We all tried to shake hands at once. “Were you expecting us, or something?”
He grinned. “You know how news travels. We heard there were some officers in the area, and guessed you would turn up sooner or later. Come inside and have a drink.”
There were four other men in the tiny living room. Two were soldiers of Power’s party, dressed like him in American overalls and carrying a gangsterish multiplicity of arms. The others, in battledress tops and ill-fitting flannels, were obviously ex-prisoners: South African officers who had got out from a camp near Modena. For some time it was difficult to get any real order into the meeting, as each party bombarded the others with questions, everyone laughing and shouting fit to burst. To add to the confusion a grinning Italian came in to lay up for lunch, and he wanted to know the score as well.
“Da dove venute?” he demanded of me.
“Eh! E sempre camminate?”
“Ma! Quanti kilometri da cui?”
“Oh, multi kilometri. Tre cento.”
“You must have been on the way a hell of a long time,” broke in Power. “Did you get out right at the Armistice?”
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“Si,” I said. “Venti-cinque gior – oh hell, I’m doing it again. Twenty-five days we’ve been on the road, and a week outside before that. But never mind that. How’s the war going? Is Monty still at Termoli? What’s keeping him back? Is anything happening anywhere else? Can we get news to our families? They won’t have heard of us for months. Any idea where 46 Div are likely to be?-“
“Did you hear about the Dams raid? No? My, where have you fellows been?… Sorry, just a joke. Well, it seems the Raff got this idea of blowing up some big dams in the Ruhr. Put half their heavy industry out of commission, I believe -“
It was like a reunion dinner, sitting round a farm table eating spaghetti, one hundred miles on the enemy’s side of the fighting area. Eventually Power got things under control.
“We’re Second SAS, stationed at Termoli. We’re working on an evacuation scheme to get escaped prisoners away by sea. From what we’ve heard there must be quite a number floating around this part of the country, and the aim is to collect as many as possible before Jerry gets back this way and starts to make things uncomfortable.”
“Anything like the Civitanova scheme?”
“Oh, you came across that then? Did you meet Timothy? I’d like to get in touch with him.”
“No, he was off inland, somewhere west of Macerata when we were there. We found out just in time that it was all off.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. We made one trip with the fishing boats, but after that they said it was too dangerous. This time we’ve got the Navy helping, and it’s to be a properly organised show.” Power lowered his voice. “On the night of the twenty-fourth,
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that’s next Sunday week, when apparently the moon and the tide and the colour of the water and all that suit them, they’re coming up with an LCI [Landing Craft Infantry]. Take anything up to five hundred men. Between now and then we’ve got to contact as many blokes as we can, and get ’em all down to the RV [rendezvous] without Jerry catching on.”
“I’ve got three men working inland; myself and these two here, and two more with a Sarnt-Major based near the RV. They’ll act as a sort of reception committee. We shan’t give anyone exact details, but simply try and get them all down into the area, so that at the right time the word can be passed round with as short a notice as possible.”
“My, it’ll be some scheme if it comes off. Anything we can do to help?”
“Nothing here, I fancy. We know that some of the chaps are a bit – well, conservative in their aims, and our boys will have much more chance of persuading them back than anyone dressed like yourselves. Besides, this side of it is our job. Yours is to get yourselves back, and it wouldn’t do to spoil it through trying to do too much. You’re not in uniform, and something very awkward might happen if you were caught with us. In my view, your best plan is to find CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Marshall and leave us to do the work here. He might welcome some assistance at his end.”
“OK.” None of us wanted to argue with that. “How do we got to him?”
“About ten miles south of here there’s a small river called the Menocchio; it comes out a mile or so above Cupra Marittima. Somewhere in that valley near the seaward end you’ll find Marshall’s HQ. Can you do it?”
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“Easy. We can be there in less than a day. Tomorrow, if we take things easy.”
“Right. Hello, this looks like more customers -“
Three young men in tattered khaki drill were approaching the open door. We rose, loth to go. For a couple of hours we had luxuriated in a breeze of the outside world, of Englishness and normality – or at least what passed for normality in wartime. It was like having to say goodbye to the family at the end of a leave period.
The South Africans had already gone. We decided not to try for the Menocchio at once, but to stay for the night somewhere just short of the valley in order to leave plenty of time to locate Marshall the next day. We set off light-heartedly as if for an afternoon’s stroll, the morning’s quarrel forgotten. We even stopped at one rise to admire the view, with the town of Monterubbiano on its hilltop away to the left and the high mountains to the south-west looking appreciably nearer. Our luck held. Late in the afternoon we shared a meal of fried chicken with a young peasant and his wife, and soon after this we found shelter for the night at a farm on the south side of the valley leading down to Pedaso.
There was no vacant stall in the cowshed, only a space about three feet wide which ran the length of the shed immediately behind the rear ends of the animals. There was just room to lie head to foot in single file, with our packs for pillows and our day clothes for bedding. Luckily, the cows behaved as perfect ladies the whole night through.
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Wednesday 13 October 1943
Life on the farm began early; the men were out in the fields at dawn, and by six-thirty we were on the way ourselves. At first it was just like another day’s slog. The sun climbed steadily over the sea, lighting up the white clouds whose dark shadows chased one another along the brown slopes of the hills. There was little wind, and the early freshness of the air soon disappeared as we trudged along. We followed a grassy track, taking it easy. Even so the pace seemed too much for Peter, limping along grumpily in the rear. He looked pale and unwell, but all attempts to sympathise with him brought only bad-tempered grunts in response, so we left him alone in his misery.
Before very long we hit a road. It trended inland, rising all the time. Already we were travelling well above the thousand foot contour. It led us beneath the high walls of a large village, Montefiore dell’Aso. We could see others, half a dozen or more, dotted about the hilltops round about. Eventually we came to the far side of the ridge, and with the country opened out in front of us we could see where, a few miles farther on, the folds of the ground parted on either side of a winding valley leading towards the sea. That must be it.
We left the road and struck down the steep hillside, keeping as far as possible to uncultivated ground and ditches. The slope became concave, flattened out, and there on the floor of the valley we found the stream, trickling along its rocky bed between low, tree-lined banks. All was quiet and peaceful. The only sounds to disturb the stillness were the twittering of birds in the thinning trees, the splash and ripple of water over the stones, and an occasional shout from some invisible peasant.
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We followed the bed of the stream down the valley, walking along either bank as convenient, and sometimes in the water itself. There was rarely enough to cover our boots, and it was sheer pleasure to be travelling on the level. We made good speed for some time, until we judged it was time to start making enquiries. Turning off the stream to the right, we found a small road leading along the valley floor, and began to look around. The first man we met was an elderly peasant, plodding up the road with a huge wooden rake on his shoulder. He plainly did know where the parachutists were, but in answer to our question he just shook his head, gave a deeply suspicious look at Peter’s blond head, and shuffled off on his way. The next two were equally unhelpful. A woman gathering grapes pointedly turned her back on us. It began to look as if Sergeant-Major Marshall had prepared his ground well. Then, we met a young man standing outside a wooden shed. He was neatly dressed in a white shirt and fawn slacks, and didn’t look quite the peasant type. He led us into the shed and shut the door carefully behind him. His next move was to produce a flask of wine, some new bread and a whole cheese about the size of a soup plate. Having thus seen that we were comfortably accommodated, he began a long speech.
Yes, he said, he knew where the soldiers were, but, we understood, it was necessary to be careful. Ripatransone – he indicated a town high on the ridge which we had lately left – was an untrustworthy place where Fascisti were still living openly, and Germans were sometimes seen. All strangers had to be treated with suspicion. Local people were friendly and anxious to help, but the risk to themselves could not be ignored. On and on he went, while we sat there eating. The cheese had a sweetish taste
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which was not very much to my liking. Sheep’s cheese, he explained, interrupting the flow of his address briefly. Eventually (when all the cheese had gone) we got him down to the point. He opened the door, finger to his nose, peeped out theatrically, and pointed down the white road. One kilometre, he said, then look for a house hidden among the vine trees to the left.
We began walking rapidly. Small groups of peasants working among the vines stopped to watch us pass, exchanging knowing looks among themselves. A man coming the other way in a pony cart flashed his teeth in a wide smile and jerked his thumb over his shoulder with an encouraging nod. After five minutes we turned off along an avenue of trees. Without being asked, a woman bending over a basket raised her arm and pointed. Through the foliage of a clump of small trees we saw the back of a small white house. We walked quickly up and knocked on a side door. It was opened immediately by a huge figure in green overalls with a Tommy gun cradled in his right arm.
“We’re from Campo 49, near Parma. Captain Power sent us down to you.”
Sergeant-Major Marshall put down his gun and extended a powerful fist.
“Well, by God sirs, am I glad to see ye! Man, it does a feller good tae hear a bit o’ decent English again in this dam’ macaroni country! Come inside, it’s safe enough here. If there was a Jerry wi’in miles ye can bet I’d have heard o’ him by now. Ye’ll no have had lunch yet, I guess? There’s only M and V, but I dare say ye’ll find that welcome. Mak’ yersel’s at home, sirs,
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while I just put on a couple more tins.”
We sat around on upturned boxes of small arms ammunition while the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] gave instructions to an old woman who had apparently attached herself to him as cook, batman and housekeeper all in one. In a very short time she had produced a large and appetising stew of meat and vegetables which, notwithstanding the sheep’s cheese, we devoured greedily. Even Peter was moved to praise.
“By God!” he said with his mouth full, “I never thought Maconochies’ could be so good. And to think we used to get sick of the sight of it! I once flogged three tins to an Arab near Tebourba, just to get an egg each for myself and the tank crew. What a criminal waste o’ guid food. He didn’t have a tin-opener either. Got a glass of water, Sar-Major?”
The CSM grinned. “Sorry, sir. They only use it for washin’ round here, and not too much for that. Plenty o’ vino, though, if ye don’t mind taking it out o’ a mess tin.”
“Not for me,” hastily. “Can’t stand the stuff. What’s that you’ve got over there? Tinned peaches, for crying out loud! Where’s my spoon?”
“In your hand,” Magee said. “You’ve used it for the stew. You’ll have to wash it first, it’s the only one.” But Peter was already helping himself.
CSM Marshall was an ideal man for his job. A bra’ Scot, six foot three with the build of a second row forward, he carried around with him an air of confidence and security which were badly needed in a world which many times had lacked these qualities more than most. He told us of his humdrum life in the army before he joined the Special Air Service in Tunisia. (“Don’t tell the wife if ye get back, sir. She thinks SAS stands for Small Arms
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School.”) He was occupied now in organising billets throughout the valley in preparation for the stream of prisoners he hoped to receive from Power. His two men were operating at the upper end while he explored the lower part and managed his headquarters. In answer to our offer of help he managed to explain, with considerable tact, that he did not want four scruffily dressed half-civilian officers messing up his arrangements.
“I think it’s best, sir, for you to lie up quietly for the week at least, that’s if ye don’t mind my saying so. I’m going out and will fix up a billet for ye now; I’ll call back and take ye up there tonight. We can keep in touch from there, and then mebbe later on when the time’s getting near we can call on you then.”
“OK, Sar’nt-Major. You’re the boss,” Maggie said.
The CSM [Company Sergeant Major] had not been gone five minutes when we saw a couple of young Italians coming through the trees. They walked straight in without being invited, keeping their hats on, shut the door behind them and launched into a long harangue. They spoke so fast that despite the volume of sound it was impossible to distinguish the words, but their meaning was clear enough. Every few minutes they took it in turns to open the door, peer out, and shut it again, while the flow of words went on and on. Eventually Maggie got out the cards and we sat down to a game of bridge, ignoring the show. They gave up and went out together, tapping their noses at each other.
We spent a lazy, relaxed afternoon, amusing ourselves with the cards and idly turning over the small heap of unfamiliar military equipment which Marshall had brought with him. It’s enormously encouraging for a prisoner to have tangible evidence that he’s not, after all, a forgotten man; that somebody, even
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the Army, cares for him. The hours passed by quickly, until at about six-thirty we felt it was time to move.
We gathered our packs and went out into the dim light of the warm evening. Walking quickly through the vines we regained the road, followed it down for a short way and then moved off into an open field to await the arrival of the CSM [Company Sergeant Major]. Soon it grew dark. We sat quietly, talking in whispers, each man feeling the realisation grow within him that this brief period of al fresco existence might be ending. It was the first time for weeks that we had not been comfortably settled by the end of the day. The atmosphere became increasingly that of a night exercise, rather than an Italian holiday. A little breeze blew up off the sea, making me shiver. Ray voiced our thoughts.
“You know,” he said, “It’s going to be quite a jolt getting back into the army again, after this. Like joining up for the first time, only worse really. After you’ve been in for a time you get used to its ways, with its parades and its shouting and saluting and all that, and you forget about the little liberties which you’ve lost to make it work. It’s not so difficult the first time, because it’s all strange and new, and a lot of the other fellows are green like yourself. But we’re going to have to do all that for the second time. It sounds funny, but d’you know, I think I’ll be quite sorry to leave this life behind, however much we may have grumbled at it sometimes. I suppose that’s what we call freedom, in a way, though I’m damned if I’d ever have thought so if anyone had told me before.”
“Och, you’ll pick it up soon enough,” Peter said. “First time somebody shouts in your ear ‘Squad will advance, Right Turn’, you’ll do it without thinkin’. You’re conditioned, man. That’s
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what the Army’s about.”
“I know. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it. In any case, you’ll be all right. You play your cards right, with that knee, and you need never do another bit of drill in your life.”
“Aye. And I mean to.”
“Not for us, though. You don’t need three guesses to tell where we’re likely to be in six months’ time.”
“What d’ye mean?”
“Well. One, our old units’ll be full of replacements, with strangers in command, as like as not. Two, if there’s to be an invasion of Europe next year all the places for that will have been filled. That only leaves one place they can send us to.”
“Oh, aye. Oho, I hadn’t thought o’ that.”
“Burma. Monsoons, scorpions, little yellow men, and God knows what else. While you’re running the Reserve Depot at Edinburgh or Glasgow or somewhere, we here’ll be sweating it out in the jungle, living on anti-malaria pills.”
“Ah well, if it’s any consolation to you, Ray, I’ll be thinkin’ of ye. Sometimes.”
It was nearly an hour before we heard the sound of footsteps down the road, and the unmistakeable form of the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] came looming out of the darkness. He spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“Ah, there ye are, sirs. I’ve got ye all fixed up. It’s not far from here. We can go along right away.”
He led us along the road a little farther, then off to the right where we began gradually to climb the southern side of the valley. Near the top he halted at a small house. The door opened at once in response to his knock. Inside, by the dim light of an open wick burning in a saucer of oil, we could make out a rough
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table already laid for supper, whitewashed walls, and the shadowy features of the man and his wife standing expectantly. Marshall introduced us.
“Here we are, Seenyor,” he said heartily. “These gentlemen are the officers, er, ufficharleys. Four, like I said. Quartio.”
“Si, si.” The man quietly indicated the wood benches set around the table, and his wife brought in a bowl of salad. They were unusually quiet and shy, and we spoke little during the meal, even among ourselves. As soon as we had finished Marshall rose to go. He spoke to Maggie at the door.
“I’ve given the old feller a couple of hundred lire to be goin’ on with, sir – oh, and here, ye’d better have some for yerselves in case ye need it later on. They’re both on the quiet side but ye’ll find they’re friendly enough. Ye can always get in touch with me down at the bottom. All right, sir? Goodnight then.”
The door closed behind him. The man rose and indicated another door at the side of the room.
“Gratsey, senyor,” said Maggie. “Bona nottey. Let’s go, men.”
“Well, for cryin’ out loud!” said Peter at the door. “Will ye look at that?”
‘That’ was a bed. A real, genuine double bed, springless but covered with a thick mattress, clean sheets and pillows. There was just space to walk round three sides of it in the tiny room. Four sets of eyes surveyed it greedily.
“We’ll have to draw for it,” Maggie said. “Three in the bed and one on the floor, right? OK, here we go.”
Ray drew the floor.
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13. TEN DAYS TO GO
Thursday 14 October 1943
Three in a bed may be fun if you have the right company, but when all three are biggish men the advantages tend to be less apparent. Especially for the man in the middle, which was me. I tried to point this out to Ray in the morning but he was unimpressed, suspecting I had ulterior motives. It was a stuffy and uncomfortable night, even with the little window wide open. The farmer was up and about before four. He immediately saw that something was wrong, came tiptoeing in and shut the window down tight. Maggie got up and opened it, but he came in and shut it again. He thought we needed to be kept warm, like his two oxen.
We rose with thick heads, about seven. It was cold in the fresh morning air, and a keen wind blew round the corner of the house while we splashed our faces in a communal bowl of rainwater. Again the scene evoked memories of more military days; of winter exercises on the Downs, shaving in the frosty dawn with a mess tin on the bonnet of the G truck, using water from the radiator and the driving mirror as a glass; of the crunch of hard grass, the grinding of engines reluctant to start, the roaring of the petrol cookers behind the cooks’ wagon. Roll on…
We spent the morning lazing quietly about the house, following the warm patches as the sun rose above the hill. The family remained shy, avoiding our company, and we saw little of the farmer himself, but from a word or two here and there it became clear that Marshall had not fixed us up as permanently as he had thought. The old man was polite, but nervous, and would evidently be glad when we were off his conscience.
In the afternoon, fortified by minestra and walnuts, we made a
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little excursion up to the top of the hill to have a look round. We sat on a stubbly knoll at the end of the ridge. There, almost beneath our feet, was the coastal plain, less than a couple of miles wide. We could see the main road and the railway beyond it, and the mouth of the river where it entered the sea. Somewhere to the right of that, hidden from us by a line of bushes along the shore, must be the beach we had to find. All was calm and quiet. Around mid-afternoon we heard the sound of aircraft, but they were flying so high that we could hardly see them. They dropped their bombs on some target a few miles to the south, then peace descended again. Still ten days to go… It was going to be a long wait.
Back at the house the rest of the afternoon dragged slowly, the evening even more so. We joined the family round the table for a potato supper. I tried to chat to the old man, trotting out all the old gambits about foggy London and boiled cabbage without any garlic, but it was uphill work with no young girls to make things go. His wife, a slender woman considerably younger than himself, persisted in her retiring attitude. Even Ray’s photos failed to draw her out. She devoted all her attention to a young baby which she carried about with her all the time, crooning away and rocking it with almost aggressive affection. The only other member of the family was Nello, a strong, cheerful lad of about fourteen, who looked as if he would have liked to talk but felt inhibited by the father. From the gap between the childrens’ ages we wondered if the woman was a second wife, but they never volunteered the information and we couldn’t think how to ask. They were friendly, but there was fear in the air as well.
I was glad when supper was over and we were able to turn in. Peter was in the middle. Despite the heat, he shivered the whole night through.
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Friday 15 October 1943
We arose to the noise of aircraft engines, and turned out to see a flight of twelve Spitfires strafing the railway some little way to the north. The war was definitely coming nearer.
After coffee we began slowly to make preparations for leaving. It seemed to be the best thing to do. Obviously we couldn’t continue to billet ourselves on this small household indefinitely, so there was no alternative but to search out somewhere more suitable ourselves. But I was worried about Peter. His pale face was flushed, his nose was running, he looked unsteady on his feet as he fumbled with his gear. I supposed he had caught some sort of a chill, and could only hope it would not turn to anything worse, but all enquiries met the usual rebuff.
“I’m all right, I tell ye. Just caught a wee bit cold, mebbe. I can look after maself, thanks.”
The sun rose over the hill, battling with the morning cold. We delayed our packing as long as possible, but eventually it was done, so we said our goodbyes, left some money on the table, and set off. For the rest of the morning we explored the seaward end of the valley behind, but without success. Nobody would offer us a lodging for one night, let alone a week. Towards lunchtime, however, our hopes rose when Ray spotted a large house half hidden among some trees behind a little private drive.
“That looks a much better type of place,” he said. “There’s a man at the door even wearing shoes. He must be a padrone at least.”
It was indeed a private residence, not just another farm. The man at the door greeted us politely, and at once conducted us upstairs to a large room on the first floor. It was crowded with people. There were two or three fat men in gabardine suits, smoking
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cigars (with their hats on), at least half a dozen stout matrons, a number of clean, shiny children, and three well-dressed girls, all talking away at the tops of their voices. Without bothering to introduce us, the man indicated some cushioned seats in an alcove, bustled away, and almost immediately returned followed by a woman carrying four steaming dishes.
“Boy, this is more like it!” shouted Ray, trying to look a large omelette in the face while keeping an eye on the girls. “Our luck’s in at last, what? I think I could endure a fortnight here, let alone a week.”
While we ate, the man was making a long speech.
“What’s he saying?”
“He says that yesterday the RAF dropped a load of leaflets on Cupra,” I said, mouth full. “Warning everyone to get out before they bombed it. Needless to say, they did. All these people are this chap’s relations, come for the duration. Hence, no room at the inn.”
Maggie said, “But this is a big place. Surely he’s got a barn or an outhouse somewhere, where we could go? Dammit, he knows we’re not fussy. Anything with a roof will do.”
“No go,” I said. “Everywhere’s chockablock, he says, outside as well as in. Well, it’s been a nice lunch anyway. Better get cracking again and done with.”
The noise continued undiminished as the man saw us out. We turned our steps inland and began to search the upper end of the valley. Everywhere, the answer was the same: Sorry, our sister/daughter/mother/aunt has come out from Cupra because of the bombing and we are full up. As afternoon wore into evening our spirits drooped. Peter was getting worse; he even let himself be
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helped up the steeper slopes. His face was bathed in sweat, and his hands were shaking as he handed his pack to Ray. At last Maggie called a halt.
“This is no damn good,” he said. “There’s only one thing for it; we’ll have to go back to Nello’s tonight, and make a proper effort tomorrow while Peter lays up for the day. It’s hopeless as we are.”
We retraced our steps down the valley and climbed slowly back over the hill. We met Nello himself hard at work ploughing up a thirty-degree slope above the house, and sent him on ahead to soften the blow. Nevertheless it was a somewhat sheepish four who turned up at the door where the old man stood waiting. But he smiled a cheerful recognition, and quietly indicated our old room, with a sympathetic look in Peter’s direction. Tired and relieved, we put down our packs and joined the family for supper of grilled tomatoes and green peppers. The man had evidently brightened up considerably in our absence and the conversation flowed more easily; even his wife joined in when we got round to the inevitable subject of food again. She couldn’t understand how it was possible to make a reasonable salad without using garlic; whoever enjoyed eating tomatoes and lettuce plain?
We turned in gladly enough at about eight, making Peter a couch of blankets on the floor. After covering him up as warmly as possible I opened the window as quietly as I could. But in vain; the old man soon spotted it and came tut-tutting in to shut it down tight.
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Saturday 16 October 1943
Again we awoke to the sound of aero engines. The noise came nearer, swelling hugely in volume till the little house began to shake, then erupted into a shattering burst of cannon fire right over our heads. We dashed outside. A three-engined Ju 52 transport plane came low over the hill from the south. It flew in a shallow dive, heading straight for the opposite hillside. “Pull out, mate, pull out!” you wanted to cry, but no. Without deviating an inch it flew slap into the middle of the hill and exploded in a great sheet of flame. Three Spitfires wheeled round once above it, then flew off out to sea.
“There goes another suicide job,” Ray said quietly. “My God, if I was a Jerry I wouldn’t fly one of those for all the Iron Crosses in the Army. A hundred miles an hour and no defensive armament – imagine that with three Spits on your tail. No, thank you.”
The woman stood petrified at the door, the child clamped to her bosom. In minutes the news came across: quattro morti, four dead. She just stood there, murmuring over and over to herself:
“Poveri gente… Poveri gente… Poor fellows -“
Germans they might be, but in that moment we felt for them with her.
After coffee we wasted little time, and leaving Peter in the old boy’s care, we split into two parties to go off and find a new home. Maggie and Ray took the valley, intending to call on Marshall on the way, while I climbed back up the hill to search the higher levels.
After a long, tiring morning I finally found a couple of houses about three miles back along the ridge where the families
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were willing to put us up between them. One was an absolute hovel, a tiny ramshackle thing built partly into a low bank, with one living room, one bedroom, and a barn. The best furniture consisted of a rough-hewn table, and two benches made out of a tree trunk split down the middle, with sawn-off branches for legs. The occupant was a lad of about nineteen, whose idea of a midday meal for a heavy manual worker was a piece of dry bread and a handful of almonds. He was convinced that all Englishmen were millionaires, and by comparison with him I suppose we were, but he was keen enough to help. “What had he got to lose?,” he said. Besides, he was glad of the company. He took me over to the other house, and we made arrangements for two and two boarding the next day.
I wandered back slowly. A Spitfire patrol came over, then another out to sea; it was getting to be a daily occurrence. Back at Nello’s things were more cheerful. The old boy had brightened up considerably, and was even suggesting that we could stay there. I wondered if his initial reserve had been caused by the fearsome aspect of Marshall at his door, Tommy gun in hand, and if it had taken him two days to get over this and find that he actually liked us. But we felt we had traded on his hospitality long enough. Peter was agreeably improved, in temper as well as in health; the flu symptoms had gone, leaving him with just a cold in the head. Besides, Maggie and Ray had found a largish farm back near the head of the valley which sounded a better prospect than either this or my two. We said we would leave in the morning if Peter was fit.
In the evening a long German convoy came down the coast road, heading south. They drove easily, lights full on, with the confidence even now of a winning side. The sound of voices
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floated upwards from the backs of the trucks, in well-drilled, harmonious chorus. Their singing was better than ours, too.
Sunday 17 October 1943
A wet night, disturbed in the small hours by the loud crash of a bomb somewhere in the distance. The dawn patrol came over early, followed by another, and then a third sweep out over the sea. If the RAF could keep up this level of activity, it certainly augured well for the evacuation scheme.
There was no particular hurry, so we stayed willingly enough for a special lunch of pasta and chicken which the farmer wanted to put on for us. It was good to think that we were parting better friends than perhaps we had started. The old man stood up straight, shook hands, and said something about l’Ottava Armata. The boy Nello said he wished we were staying. The wife, too, smiled a warm Auguri, but her eyes were still distant. She, more imaginative than her menfolk, was living over and over again her fear of the days to come, of what would befall them all, and that so precious child, when the war rolled over the Menocchio river.
Walking hard up the valley floor, we reached the new farm comfortably by tea-time. It was clearly an improvement on our last home. Even among the peasantry there were degrees of relative prosperity; generally it seemed to vary directly as the size of the family, and here there was almost an air of spaciousness. The house, built of pink brick, had three bedrooms, and stood at the end of a yard complete with cowshed, outbuildings, and a pigsty. The whole backed on to a lane which led upward over a shoulder of
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the ridge towards the valley behind. The family consisted of the farmer and his wife, two sons in their twenties, two married daughters with their husbands, and four small children. They received us quietly enough but without question. One of the sons was just starting on his Sunday shave at a sink in the corner of the living room as we entered. He gave us a big lathery grin, turned back to his mirror, lifted his razor, paused as if he had seen something wrong, looked round, found his hat, put it on, turned back and, satisfied, carried on shaving. It all seemed very normal. After an excellent supper of omelettes and green peppers we were shown to the sons’ bedroom. This time there were two beds; a wide, springless double covered with an old straw mattress, and a narrow single. Peter, in deference to his recent sufferings, got the single.
Monday to Wednesday, 18-20 October 1943
We spent three lazy and relaxed days with this family. Their hospitality was rough and ready, but they were prepared to take us as they found us, and we them. On the first morning, it was explained at great length that although we were welcome to stay, it might be better for the general peace of mind if we were not seen much about the farm during the days. The Germans had a habit, they said, of sending raiding parties out into the country in search of food, and taking away chicken and pigs without paying the market price. Fair enough, we thought. Each morning after breakfast, therefore, we took up our packs and adjourned to a half-built brick shed which we found in one of the fields, where we spent the whole day playing bridge. There
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was still no sign of a real break in the weather. It was too hot to go for a walk merely for pleasure, and we were content to sit and beguile the time as best we could. Then at about six, when the daylight began to fade, we strolled back to the house for supper. During the evening we chatted with the family, played with the younger children, or wandered about the yard watching the animals.
The pigs, especially, fascinated me. They had the biggest and dirtiest two pigs I have ever seen: huge black sows with watery eyes, bulging filth encrusted sides, and rows of teats which wobbled and brushed against the ground between their ridiculous legs as they heaved themselves about the sty. I liked to watch them sloughing in the trough at feeding time, feet and all, gobbling up their muddy swill in mad competition. Peter came up one evening as I was gazing with suburban enchantment at this display of animal appetites.
“Where were ye born man? Anyone might think ye’d never seen a coupla pigs in your life before, the way ye keep hanging around that sty.”
“Just marvelling at the wonders of Nature. Who’d ever believe that such muck and filth could be turned into the world’s most delicious foods just by being eaten? Bacon, ham, pork – ever read Charles Lamb? ‘I have an immense partiality for roast pig,’ he says -“
“Well ye’d better come and try out your partiality for something else. Dinner’s served.”
“What have we got tonight?”
“Grapes. Two sorts, mind.”
“Oh well; better than polenta. Just think what the folks
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at home would give for one little bunch.”
Conversation at the table always got around to food in the end. I spent nearly an hour one evening reciting the content of a typical English family’s meals. It was a pretty unimaginative middle-class menu, but I gave them the works, from bacon and eggs through roast beef and two veg, high tea with lots of jam and cakes, and ending with a snack of beans on toast at bedtime. It took a long time with my limited vocabulary, and I eventually had to give up trying to translate Yorkshire pudding, but they listened with rapt attention, their eyes growing wider and wider with disbelief and envy.
“There, what did I tell you?” cried the old man when at last I had finished. “In England, everybody is rich!”
Oh no, we said; it’s only the Americans who are rich. We are just ordinary people, like you. But that only made them fall about laughing. ‘In Inghilterra, tutti ricchi’ – they were convinced.
By seven-thirty it was quite dark, and since they had no form of lighting everyone retired to bed. The household was generally up and working again before dawn – it seemed the middle of the night to us – but they politely insisted that we should remain undisturbed until breakfast-time at seven. This meant that we had to spend twelve hours in bed, after a day of very little exercise. It was horrible in the middle.
Meanwhile in the valley everything seemed to be going well. Air activity continued to increase; there were at least three regular morning fighter patrols, and from time to time the noise and shock of bombing could be felt. Most of the family were as cheered by this as we were, except for one little
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boy of about four. Each distant thud would send him running fearfully to his grandmother, his face a mask of terror. She, more imaginative than the rest of them, would tremble in sympathy as she pressed him against her skirts. Once or twice we saw small groups of prisoners making their way seawards, and mentally congratulated Power on the success of his daring scheme. I even felt my bridge playing was improving, too; by Wednesday afternoon Maggie and I were nearly seventeen thousand pounds up on the other two (a pity it never got paid). It all seemed set fair for Sunday.
The next day we had to move again.
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Thursday 21 October 1943
It was my turn to sleep on the outside, next to the window. It was still pitch dark when I awoke and sat bolt upright in the bed, every sense alert. I knew immediately what it was that had disturbed me. I wanted not to believe it, to wish it away, as one does when bad news first strikes the family. It was the soft sound of wheels crunching on the gravel as a motor vehicle, with its engine idling, coasted slowly down the lane outside. That could only mean one thing. I could feel my thought processes working, evenly and methodically. Only padrones and Germans had motor vehicles, and no padrone would be about at this hour…
I was out of bed and into my boots in the very act of shaking the others. Simultaneously the bedroom door was flung open and one of the brothers dashed in with a hoarse cry.
“Tedeschi! Tedeschi! Via, via, subito!”
“Eh? What? Oh, Christ! -“
In seconds we were out. Clothes flew from floor to hand. On trousers, on boots, grab jacket and pack, leave the rest. Which way out? The window? No, too noisy. The yard then, and let’s hope to God they’re only after the pigs. Through the living room, chairs crashing over, down the steps, out the door. All quiet in the yard. Run. A hundred yard dash across
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the first field, then pause thankfully for breath in the shelter of the trees.
A sudden, peculiar snuffling noise in the bushes to our right.
“Io, Signor.” The startled face of the farmer peered out through the foliage, while sundry lurchings and grunts in the undergrowth behind him gave the answer; he’d beaten us to it with the pigs.
“There they are!” Lights shone in the lane a couple of hundred yards away, and we could hear voices shouting.
Magee said, “We’re safe enough here. May as well get properly organised.”
“Me boots!” A cry of panic from Ray. “Me boots! I’ve left my boots behind! I can’t go without those -“
We looked at him with concern, then burst out laughing. Ray had run all the way in his socks, and didn’t notice even now that his boots were hanging by their laces round his neck.
We moved off a little farther and sat down by a small stream to await developments. It was just a quarter past five, and the first signs of dawn were beginning to appear. The sky was a wonderful deep indigo, over vivid red fleecy clouds. They grew lighter and lighter as I watched, turning pink, then orange, then in half an hour they were bright silver. It was cold and fresh, the ground soaking with a heavy dew.
The lights of the vehicles had long since gone. All was quiet, and Peter went back to the farm to collect the
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rest of our things. He was soon back.
“No. They went on down the valley somewheres.”
“How about the folks?”
“They say it’s bin nice knowin’ us, an’ wish us the best o’ luck for the future.”
Maggie said, “Oh well. Can’t say I blame them. Better try your billet then, Geoff, that’s if they’re still willing. Are they – Oh Christ, that’s done it!”
From far down the valley came the sharp crackle of a burst of automatic fire, cutting like a knife through the quiet country air. A moment later there was a second burst, followed by some single shots. Then, the dull boom of a hand grenade. Then silence.
“Marshall!” cried Maggie. “That’s who they were after! It’s been a raid on his HQ. Some blasted swine must have tipped them off. Come on. Up the hill for us.”
It was an hour’s stiff climb to the top of the ridge, but it brought us out only a few yards from the two houses I had visited on Saturday. Somewhat to our surprise both families greeted us quite cheerfully. We had a quick discussion. Peter was restless; he seemed to want to make up for his own inactivity of the last few days.
“We need some proper gen,” he said impatiently. “I’m off tae see what I can find out. Any of ye coming?”
I said I would, and together we set off seawards along the ridge. It was soon evident that the popularity of escaping prisoners had suffered a severe decline. A succession of slammed doors was all we got in response to our knocks. At one house the man
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said there were two hundred Germans searching the woods; they had already been to his place and were bound to catch us if we did not leave the area subito. Disbelieving him we carried on. At the far end we met Nello, still ploughing his tough patch. He pointed out a house across the valley where the Germans were said to be, but could tell us nothing of the shooting.
“Only one thing for it,” Peter said. “We’ll have to bloody well go down oursel’s.”
The sun was now well up and beginning to draw the sweat out of us. Working back some way we found a steep path leading down, and after a long, tiring scramble we came to a small cluster of houses near the foot. Men were standing about, talking. Sour faces turned towards us, then quickly away again.
“Dove i Tedeschi?” I called.
Nobody spoke. I tried again.
“Ufficiali Inglesi. Dove i paracadutisti?”
They just shrank away, sullen; fear and hatred showed in their shifting eyes. It was like having the plague. At last, near the valley bottom, we got a story of a line of captured men being marched off and houses being searched, but still lacking in the details we needed. With this unsatisfactory result we climbed back up the hill and returned to the others. A dish each of cold bean soup was waiting, and I felt pleased that the billet I had found had turned out to be so valuable. After more talk we decided to back out of the area for the night and to try and contact Power tomorrow. It was still uncertain what had happened to
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the SAS men. Even if they had been taken, it was quite likely that Power was still at large. In any case, we felt that the rescue ship would still keep its rendezvous; if all else failed we could try to signal it ourselves.
We set off inland, and after several miles of abominably broken country, helped out by a similar number of halts for vino, we fetched up in the early evening near a medium sized farmhouse, one of a pair. We waited until all the men were out of sight and a friendly looking old lady came outside to collect some washing.
“Buona sera, Mamma,” I called. She looked up.
“Mamma? No; Io Nonna!”
For once I was quick enough on the uptake.
“Scuse. Per Io, siete Mamma.”
With a big smile she waved us into the house. There was no difficulty about getting accepted for the night; it was evidently far enough away from the excitements of the morning for us not to be an embarrassment to them, and we settled down to an evening of pleasant socialising. Halfway through the door opened and a tall figure came in.
“Hi there. Pleased to meet you fellers again. What’s the latest, then?”
It was Kimber, one of the South African officers we had met with Power a few days ago. Of all places, he was sleeping at the house next door. He knew even less than we did, and readily fell in with our proposal to try and seek out Power in the morning. This seemed a good point at which to turn in; it had been a long day, and Sunday still felt a long way off.
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Friday 22 October 1943
The day began well. It was a fine sunny morning, and became even sunnier when Kimber came across with an invitation to take breakfast at his house; fried rabbit and chips – Mrs Beeton couldn’t have done better. According to Kimber, Power had come down to the valley two days ago, and would probably be established somewhere near the river bed from where he could control the movements on Sunday night. Taking it easy, therefore, we made our way back to the area and found a quiet, shady spot by the stream near the head of the valley. Magee and Kimber went on to find Power while the rest of us, nothing loth, sat down to wait.
It was quiet and peaceful. The sun filtered through the leaves and sparkled on the water, insects buzzed around – it might have been a picnic scene, yesterday’s alarms forgotten. Even when we heard footsteps coming through the trees, we just looked round in idle curiosity. First it was three Eighth Army men, still in their khaki drill. Yes, they were keen to try the scheme. Another three. A bad-tempered Irish corporal, heading upstream, explaining fluently why he was going back to his old house in the mountains. An American air gunner, shot down over Sicily. He seemed to look on this interlude in his wartime service as a free holiday. “Say, jevver get the chaince to visit my home town, any of you guys?” It might have been Fisher T. Fish speaking. He was quite surprised to learn that none of us had ever been to Milwaukee. Sure, he’d wait to see what turned up. If it was off, he’d stick around in the country; he always got on well with Eyetalians.
Another half hour. Footsteps again, coming upstream. Not
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Maggie, but none other than CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Marshall himself, with one of his men.
“Morning, sirs. Glad to see ye all again. Have ye met Captain Power yet?”
“What happened? What was that shooting? We thought you were dead – captured – hiding -“
It was some time before the chorus of greetings and questions died down and he was able to answer.
“Not that I can tell ye that much about it even now, sirs. I’d been out on an early patrol with Cook here, and we were coming back by way o’ the river, as usual like. I was in front. I was just going to round a bend when we run slap into a young Jerry comin’ th’ other way. I dunno which was the more surprised. He had a pistol in each hand, an’ I had my Tommy gun, but it wasna cocked. He just stood there, wi’ his mouth open. I reached across with my left hand, cocked my gun, and shot him. Just like that. He never did a thing. Next minute I heard shouting behind him, and we ran for it. One of ’em chucked a potato masher [grenade] but it went off in the branches above my head, and by the time they could let off with their automatics we were away.”
“Just like that? You’ll never believe the panic that’s gone on around here. What about your house?”
“Aye, they found that all right, and my other man with it. None of the locals, though. They were clean out of it long before!”
“Then the plan’s still on?”
“So far as we know, sir, they’re not on to that yet, and until they are, it’s certainly on. Ye’ll get all the details when – och, here’s the other officer now.”
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It was Maggie, returning alone, Kimber having remained behind with Power. They had found him without much difficulty, in a small hut about half a mile downstream. Maggie had little to tell us beyond the original plan, save that Power had now abandoned any idea of an organised move down to the beach. Nearly two hundred ex-prisoners were in the area, and during the next two days the word would go round to be on the beach by midnight on Sunday. The signal was to be one long flash and two short. After that, it would be up to the Navy. As to them, we had the implicit confidence born of blind ignorance; pinpointing an unmarked spot on the featureless Adriatic coast in the middle of a black night would be no problem at all for the Navy.
Somehow we managed to pass away the rest of the day. A friendly farmer on the hill slopes gave us a bread and cheese lunch. We wandered about slowly during the afternoon, passed on the instructions to several other groups of prisoners, and finally made our way back to the two farms of last night. All seemed well. After a certain amount of liaison with next door it was arranged that Peter and I should sleep at the first house and Maggie and Ray at the other. Two neighbours dropped in for a chat after supper. Somebody produced a concertina, the singing began, and soon a rip-roaring party was in progress in the very best style, the men all shouting and stomping like Hollywood Indians at a war dance. But gradually the atmosphere began to change. The farmer took to getting up and looking out of the window. His wife came over and tapped her nose at us. Word went round that the padrone might be coming, and then there would be trouble. The singing died down. The neighbours got up and slunk away. Now the man and his wife got at us from both sides, with urgent warnings to sleep lightly,
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to be awake by three a.m. at the latest, to be ready to jump through the window if need be, all repeated at great length ad infinitum. We got to our straw beds eventually, in the middle of a first-class flap.
Saturday 23 October 1943
In the morning the flap was still on. Even before daylight noises were being made outside our window to demonstrate that it was time to be moving. The farmer’s wife came in to cart away the straw while Peter and I were still in the act of pulling on our trousers, leaving us both gravely offended. Then, while we washed at the water butt, the verbal tap was turned on again. Now that the night was over, their tone was apologetic, but still firm. There was a known Fascisto living nearby, the padrone would be on his way, a house-to-house search was rumoured. As to food, we were welcome, but – Mangiare, si; dormire, no. Did we understand, please? We did, and left.
Another day to waste, the longest day of all. Would Sunday night never come?
The four of us sat with our backs to a clump of gorse, looking down into the Cupra valley. The sun beamed down as if it had never heard of any other kind of weather.
Ray said, “Christ, I’m fed up. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so cheesed off. All this buggering about, here one day, there the next, hounded about like a lot of criminals. A bloody tramp can at least please himself where he goes, but we can’t. For two pins I’d pack up the whole show now and start walking again. I
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wouldn’t even care if we didn’t get across; anything’s better than this damned hanging around.”
“Well ye can count me out o’ that for one,” Peter said, ever ready to snap up the bait. “I’ll walk if I have to, but I see no sense in moving just for the sake of it. I don’t mind sittin’. It suits me fine just now.” With his hands he lifted his bad leg over the other.
Ray sneered. “Huh. Your bloody knee again. I can see us having to carry you down to the beach yet.”
Peter’s round eyes began to bulge. “No ye won’t, thank ye! If that’s the way you feel ye can go now, an’ be damned to the lot o’ ye! I’ll go ma own effing way, and be glad to.”
“Oh, give it a rest, you two,” I said. “Tell ’em to stop, Maggie.”
Maggie said, “Eh? Oh. Sorry, I wasn’t listening. I was wondering how long it is since they last had any mail at home.”
Ray said, “It’s the inaction, that’s all. Too much time to worry in, and nothing you can do about it. Must be months, I suppose. Three months, at least. They won’t even know if we’re out. Who’d be a woman, eh? Not me.”
I said, “Some of these Italian women must be sick of it all. They’ve had sons or husbands missing for years, in some cases. And what’s the use of being allowed two postcards a week, if you can’t write and your folks can’t read?”
“Serve ’em right,” Peter said. “They’re a windy lot of bastards at the best of it.”
“That’s not fair.” Now it was my turn to get angry.
“They started it, didn’t they? They came in with Hitler when he looked like winning, and now the war’s turned the other
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bloody way they want to be on our side. They asked for trouble and they’ve got it. I’m not sorry for ’em.”
“Rot,” I said. “And don’t be so damned ungrateful. Look at old Papa Niccolino and all the others who’ve taken us in. Are you trying to say that they started the war? A kid of ten could argue you out of that one. Most of these people are little more than children as it is. What influence have they ever had in what their Government’s done, or even in what Government they’ve had? Anyone can get into power in a country where nine-tenths of the population is compelled by law to live in poverty and ignorance, and when he’s prepared to do a bit of wholesale killing to get his way.”
“Ach! Sentimental twaddle!” Peter almost spat out the words in his contempt. “They’ve no stomach for a fight, an’ you know it.”
“Well, it’s a damn good job for us they haven’t, if that’s true. We’d never have been sitting here if this had been Germany, or if the Italians had stuck it out. What d’you suppose would have happened if that Jerry patrol had caught us, down on the farm? A rough trip back to Germany, maybe, with a nice, safe prison camp at the end of it, for us. But what about the old man and his family?”
“Well, what about ’em?”
“Up against the wall for the menfolk, and as like as not the farm burned down with the women inside it.”
“Aye, I guess ye’re right. Bastards! They don’t leave anything to chance.”
“‘Strict application of the law in the interests of efficient administration’ – that’s what they’d call it. And put up a good case for it, too.”
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“Maybe. But there’s no need to bring women and kids into it like that. War’s a man’s business.”
“Fighting’s a man’s business, you mean. Not war; you can’t leave anyone out of that nowadays. And even the fighting’s limited. Half the soldiers in the army never see a shot fired in anger, and most of the other half do it by remote control. Meanwhile we go over and bomb their folks back at home. Starve ’em out or frighten ’em out, that’s the cry.”
Ray chimed in. “Trust a scientific type to look at it that way. Always inventing better means of blowing us all up. I can’t understand why men who’ve got the intelligence to think up something like radar haven’t the sense to see that their discoveries are put to good use, instead of destruction. Either that or hush them up altogether.”
Far out over the sea a patrol of Hurricanes was winging its way northward, their wings flashing silver in the sun.
“Look at the aeroplane.” Ray was warming up. “You can’t deny that the discovery of flight has brought more harm than good to mankind in general?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “But you must be realistic if you’re going to argue at all. Science isn’t a closed book, you know. What one man can do, so can another. Scientific progress is bound to go on; it’s part of human nature. A real scientist isn’t an inventor of bombs. Science is just knowledge. Finding out something which hasn’t been known before is what makes it exciting; especially finding it out before the next fellow does.”
“What’s the answer, then?”
“A bit of Christian thought.”
“Eh?” We all looked round at Magee.
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“A bit of Christian thought,” he said again. “If we all thought just a little bit more about Christian principles, and a little bit less about ourselves, there’d be a mighty sight less trouble in the world today.”
The rest of us were taken aback at this sudden turn in an already roundabout conversation. Religion was something that chaps didn’t discuss. It wasn’t a subject a fellow could get his teeth into, like cars, or football, or women. Religion was – well, it was embarrassing.
“Bah!” Peter said.
“The Church’s behind the times,” I said.
Ray said, “Here beginneth the sermon. Oh, my; my text today -“
Magee said, “It wouldn’t be the first if I did give one, at that.”
“What?” Incredulous looks. “You mean to say you’ve actually preached! In a church?”
“I did once,” Magee said cheerfully. “You know my old man’s a parson. A bishop, actually. Free Church. One Sunday he was short-handed, and asked me if I’d like to take the pulpit at his own church while he looked after the next parish. I thought he was joking at first, but he wasn’t, so I did. Went down pretty well, too, by all accounts.”
“Jesus!” I said. “I’d run a mile if anyone asked me. What did you preach on?”
“Can’t remember now. But seriously, don’t you ever think that that’s what’s lacking nowadays? I don’t mean just going to church – most of us only do that when we’re in trouble, and then it’s too late anyway – but if only there was a little more of the
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spirit of it in our daily lives. If – well, if we just thought about God a bit more often, I suppose.”
We were stumped by this for a few moments.
I said, “Um. I suppose it is a comfort of sorts to be able to blame it on God when the world gets itself into a mess like this. ‘Up to you now, Chum, sort of thing’. But a fellow’s got to be responsible for his own actions. That’s the only real comfort in the end, when things go wrong.”
“I didn’t mean that -“
“Hallo,” Peter interrupted. “Congregation’s increasing.”
Fortunately for all concerned, we were rescued from the philosophical deep waters into which Magee had dropped us by the arrival of a stranger. A short, stocky man, dressed in a light blue shirt, black trousers, army boots and a tam o’ shanter, was making his way along the ridge towards us. He carried a long staff in his right hand and a sack over his left shoulder. As he got nearer we could see from his grizzled, weather-beaten cheeks that he was no mere youth like ourselves. Nearer forty than thirty, in fact; one foot in the grave, practically.
“Morning, gentlemen,” with a cheerful grin.
“Heard you were hereabouts, sirs. Staff-Sergeant Rogerson, the Black Watch.” He lowered his sack and joined us on the grass. “And that’s ma proper rank, too. Ah’m no self-made CSM [Company Sergeant Major] like some o’ the young lads I’ve seen wandering around here.”
We nodded approvingly. These self-promoted types were far too common.
“Have you come far, Staff?” Maggie asked.
“Aye, a fair way, sir. From Bologna, near enough.”
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“You must have found these hills pretty tough.”
“Och, no sir.” His blue eyes twinkled. “Ah don’t care much for this mountaineering, so I did it the easy way, along the main road.”
“What, all the way? Didn’t you meet any Germans?”
“Well, I missed out the big towns, of course, sir, as far as I could. But they didna take much notice o’ me wherever I went. I had one wee bit of a scare. Just after Ancona, it was. There was this Jerry soldier comin’ down the road towards me. Ah could see he was looking at me kinda suspicious, like, and I’d have to do something pretty quick to turn him off. Then I had an idea. There was a bank of grass by the roadside, so I opened up ma sack, took out ma clasp-knife, and started cuttin’ the grass and stuffin’ it in the sack. When I turned ma head again he’d gone!”
Staff Rogerson was clearly a man whose company was to be encouraged. We spent an amusing hour recounting some of the lengths to which we had gone to avoid even being in the same parish as the enemy, but as the morning got well advanced he rose to go.
“You know about the scheme, Staff?” Magee asked.
“Aye sir. I think I’ve got the details all right.”
“Care to stick around with us till tomorrow? You’d be welcome.”
“Thank ye sir, no.” He picked up his stick. “It’s good of ye to invite me, an’ I’m sensible of it; but I’ve kept ma own company so far, an’ I think it’s best to stay that way. So if ye don’t mind, sirs, I think I’ll be pushin’ along.”
“See you on the beach at midnight, then. Mind you make it.”
“I’ll make it, sir. See ye there.”
He plodded off down the slope, sack slung over his back again, stick firmly clutched in his hand; upright, unperturbed.
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Salt of the earth, as they say; no philosophical problems for Andy Rogerson.
Once again we wandered slowly off in the afternoon sun to find a home for the night. Down in the next valley we were accosted by a cheerful young man who could not bear to let us pass unchallenged. We must come to his house, he said. When we got there we found it had a set of roof beams and four corner posts to hold them up, but very little else. He and his friends were building it themselves. They had no plan, no drawings, no table of quantities, but they seemed to be getting on well enough. Wine flowed, bread and meat followed, the time passed very agreeably. Evidently, though, we could not sleep there. However, said the cheerful one, if we would follow that path zigzagging up the valley side, it would lead us to an excellent farm belonging to his uncle, where all would be well. Bemused with vino and good fellowship, we set off as if we had never had the experience before. When, over an hour later, exhausted and bathed in sweat, we came out on top of the ridge, there was of course no farm of any kind to be seen. But our luck held. While we were sitting recovering an old man came along with a horse and cart. He, too, wanted to know all there was to know. When he set off again we simply fell in astern, followed him to his house, told the story all over again to his family, and so eased ourselves in for the night.
The old man had two sons living with him; one was too young for the army, the other had deserted from his Regiment at Foggia. A third was still serving somewhere in Greece. A fourth was a prisoner in India, having been taken at the first capture of Tobruk. Their neighbour also had a son who had been captured
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but this one was in Australia. The old man wished that his son had been sent to Australia too. Not only might he have been nearer his friend, he would have been much nearer to his home as well; everybody knew that Australia was not nearly as far away as India.
Supper was a kind of bubble and squeak (mainly squeak) made from potatoes and cabbage. As usual it was almost cold, but we ate it gratefully. If all went well, this would be our last night in a cowshed.
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15. DER TAG
Sunday 24 October 1943
“Nearly seven,” said Maggie, looking at his watch. “Time for one more game to finish the rubber, then we should be on the move. Your deal.”
“Might as well pack up the cards now, for all the interest I’ve been taking this last hour,” Ray said. “Who’s been keeping the score?”
“OK. Somebody nip down to the house and see if they’re organised for supper, then, while I pack up these things.”
Sunday. Der Tag at last. A good day for an operation; one often felt, during the war, that the leaders on either side singled out Sunday when they had some special form of danger or unpleasantness in mind. In the army it was always the day chosen for the start of an exercise, or a move to new billets, or for painting the vehicles in preparation for the General’s inspection. The war was even declared on a Sunday.
We had spent the whole day back among the gorse above the Cupra valley, intermittently playing bridge and lazing in the sunshine. It might almost have been a summer Sunday back home. This was the first comparatively uncultivated patch of Italian landscape we had encountered in three hundred miles of walking. The sides of the valley were dotted with
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yellow gorse and small dark-coloured bushes resembling heather, and there were quite long stretches of grass along the ridges. It was comforting to be able to look out over green turf which had an English quality about it, instead of the everlasting brown earth and scraggy fig trees of the Marche hills. But now, as the shadows lengthened, it was time for what we hoped would be the final stage of the adventure to get under way.
It had been arranged that we should call for a last meal at the two houses where we had met Kimber, and from where we had been turned out the previous morning. Ray and Peter had made the dispositions themselves with “Mamma” at the larger farm, Maggie and myself at the other. We accepted, though not without our suspicions of a fiddle. The sky over the mountains was a pale watery grey when we arrived; in front, over the sea, it was already shaded to a dark blue. The little house below the bank looked in shadow, and it was dark inside. The woman was there alone. She started, gave us a nervous little smile, and pointed to the table. It was laid with two plates and two spoons. Pasta – better than we had expected. Probably their own, I thought, given up for us.
The plates, and the food, were stone cold. It tasted like wet clay. “Eat it,” said Maggie briefly. “It’ll please her.” The woman watched us silently from the shadows, twisting her hands together all the time. She knew it was our last meal. Cold pasta was her special treat, the very limit of her larder. She knew there was something special on tonight; the whole valley did. She knew that in a very short while, come what may, we should go out of their lives as quickly and suddenly as we had come, never to return. She felt, far more than we
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did, the danger ahead. She saw us neither as enemies nor as friends, but as ordinary people who had done no particular wrong but who were about to be plunged into some perilous situation which all of us might not survive. She felt sorry and frightened for us, and so she had given us cold pasta for supper.
“Got any money left?”
I counted up the shoddy, crumpled notes. Two hundred lire, worth about ten shillings.
“Give it to her.”
The woman’s eyes brimmed. She had never seen so much wealth before. “No, no!” she cried, and tried to push it away. We left her trembling and weeping, with the fortune clutched tight in her hand.
Seven forty-five. There were hours to spare before we needed to be on the beach, but we had determined to get there early and not linger about. We strolled across to find Peter and Ray waiting, and both families came out to see us off. Saturday’s panic was forgotten now. Handshakes and backslappings all round, tears from the women, and we were off.
“Auguri! Auguri! Arrivederci!” they bellowed, regardless of the way their voices carried in the quiet evening air. As Ray said, if Jerry didn’t know before that something was on, he certainly did now.
The moon was not due to rise until the early hours, but there was enough light to make walking comfortable. The temperature was just right, the air refreshingly cool, and after the long day’s inactivity the prospect of an evening walk was distinctly attractive. There was no sign of life round about; men and animals lived and worked by the sun, and now
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their day was done. We were alone on the hill.
We walked easily along the level path that Peter and I had followed that anxious morning four days ago. Four days? It might have been an age. A mile passed by, and the ridge was now broadening out. A shadowy building loomed up on the left, and a dog began barking wildly.
“Shut up, you effing brute!” called Peter, in an urgent whisper.
“Leave it,” Maggie said.
Another farm, and more dogs. Now there were three of them at it, going mad with one another. But no men came out to investigate; they thought better of it, knowing what was afoot.
Quiet again, as the dogs were left astern. Still walking easily, we came to the top of the track leading down to Nello’s. We stopped for a moment. Down there in the darkness, were they thinking of us at this time, the old man, the young wife with her baby? It seemed inconceivable that the word had not reached the wrong ears as well. Was there even now a patrol waiting at the valley mouth, to trap us like fish in a net? Two machine guns, set a couple of hundred yards apart, say, on the main road, was all they would need.
On again along the top. Soon the path bore to the left and began to descend. It was steep, and we had to scramble with care. We got among houses, and started to argue which route to take. I was for carrying straight on down, but the others favoured sticking to the hillside, for fear of patrols in the lanes. We did so, branching off the path so as to descend
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more gradually, and for a time made slower progress on the awkward slope.
It was now just possible to distinguish the coast road as a faint streak ahead and below us. There was a sound of traffic approaching, and we stopped to watch a column of trucks go by, heading south. They drove carelessly, lights full on and soldiers singing in the back, just as they had the other evening. We waited till the sounds had died away on our right, then moved on again cautiously. I could smell the sea now, and a cool breeze blew past our ears. We descended steadily, the hillside seeming more open, and then quite suddenly the ground flattened out and we found ourselves on the lane.
Still everything was quiet, but we knew the sticky part was just beginning. Every step now was a step farther away from safety; with every step our chances of retreat grew less. Up there on the ridge there had been room to move, but here I felt hemmed in by the vine trees and hedges. The noise of our boots on the gravel was horribly loud.
We marched along in single file, crouching ludicrously and keeping to the shadows. The lane twisted this way and that, each corner heralding some new peril but revealing none, as we took turn about in the lead. Gradually the mass of the hill receded away to the right, and we knew we were out on to the coastal strip. The lane bore round following the base of the hill. We branched off it into an open field, heading straight now for the sea. It should be possible to see the road soon, the famed Strada Adriatica – there it was, straight in front beyond the next field. A couple of hundred yards to the north must be the Menocchio bridge, on which we knew there was a sentry, but it was out of sight in the darkness.
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Involuntarily, our pace increased. We reached the road and crossed it as easily as if it had been the local street at home. Another field, and we were at the railway. An eight-foot fence with a single strand of barbed wire along the top; but the fence was strong and easily climbable – even Peter got over it without a struggle. A third field, a thin hedge at the far side. We pushed through, and there, ten yards away across a band of shingle, was the Adriatic.
It was so easy that we could hardly believe it; an anti-climax, almost. The water lapped gently against the narrow beach. I wanted to pick up little pebbles and play ducks and drakes. Magee’s voice broke the silence.
“Ten-thirty. Bags of time to wait. Let’s take a look down the beach and see if we can find anybody else.”
We walked south for several hundred yards without seeing a soul, returned, and sat down in the shadow of the hedge to await developments. But I couldn’t keep still. I got up and made a little reconnaissance of my own up to the river mouth, but I soon gave it up after putting my foot in a bog and hastily returned for fear of waking up the sentry. I found that two more prisoners had joined us.
Half an hour passed; still quiet as the grave. It was cold and damp sitting doing nothing, with only our threadbare shirts to keep out the night air, and as the minutes ticked by and the suspense increased, so our spirits drooped in proportion. Another half hour dragged by, and I felt I must make a move if only to get warm. I turned to Ray to propose another little patrol, and the words died right on my tongue as the night was shattered by a savage burst of automatic fire, sounding right behind our heads.
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At once every dog in the kingdom opened up with all its might. TAKATAKATAKATAKATAK! RRROWOWOWOWOWOWOW! The first burst of shooting was answered by another and more prolonged one, with rifle shots joining in, the whole furious crescendo echoing back from the hills and redoubling itself until it seemed the sky was about to crack.
“Oh my God!” groaned Ray. “We’ve had it!”
For a full fifteen minutes the shooting and the animal obbligato went on, while we sat quaking behind the hedge, not daring even to stand up and look over the top to see what was going on. Then gradually it died down, leaving the dogs alone in their chorus except for a few stray rifle shots. We waited, expecting any minute to hear the noise of the inevitable mopping-up patrol coming to clean up the beach. There they are! That must be them, we’ve had it now! Some bodies came crashing through the hedge down to our right. But no. A voice said,
“Come on, you stupid effers! What the effing ‘ell d’ye think you’re doin’?”
Never did military language sound so sweet. It was two of Marshall’s men with four more ex-prisoners. We all tried to speak at once.
“For God’s sake, what the hell was all that shooting?”
But they could say nothing. The firing had broken out behind them after they had crossed the road, and they had lain low in a ditch until it was over. They knew no more than we did.
It was now past midnight, and the few isolated shots which still rang out sounded farther back up the valley. We settled down to wait again. I thought of Nello and the others, who by now must surely be convinced that we were all dead. Then, still restless, Ray and I set off for another turn along the beach. We had gone
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about a hundred yards when two shadowy forms heaved themselves upright from the ground in front of us, hands in the air.
“Kamerad, mate!” one said urgently. “Kamerad! Don’t shoot!”
“Kamerad yourself, mate,” Ray said. He was as relieved as the other. “Up that way. You’ll find some chums there.”
On the way back we walked into another small group of prisoners and SAS men, just starting to search the beach like ourselves.
“Where’s the officer?”
Nobody knew. While we were still talking another figure loomed out of the darkness, swearing fluently in broad Scots. It was CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Marshall himself. Suddenly we all felt cheered.
“Come on wi’ the lot o’ ye. This way.”
He led us back to where an officer in battledress was bending over a piece of apparatus.
“No. My name’s Timothy.” The Civitanova man. “I’m just going to start signalling, if I can only get this effing lamp to work. The boat’s due any minute now.”
I collected Maggie and Peter, and we settled in a group with the other prisoners, a little way apart from Timothy and the SAS men. Total, five officers and fifteen soldiers; and Marshall had said they expected a couple of hundred. No Power, no South Africans, no Rogerson, not even the air gunner from Milwaukee. Scared off by the shooting, presumably, all of them. Was it a deliberate ambush, set by an informer, or just a chance German patrol which had opened fire on some dimly seen moving figures? We should never know. All we could hope was that nobody had been shot, and thank our own stars for our determination to get down
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to the beach early.
Twelve-thirty, and they were signalling steadily now. Long, short-short; long, short-short. The wretched lamp lit up the surface of the sea like a searchlight, but they went boldly on; long, short-short; long, short-short. Dead silence now all over the land behind us; only the rustle of leaves in the hedge and the occasional scrape of a boot on the shingle betrayed the presence of the silent, shivering watchers on the beach. Except for that confounded lamp. Surely they could have had some kind of mask for it? It must be visible to anything travelling on the road. One, one-two; one, one-two – on it went regardless. Trust the army to think up that as a signal pattern. The sea heaved gently, Neptune breathing in his sleep.
One o’clock, one-thirty. Still not a sign of anything. Then Crack! went the bridge sentry’s rifle, followed by a diminishing howl as a speeding dog disappeared into the distance. Off went the whole menagerie again, making me wonder if Italian dogs were so noisy because their owners were always shouting, or whether it was the other way round. I thought of all the quaking forms inside their bedclothes woken up for the second time, and of the anxious whisperings which would follow. “Poveri ragazzi! Poveri ragazzi!” There’d not be much work done in the morning!
The row died down. Still the lamp went on with its one, one-two. Two o’clock came, and we had been on the beach for nearly four hours. If the ship didn’t come soon the moon would be up and it would be too late. What if it didn’t come at all? What the hell would we do then? Take to the road like Rogerson, cutting grass to allay suspicion? We strained and strained with watery eyes, striving to penetrate the blackness in front. Two
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ten, two-fifteen –
“Listen!” A hoarse whisper.
“What?” A louder one.
“Shut up! I thought I heard something. Out there. Ssh! No, farther down. Like an engine. Listen! It is, you know -“
Very faintly came a little throbbing sound out of the darkness to our right. Slowly it became more distinct as the sound moved across our front. Part of the blackness appeared to become more solid, then two parts, then they merged into one again; the shape of a low, narrow vessel, about a quarter-mile offshore. The throbbing stopped.
A huge collective sigh went up from the assembled watchers. Then things began to happen quite quickly. There was the sound of a soft splash, and soon we made out the shape of a small rubber dinghy paddling towards the shore. It landed. A remarkably young-looking officer wearing Lieutenant-colonel’s badges stepped out and was saluted by Timothy. A low consultation ensued, a signal was made, more dinghies put off, and then we saw that the ship itself had turned and was coming in. As the last dinghy beached the bows of the LCI [Landing Craft Infantry] grounded gently on the shingle.
A remarkable miscellany of officers stepped ashore. There was a Naval officer in khaki drill with blue shoulder badges, and an Army officer in a white Naval shirt with cloth badges round his wrists. There was a Royal Marine Commando, and an ordinary Commando. There was an officer with parachute wings above his breast pocket, and another with a different set of wings on his arm. There was at least one with the red tabs of
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a full Colonel or above. For one delirious moment I thought the ship was manned entirely by officers, till I realised that such a crew would never have made it.
A voice called cheerfully, “Any more for the Skylark? All the way round the lighthouse, only half a crown.”
We lined up for our own little private Dunkirk, the officers last. Already the tension was slipping away. We’d made it! Any moment now, and we would take our last step on the enemy shore and be safe in the bosom of the Royal Navy. I felt a little light-headed. The scenes of the last few weeks came crowding into my mind, like they say a drowning man’s past life does: sunshine on the Emilian Plain, the afternoon siesta under a vine tree, the ranks of poplars marching over the horizon; the taste of huge black grapes, of sweet tomatoes stolen from a back garden, of garlic salads; the sound of the old cries – “Dove andate?”, “Da dove venute?”, “Vino, vino!”, “No, gratsey, nyenty per Io. Solio aqua, s’il vous plait.”, “Auguri! Auguri!”… Well, the episode’s over. Goodbye to you all, and especially you marvellous Italian Mammas; I wish I could thank each one of you properly. It’s back to the Army now, men. Back to the world of grim reality, of battledress, and Bedford three-tonners, and being there five minutes before time; of vast empty dining halls smelling of damp and HP Sauce, of cold bacon and beans out of a mess tin in the chilly light of dawn… Best get on with it, then. Burma, here we come.
I turned to find I was the last man on the beach. The
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young-looking Colonel was just getting into his dinghy, and seemed to notice me for the first time. He stopped and held out his hand.
“Oh, er, gratsio senyor,” he said. “Thanks very much for helping out our boys. Muchas gracias. Noo somm most grateful. Er, commong vooz appellay voo?”
“Why, thank you, Colonel,” I said, getting in after him. “That’s quite made my trip. You’re the first man in this country who’s actually mistaken me for an Italian!”