Frederick Telford journeyed to the Mareth line via Brazil, Durban and Syria. He was captured almost immediately during combat and was eventually to Livorno (Italy) to Laterina Camp 82. He describes prison life and the forced labour he has to do on Italian farms. After the Armistice on 9th Sept 1943 he escapes to the countryside before German replacements arrive at the prison.
He then keeps a diary describing how several Italian families (who he did forced labour for under Italian Fascist Orders) gave him shelter, food and work on their farms at great risk to themselves. His situation became more desperate when a neighbour is shot for harbouring escaped prisoners. During this period he spend most of his time going “walk about” in the woods but the Italian families still provide him with food & drink. Finally he describes his observations of the Allied advance and after being liberated he was able to visit his brother, James Telford, who was also serving nearby in his unit. He was finally given orders to travel to Naples for a journey by ship back home to England.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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The Diary of Guardsman FREDERICK TELFORD.
As it was, initially, written almost every day as though talking to his wife & 2 kids, on the phone it is very vivid and evocative and very honest. At the same time it is obvious to see his sense of ridiculous and his ability to laugh at himself. He quickly picks up the language, he fitted in ‘and he ‘mucked in’. He makes the best of the worst circumstance. Not surprisingly the Italians had a great affection for him.
Took most probably the longest journey to the front line and the quickest capture once there.
10 weeks journey on S.S. [Steam Ship] Arawa via Brazil, Durban, Afen and up to Syria and back by truck to the Mareth Line. All is quiet and peaceful as they go forward from the front line at night when suddenly everything opens up and many are dead but a sergeant leads them on until suddenly it starts again and F.T. [Frederick Telford] finds himself with two others, unharmed and ten wounded – all POWs [Prisoners of War]. Back to Sfax and Tunis imprisoned in an old factory with concrete floor. Put on ship to Livorno and then to Camp 82 at Laterina. F. T. [Frederick Telford] appreciates the scenery. Twice when POWs are missing they are found, having hung themselves.
F.T. agrees to go to work on a farm, though he had never done the work before. Farm manager drives them hard and as they never believe his idea of time he buys an alarm clock – which is soon broken as POWs [Prisoners of War] put it forward and the Manager puts it back. They work for a time on another farm where the family appreciate F.T. as much as he appreciates them – little knowing how important it would be for the future.
At the Armistice on 8th September the Manager agrees they can stay on and work – until he sees the notice about being shot for helping POWs. He tells them to go.
When a party of POWs agree to go south the family tell F.T. to sneak back and stay with them. He does so but with Sienna and its airfield 5 miles away it is already dangerous country. He works with and lives with the family and soon, with his rapidly gained knowledge of Italian can pass himself off as an Italian.
When a neighbour is shot and all food and livestock taken because he was hiding POWs F.T. makes himself a hideout dug into the ground in woods nearby. Unable to work with the family he<br>goes ‘walk about’ during the day but nobody, outside ‘his’ family know where he sleeps. ‘Mamma’ is worried for him and gets him cigarettes though he is not a great smoker. Of ‘Mamma’s family one son wounded in Greece, one wounded in Russia and one captured in Sicily.
Though he often spends the evening with ‘his’ family or other friends he goes back to the woods at night returning there sometimes with an umbrella and a tin of hot cinders to warm it up. With the extreme cold and rain he does sometimes sleep in the cowshed or domed family oven – used once every four weeks for cooking the bread. A girl of about 8 often has to control the huge oxen but usually looks after the sheep. F.T. teaches one of the older girls to write – in Italian. By mid November F.T. is expressing – to his diary – despair. The extremely bad weather of winter 1943/1944 makes it impossible for him to live as he was so he goes ‘walk about’ – never far way but finds other families to put him up. He stays for a night or two by a family of 2 sons with a total of 14 and another 6 away at the war. Another neighbour recognises him and takes him in for a day or two. He returns a few times to his main family and tells often to the Shepherdess of 8 the story of Cinderella. Just after Christmas a film is obtained and photos taken.
Sienna Station is bombed several times. As a hermit in the woods Italians compete to feed him. One of the family is told by a Fascist on duty 500 yards away that he would murder any Englishman he met – wisely she agreed. Six young men who had not reported for duty are shot.
May 1st. He finishes his diary and leaves it with his family.
He goes off again – further afield but returns, though the Germans are now everywhere and there is an ammunition dump near. Four lorries blow up and shatter the house. They build a huge dug out for the family where they go until the obviously retreating German turn them out and takeover. The G.s [Germans] take food and horses.
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With the Germans visiting all the houses for food etc. and everywhere in the countryside it is very difficult for F.T. [Frederick Telford] to know which way to go. Once surprised in the house he rushes upstairs and hides under the beds where two of the women are sleeping whom, when the Germans come they leave as fortunately they could not understand one child asking why ‘Zio Alfredo’ is under the bed. Other times the Germans miss seeing him behind a bush and once when shells were falling the Italian friend beside him is hit, villages are raided and burnt as the Germans retreat through them.
Finally it gets quieter and the Allies arrive – which means the Germans shell them.
But the Allies are Free French who including Arabs don’t speak Italian and mostly not French. With an Italian pointing at F.T. [Frederick Telford] he is nearly shot by an Arab thinking that he is a German in disguise. F.T. hears that his own unit with his brother as Sgt. Major is quite near. The Italian lend him ‘best’ clothes and a bicycle. His brother and other friends think they have seen a ghost. At one stage a General gifts him a lift and then tells his driver to take him wherever he wants. His brother is given 3 days leave to spend with him in Perugia. When he gets back to his unit F.T is given the necessary chit to ‘make his way’ to Naples and board a ship for home.
Not surprisingly F.T. returned many times and at 84 was going again to his families.
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Frederick Telford was born in South Shields, County Durham, in 1914, and travelled to Thame, Oxfordshire in the thirties looking for work. He married his first wife, Nancy, in 1938, and was conscripted in May 1940.
He joined the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, becoming Guardsman 2661647 Telford, and spent some of his time guarding Buckingham Palace and Chequers. His first daughter was born in July 1940, and his second daughter was born while he was on board ship en route for North Africa in December 1942. He fought and was captured in the battle of Mareth, on March 17th, 1943.
In April, 1943 he was transported to Livorno, Italy, and imprisoned in Camp Laterina, Camp 82. After three months he was moved to a working camp based at an old brickworks at Arbia, and from there he went out each day to work on local farms.
When the Italians handed the camp over to the Germans he, and most of the camp inmates, escaped into the countryside. Two of the local farming families offered to hide him, perhaps because he had learnt enough Italian from them to communicate with them. The heads of the two families were Guido Mancianti and Juillio Angelini.
Risking their lives, these two families hid him from the Germans and the fascists until the Allies reached Asciano in June 1944. After making contact with the relevant authorities he managed to find his brother, Sergeant Major James Telford, who was at a rest camp behind the front lines.
Guardsman Telford returned to England, sailing from Naples on the Empress of Scotland, and landed at Liverpool in August 1944.
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We left Bristol on November 1st 1942, on the S.S. [Steam Ship] ARAWA, after a great struggle to get on board with all our gear, kit bag, rifle etc. There were about 100 Coldstreams including officers, and we found ourselves billeted right down in the bowels of the ship, with several flights of temporary wooden stairs as the only way out. There were about thirty hammocks between us for sleeping, so most of us had to sleep on the floor or the wooden mess tables and forms. I slept mostly on one of the tables, and it wasn’t very comfortable with the continuous up and down movement of the ship. We were very fortunate in our ten weeks on board the ARAWA that we did not encounter any real storms, but it was a bit rough a few times.
The second day on board they decided we must do P.T. [Physical Training] to keep us fit, but after the first attempt on a moving deck we all collapsed in hysterical laughter and P.T. [Physical Training] was abandoned, and our only daily exercise was running round and round the length of the ship and up and down the ladders. The great problem on board ship was the heat below decks and the boredom. There were men from many Regiments including Scots, Irish and Grenadier Guards, and the rivalry in the boxing matches was intense, and there were quite a few incidents and ugly scenes; the ship lock-up was always full of prisoners.
We had lectures, quizzes and concerts and sing-songs, and sometimes when the weather was good and we were all lying about on deck and some Welshmen were singing it was quite enjoyable, but the heat below decks and the poor food made life difficult.
We wondered where we were heading, and were astounded to hear we were going to South America, to a port called BAHIA, and it would take weeks to get there. We finally arrived, but to our great dismay we weren’t allowed ashore, and could only watch from the decks as we took on board stores and fuel. Then the convoy set sail again, and it was next stop South Africa.
The weeks passed by and we eventually arrived in DURBAN, where to our great relief we were allowed onshore, and we had a few lovely days. There were marvellous beaches and many bars and restaurants, but thousands of soldiers of all nationalities. We were made very welcome by the people, but we had our first taste of apartheid when some of us got on a bus which was half empty and the conductor wouldn’t allow some black women on because the allocation of four seats for blacks was already taken. When we protested he said it wasn’t our business and we didn’t understand the situation.
You can imagine the behaviour of some of the lads, with plenty of drink and women available, and the Military Police were very busy with drunks and fights, but after a few nice days we were packed on board the old ARAWA and off again; next stop Aden.
Christmas day arrived and we had Christmas dinner of sorts, with plenty of tonic water and lemonade, and a nostalgic sing-song and concert.
When we arrived in Aden after another long trip we were allowed ashore for two hours for a look round and to stretch our legs, then back on board for the voyage up the Red Sea where all we could see was barren land and bare rocky mountains.
New Year’s Eve came and went with some wild behaviour and trouble with the different regiments, because after such a long time in cramped
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space and poor food everybody had had enough and tempers were short.
After ten weeks on board we arrived at Port Tewfik, which was the main disembarkation port for everybody and everything.
It was a long and difficult job for us to get off the ship and on to small ferries with our kit-bags and rifles etc., but at last we were on dry land, and after climbing into waiting lorries away we went to the notorious I.T.D. (Infantry Training Depot.) which was quite a run into open desert country. The depot covered a huge area where over 500,000 men had trained and sweated and swore since the beginning of the war. Now that the front was nearly 1000 miles away the depot was nearly empty and our camp was in a wide open space with very little of anything to be seen, except a few large mess huts and latrines, and rows of bell tents.
At long last our gang got settled in a tent and we settled down for our first complete night’s sleep for months, but we had a laugh and a shock when a white rat popped out of Massey’s tea mug. It was chased around by eight big Guardsmen but escaped.
That part of the country is notorious for it’s horrible dust and sand storms and our first night was to see one of the worst ones for weeks. First a terrific wind got up, then the dust and sand flew and we were in for it. The tent strained on the ropes then suddenly collapsed on top of us and it was horrific. I thought I was going to suffocate through lack of air, or choke on the dust, but I managed to push the canvas up a bit with my rifle and create a bit of space, but it was very dark and with the wind and dust I couldn’t hear or see anything. Dawn finally broke and the storm died down, and it was certainly a sight for sore eyes. All the tents were flat, and heads were popping up everywhere from the debris. It was a real scream and we were laughing our heads off, but officialdom took over and things were soon back to normal.
After three weeks of hard training and sweating and swearing we were deemed fit enough to join the Battalion in Syria.
[Handwritten note : These two pages were written in August 1997 to provide a beginning to Dad’s story]
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I’m writing this down to pass the time away more than anything, but I hope I get it home because it will be interesting to read through it … anyway, here goes.
We left the I. T. D. [Infantry Training Depot] [original document says L.T.D but in page 5 it is referred to as an I.T.D and I have corrected as such] in trucks and went to Fontass Station (Charlie Newman got left behind in dock with diphtheria). It was just a long platform with a little shack on it, and a pompous station-master with two or three ragged porters in any sort of clothes, but recognisable hats. Two very scabby and filthy camels were loading stuff and carting it away, and we were very soon surrounded by a swarm of young kids demanding “seegarettes” and “backsheesh” in shrieking voices. The kids all looked very unhealthy and seemed to be very weak on their legs. They looked starving, and all had sore eyes and were absolutely filthy. One little girl of about four or five was half-dragging, half-carrying a tiny little boy of three or thereabouts who gave the lads a surprise and a laugh by puffing away, and seeming to enjoy, three fags in his tiny mouth at once! In spite of orders to the contrary oranges
soon began to circulate, and we all began an orange orgy which ended only when we got right to the camp in Syria.
At long last our train arrived and, with shouting and struggling with our kit-bags and change of quarter orders, we eventually got settled for a little while, because we had to change at Ishmuir [cannot find this on Google Maps].
All along the banks of the Sweetwater canal (which is used for all purposes by animals and people alike) there were straggling wog houses with the usual swarm of kids (children), goats, donkeys and camels. What houses – mud huts of small dimensions with one door and no windows. At night all the family and relatives and livestock pile in together and sleep or scratch till morning starts another day.
After an interesting hour or so we got to Ishmailia, which is a good sized town with a large station of several platforms, being a main junction. Nothing exciting occurred here, and after a few hours hanging about buying nuts and fruit etc. we at last got into the express???? which was to take us to Haifa in Palestine. Me, Chad, Steve Rowan and Harold Jarman got separated from the others and ended up in a long compartment full of Cypriots (after I had fallen onto the line between the coaches with all my kit and rifle, and had to be hauled out after nearly breaking my b….. neck!). The Cypriots seemed a good crowd and we thought it was alright when they sang the Woodpecker song in their language. Unfortunately they saw that we appreciated it, so they kept on singing it again and again for hours till we cursed them and the bloke who wrote it!
At last we got settled down for the night, Chad on the seat and me on the floor in the gangway but, after about three hours of freezing and cramp, and being stood on by feet of all sizes and shapes, I gave it up as a bad job. As Chad was as comfortable as I was, I resumed my seat and we talked and listened to the snoring rhythm around us till the magical cry of “Conna” at Kantata roused the train into a mad scrambling swarm. At last we got our rations (boiled egg, cheese and bread, with a little “rock” cake thrown in), but owing to no lights being on the train it was a ticklish job to eat. However, after scraping my egg off the floor, and losing half my cheese, I had a fairly good snack. (Owing to the size of my mouth I couldn’t very well miss, even in pitch darkness).
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And so the day, and the sun, arrived, and we moved into another carriage which was full of civvies – we were well away. We bought some chocolate and Chad (mug as usual) gave a kid on the platform a 10 ‘piastre’ note for two half-‘piastre’ oranges, and is still waiting for the change! We soon got to Haifa where we changed trains and had a bit of a wash and a feed. The coastal part of Palestine is nice green country with the blue, dead calm Med always in view from the train. We passed through miles upon miles of orange groves, and each tree had hundreds of oranges on it, so it was a lovely sight. The few scattered houses were of stone, and looked quite clean, but only one roomed as usual. The country is just the same as it was in bible days, with the shepherds and their flocks of goats and sheep, the ploughman with his oxen, or maybe an ox and an ass, and a big hunk of pointed wood for a plough, sweating and straining at a snail’s pace through the stony ground, and the fisherman wading into the sea and casting his nets. What struck me most in Egypt, Palestine and Syria was the women working in the fields (they have no housework to do anyway),and the way the poor donkeys have to work. They are used for carting stuff about, and for carting people about. You see them very often with one, (and more often two), people on their backs; no reins or stirrups are used, the rider’s legs just dangle practically on the ground and he guides and wallops his steed with a short stick. When a family want to move or go anywhere they just pile all their belongings on a donkey or two, climb on the top of the lot, give the donkey a few hearty kicks and away they go. Often from the train I saw an Arab or Jew, or whoever he was, either riding a donkey, or walking along a road or across the desert country, with not a house or any sign of habitation for miles in any direction, yet there they go patiently plodding along.
After a few hours travelling we began to get into the hills going towards the mountains on the Syrian border – then the fun began. The train stopped at every solitary house or group of tents or huts, and everybody got down and had an argument or a gossip for an hour or so, then we crawled on for a mile or two and the same procedure was gone through again! Our lads had a special part of the train and the remaining carriages were absolutely packed with Arab men, women and children. How the hell they all got in, with all their baskets and parcels, I don’t know to this day, but some just hung on the outside, and a few even sat on the roof – as our speed was about ten miles an hour they were quite safe!
At every stop the lads were buying, scrounging, pinching and exchanging oranges and bread, so it was like market day, with the natives easily the craftiest of the two, and the noisiest! Our rations were dished out at one interminable halt, and we got a small tin of sardines between two, which the Arabs went mad for. Me and Chad got twenty oranges for our tin and other lads got more, while some got less, till the compartment was full up, with oranges on the floor, racks and seats. We got so many that when the journey did eventually end we couldn’t carry them all away (besides the dozens we had eaten) and had to leave some in the carriage. At one village halt we had a good laugh. As we approached at our usual pace a roar of welcome went up and there was great excitement. We saw hundreds of Arabs of all ages with flags and banners, waving and cheering, and swarming alongside the track. We thought, “by gum, what a welcome” and we waved and shouted back at them. But what a comedown we had, because they passed our carriage without a glance, and gathered round one for Arabs only. An old man of about ninety got out and they all crowded round him, kissing his clothes. They fought to get near him, then away they all went, down the road as happy as kings, with him in the front with the chiefs of the place. It appears that he was some kind of venerable old man returning from a
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[sentence crossed out. ‘place. It appears that he was some venerable old man returning from a’]
holy pilgrimage to some big shrine or other.
Soon we began the run through the mountains and over the border into Syria. It was a thrilling ride, the track was only a single one and it zig-zagged all over the place, often you nearly touched the engine from the rear carriages. Some of the mountain scenes were marvellous, and we held our breath often as we crossed narrow bridges over deep gorges and roaring torrents. We saw a lot of the picturesque frontier guards with their turbans and ‘bandoliers’ and curved swords. Some of their forts and outposts were on the most mountainous cliffs and ledges. What a lonely life they must lead, but no lonelier than the goat herders who live all over the mountains with their families in tattered goatskin tents. We passed through some very lonely stations of one building only and a station-master and a name.
We got to Damascus in the middle of the night so we didn’t see much and we lugged all our kit to a transit camp for about one hour or sleep. The trucks came for us about 9.00 a.m., and we piled on them for the run to the camp in the mountains which we could see practically all around us. The sun was shining brightly but with no heat, and as we rattled along the road we got our first sniff or the cold air. After about twenty miles we turned off the main road on to a rougher one, then we left that and swerved onto a very narrow track. We began to wonder where the hell the camp was. Up and down we went for a few miles along this track which sometimes had a steep drop at one side and sometimes at the other. We hung on to the truck like grim death and hoped we had a good driver. At last we topped a steep rise and ‘Happy Valley’ was spread out at our feet. What a prospect – about twenty huts in a narrow valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains with only this track as an entrance and exit.
The truck slithered and skidded down the hill and turned in at the gate past a smart ‘blancoed-up’ sentry. After a few hours of bull-s… and getting chased about and sorted out, about twenty of us ended up in an old tumbledown hut with no stove and a broken door. As no bed boards were available we had to sleep on the stone floor, and when they gave us another blanket (making five per man) we guessed at the cold to come at night – and by gum our guess was right, but a long way out as regards the extent of the cold. From that night until we left Syria nearly three weeks later I was never warm. I’ve never been so cold in my life, as we had no stove you could practically break your breath off in icicles. We used to go to bed straight after dinner at 5.30 p.m. with every scrap of clothing and kit piled on top of us, but it was no use. I used to lie there with my teeth chattering and my feet numb. Somebody had the bright idea of buying lots of candles to heat the place up a bit, and we did so till the place was like a birthday cake, but it was no warmer. Then is when I started washing and shaving in half a pint of water (mostly ice).
It was now that me and Chad had aspirations to become truck drivers, but that is as far as we got because the apparent busyness of Sergeant Smith the M.T. [Mechanical or Motor Transport] Sergeant and the very bad weather which started next day put an end to all our hopes. Our mutual friend the M.T. [Mechanical or Motor Transport] Sergeant took an instant dislike to me because on my first time at the wheel of the fifteen hundredweight Ford (my first time at any wheel in fact) I went round in a small circle at a terrific rate on a particularly rough and dangerous part or the track end scared the life out of him and Chad and the rest of the class in the back of the truck. His attitude to me from then
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onwards was distinctly hostile, and I wasn’t unduly sorry when bad snow for the next few days put an end to any practice driving and all we did was hang around our hut and keep out of the way. The weather became very bad and the ration and water trucks had a hard job to get out of ‘Happy Valley’ for rations etc. While the snow piled up it got colder and colder. Every night we used to be in bed shivering and listening to the wolves howling in the distance. What an eerie sound it is, and often you would swear that they were just outside the hut door – which in our case was broken down so we felt anything but happy. One night after it had snowed for a few days some of the hut roofs caved in at about 7.00 p.m., and we laughed at the predicament of the occupants who cursed and worked like hell in the dark to clear the hut and fix the roof up. That night Massey suggested that we clear our roof a bit before going to bed, but as it was a round roof and difficult to get on to and we had no shovels we howled him down and said wait till morning. We all got into bed and tried to sleep, then suddenly at about 11.00 P.M. there was a hell of a crash and ripping of wood, and down came the roof with all the snow. Luckily it stuck about five feet from the ground and nobody was hurt, but we had had a scare and only me and two others got back into bed, the others sat up all night. Next morning we all worked like hell and cleared as much snow as we could off the remains of the roof, the rest just melted and flooded the hut out.
After one more short driving lesson in a fierce blizzard I was chosen as spare driver and Chad was banged into the Intelligence Section. We went to Damascus one raining night, but all we did was eat at the Y.M.C.A. [Young Men’s Christian Association] and the N.A.A.F.I. [Naval Army and Airforce Institute] which we found there, and go to the pictures to see that very good show ‘One Night in Rio’. It was too dark and wet to see much of the city, so we all had a good hair cut and shampoo at a wog place and got rid of the Egyptian sand for a little while. I smelt like a scent shop when the barber had finished, and I did look a guy with my hair absolutely plastered down. A few days later after a daily mud bath in the melted snow and a nightly freezing in our beds the battalion moved back to Egypt by train. As the journey back was practically a repetition of the one up to Syria I won’t write anything about it, except that we travelled most of the way on a filthy goods wagon.
Arriving in Egypt we went into a camp at Kassassein, and me, Chad and Massey were able to resume our nightly feasts of nutty bars, salted peanuts and poisonous lemonade at the theatre buffet (ha,ha) before the show which always provided a good laugh, if not at the picture then always at the antics and remarks of the rowdy audience. The previous roof having been wrecked and burnt by a very hostile audience, a new one of ragged carpets had been improvised, and all the broken seats patched up, so the place was quite normal again. The machine was worse than ever and it was a hell of a struggle to get through the programme which was always full length pictures cut down to about a forty minutes run, and a Popeye cartoon which always had a roaring reception. However, these shows passed the nights away for us, and after a tea and a few words at the N.A.A.F.I. [Naval Army and Airforce Institute], we always went to bed eating another nutty bar or two (except for Chad who had his usual narrow limit of daily expenditure).
We hung around this camp at Kassassein for a week getting all new trucks and guns etc. ready for our long trek up to the front, and all the supposed ‘old campaigners’ gave us their views on the situation, and their past thrilling experiences, while in reality most of them hadn’t seen any action, but had only been with the battalion in Syria.
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It’s astonishing in the army how pleased you get when you meet a lot of your old mates again after being among hostile, miserable crowds of blokes for a few weeks. None of our blokes liked the battalion because they didn’t make us a bit welcome, but gave us the cold shoulder instead. So we just kept to ourselves and rubbed it in to them as much as possible about the ‘old soldier’ complex they all had. Then one day at this camp a big new draft was expected and we all got excited hoping it was a lot of our old 6th Battalion mates. The column came marching into the camp and our gang gave a laugh and a cheer because the first man we saw was old Stapleton with a huge grin on his face, followed by Big Burgess, Bunker Lloyd and all the others. We were all as pleased as punch, and there was a big reunion in the N.A.A.F.I. [Naval Army and Airforce Institute] that night – from then onwards we were all quite content in the 3rd Battalion.
At last all preparations were finished, and one morning after a hell of a mix-up and rush, the convoy got under way for the 2,000 mile journey to the front. Still being a spare driver, me and six other blokes got banged into the back of a new 3 tonner as passengers. The first day we went through the centre of Cairo, then on past the Pyramids into the desert country. Every night we made our beds down by the side of the truck on the sand and slept under the stars. We used to be talking for hours, and dreaming of home.
What a journey it was for the next fortnight or so. We went right along the coast road all the way, through all the old battlefields – El Alamein, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, Dernia, Sidi Barraine, Tobruk, Homs, Benghazi – and all the other famous places till we got to Tripoli itself. Being near the coast all the way the countryside wasn’t too bad at times – fairly green like a prairie, with other parts very barren and rocky. After the first three days I went on to the fifteen hundredweight truck driven by Charlie Beer and Massey. We had some fun and a lot of thrills and shocks. On the way through Libya we saw some quite nice countryside where the Italian Colonists used to live, in the houses Mussolini provided for them. There was some grand scenery and marvellous passes through the hills, sometimes the road was like a corkscrew, and very steep. I held my breath as our truck jerked and crawled up or down with a hell or a drop at the edge of the road.
The places on the coast like Dernia and Bardia were lovely, and must have been grand in peace time, with all the lovely stone villas and gardens, and the blue Mediterranean in view. They are all rest camps at present for wounded and tired soldiers.
Our convoy used to start up about 8.a.m., stop half an hour for lunch, then on again till 5:30 p.m. (In the army out here lunch or ‘tiffen’ is at dinner-time, and dinner is at night at about 5.30 or 6.O0 p.m.) We used to leap out of the truck and brew tea as soon as we stopped at midday, then eat our packet of army biscuits. Every time the convoy stopped or slowed down we were all besieged by Wogs, large and small, wanting biscuits, fags or ‘shy’ in exchange for lemons, eggs, or wog bread. What a clamour they kicked up, hanging on the tail-boards and running after us with handful’s of eggs, gibbering “Eggies”. No matter where we camped, and no matter for how long, there was always the inevitable crowd of Wogs with their usual cry of “Eggies”. I’ve seen many amusing scenes between our lads and the wogs in this bargaining business. Massey offered one wog a 10/-note for one egg – he took it, looked at it, smelt it, and refused it. In Tripoli one wanted a shilling for one egg, (English coin) so Maseey gave him two silver Egyptian ‘accres’ for two silver shillings, and he was quite happy and went away thinking he had robbed the silly English soldiers. They used to demand a packet of fags per egg, so the lads had the brainwave of putting
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seven or eight fags in each packet, and they always fell for it.
On the journey up we passed thousands of wrecked tanks and lorries, and many cemeteries, of both English and German. The most touching one I saw was a big German one with a few hundred crosses – very neat and well-kept – and in the very centre was a single plain English cross with a Jock’s ‘tam-o-shanter’ hanging on it.
At times Charlie Beer was very erratic in his steering of our truck, and as the road was packed with traffic we had same narrow squeaks, and we left our marks on many a big truck we ‘shizzed’ past – to the tune of the driver’s curses. I used to hang on like grim death in the back, and many is the time my head has hit the roof when we’ve bumped over a filled-in bomb crater, or left the road to pass a tank-carrier or something. Twice Charlie properly lost control of the wheel and we went off the road at about forty miles per hour – the first time the side was level with the road so we only bumped over a few rocks and dented the mudguard a bit – but the second time there was a drop of about five feet off the road (very luckily into soft sand) and the truck didn’t turn over but just stood on its nose practically. I was dozing in the back when suddenly there was a hell of a bump and I was standing practically on my head, covered with boxes and packs. None of us were hurt, but Charlie got a telling off from our old pal M.T. [Mechanical or Motor Transport] Sergeant Smith. Every night when the convoy stopped the Sergeant Major used to shout “Is Beer’s truck in yet?”, and if we said “Yes” he used to say “Marvellous, no accidents today”. We got stuck in the sand at least twice at every camp, and always got behind in the convoy – the M.T.O. [Mechanical Transport Officer] was always on the watch for our truck in a bad smash, but we always got there somehow.
As we got nearer the front line things began to waken up a bit, and when we camped one night just over the Tunisian border we had our first taste of a bit of action when we were bombed and two trucks were wrecked, but nobody was hurt. Then the battalion moved up into position at the front, but all us spare drivers got left behind about twenty miles with all the vehicles, stores etc. I got fed up because we did nothing but hang about all day and do odd jobs, in fact any job no-one else wanted to do we did. My mates were satisfied, but me being such a restless fool, I wanted to be in action with the lads. We hung around for a week doing P.T. [Physical Training] and very little else, except that twice we went into Zarzis by truck and had a dip in the sea which was dead calm but icy cold. Zarzis was a large village, and one afternoon we all had a few hours freedom there expecting to be able to have a good feed somewhere and get some fruit; but the damned place had no grub and fruit to sell anywhere. God knows what the population was living on. The only bright spot was a one woman brothel which did a roaring trade all day. She was a fattish French girl of about thirty, and her mother (or Grandmother) was her manager, money collector and doorkeeper (she looked about ninety). What a trade she did, about one every ten minutes for a few hours a day, at fifty francs per head (about five shillings) – what a business. I never visited her myself, but a lot of our lads did and I got all the intimate details from them.
After hanging around for another few days I approached our Sergeant Major to get away from this ‘spare driver who couldn’t drive’ business, and after a bit of a fuss I got transferred to No.4 Company who were plain infantrymen in positions in the front line. I forgot to mention earlier that Chad was left behind at Tripoli with impetigo [original is spelt impatigo but I think it should be spelt impetigo as it matches a medical condition], so as I had also left Georgie Colton behind now I thought I’d be on my own. A truck took me to my new company, and after tugging all my kit over about half a mile of rough country I found my Platoon H.Q. [Head Quarters] in a dug-out. Nearly all this platoon were new men so I had hopes of
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knowing some of them, and my hopes were realised when I saw Syd Burnett and Bunker Lloyd, and I was very pleased when I found myself in Ingram’s section along with Ted Chant and Big Burgess. A lad called Clementson was my new partner, and we made our slit trench a haven of rest as much as we could.
A few quiet days later we had heavy shelling for about twelve hours and I thought myself a hardened campaigner, sitting in a four foot deep trench with my gas cape over my head (to stop dust going down my neck) with shells whizzing about and bursting everywhere. What a job it is to hear a shell whistling in the distance and coming nearer and nearer, then bursting not far away. It is a belief that nobody hears the shell that hits them, but I think different, because when the shell coming towards you stops whistling you know it’s going to either hit you or just miss you, and you can’t do anything about it. Me and Clem heard one like this, and we held our breath and prayed – then Crash, stones and dirt rained on us and I thought ‘This is it’, but apart from making a hole four feet from ours, and opening a tin of bully for us, no harm was done.
The next morning we were standing to as usual at dawn, staring out into no-man’s land, when suddenly, about three quarters of a mile away in the morning mist, we saw some grey shapes which soon became advancing enemy tanks, and when they opened fire on us we realised that we were in for it. We crouched down in our holes like rabbits and hoped something would happen – and it did. Those tanks were in a trap because they were dead in front of, and at close range to, ours and the Jocks six pound anti-tank guns which opened up on them. Four tanks got hit in view of us and the others scattered all ways, while the enemy infantry which loomed up just then got a hell of a bashing from our machine gunners. As an attack it was a complete flop and a great thrill for us. Seventy tanks were knocked out that morning in our area.
After a few more days of shelling and patrols at night (not me) we moved up further still, and it was no joke marching along in the dark over very rough ground loaded up with kit, rifle and ammunition, and a shovel or pick. I had a nice load of three hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, and a pick, besides my equipment. I was a miniature pack horse, and after half a mile I was staggering, but we zig-zagged about for five miles to advance one, and then we had to dig in like hell before dawn and the Germans saw us. Me and Clem dug a nice hole in rocky ground about six feet by four feet deep, and it took some doing. During the day we just huddled there and dozed in spite of the shelling, but each shell whistling nearer, then bursting, makes you hold your breath.
After two days of this, and two very watchful nights, (one of which I went out on patrol in no-man’s land, but met nobody and saw nothing much to my relief, and didn’t stand on any mines) we were told that the attack was going in the next night, and all the Guards Brigade had to do was capture some hills and hold them for a few days till the 8th Army passed through. It sounded easy and our officers said that they were only slightly defended, and it would be a bit of dough. All that day we prepared our kit and talked about what was coming. We put all our kit which wasn’t needed for fighting on the Platoon jeep, which was soon loaded like a furniture van with packs, respirators etc. (It was going to follow up after us, but it got blown up just afterwards).
Zero hour came at last, and we formed into a file at the starting point. As luck would have it our platoon was first, and I was in the second section to lead the way along the tape through the minefields. We set off with much whispering. I had my pocket full of broken biscuits and I slowly munched them as we crept
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along in the dark, stopping very frequently. I kept whispering to Syd Burnett who was next to me. To me the whole scene, and what followed later, was unreal. ” Surely,” I thought,” this isn’t the real thing, and before many hours have passed a lot of us will be dead and wounded”. I thought I must be dreaming, and it was only one of those imaginary battles in England – where we all go back to breakfast afterwards.
All that night was like a dream to me. I can honestly say that during the advance, and hours afterwards, I didn’t feel the least bit scared it all seemed so fantastic and ridiculous. Suddenly our barrage opened up, and “by God” what an inferno, hundreds of guns blazing away at once. We all felt more confident when we heard all the shells whizzing overhead. They seemed to just miss our heads all the time. The hills ahead seemed to be a hell of bursting shells, and I said to Syd “I feel sorry for the Germans up there. In a way we are better off here.” If we’d only known that they were in deep dugouts laughing at our barrage and preparing to welcome us.
We kept on following the tape till suddenly it ended, to the consternation of the officers who were leading us. It was the first inkling we had that things weren’t going right, and when a Jerry plane flew over very low and dropped flares on us we knew more certainly. The tape had been torn up by a Jerry patrol (I suppose), but we must go on, so an officer ran forward and shouted to us to follow him, so we pushed on. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion and the first eight men in the line went down like ninepins. The leading two officers were killed, also Sergeant Dunn and Bunker Lloyd, and the first few men in our platoon. It was my first contact with sudden death and I couldn’t credit my senses. We all hesitated but Sergeant Johnson, our Platoon Sergeant, rushed along cursing us and driving us on, and he took the lead himself. We soon came to a long gulley about four feet deep which was our advancing point, and here we spread out and waited a bit while our barrage roared overhead. Suddenly, as we waited, there was a hell of a crash, and a mortar bomb exploded in our midst, followed by four more in as many seconds, so we all realised that things had gone wrong and our attack was no surprise to the Germans who were waiting for us. All the time Sergeant Johnson was holding our platoon together, and laughing and joking, and when the time came to advance our platoon was on the extreme of the whole lot.
As fate and luck would have it I got pushed out and along till I was end man of the line, so every time we stopped and got down I faced the open darkness on my left. We moved forward slowly and with many stops, but the enemy positions got nearer and nearer till only about two hundred yards separated us – and still no move from them. Then suddenly all hell broke loose on us, and of the shambles afterwards I’m not going to write, but about fifteen hours later I found myself in a German dugout with two more fit men and ten wounded. Of the men I knew personally I’ve found out, up to now, that Sergeant Johnson, Crewe, Brook, Dunn, and Guardsmen Higson, Clementson, Holt, Guyler, Newlands, Trickey and Bunker Lloyd were killed, and Coster and Sergeant Tharrocks badly wounded. I only thank God that Chad, Massey, Steve and Georgie Cotton weren’t by my side that night, as we had always hoped to go in action. I’ll never see most of them again but I hope to be able to find out how they got on in that and all subsequent actions.
The German Officer was very polite to us, and said that for us the war was over, but he must go on and on. He asked us for fags and was very pleased when we gave him one or two. When darkness came
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we carried the wounded back to Company H.Q. [Head Quarters] where they gave us some black bread end cold coffee which was very welcome. A good few of them could speak English and we talked for a bit till a lorry came and carted the wounded to hospital. Our squad numbered about ten by now. We hiked around the hills a bit from dugout to dugout till we ended up in one half-finished one where we thankfully flopped down on the muddy floor and dozed for the remainder of the night.
Next morning we were taken in a lorry further back still to be searched and questioned. The Germans treated us alright and gave us a good feed, but took all our fags, razor blades and lighters away from us – much to my regret because I hated to part with the lighter Nancy gave me. After hanging about all day we were handed over to a dozen Italian soldiers who took us away in another lorry, so we said goodbye to the ‘Mareth Line’ and the fighting.
After a long run we came to a small prison pen at a place called Gabes, in which we found another fifty or so Guardsmen (Grenadiers and ours) who had had the same trouble as us. Being very hungry by now we asked for food and got a small loaf and a tin of bully beef per man. It poured with rain all night and I passed a ‘good night’ on the ground in the open, and we were all glad when morning came. After a thimbleful of poisonous coffee and no grub we were packed into a lorry and trailer already half-full of Italian sentries and we started off on another stage of our journey back. After a very long run, during which we were very thirsty and hungry because it was very hot, we at last arrived just outside of the town of Sfax where we were dumped out and handed over to German sentries once more. We were a bright collection I can tell you. None of us had washed or shaved for four days, and we were dressed in all kinds of dress – some in tin hats, some ordinary hats, some in stocking hats like myself, and many with no headgear at all. Some wore boots and some slippers, some lucky b…… had small packs with shaving kit etc. but most had battle dress only, like me, and all of us were very weary and hungry.
For over an hour they paraded us through the main streets of Sfax, on show like a circus parade, not that we cared very much but some of the native population were a bit hostile. The French people were very sympathetic and seemed friendly. At long last, still with no grub, we were taken to the station goods yard and packed into closed-in goods wagons (thirty six men in each). Just imagine thirty six big Guardsmen in a wagon on a very hot night without food or water – it was plain hell on earth. We could only sit down with a struggle, and there was only a crack or two for fresh air, while some of the lads wanted to go to the lavatory. What a hole to be in. I got squeezed into a corner, and I was best off there, but it got harder and harder to breathe, and it was pitch dark. Jarvis lost his nerve a bit and screamed and kicked on the door for food, and cried to be let out because he was suffocating. It was horrible to hear, and we all nearly got panicky, but curses and threats soon shut Jarvis up and the long hours dragged by. Two whole days and nights we spent in that hell-hole, with only two forty minute breaks to get fresh air etc., and the only grub we had was an ‘Itie’ biscuit (six inches square) and half a small tin of bully beef per man. When the guards finally did open the door at Tunis goods yard we all staggered out in a fine state. What a sight for people to see, and we had to walk about four miles right through the city in the boiling sun. The German escort laughed at our efforts at marching, and we had to have a few halts on the way, during which we were jeered at by the natives, but the French citizens were all for us. The V sign was very common in many sly ways, and we would have been given many
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fags and loaves if it hadn’t been for the Corporal in charge of the escort who was a swine of the first degree. He threatened to shoot a young Frenchman (to the terror of his lovely wife) who threw ten fags into our ranks, and he brutally knocked down an old man who gave us a loaf of bread. At last we got to our destination which was a small French school, and after a long delay we got inside and sank down on the straw in the classrooms. The guards were very polite, and one German officer was like a father to us, asking after our health and if we were hungry. He also gave us cards to write home etc. all smooth propaganda. We got a small loaf and two fags each, and we felt on top of the world sitting down wolfing dry bread.
There was a washing place in the yard with a big mirror, and everybody who had any washing or shaving kit (about one in every ten) made a rush for a clean up. We all made for the mirror to see what we really looked like. I pushed my face in at the back of the crowd and I swear to this day that I couldn’t pick out my own face. I stared at the group of dirty bearded faces in the mirror, could that extra dirty bearded face at the back, surmounted by a stocking hat, be me? I waggled my ears and this vision did the same, so I knew for sure, and I burst out laughing to think what Nancy or anybody else would have thought of me then. After a long wait I borrowed a towel etc. and had a do at my face with a razor which had hacked off about a dozen beards before mine. After a painful ten minutes, bleeding but respectable, I looked again in the mirror and saw myself tired and very pale but recognisable.
Thank God I’m not a heavy smoker, most of the lads went nearly crazy for a smoke, and anybody within reach, whether German Officer or sentry, was pestered and begged at for a cigarette. Each fag received went round about a dozen eager mouths, but I kept off it.
At length we were locked in the school rooms for the night, and we settled on the straw to try and get a decent sleep for a change, but I just dozed and tossed about till the sentry let us out into the school yard the next morning. We got a half tea cup of ‘coffee’ each at 9.00 a.m., then at 11.00 a.m. we scrambled for a hot stew of carrots and hot water only (the God’s truth). Owing to having no mess tins etc. we used tin hats, empty tins and drinking mugs for our ration of one ladle-full each. Our ‘meal’ being finished we sat or lay about, and except for the German sentries we saw nobody else till at
4.00 p.m. the French Red Cross people of Tunis arrived with their donation to our menu (very welcome it was too). It was a mixture of spaghetti, macaroni and heaven knows what else, but we fought for it. It was filling enough for an hour or so, but t here was no goodness in it and we soon felt hungry again. Later on in the evening the Jerries gave us half a small loaf each and two fags. When you’re really hungry dry bread is a luxury and no single crumb is lost or wasted. When a man has eaten his ration quickly he watches the others eating theirs with regret and signs of cannibalism in his eyes.
We stopped there a couple of days, then we had to parade, and after a short march though the streets of gaping crowds, we came to a proper prison. It was an old disused rubber factory (and it smelt like one) and there we found about two hundred other prisoners. Here we were entirely in Italian hands, not German. What a place that factory turned out to be. The front doors were on the main street, and inside was a huge hall, about fifty yards square, which opened up into a smaller place divided into ‘rooms’ by walls five feet high. We all ‘slept’ in the inner place, and the big hall was used for parades etc. All the floor was concrete. What a crowd of roughs we looked. There were a few men from each of a dozen regiments, with a handful of Moroccan Arabs and a dozen
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French Foreign Legionnaires, and one Spaniard. The grub here was worse than ever – we had ‘coffee’ at 7.00 a.m. (half a cup full each) then nothing till 11.30 a.m. when we had half a loaf and a bit of cheese, or a piece of meat about an inch square. One day we actually had two raw small fish each which we ate as they were head, tail and all. We also had two fags per man. Then at 5.00 p.m. the Red Cross arrived with their horrible, but life-preserving mixture of hot water, macaroni, spaghetti, rice(maybe), and cabbage stumps etc. It was anything but appetising, but we counted the hours and minutes till it arrived, and we wolfed it down. Everyday there was a riot as to who could have what was left over, and who could scrape and even lick the empty pots out. Every spoonful was watched by hundreds of starving eyes, and the men who were dishing it out had to be very careful how they did it, and not let one scrap fall off the ladle, or miss the man’s pot, or else there was hell on.
There was only a very small space at the back of the factory where we could sit and get fresh air, but it was nearly all taken up by the horrible smelling, fly-infested lavatories. These were only slit trenches dug in the ground, with screens round – nowhere near big enough for the number of men; and as most of us had diarrhoea through the bad grub, and at least thirty had dysentery, you can guess how the place stank, and what a mess it was. Men were running in and out to the latrines day and night. I myself went out ten times one night between 12.00 p.m. and 2.00 a.m. We all got as weak as kittens after a week of it, and men were collapsing and fainting by the dozen. I had a few temporary blackouts myself but I didn’t flop out, thank heaven. But Englishmen can’t be kept down, and we had a sing-song every night, with the padre leading us. It was an unforgettable scene – about two hundred men sitting on a stone floor in the dark, singing away, with individual ones giving turns. One Irish lad sang ‘Paddy’ and it was very good. Others sang and gave bits of turns. The Frenchmen sang Foreign Legion songs, a big Dane sang a comic song in his language, and the Arabs did some sort of war dance using empty tins as tom-toms – all in prison.
The first three nights we slept on the stone floor, end it was very chilly, so we huddled up together and when one wanted to turn over the whole row had to turn over; and as someone was always getting up to go to the lavatory we spent restless nights. I slept with my hands in my pockets and my head on my water-bottle. After ‘coffee’ every morning the lads would sing “Let’s go back to bed”, so I lay down on the stone floor, put my head on my water-bottle, pulled my hat over my eyes and I was in bed. The fourth day we got some straw, and though there were only a couple of handful’s each it seemed a luxury. Then about a fortnight later we got a marvellous Italian blanket (about five foot by two and a half, and thin like sackcloth) between every two men. Me and my mate used to put ours crossways so that it covered us from our knees to our necks, and we thought we were well away.
We felt very weak and listless by this time, and used to lie down all day, but after more than three weeks of it we were warned to be ready to move in the middle of the night. Having had no soap or anything most of us weren’t very fresh or clean, but we did our best every morning with cold water and, by much wangling, a shave once a week. One thing I was very pleased about was meeting Freddie Garrett from Whiteleas, and Billy Robson from Tyne Dock, who talked over old days with me and passed the time away. So just when conditions were getting unbearable, and we were all getting in a bad state, we left our hated prison and we ended up one morning in the hold of a 1,000 ton German boat in Tunis harbour, ready for the risky dash across the Med. to Italy.
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We had Italian sentries but the crew was German and the Captain allowed us on a tiny bit of the deck for fresh air as often as he possibly could. But space was very limited, and as our only lavatory was the side of the ship you can imagine what it was like. We were on that ship for four days, and our daily ration was two big cast iron Italian biscuits (about six inches square) and a small round tin of Italian bully beef. The biscuits were so hard that we had to jump on them to break them (seriously), but they kept us alive. After a safe trip during which British planes and submarines were our enemies we arrived at Livorno harbour in the Northern half of Italy. We got rushed off the ship by about fifty sentries and, after hanging around on the quayside for a few hours, we were taken to a big building where we had every scrap of our hair cut off and a lovely hot bath and our clothes fumigated. The bath was very welcome, but what a sight we looked without our hair – it was laughable. I nearly died when I saw myself in a mirror, with more hair on my chin than on my head, but I felt a lot fresher and cleaner.
After a lot of hanging about we ended up in a third class railway carriage in a siding for the night. The seats were wooden and as we were very crowded sleep was a bit of a problem. Some slept on the floor under the seats. I slept clinging to a small wooden luggage rack three foot long by two feet wide. The lavatory on the train was a flush-away, but only a small round basin about nine inches diameter let into the floor with two foot plates for the feet. They are the only sort I’ve seen since I left the ship and landed in Egypt – rather awkward for women to use I should imagine.
(One thing I’ve nearly forgotten to mention is bartering or ‘flogging’ of clothes, rings, wallets etc. for bread or fags. Most of the lads, including myself, were half starved, and all sorts of good things went into greedy hands in exchange for poisonous cigarettes or loaves (‘parnies’). In our Tunis prison, where a few blokes had French money, a small loaf and ten fags cost the equivalent of five shillings. Pullovers, shirts, gloves etc. went for anything up to twenty fags (never more). Gold rings fetched one hundred fags or two or three loaves. What gifts for the Italian sentries – but the lads were desperate and past caring. I had nothing to flog, and anyhow I could do without fags – and had to do without grub.)
We started our train journey in Italy the next morning and had a good ride through a lovely countryside covered with vineyards, and all divided into small fields with farmhouses dotted everywhere. We didn’t have much chance of seeing what the big stations we passed through were like because we were forced to put all t he shutters up every time we stopped. I supposed that the sight of a lot of bald headed English savages might have been too much for the poor Italian civvies. What glimpses we did have of streets and roads I was struck by the absence of crowds of shoppers and street walkers, and all traffic was conspicuous by it’s absence. In fact the towns and villages seemed to be practically deserted. At last, after a long journey, we stopped at a small village station and we were herded out of the train and handed over to a new lot of sentries from the camp (n. 82) Latterina. We lined up and got going and soon left the village behind, following a long narrow winding road among the hills. (Italy is all little hills and winding stony roads).
Suddenly we rounded a bend and a valley spread out before us, with a village on the hill above it. It was a lovely scene, but we were too hungry and too weak to appreciate it, and we were relieved when our officer escorts pointed out the buildings of the camp on the floor of the valley.
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After a long walk we at last got to the gate, and after a thorough search and the taking of all our money and all our particulars, we were counted again and turned into the big pen where we were immediately surrounded by hundreds of blokes looking for news and men from their own regiments. I heard someone yell my name and in a flash he was shaking my hand – it was Dave Clark who I thought was dead. He looked a lot older and thinner, but then I bet I didn’t look much in his eyes after three weeks like I’d just been through. After a bit of rushing about and shouting we at last ended up in Hut 8, with a Red Cross parcel between two men, and a pillow and two blankets each. The contents of the parcel surprised us tea, sugar, biscuits, chocolate, a sweet pudding etc. and me and my partner soon made a hole in ours. At last we got settled down, but our longed for night’s sleep was spoiled by the cold.
Next morning we had our first taste of camp routine. ‘Coffee up’ at 6 a.m. Roll call at 7.00 a.m. and ‘ Stodge up’ at 9.15 a.m. Where the word ‘Stodge’ came from nobody knows, but it is a mixture of anything the cooks can get their hands on – macaroni, rice, greens (not cabbages but turnip tops and cabbage stumps and anything green in colour which ordinary people wouldn’t eat, but would give to their pigs), and plenty of water. Meat twice a week, but only if you were lucky enough to get a bit in your ladle of stodge. At dinner-time we got our ‘parnie’ and a bit of cheese, and more hot coloured water – or coffee? Then at 5.30 p.m. we got more stodge. Our day’s ration therefore was two half pint ladles of stodge, one six and a half ounces of ‘parnie’ and a half ounce of cheese. The Red Cross parcel once a week was our saviour and life preserver, with its help we could just keep going, and the brews especially were a Godsend and a favourite time-passer.
After a week of supposed isolation in Hut 8 we were divided up amongst the other huts, and I found myself nicely settled in No.12 Section Hut 6 where I found everything properly organised and laid on. Here I met and made good friends of Jack Brown, Jack Crawshaw, Peter Westrif, Stan Clay, Len Jones, Roy Page, Wilf Holmer and many others including Fred Williamson of West Hartlepool.
In prison every crumb of bread and every scrap of food is worth a fortune and everybody watches everyone else like a hawk, so fairness is essential. A pack of cards is used for cutting for everything – the pick of the ‘parnies’, the cheese, the firewood, the N.A.A.F.I. [Naval Army and Airforce Institute] (when any) and every possible thing. Much bad feeling was caused, and many fights, just because men tried to rob or cheat their mates, but an empty stomach makes any man forget his principles and sense of decency. Parcel thieves were very scarce because the penalty if caught was so severe – a bashing and manhandling by an angry mob of men, then thirty days detention and no parcels. Camp life is horrible – monotonous and mind destroying. Many men just let themselves slide and lay on their bunks all day. The weather was very hot and books were very scarce.
The only parade was 7 a.m. roll call when we were counted and miscounted again and again. On four mornings during my stay at Latterina camp the count was really a man short, and we were kept on parade for over an hour till the huts were searched by about 100 sentries. On two occasions a man was found still asleep in bed, and straight in the clink he went for twenty days – and his hut commander with him for neglect of duty. But the only difference from jail and ‘freedom’ in camp is that you are chained up at night, so why worry? On the other two occasions the missing men had hung themselves during the night, but such things are best forgotten. I kept myself alive a bit by wandering around during the day for a while, and walking around all the huts for an hour every night ; but space was scarce, and the only topics were grub and the war – even women and what they mean for men
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were never talked about. I’ve heard many adventure stories of experiences in the desert and many were a pack of lies, but others were horribly true. Books upon books could be filled with stories of camp life but I’m no author – one thing I must say, and that is that all this about the marvellous unbreakable spirit of the British is true, every word of it. The only space available in the camp for everything was the parade ground which was about 100 yards by about fifty. Here the lads played cricket, baseball, football etc. and had the sports and band concerts. All the games were played with home-made kit, cloth balls, crude bats etc. But football was very popular and when some proper English footballs arrived goal posts were made and put up (complete with nets) and a pitch as big as possible was marked out. A first and second league was formed of first and second teams from each of the twelve huts. Play was excellent because in the camp were quite a few South African International players and English League players. Rivalry was great and the crowd very noisy, it did the whole camp a lot of good this football, with games twice a night. I nearly made my name as a goalkeeper, our team was top of the league when I left, having won five and drawn one. I played one game for the third team and then was shoved straight into the first team, but I only had time to play one game before I left for work. It’s just as well because the crowd could be very noisy at times and I’m very shy (as you all know).
We had sports and carnival days while I was at the camp Whit Monday and Easter Monday, and they were real good with sports all day (properly run with tapes etc.), and a fancy dress parade and an International football match at night. Everything was taken very seriously and competition was very keen, and enthusiasm very high. The football teams all had different coloured jerseys (home-made) with the hut emblem on the breast of each. The fancy dress parade, to the tune of ‘Easter Parade’, was unbelievable for a prison camp – there was a Hula Hula girl, a cannibal, Venus, a cowboy, a flower girl, a jockey and others, all home made with no outside help. I was flabbergasted by it all, the good old English spirit.
The days dragged by in the camp, wandering round, brewing up, reading an odd book, sleeping etc. It was a killing life with only the football and Parcel Day to brighten it up. Parcel day was all we lived for, after two or three days of just living because a parcel only lasted half a week. The great day rolls round again and you are all smiles till the contents are eaten, then the same hungry interval and the same again. The Market, ran by mutual consent, was a source of great amusement to me with its haggling and arguing, with the Jews amongst us in great prominence in the bargaining business. Unforgettable days, with a few outstanding names like Erazoies (Raggie) the unquenchable South African, and Georgie Bruton, Stukor Jones, Old Hymie and many others. Anybody who has never been hungry will never realise what its like. In a Red Cross parcel is a small tin of jam and a tin of Nestle’s milk, and 2oz. of sugar. It’s an irresistible temptation when you are hungry to have a spoonful of milk or jam, or chew your sugar like a sweet. I’ve done it many times and had no milk two days after I’ve opened the tin. All the lads used to have a sly spoonful when they thought nobody was watching, then afterwards wished they hadn’t when their tin was empty. All tins were licked out (very carefully, honestly and unashamedly) by the owner – can you imagine a more pitiful sight than a full grown man licking a tin out and sucking his fingers noisily? Our stodge bowls and tins were also carefully licked out so that not a single grain of food was lost. One day a big tin containing two hundred and fifty men’s rations was spilled on the ground on the way from the cookhouse and (no joking)
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all the lads scrambled for it on the ground, and scooped it up with their spoons and ate it, while the dogs of the camp joined in. I actually saw one bloke snooping around the big dustbins (a common pastime) and he was licking out all the milk and jam tins he could find. Laughable maybe, but pitiful as well. We used to take our turns in the hut for carrying the rations to the huts from the cookhouse, because the carriers got the scrapings out of the big ‘dixie’ after everybody had been served. They used to scrape the pot clean, and we all used to pray for the stodge to be burnt a bit so that more would be stuck to the bottom if we were carrying that day. Everything had to be done fairly, and everybody saw to that.
I nearly forgot to mention our old friends the lice family, living comfortably in your underclothes and wandering around all over your body at night, feeding when they feel like it. Lice are not famous for their speed but two things they must be proud of – their breeding capacity and their sharp bite. What horrible things they are, but it’s impossible to keep them out of a crowded prison camp; how they loved us. It was the custom to sleep naked and I have done so all the time, I haven’t worn a shirt or underpants for five months, just trousers, and jacket only when absolutely necessary.
So the weeks rolled slowly by in camp. Every Sunday the surrounding inhabitants used to dress in their very best, especially the females and parade around outside the wire watching us as though we were monkeys at the zoo. But we got as much fun out of it as them, and the girls came in for some ripe comments, the meaning of which, no doubt, they had a good idea. I nearly forgot to mention the camp mascot – a three legged little terrier which was born in Tobruk (with three legs) and came with the lads all the way. It was a front leg which was off, but it ran around as much as any other dog, and it hated all Italians – it always went for them on sight yet it never even barked at any of us. Peggy was it’s name.
So the weeks went slowly by in camp 82. each one worse than the last, till one day my name appeared on a list of fifty workers detailed to go out farming away from the camp. I was wild about it at the time, but now I realise how fortunate I was to get out of it before I went mad with the life of monotony, barbed wire and sentries. I was sorry to leave my friends but I soon made new ones in our working parties. After a few days of hanging about and fuss we at last got out of the camp gates (how different even the air seems outside the wire). By the time we got to the station we were all dead beat and wringing with sweat in our weak state. But we got good seats on the train and went speeding through lovely countryside, and we soon felt tons better and happier. The usual process of all shutters down at every station was gone through, but we still had a good look round, and after a long journey we arrived at our new home. This was a building surrounded by the inevitable barbed wire on the waste ground of a big brick and tile factory in the village of Arbia. It was a good hut with twenty five double decker beds, a cookhouse, three shower baths and lavatories, so we were quite satisfied and soon made ourselves at home.
The next day we got organised a bit, and as ten men were wanted to go out farming my new mate and I jumped at the chance (the others were going to work in the brick factory). I was determined to work hard, not for the benefit of the boss but for my own health and strength, and I’m very glad I did so because I now feel a hundred per cent better. Our first morning arrived and our sergeant who was camp commander got us all up at 5.30 a.m. to start work at 7.00 a.m. Us ‘farmers’ left camp at 7.00 a.m. to get there and start work at 8.00 a.m. The stodge was horrible that morning so the lads weren’t in the best
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of spirits when we got our ‘parnies’ for dinnertime and set off for our job. After a good walk of about three miles along a narrow cart track we arrived at the boss’s house which was very big and old with a deep well of lovely water (I’ve drunk hundreds of gallons of it so I should know). After taking our names he appeared with ten hooks or sickles and away we went along more cart tracks to the field of operations. We were all very much amused at the prospect because none of us had ever used a hook before, and when we arrived at a cornfield on a steep hillside and the boss made the sign for us to get busy we nearly collapsed. Urged on by the sentry we made a start and, after many interruptions from the boss on how to do it, and after three of the lads had cut their hands and had them bandaged up (he must have come prepared for such a thing to happen) we began to make a bit of progress in the field – but it was back breaking work, especially as we were strange to it and not at all fit.
That first day seemed endless and we were all absolutely done in and very mutinous towards the sentry and the boss when we at last packed up for the day and nearly staggered into camp at 7.45 p.m. that night. Four of the ‘farmers’ definitely refused to go again, and there was much arguing and protesting in the camp about the slavery we had been let in for. But I realised that it was only because of our weak state and lack of exercise that the first few days affected us so much. We who stuck at it soon got into the way of it and the days passed on ditch digging, weeding and hoeing the vineyards and olive groves etc. It was all tiring work and the weather was very hot (far hotter than England), so we all became as brown as berries because we always worked hatless and stripped to the waist. We had some amusing times as well as hard work. The ‘Padroni’ (our boss) was a kind of manager over seven farms, and what a mean old b….. he was. The time was the main trouble. None of us had a watch, and neither had any of the sentries, so we had to rely on the boss’s watch – which he always wangled to suit himself – till one morning we all made a fuss about it, and lo … the next morning he presented us with a brand new alarm clock to take down the fields with us. Alas, that clock didn’t last more than a fortnight because he regulated it slow and we regulated it fast, he put it back and we put it on. Between us all it was too much for any decent clock to stand, so it stopped for good.
We soon got to know all the people on our group of farms, and good people they were, we got on especially well with the girls and the kids. You’ve no idea what it’s like trying to talk to people when neither of you know a word of each other’s language, but by signs and amid much laughing we gradually got to know enough to make ourselves understood as much as necessary. It’s queer because you can’t help shouting in English, and they forget and let out a flood of very fast Italian. The sentry and the boss, and the civvies as well, would often be talking about us and we knew it, even if we didn’t understand the words; but we also talked about them and often cursed the boss in English, so the advantage was on neither side. It’s useful in a way to be able to talk what you like to your mate with people standing round us who are none the wiser as to what you are saying, it’s tantalising to both sides I assure you.
When we had done most of the boss’s dirty work we went for a few days to each one of the group of farms to help them out with their hoeing etc. They all gave us a feed at dinnertime when we worked for them (to the shame of the boss who never gave us a bite). Naturally we worked better for them and we got on very well. The dinner used to come down to us in the fields, unless we were near the house, and it was usually macaroni soup (or beans) and bread and cheese, and I can tell you we appreciated it. What a strange
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sight to see a group of English prisoners with a sentry sitting under a tree in a vineyard with a farmer’s wife handing them a plate of soup. The people always asked us how old we were, and if married how many children, while we asked them their names and ages. We used to say ‘Good morning’ to everyone we met, and they always answered us. The kids used to hang around us all the time and were as pleased as punch if we talked to them. Most Italian girls names end in ‘a’, such as Zita, Dina, Ida, Elia, Bruna, Emma, Paulina, Elena, Delfa, Myrella, Maritza, Ultima, Marina, etc. The men’s names end in ‘o’, such as Guido, Mario, Lepanto, Franco, Bruno, Beppo, Hugo, Betto, Primo, etc. Don’t get the false impression that we had a good time, because we had some ugly situations at times when the sentries got roused by someone’s foolishness, and got rough and threatening. The hardest things about being a prisoner are the barbed wire and sentries, and the insults etc. You have to take from ‘worms’ you could flatten with one hand, but you must keep your head and restrain your temper for your own safety.
So the days flew by, we finished our work for the little farmers and went back to the boss, so we only had our dry ‘parnies’ and water to enjoy in our two hours break at dinnertime. But I used to enjoy my little snooze in the shade on a lovely day, thinking of home and the old days and old friends. I didn’t mind it when I was out in the fields or vineyards all day, but when we got back ‘home’ at night and the doors were locked behind us, and I looked out of the iron bars over the windows and saw the barbed wire fence and the s entries it got me down. I felt as a lunatic must surely feel at times, or a convict with a life sentence. I’ll never keep a bird in a cage in my house as long as I live, because now I know how horrible and hopeless it feels to be a prisoner.
Still, as I said before, the days passed by and the best week of my captivity arrived – the threshing week on the farms, one day on each. Only three prisoners were on this job, the others were on digging, but I got picked and was on every day of the week and I can seriously say that I really enjoyed it even if it was boiling hot and tiring work. It was the company and the laughing and the fun which did me the most good. Threshing is a kind of festival for these small farmers, and it is the duty of the man whose corn is being threshed to provide a big feed for all the workers, women, kids, and everyone of us. All the women and girls helped on the corn stack and the thresher. We had a go at all the jobs but generally did the carrying of the full bags into the house, and other heavy jobs. It was the jobs of the little girls of about ten years old to keep the workers plentifully supplied with water and Vino (the wine which they all live on, made from grapes). It was a continuous round of glasses, and as the sweat poured from us we drank a lot, but I drank mostly water. We used to get there just in time to do half an hour’s work before the swarm broke off for breakfast, and they used to plonk us down at the long table right in the middle of about thirty or more ‘Ities’ of all ages from four to seventy. We were objects of great interest but it was a great experience for me and I enjoyed it.
I can’t really describe the room and the gathering, but picture if you can a large stone floored, very smoky, kitchen with no furniture except a long trestle table and forms occupied by a swarm of men, women and children all talking at the top of their voices, or laughing, or noisily eating – and two or three of us sitting right in the middle of the lot, stripped to the waist and as brown as berries.
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The feast at dinnertime used to be very good, but very different from English ideas. First – no table knives and no cups and saucers, just a glass, plate, fork and spoon in each place. The men used their own pocket knives and the others all borrowed these. First course was a stodge of beans or macaroni, or both. Big dishes were put on the table and everyone ladled out as much as they wanted. Then there was boiled goose and spuds, followed by fried goose and beans. As much bread and wine and water as was wanted was kept on the table, and believe me the company didn’t hang back. Manners were non-existent and nobody was bashful – talk about pigs at feeding time, still it was very amusing to us. Bones etc. are just thrown on the floor under the table. I carefully placed mine on the edge of my plate and the woman of the house just came along and tipped them on the floor. They just hacked lumps of bread off the big loaf and ate it as it was or dipped it in their wine or soup and sucked down. They didn’t have butter or jam or anything like that. It’s always a hunk of dry bread and maybe a tiny bit of cheese, or a tomato, or maybe a bit of cold ham. It’s strange to our English eyes to see a little girl or boy having a meal like that with a jack knife in one hand and a hunk of dry bread in the other. Still they think nothing of it, they’ve never known anything else I don’t suppose and they’re certainly none the worse for it.
Those threshing feasts that week were a treat for me and I got on well with the people. I could often understand what they were saying just by guesswork. The week soon passed over and everyone, prisoners and civvies alike, went back to their old work. As there had been no rain at all for months nearly all the ponds had dried up, and we had the job of digging them out and clearing the ditches in readiness for the rainy season. I’ve forgotten to mention before but no horses are used or seen on Italian farms, it is all big oxen, clumsy, all white animals, and the bulls have big horns. The cows all work as well as have calves, and none of them graze outside but have all their food in the stalls. The carts are heavy cumbersome things, and have one thick shaft with an oxen on each side. The animals are very slow and stubborn but they work very hard. Anybody can drive an ox cart, and it’s a common sight to see a six or seven year old boy driving a cart pulled by two massive bulls. I saw a very amusing sight one day (although I had the wind up a bit), one of these big bulls escaped from the cowshed, and as fences and hedges are non-existent here, it ran among some beans and Anna (a thin seven year old girl) was sent by her father to bring it back. When it heard her shouts it started running, but she chased it and grabbed it’s tail and hung there while it ran, all the time swiping it with her stick. It was like a flea bite to an elephant, but the bull returned to the cowshed all right and Anna thought nothing of her little act.
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No doubt it will surprise my friends, and my wife most of all, but there is no doubt that I got on better with all the farm people than my mates, and I soon picked up a good bit of the language. One day they asked me my name because I told them I was fed up with being called ‘Tony’, and when I told them ‘Fred’ they called me Alfredo, and in a few days all the people on the seven farms were calling me that. All the kids liked me (I don’t know why) especially little Anna, one of the family who since have adopted me and risked everything for me.
Then came the great day, and what we poor fools thought at the time was the end of our troubles and prison life. It was a holiday, September 8th, and we all had a half day from work. So on the evening the lads went for a walk through the village (under guard of course). I didn’t go, and I was just making a brew with Frankie Bowman when one of the sentries came tearing up from the village yelling ‘Guerra finito’. They hugged each other with delight. I told the lads who were still in the hut but they wouldn’t credit it, although we knew our lads had invaded Italy a few days previously. Suddenly we heard a lot of shouting and singing and the lads came back from their walk surrounded by a lot of yelling villagers. It was true enough – Italy had given in. The lads went mad, as was only natural, after a long imprisonment, but the civvies were more pleased than us because they had had more than enough of war, what with Abyssinia and Greece before this present lot. Bonfires blazed up on all the hillsides so the lads made a big one in the prison yard in spite of protests from the Sgt. [Sergeant] Major of the ‘Ities’. The civvies crowded round outside the wire amid much handshaking and singing -altogether it was a memorable night.
The next morning we all went to work, our gang of five to the farms as usual, where we had a great reception from everybody, and grapes and Vino. Very little work was done that morning, and the boss gave us the half day off so we went into the house of my family where I’d just had a good dinner with them on my own. We had a bit of fun and a bit of a dance to a gramophone with, to us very screechy records. Then back to camp we went where we found much celebrating and drinking going on, the boss and the villagers having given us a lot of Vino. What a mistake it was to give the lads a lot of that wine because it is horrible stuff at the best of times, and as they hadn’t had a drink of any sort for over a year most of them it didn’t do them much good, and by five O’ clock a dozen were very sick and bad and the others were arguing and fighting, except for about six of us who had none at all. What an exhibition the lads made of themselves that day, it’s a good job nobody saw them. Thank God I don’t drink. After several awful and ridiculous fights, and a lot of bother, peace was gained about two o’clock the next morning.
Workers were very unwilling and scarce when 7 a.m. arrived, but three of us did the usual trek to the farms and had an easy day supposedly digging. Just as I expected, now that the war was supposed to be over for Italy and release possible for us, the lads got completely out of hand and wouldn’t work, but wandered about because they had nothing to fear from the sentries now. Saturday the 11th. passed over very slowly with a lot of unnecessary bother, then Sunday the fateful day arrived. After a lot of talk and persuasion the Sgt. [Sergeant] Major of the ‘Ities’ agreed to let us out on our own in pairs, as long as we kept out of trouble and away from the main roads where a few Germans had been passing through every day. Being prisoners we foolishly thought that there were very few Germans in Italy and that they would run when our lads invaded and Italy packed in. However, when we got permission to go out on our own me and my mate got dressed (I put on a shirt for the first time for months) and, guessing what the lads would be like let loose in the village, we decided to go and see our friends the farm people. Keeping off the road we cut across country through the vineyards and it was grand to be free with no sentry with his eyes on you.
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A vineyard is a lovely sight when all the grapes are ripe, and it is marvellous the numbers of bunches on one small vine. It was a red hot day and we helped ourselves to plenty as we walked along. When we got to the first farm (home to me) the old woman yelled at us from the window, and the brother immediately said we must stay to dinner. We had a good meal and then the youngest brother dragged us away to another farm, and we had a good afternoon just wandering about. Around 8 p.m. it was practically dark so we thought we’d better get back to camp, then we saw a group of Italian soldiers who were fleeing to their homes away from the Germans. All ‘Itie’ soldiers had orders to get home as best they could and they didn’t need telling twice, it was a common sight in the next few days seeing them hiking across country. We talked to them a bit and were just leaving the family when the girl came tearing in from the village with the news that some of our lads had been held up by some Germans in a car and it would be dangerous for us to go back to the camp which was practically in the village. So the old woman insisted on us stopping the night and made us up a good bed on the floor with a mattress, sheets, and pillows. Next morning we went straight to work, expecting the others to turn up but they didn’t, and it turned out that they had made a proper show of themselves all round the district with drink and women and were nearly all sick and bad. We returned to camp and found things in a bright state, half the lads were out, most of the sentries had packed up and gone home, and there wasn’t a drop of water and very little grub in the place – and no chance of more coming.
A lot of German cars had passed through the village and things looked bad, so me and my mate packed up all we had, left the camp when it was dark, and returned to Mrs. Mancianti’s house. When I told them the story they said we must stop with them and still work for the big boss for food but no pay. Next morning I went and saw him and he agreed to give us all our food and we could just sleep at the Mancianti’s thus not being a burden to them. We thought it would only be for a day or so till our lads arrived or the camp got properly organised – how wrong we were.
We plucked three chickens before breakfast, then the boss gave us the usual meal of all farm people – dry bread, grapes and cheese – grapes, I’ve eaten more grapes in a day these last two weeks than I’ve seen in the past twenty eight years. I’ve had an average of six bunches of grapes daily for the past fortnight, and there are more to come, although they will all be picked before long.
We had our breakfast, then went down to the vineyards to work. As we were returning at dinner-time we saw two of our mates, with another lad, who used to work on the farms with us. They had left the camp as well because the food had run out and the Sgt. [Sergeant] Major of the ‘Ities’ had advised everyone to get out and fend for themselves before the Germans arrived in force. These three got fixed up with the boss on the same terms as us, and he arranged for them to sleep in a barn. That night as we were having a meal in the boss’s yard two more of our lads rolled up, looking completely done in, with the bad news that the Germans had been to the camp and took away all the lads. They had only escaped because they were out in the village at the time. Yes – by a bit of luck and common sense we had escaped, for a little while at least.
Two or three days went by, and we worked and kept a good lookout. We saw a good few of our lads who had escaped and were making their way a cross country to dodge the Germans. On Thursday the 16th. we had finished work for the day when my friend Guido came and told me that the boss was finished with us altogether, and he couldn’t give us food or work any more because there was a notice in the paper saying it was an offence to harbour escaped prisoners, and anyone doing so would be severely punished.
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I told the other four the news and we all decided that all we could do was start hiking south in the faint hope of missing Jerry and meeting our men.
So that night we said goodbye to all our good friends and set off; but Mrs. Manciante and all her family – Guido, Mario and Lepanto, the sons, and Zita the daughter – wanted me to go so far with the lads, then turn back on my own and sly back to their house where they would hide me and feed me till our men arrived or Jerry nabbed me. So I did this and 10.00 p.m. that night found me one of an Italian farming family, in civvy clothes, for better or worse, with all my army clothes hidden away. I’ll never understand why that family took to me the way they did, and risked everything for me, but by God I’ll never forget them.
A fortnight has passed over, and after a lot of narrow escapes and scares I’m still here, but the situation is far worse than we thought. How long it will be before I’m caught I don’t know, but things will definitely happen around here before long because the Germans are using a big aerodrome six miles from here and they are in force in Siena, a big town five miles from here. I can see it from my bedroom window.
I’ve often read in books and seen on the pictures where men have hidden away from enemy soldiers, but by gum I never thought I’d do the same myself one day. I’ve hid in the cupboard, in the cowshed, in the haystack, and other places when one of the family have given the warning, but how I’ll end up I don’t know. I’ve given up worrying, I just live for today – come what will tomorrow.
All the family make it their special business to help me learn the language, especially Guido and Zita, and I’m making marvellous progress. It’s no joke being in a foreign country on your own with nobody who can understand a word you say; but I can understand practically everything now if they talk slowly, and I can talk a good bit myself. When they talk normally it’s like Chinese to me, so then I give them a mouthful of fast English and they give in. Two things I’ve learnt about foreign languages – never compare them with English because they say practically everything the opposite way round to us. Such as house my, mother my, Telford Fred etc. Also never say you understand what they say if you don’t because it leads to a proper mess up of everything. I used to say ‘yes’ to everything they said at first, but I soon stopped that and now if I don’t understand I say so and they explain to me.
The days have flown by for me here; I’ve nearly been happy with this family, and when I think of all they’ve done for me I could cry. Honestly, Mrs. Manciante has been a third mother to me; and Guido, in spite of his roughness and lack of manners, is the finest man I’ve met in my life. I wish I had a few friends in England like him. Zita has also gone out of her way to help me, we’ve had some laughs and done a lot of work together this last fortnight. She is stronger than me, and can swing a pick or a shovel, and work as hard as any man. She has had to do so all her life since she was old enough, and she can plough and do anything like that. The women and girls don’t have much pleasure, they work in the fields or around the yard all day, then at meal times, and all night till 10.00 p.m. or later they work on making wool by hand from sheep’s wool. Only on Sunday do they have break from work. Then they get all togged up in their best, and by gum they are smart too, some of them. During the week they go about ragged and always barefoot (except in mid-winter), but on a Sunday they are as nice looking as the best English girls. One night we were playing cards (the men of the family), and both Zita, and her sister in law, and Mrs. Mancianti were surprised when I asked Zita why she wasn’t playing. “It’s Wednesday today, not Sunday. I can’t play during the week, I must work”. she said.
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I get up about 6.30 a.m. and have a cup of strong coffee. Then I mess about helping and getting in the way in general till about 8.30 a.m. when we have our breakfast of bread and cheese and grapes. Then we work at various jobs till dinner when we have a stew of sorts, and more bread and grapes (and water). Then we work till 8.00 p.m. when we have more stew or soup, and more dry bread and grapes. That’s my day just now and I’m quite content till our army gets here (I hope).
My friends in England, and all my family, would laugh if they saw me in a pair of much patched trousers, above my ankles, boots but no socks, and a shirt of sorts, followed by an old battered trilby hat two sizes too big – cleaning out the cowshed, or carrying the hay, or taking the oxen to the pond to drink. What a job that is. Yet all the kids from seven years upwards do it. I naturally make a mess of it. You have a rope round each beasts head and you take them two or three at a time. They are very slow, stupid animals (in my opinion). No matter how wide the track, when leading them one is bound to stumble into the ditch, or walk into a bush. While the other will insist in trying to go back into the cowshed. When I eventually get them to the pond, and fill the drinking trough, in spite of all my efforts and shouts (in Italian), they naturally ignore the trough and splash into the mud to drink from the pond itself.
There are no fences and very few hedges in this part of Italy. Everybody knows where his own land finishes, and the ditches are just gullies dug out to take the flood of water which comes from all the little hills when it rains. The houses are all the same, two stories with the cowshed, sheep, pigs etc. on the ground floor, and the living house on the second floor. Our house has eight living rooms, but four are used for storing all the corn, spuds, tomatoes, wine etc. which feed the family and all the livestock all the year round. There are three bedrooms and a big kitchen – all with stone floors and no rugs or mats, and whitewashed walls. The fireplace is about 10 ft. by 6 ft. in size, and the light is a big oil lamp. It’s rough food and rough living but, by God, good people with good hearts who I’ll never forget if I live to be 90.
It’s rained like hell for two days and nights now – the first rain of any sort for fifteen weeks. So there has been no work outside, but we’ve been busy indoors and in the cowshed sorting beans and corn, crushing grapes by hand for wine, and other jobs. I hope we go outside tomorrow because the day passes better then. Anna, (9 years old) has the job (no school) of taking 50 sheep out to graze five or six hours a day all the year round. She got caught in a hell of a storm today out on the hills. I could see her from the window, in her bare feet with an umbrella over her, bringing the sheep in. I’d like to see any kid I know of 14 or 15 years of age do the same job. Anna is as thin as a rake and weighs about two stone, and she hangs around me day and night. Strangers who don’t know that I’m English think I’m her father. Poor kid, I think a lot of her, she has a rough life but they all think nothing of it. They’ve known no other, and it all seems queer to me because I’m not used to it.
Things are still quiet round here, but there are a lot of German planes about all day. Our friends the Germans are giving Italy the same treatment as all the other occupied countries – taking everything they can lay their hands on, clothes, food etc. Sienna is being stripped bare and the people are in a poor way for food already. I can see the farmhouses being ransacked for food one of these days.
I heard a good one today. The Germans are offering 1,500 Liras (approx. £25) reward for information which leads to the capture of an escaped
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prisoner. It’s a good job for me that the people all hate the Germans so much now and are all for us, but its amusing to know that I’m worth £25 to somebody.
At times when I stop and think, or at night when I’m in bed, I can hardly realise I’m really in an Italian farmhouse. Fancy all this happening to me – Fred Telford. There’s one certain thing, I’m a different person to the one who left England in a troopship. I’ve had my eyes opened and I’m a lot wiser, I hope. I bet my wife will soon tell whether I’ve changed for the better or the worse. What a difference – this big stone floored kitchen with forms and hard chairs, to my own kitchen at home with it’s easy chairs and wireless, with paper on the walls and mats on the floor. Yet I’m content here with this good family, and when everyone joins in and has a bit of a laugh and a joke the hardest work becomes a lot easier.
I’ve been following behind the plough today, sowing beans – Lepanto ploughing with two oxen, Zita walking in the furrow sprinkling some chemical fertilizer, and me behind her with the beans. But we had a hell of a thunderstorm and we all got absolutely soaked through and had to abandon work for the day.
Italian people don’t talk quietly, they always seem to shout and wave their hands about a lot. Any foreigner would swear there was a fierce argument going on when they are just having a friendly chat. There’s never any quiet in our house, it’s always like bedlam with two or more talking at once. But I’m hardened to it now, I know Italian habits a bit. Well, it’s grub time again, Mama is chasing out the pigeons and hens and laying the table. In a few minutes I’ll be hacking a lump off the big loaf and ladling out some stew, then ending up with two or three bunches of grapes as usual.
There’s one thing I’ve forgotten to mention. These farms have no lavatories at all, not even a bucket. Everybody just goes behind the nearest hedge, and I can tell you it’s caused me some very embarrassing moments, but nobody seems to mind and they think nothing of it. However, it s not very nice, especially for old people. When I was first here I asked the lad where the lavatory was and he looked surprised and said there wasn’t one, and pointed behind the haystack. Yes, it’s a queer life, but I’m getting on well with the lingo, and the old dame can’t do enough for me. She’s always on at me for not eating a lot more than I do. :She’s borrowed a single bed for me, and by gum it’s one of the softest beds I’ve ever slept in, but I’m still as restless as ever during the night.
More rain today, just after dinner. We’ve been digging a ditch because the ground is too wet for any work. We are getting enough rain now to make up for the drought there was. No war news for the last few days, but a lot of German planes about. Still no sign of English planes, they’re what I’m longing to see – and will see soon. It’s just stopped raining 6.00 p.m. too late to do much more work today. I’ll play cards tonight I suppose, as usual, at somebody’s house. I come back on my own some nights, and just find the key where it’s hidden and let myself in as if it was my own house. How much longer will I be here, I wonder.
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The people I have to be most careful of are the Fascists (civilians) who are still all in favour of the Germans and would give me away in a minute if they knew I was hiding here. Mama keeps a good watch out though I’ve been lucky up to now. Today two fascists came to the house and I hid in the bedroom while they were in the kitchen talking. Then three Englishmen came to the house in civvies. Mama spotted them, and when she found out what they were she took them into the barn and I climbed out of the bedroom window and down a ladder and had a good chat to them while they had a feed of bread and cheese and Vino. One was a Lieutenant and the others Privates. They had escaped from a camp in the north and had been walking for a fortnight (well over 100 miles), in civvies and with no kit of any sort. They had got on all right so far and were determined to keep going until they met our lads.
Things are quiet on these farms so far, but a lot of Germans are in the district, and some farms a few miles from us have been ransacked of everything eatable – oxen, sheep, pigs etc. I hope to God they don’t come here, for the sake of these good people.
We worked today even though it was Sunday, gathering in the grapes. It was hard work but they look lovely all laid out. The best ones were picked out and hung around the bedroom ceilings for future eating, while all the rest were crushed up straight away for Vino.
I had a game of bowls today with all the men. The game is practically the same as ours except that the bowls are wood ones, and they have no bowling greens. We played cards as usual last night and had a bit of fun (it being rest day). They are all very amused at my Italian, but English has them baffled because there are no J’s, K’s, W’ s, X’s, or Y’s in their alphabet. We worked all day today sowing beans. They put the clocks back an hour today, but not during the night so as to get more sleep. No, during the day so as to get an hour more work in.
It was dark an hour earlier last night, but we got up an hour earlier this morning because it was daylight sooner 5.45 a.m. I was the last one to get up. I heard a bit of news today, our army is advancing all right and is in sight of Rome. But I also found out that seven of our lads in different places round this district have been given away by the Fascists and the Germans have taken them. My luck is holding out well, but Mama is worries to death in case I get caught for my sake not her own.
I’ve had no fags for weeks now because the shops haven’t had any in. Mama has kept on trying to get some and today she managed to get 10 Nationale, but I’m not fussy about smoking at all now. I wonder why I get on so well with the people around here? It is Alfredo this, Alfredo that, and two separate families have told me they will hide me up and look after me if I ever have to leave this house – but I won’t unless Jerry gets me or our army gets here.
The Germans are around this area in large numbers now, and a lot of war material keeps passing through going both ways, but our house is more than a mile off the main road.
I’m getting quite used to handling the oxen now, but, by gum, they are awkward things. Even with an empty cart the driver has to keep on at them all the time or they’ll walk off the path, and when ploughing etc. it’s a tiring job just keeping them on the move.
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I’ve been helping to cart and spread manure all day today. It’ll amuse my father-in-law and my wife when they know I’ve been doing all these different farm labourer’s jobs, and been shown how to do them by a woman – Zita, 26 years and unmarried.
I’m afraid my days of freedom are numbered. Somebody reported to the Germans about me being here and this morning they sent the Italian police (Military) to find out the truth. Luckily the police went straight to the boss’s house (100 yards from here) and he denied all knowledge of me, so they went away again to report. As soon as I hear a motor engine from now on I’m hiding somewhere, because they always send a military car to collect prisoners.
All our little pigs escaped this morning (15 of them), and we spent a hectic and laughable hour chasing them all over the hills. I didn’t think little pigs could run so fast. I read a page of their patriotic war songs today and was very amused by the way they sing about the glories of Italy and the marvellous Germans, the territory grabbing English and the horrible Russians. They’ve changed their tune slightly now that the Germans are showing their true colours, and they are all for the marvellous English.
The brothers here have a new (to me) idea for a meal. They have a hunk of dry bread and three or four walnuts, and are well pleased. So instead of bread and cheese just now it’s bread and walnuts. For dinner tonight we’ve just had a queer dish, like a big cake made of ground up Indian corn and cheese. The whole family like it very much, (they have it often), but I didn’t care for it, and Mama was quite put out.
We’ve been sowing more beans and harrowing all day today and nothing unusual happened. I forgot to mention it before, but about 10 days ago an English plane dropped leaflets during the night, (over Sienna really) and a few landed around here. I found one in the field where I was working. I suppose it was given out on the English news that leaflets were dropped over Northern Italy, but my wife and friends listening would never dream that I found one and read it.
My wife’s birthday today, she’s 26 years old. It is mine next week, I’ll be 29, by gum I can hardly credit it – me 29.
I haven’t been able to write much these last few days, but I’ll try and catch up now. We’ve been very busy the last week, sowing wheat and beans which are the best crops for this land which is very poor around these parts. The corn etc. is all sown by hand, and harrowed in. Then two or three people (the women and me usually) walk all over the ground smashing up the lumps of soil and filling any little holes in. It’s a tiring job, but I don’t mind it, and I’ve had an hour or two driving the oxen harrowing each day. I’m quite an expert at driving them now. One of our cows had a calf yesterday and what a lovely little thing it is, I saw it when it was half on hour old. We have five bulls, four cows, and three calves here now. They all work (not the calves), except the cows when they are actually having a calf. We have no milking cows, but other parts of Italy have plenty. We have no meadows here, all ploughed land.
Things are still quiet round here but it was in Sunday’s paper that anybody harbouring a prisoner and found out will be shot (by the Germans or course). Guido still insists on me stopping here, although we all keep a very strict watch now. If I’m caught now in civvy clothes I’ll be shot as well, so I’m in a fine pickle. Strange to say I’m not worrying in the least, and I sleep very well in my civvy bed with sheets and pillows – it reminds me of home and all I’m missing.
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Another one of our men passed by here today (A lieutenant). He had escaped from a train taking a lot of officers to Germany and had already hiked 300 miles. He was in civvies, and after a feed and a talk to me he set off for Naples (he hoped). He took me for an ‘Iti’ at first when I spoke to him, and when I spoke to him in English five minutes later he nearly fainted. He gave me a lot of heartening news about the war and it did me a lot of good, but he thinks I’ll be here for months yet before our lads get as far as here. A lot of our lads, prisoners, have been taken to Germany. What a blow for them, and a lot of Italians have been taken too.
It’s a lot colder here now in the mornings and at night, but I still only wear a shirt and trousers and boots with no socks -and of course my old trilby hat – and I’m not cold. I’m going to play cards now, ‘Scopa’ as usual, so I’ll close for tonight, come what may tomorrow.
It’s raining today so there’s very little work to do. It rained nearly all day yesterday (Sunday), and we got absolutely soaked through before we finished work on Saturday. Mama worries like hell if I get wet, and she is always on at me to put on underpants and vest but it’s not cold enough yet – although they all think it is. It’s queer, but here in Italy the people don’t like it in the summer when it’s very hot, and they don’t like it in the winter when it’s cold. They can’t stand their own climate.
I had a pretty good day yesterday even though it rained, because the rain kept them all at home and we had a bit of fun. In our house with all the neighbours during the day, and on the night we carried our gramophone into an empty house and had a dance. I didn’t dance much because they dance different to us, but I had all the waltzes (old fashioned, no modern), and enjoyed myself. Anybody reading these notes must use a bit of common sense, read between the lines and think a bit, not imagine I’m having a good time with no cares. If I sat down and thought of home and Nancy, Shirley and Janet I’d go nuts. So I laugh and work, and join in everything to keep my mind occupied. I was showing my photo’s around yesterday, and the people pinched two of Nancy and me together and stuck them on the kitchen dresser for everybody to see. One was me and Nancy on Chinnor hills just after we were married, and the other was me in battledress with Nancy taken at Scotsgrove.
There were two or three Germans in civvy clothes in the village pub last night. I don’t like it much because too many civilians know I’m here and might talk unintentionally. Five weeks I’ve been here now, I wonder how many more.
We had our first sight of English planes today and we all got very excited about it. I was in the house at the time and we heard gunfire over Sienna. We all rushed to the window and in a flash five Spitfires went whizzing past very low, dodging among the hills. I suppose they had just been flying around looking for trouble, and shot up a train load of troops or something similar at Sienna. I hope to see many more shortly.
I wasn’t very well today, had an awful headache all day but stuck at work till about 5.00 p.m. Then I came home and Mama made such a fuss about me, first trying to charm my pain away, then trying hot coffee, powders and pills.
They made me stop in bed till 8.30 a.m. today but I don’t feel too bad. They worry in case I take really bad sometime because it would be impossible to call a doctor for me. Mama killed a chicken and made some broth especially for me, but I feel all right except for
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a slight headache. We are still sowing wheat, and when it’s all finished there’ll be very little real work to do till the spring, except cut firewood in the wood and cart it home.
Another working week over, ‘Festa’ tomorrow (rest day). It’s been a tiring week and I’m fed up with walking about ploughed ground with a hoe. Some of the ground we’ve sown corn on this week has been as steep as a cliff nearly, and the oxen have had a hell of a job to keep their feet. I wish some of the farmers in England could see the land which is cultivated here, they wouldn’t credit it possible to plough it. I’ve had Zita and Guido’s wife as workmates all the week and I can’t help thinking what a life the women have here. They are no more and no less than peasants on these farms, and the women have to help with all the work. Guido bosses his wife about all the time and is always yelling at her to get a move on at work. Yet she takes it all for granted, even when she hasn’t had a civil word from her husband all day. They can’t be happy (not really happy) in a house with brothers, sisters, wives and children all in together. But there’s got to be a big family to get through the work. Guido hasn’t a minute alone with his wife all day, and he never talks to his child, Anna, except to tell her to get busy; and the brothers can only go courting on Sundays, they’re too busy the rest of the week. I’ve been here six weeks now and I still don’t know whether they are having a row or a friendly argument when they shout a bit, and when all the neighbours pop in as they often do, it’s like bedlam. But I’m a proper Italian now. In six weeks I’ve spoken English only when any of our lads have passed through here and stopped for a feed. It’s queer I can tell you, but I think and speak in Italian now.
I saw a sight tonight about 6 p.m. just as Zita and me were coming home from work – over a hundred German bombers passed over very low on their way south to the front. It was a fine sight but they had a black cross on their wings instead of our red, white and blue circle. It’s strange but both sides are knocking hell out of Italian towns and cities at present, and the Italians are practically spectators at a fight. A lot of our bombers have been passing over at night to bomb Northern Italy, and now Jerry bombers are passing over to bomb Southern Italy.
It’s very quiet here at present, but we’ve no idea how the war is going. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but a military outpost a few hundred yards from our house has been manned by Fascists for over a month now, and I’ve had a hell of a job keeping out of their sight because they can see our yard from the post easily. Still if I get seen and caught that’s all there is to it.
My efforts at farm work rouse much amusement in the family, and I can’t do anything properly, but I have a go at everything. If I take the oxen to drink it’s ten to one that one breaks loose or tries to run away, and I have a hell of a job to stop it. If I try to carry straw or hay into the cowshed I start off with a huge forkful but by the time I reach the shed I have about three wisps on the fork and the rest is on me and on the ground. Oxen are queer beasts, very easily scared, and often they won’t budge (even for men who’ve been handling them for years) until somebody drives them from behind with a stick. The other day going to work with two oxen I got stuck on the path with them for a quarter of an hour, and they wouldn’t budge in spite of my threats and pleading both in Italian and English – then they suddenly decided to move and everything went lovely for the rest of the day.
An Italian ‘Senorita’ came to our house yesterday and brought me two lovely steaks, she was very good looking and talked to me for over
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an hour. Her family is keeping five of our lads supplied with food in a wood about ten miles from here (a big contract). She promised to bring me some fags and an English book to read next Sunday. Mama has been worrying and trying to get me some fags all the time, and today she is content because she managed to get me two packets and a tube of toothpaste – cost 20 lira.
We’ve been sowing corn today and all week up to now, but it’s been very heavy going because there’s been a lot of rain. I’ve been soaked through a few times and I’ve always had half the field stuck to my boots. One of the neighbours is here now with half a dozen of his family, and they are all talking at once at the speed of 50 knots, so you can guess it’s a job for me to concentrate on my writing. One thing I haven’ t mentioned before, very few of the younger people here between 15 and 30 can read and write. Zita and Lepanto can do neither, while Mario and Guido can just manage both. Just imagine if you can, life in England if you can’t read or write. It seems incredible to meet people who can’t read or write a word.
The owner of all these farms has all the farming implements, machines and tractors necessary for modern farming, but this land is mostly too rough and steep for machines.
Still no news of the war. I can see me spending Christmas in this house if the Germans don’t get me first. I’ve learnt two Italian songs off by heart now. It’s a queer sort of life I’m leading at present, but even though it’s rough and hard work I don’t mind it – the only thing that gets me down is the light at night. We have a lamp but it’s very poor because oil is very scarce and hard to get. Some of the others have only candles, and what a job it is with about a dozen people playing cards, knitting and sewing in a big kitchen with only one candle as a light.
We’ve been having our dinnertime meal out in the field where we’ve been working, and it has been damned cold sitting in the open eating dry bread and cheese or grapes. The other day we had a salad of lettuce and vinegar water and I was the only one who had a plate, the other five just dug in the dish, and the fastest eater got the most. We’ve been putting the wine into a big barrel, and by gum it’s strong stuff. We have it watered down to drink during the week, but on Sunday we have it as it is, and these last two Sundays I’ve been a bit light-headed after three or four small glasses.
Sunday again, my 7th week here is finished, and the end either way is very indefinite at present. It was a lovely day today, and Zita washed and ironed her missing soldier brother’s best shirt, and complete with a good tie I was a proper civvy today. They all went to the village for the usual swank parade, and tonight Zita and her two friends Eilia and Paulina stayed in and we put the gramophone on and danced a bit, but our records are a bit stale now, especially to them.
This is a big holiday today, Saints day, and nobody’s done any work. There was a special mass held in the little church at the big house here. The priest only comes about four times a year so everybody from babies to grandmothers went. I dressed in civvies and slid in at the back even though I’m no Catholic and I didn’t understand a word of the service. After the service we all stood around for a bit and talked, then after dinner (goose) everybody went off to the village, even the little kids like Anna who always have to mind the sheep had a day off and got toffed up, and away they all went. It would be suicide for me to go to the village so I stayed here with all the old women who were left behind to feed the men. I read a good English book which the ‘Senorita’ friend in the village bought in Sienna for me, It’s called ‘Hostages to Fortune’,
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it’s a family life story and it’s damned good, but I’ll finish it’s 300 pages tonight. When Zita came back we just stayed in and played cards as usual.
Work today, sowing corn as usual, and we put a long day in. I had the two young oxen on the harrow, and they wouldn’t put a step right so I had to get Zita to belt them on from behind. When we finished tonight we were all tired out with the struggle, the oxen most of all. Another two days and we’ll be finished all the sowing then we’ll settle down for the easy winter work of messing around mending things, and cutting and carting wood etc.
I’m very tempted to put my head in the noose and go and have a day in Sienna with the brothers. The trouble is I’m a bad one for keeping my mouth shut and if I spoke anyone hearing would know in a minute that I’m not Italian, and as the place is thick with German soldiers now it’s a risk, especially as the brother’s lives are at stake as well as mine, but they are quite willing to risk it. Today is the Italian ‘Feast to the Dead’ so we’ve all stayed in tonight and there’s no card playing. There have been processions today to all the cemeteries in all the towns and villages to pay respect to the dead.. I’m progressing well with the language, and I can even understand and converse with the women, and you all know what women talk like. I’ve got spots before my eyes with this b—– light so I’ll close now and see what the next few days bring.
I’ve just been calculating how much land we’ve got here, it’s 205 acres but I don’t know how this farm compares with the average English farm for size. We’ve practically finished our corn sowing now, the weather has been lovely this last two or three days, it’s hard to realise it’s November.
Well, the Germans are making things move a bit in this district now, and things don’t look very bright. One thing is certain, I won’t risk going to Sienna because they are nabbing all the men they see and carting them off to Germany. The Fascist militia in the village are getting brave again now that Jerry isn’t fleeing from the country but making a stand and stripping it first. Mama was down the village today and the station was under guard, and everybody had the wind up. The war is certainly moving this way, even if very slowly, and the Germans are going to make sure they don’t leave anything of value behind when they do go. I don’t think the lads here will go down to the village on Sunday now, it’s too risky, and none of them fancy being shot or carted off to Germany. I wonder what this next week will bring.
The weather has changed for the worse, and it has been quite cold these last few days with rain now and then and a very cold wind. We always get our midday meal out where we are working now and I don’t like it a bit sitting in the open, half frozen, eating a hunk of dry bread and cheese and drinking cold wine and water; but I’m quite hardened to it by now. Our house is never warm because the kitchen is far too big for the one small window in it, so the door must be kept open wide all the time to let in enough light. The door is only shut when it is dark and the lamp is lit.
It is Sunday today, and as it is wet and cold nobody went to the village. I had plenty of company all day even though Zita went to Sienna. I put on a civvie shirt, tie and trousers and felt a new man. All the lads played cards in one of the houses and I just joked about with the girls. It’s funny, I’m quite shy with a lot of girls at home, yet here I’m just the opposite, and can even safely say that I get on very well with all of them. It rained like hell tonight so all the family stayed in and none of the neighbours arrived. We dragged out the old gramophone and had a bit of fun on our own, Guido is quite a scream when he breaks out.
Bad news late last night. A friend of the family, well
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known by all here, has been killed, and all his livestock and food taken away because he harboured and fed two of our lads. It’s no good kidding ourselves in this house any longer, things are gradually getting worse and I don’t want the same thing to happen here through me, so I am getting out today. I wanted to go away altogether, but they said no, hide in the woods here and we’ll feed you. So today all of us; went down to the wood and worked like hell and made a little dugout 7ft. long, 3.ft. wide and four ft. high. It’s very strong and well hidden, and it’s my house from now on.
I’m writing this by the light of a candle in my little dugout. I came here tonight, and have got a decent bed of straw with a blanket and two overcoats so I won’t hurt. Zita and her mother shed a few tears when I left the house in the rain to come down here. I’ll hang about the house during the day and if it’s safe go to the house for my food, and if not somebody will bring it to me. I think if this ever reaches home it’ll read like an adventure story. I can hardly credit it myself, and I think that what has happened so far is nothing to what may happen before I get rescued or caught.
When the family are working in and out of the place I’ll be able to do a bit of work, and as they were cutting wood today in this wood here I was able to join them; but I’m as useful at woodcutting as I am at the rest of the work here, and after a hopeless effort in which I tore my hands to pieces and only got a few measly twigs, I was delegated to the job of carting the bundles from the wood to the path. My house is well hidden under dozens of bundles of wood, and I cover up the 18″ doorway with a few bundles in the morning when I leave and don’t return till dark at night, so I hope it will remain undiscovered. When I’m inside I’m like a rat in a hole and I feel like one, huddled up with my overcoats and blanket, by the light of a candle on a cold dark night – yet I don’t feel down-hearted, and I sang every song I could think of last night to myself before trying to sleep.
By gum, it’s been cold these last two nights, with a thick white frost in the mornings. I take a tin of hot embers down to my house with me now to try to warm it up a bit. I can’t help smiling when I slide from our house as soon as it’s dark, with my tin full of embers in my hand.
We had a good job today, cleaning the sheep shed out. It only gets cleaned out about three times a year, and we have fifty sheep, so you can guess what the smell was like, and how much manure we had to dig out. It was trampled down hard and we had a heavy day’s work. We got ten cart loads of manure out, and when we had finished I smelt like the council s—cart. Still it’s all in an Italian farm-labourer’s lifetime. Well, my candle is getting low and my tin of hot embers is nearly cold, so I’ll turn in and try to sleep – good-night.
I’ve had a cold long day today wandering around the countryside, because Guido went to market somewhere early this morning and when he returned about 10.00 a.m. he said he’d heard enough from the gossip of the crowd to know that this situation is getting worse for me and more dangerous every day for both of us. So he said it’s best for me to keep on the wander all day and only return to the house at night for a good feed before coming down to my hole here to sleep. I know he is right, so I’ve been on the wander nearly all day. Plenty of workers in the fields saw me and I knew most of them to talk to, but that’s all right as long as they don’t know where I sleep. I don’t care if I’m caught in the open somewhere, but I must not be caught in or near the house for the safety of this family. I passed the time away by talking to the girls I knew who were out with their sheep and pigs.
A lonely duck belonging to somebody else was unfortunate enough to fly and land on our pond today and Mama promptly bagged it, and after
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waiting a short hour or two for someone to claim it – into the stew pot it went and we had a good feed tonight. Mama is always worrying about me sleeping down here, and Zita says during the night when the wind howls or it rains hard she says ‘Poor Alfredo, down there all alone’. She managed to get me three packets of fags today, and she says they are all for me because I need them most. She’s been so good to me I could weep, especially when I remember that one son was wounded in Greece (Mario), another wounded in Russia (Lepanto), and a third was captured by us in Sicily and nobody knows where he is now (Olinto).
Sunday today and Guido said I could stop in the house, but I must keep out of sight of everybody. I knew it was impossible, because they all swarm to our house on Sundays, especially when it’s raining the way it did today and they don’t go to the village. Before the day was out they all knew that I was in the house, and there was the usual gramophone and dancing episode, but they all know that I’m on the loose during the week and nobody knows where the dugout is, so they can’t do us any harm by gossiping. I’ve been here nine weeks today and this is the end of my first week sleeping out. The German’s have set up a post in the village now, so things are improving. Every day now we can hear bombing and gunfire in the far distance, our people are knocking hell out of Livono (30 odd miles from here). Let’s hope they make a landing there very shortly.
Yesterday and today have been too wet and windy to go anywhere or do anything, and I’ve just hid in the cowshed all the time and prayed for the time to pass quickly. At times I think I’ll go mad, I haven’t heard an English voice for weeks now (except when I talk to myself), and I can’t explain to you what it’s like. They are all very good to me, and in a way I like being here with them, but it’s a bit of a strain on the nerves all this hiding and dodging, and listening for an approaching motor-car. When I leave the house at night to come down here in the dark, and it’s muddy and wet and bloody lonely, and I think of Nancy and home, I feel like rushing up to the nearest German and giving myself up. It’s very wet, but inside my little hole here it’s a bone dry, and I’m quite all right once I fight my way through my barrier of thorns into my little doorway and get settled down for the night.
Another few days have passed over without anything happening. It’s been wet and miserable and I’ve done very little work, but hid in the house and cowshed alternately, and been properly fed up with life. Our kitchen here is never warm, and having such a huge open fireplace with a wood fire on a windy day is hopeless. You can’t see for smoke, it’s like a thick fog in England, and from outside you would swear that the house was on fire by the amount of smoke which comes out of the door and window. Inside the room we are all coughing and spluttering, and the lamp gives as much light as a fag end on a dark night. Happy days in Italy by Fred Telford – and yet I’ll feel it very much when I have to leave my friends here and go either to Germany or home to England.
I read a paper tonight which Mama brought from Sienna, the situation seems hopeless – our lads are retreating in Italy instead of advancing, so the German bulletin says, and they are trying very hard to get the Italians to resume the war against us. All lads of 20, 21 and 22 have to register again this week for military service, but I don’t think many will turn up. The few I know are determined not to return to the army, What a bloody mix-up this situation is, when and where will it all end? I can hear heavy bombarding going on in the distance now, from my hole. So to bed to dream of Nancy and my two little girls, Goodnight.
Another three days have passed and I’m still here. The weather has been hopeless, and during the day I haven’t been outside our kitchen.
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The rain flooded down, and it still is. I can hear the water rushing past my front door now, but it’s quite dry in here although my boots and trousers are thick of mud through my passage down here in the inky darkness. It’s been jet black these last few nights, and I’ve had some fun getting down here with my tin of hot embers. It’s no joke walking across rough ground (very muddy) when you can’t see a hand in front of you, and I’ve had a job to find my house and remove my barrier of thorns.
No news since Saturday and it’s Tuesday now, but the civvy police were up here tonight after one of the lads here who hadn’t turned up to register, and he has to go tomorrow or go to a concentration camp. I had a bit of a scare yesterday when from the house window I saw two ‘carabineers’ (armed fascist police) prowling around near this wood. It’s a good job I wasn’t down here or I would have been nabbed. They are hunting for a man from a house near here (a mile away) who deserted from them a week ago. Curse him, he’s bringing too much attention to my area. I’ll have to be still more watchful now. I’ve learned another new meal at our house, boiled chestnuts with bread, and they are very nice, far better than roasted. I’ll remember that when I get home. Our coffee is home made now because coffee is unobtainable. It is made from roasted grains of corn ground up to a powder, and it could be a lot worse.
By gum, Zita is damned good to me and I think a lot of her. She’s rough and tough but when she’s toffed up she’s very smart and attractive. She always looks after me at meal times, and whatever she gets her hands on to eat she gives half to me first. I’ve told her all about Nancy and Shirley and Janet, and their photo is stuck in the dresser for all to see, and Zita is always on about how nice Shirley is. She tells me all her troubles and experiences and is always laughing and fooling around whenever I’m down in the dumps, she soon makes me alter. She’s a second Nancy to me, and I mean it, but nobody could ever replace Nancy number one, and through doing no work these last few days I’ve had more time to think of home which is a bad thing to do too much of. Still, the day will come and by God I’m living for it – when I’m back once more with my little family – but sitting in this hole in Italy with rain flooding down, a hundred miles behind the enemy lines, I think it’s a long way off, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. Goodnight.
Another day over, and it has been wet and miserable all day, and it’s raining now. I bet I made a good picture coming across ploughed ground in pouring rain and pitch darkness with my umbrella in one hand and a tin of hot embers in the other. A lot of our planes are passing overhead now on their way to bomb somewhere – go to it, men. More Germans have settled in the village, so things are improving. All the 18, 19 and 20 year old’s had to register today, so it looks as though the Germans are going to make use of them f or something. Each day brings a new development, but I’ve only got the gossip to go by. I wish I could hear the real English news, and know what the situation is. The family were upset today because Stella our collie dog died. It was a good dog (8 years old), and it was always round me, and I got attached to it. It will be a big miss around here. I can hear bombing in the distance now – Livono again I suppose.
I haven’t written for a week now, I’ve been too tired and fed up to bother. But as it’s raining today and I’m at the house I’ll bring this scribble up to date. I’ve had no news at all this past week except that somebody in the know in the village says that our army is advancing. By gum I hope it’s true at last, because this is my 12th. week here and this sleeping in my burrow is no joke when it’s cold and frosty as it has been these last few mornings.
We’ve been picking olives yesterday and the day before, and me and Zita
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have had a bit of fun climbing around the small olive trees. They don’t sell the olives, but keep them and make oil to last them all the year round for cooking and frying. This farming business for these people here is just matter of work all the year round for food and the bare necessities of life, with very little money thrown in. Enough food is what very few people (except the farmer) have in Italy at this present time. We have this cake made up of Indian corn for breakfast every morning now, and it has no taste but is very filling, and that’s the main thing. We had a big plate of mushrooms this morning, and six of us just stood around it with forks in our hands and dug in, with the inevitable dry bread and wine and water to go with it. I m quite used to this six people to one plate and one bottle now, and I know that if I turned my nose up at it they would be surprised and offended.
I saw a grand sight today, eighty English bombers went over here at a good height, returning from bombing somewhere farther north. We still hear bombing and gunfire every day in the far distance, and the alarm at Sienna is always going. I went and played cards at the boss’s house last night. He lives alone with a housekeeper in a big house. He wanted me and Guido and Beppo to go so last night we went an stayed till after 11.00 p.m., and I found out that the bloke we’d always cursed and disliked when we worked for him as prisoners was quite a nice man to talk to and play cards with in his own house.
I slept in the cowshed with the oxen because it was too late and cold to go down to my hole, and I spent a restless and stuffy night. There was one exciting episode when one of the cows broke loose from it’s chain and started wandering around in the inky darkness, with me laying on some straw on the floor. I properly had the wind up because I had no matches and couldn’t see a damned thing, and the door was bolted on the outside. Guido heard the commotion in bed and came down and put things in order, and supplied me with a candle and matches but nothing else went wrong for the rest of the night.
I’m writing this in the house again because it has absolutely flooded down all day and all the low land is flooded and all the ponds and gulleys are overflowing. Where all the water comes from is a mystery. I’m sleeping in the cowshed again because it’s impossible to go down to my house in the wilds.
One thing here amuses me very much just now, and that is that the people here think it is very cold now and wouldn’t dare go to bed unless the bed was warmed up first. They have a kind of wooden frame which they put under the bedclothes to form a kind of tent in which they put a little bucket of hot embers from the fire about three hours before going to bed. It’s nowhere near as cold as England but we are having a lot of rain. All the people have this bed warming arrangement, and when they are sitting in the cold kitchen in the evening sowing or knitting they have their little buckets of embers between their feet or under their chair – I can’t help laughing at them.
Just as I expected the Germans are carting away to Germany all the 18 year old’s who registered last week, except the ones who have escaped and are roaming the countryside. I saw half a dozen pass by here yesterday, but where can they go? Down south the battlefront is coming nearer every day, up north is Germany, and all round here are Germans and Fascists – they are as badly off as me. Refugees from down south are passing here by the trainload now, but where can they go? When I think of all this, and see the people around me here who will probably lose all they have (and maybe their lives) I thank God that I’m English and my wife and two children are safe in England with a comfortable home and enough to eat, and not like these poor people of all the desolated countries. I know that when the fighting approaches us here I’ll be in a proper fix, and
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probably get nabbed or done in, but I’ll think about that when the critical period comes. At present I’m just eating and drinking and putting the time in as well as possible – and thinking of Nancy and home quite a lot. I bet they are all worrying and wondering whether I’m dead or in Germany or what.
German reinforcements are pouring down south now so I think our lads must be advancing at night. Often during the day I can hear tanks and convoys of guns and stuff going past on the main road in the
I’ve got very little to write about now because news is negligible and nothing has happened here. This is my 14th. week, it seems incredible I’ve been here so long. It looks as though I’ll be here another 14 the way this damn war is going. Still, where there’s life there is hope, and every day is one nearer the end.
I’ve been woodcutting with our gang a few days now, and I’m getting quite an expert at the art of chopping brushwood and thorns, and tying it in bundles without using string’ We don’t cut down trees, just the undergrowth and bushes etc. That is all they burn for fires here. My hands are showing signs of labour, and even my face is scratched by thorns – my wife and friends know what a handy b—– I am. I’m afraid I’ve sworn a bit, but as nobody understands me it’s okay. Anyhow everyone here from 8 years upwards swears like a trooper. It’s Madonna this and Madonna that, day and night.
I haven’t slept in my hole in the woods for over a week now because it’s very damp with the rain we have had lately. I’ve slept one night in a proper bed when Lepanto was away, two nights in the cowshed, and the other nights in the oven. It may seem laughable to English people to say I slept in the oven but it’s an ideal place, very warm and dry, and with a bed of straw. Our oven is about 6 feet circle, about 2 feet high, and it’s in a little shed at the side of the house. It’s one of those ovens where you put the fire inside and when the oven is hot enough you take the fire out and put in whatever you wish to cook. We only use it for cooking the bread in; they eat a hell of a lot of bread here, Mama makes 17 loaves, each about four pounds in weight, once a week for nine of us. They don’t eat many potatoes, it is bread for every meal.
The time hangs on my hands very much now because I can’t go to the other houses with the men at night like I used to. I just stop in our house with the women and the two young ones every night, and we all get very tired by about 7.30 p.m. and away to bed they all go, and I creep outside and crawl into my oven and shut the door for the night. My friend (a ‘Senorita’) from the village sends me two fags every now and then because they are now rationed and its impossible to get them with out coupons, so my smoking days are over for the present. Zita is damned good to me She has bought a film for a camera (it cost 20 lira’s, a fortune to her), and we are going to take eight good snaps because Zita wants Nancy to see what it’s like for me here. So we are awaiting the sun.
Always on a night when the men have gone out somewhere; and I am alone with the three women and the two kids, I sit inside the fireplace over the embers and dream of home, and Nancy, Shirley and Janet who I haven’t seen yet.
Young Anna has made me tell her the story of Cinderella every night for the last five nights. I tell you my Italian is quite good now. A fire of this brushwood is no good, it burns well, but in five minutes it’s out except for a few red embers. We’ve been woodcutting today again. They always cut enough in the winter to last them all through the year so we have a lot to cut yet, curse it.
German convoys are still pouring past here on the main road, and we still hear the sound of gunfire and bombing in the distance. But I’ve heard
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no news at all for a week or two now. One thing I do remember, and that is my daughter Janet is one year old on Sunday.
Another day of pouring rain has passed, and I spent most of it in the bedroom because a man who was out shooting took shelter here because he knew the family, and he stayed for hours. The oven is my regular bedroom now. I’ve temporarily abandoned my house in the woods, but it may come in useful when the fighting comes this way.
It’s been quite a decent day today, but I’m always fed up more on a Sunday because there is very little work to do and Zita, Lepanto and Mario all go out courting, or trying to, and I’m left on my own. It’s Janet’s birthday today, and I’ve been thinking of home more than ever. What a worrying time Nancy must be having now, she doesn’t know whether I’m dead, in Germany or where. And it’s Christmas next Saturday. What a Christmas for my darling wife with me to worry about, and two babies to make happy and contented. But I know Nancy will see it through and be waiting for me when I once more knock at our front door.
Another day of pouring rain and no work except cleaning the cowshed out and feeding the oxen. There are dozens of hopeless rumours flying around just now, but I put no faith in any of them. I’ll only he content when I see convoys of English troops passing here instead of Germans, and see khaki instead of grey in the village – roll on that day.
This is a busy week I must say. We did nothing much yesterday because Guido went to Sienna, and today there’s more rain, so it’s just hang around all day and look after the oxen. It wouldn’t be so bad at home but this house here is so cold and comfortless, and with nothing to read it is a damned sight better when I’m working hard all day. They don’t do much housework here, soap and hot water are never used on the floors – just a case of sweeping up with a stiff brush every morning and that’s it.
They all wear home-made clogs now that it’s bad weather, and they are damned good too, made of old boot tops and wooden soles carved by Mario. The shoes, boots and clothes are patched and patched year after year, but they still serve their purpose well. When I think of the good stuff we throw away in England as useless I think what fools we are. It’s astonishing how long boots and clothes can be made to last when new ones are unobtainable.
The young lads of 18 years are going away now, and if a lad doesn’t turn up on the day he is ordered to the next day the police (under German orders) come to the house and take the father in his place.
We didn’t go down to the wood woodcutting again today, so I helped the three women clean the house out (kitchen only). We swept the rafters with a long brush and put clean newspapers on all the shelves where the pans etc. go and the cleaning job was done. I saw a newspaper today for the first time for weeks and it was anything but encouraging to me. Our army is still below Rome and seem to be making no progress at all. I look like being here a long time yet.
Washing oneself is a problem here because soap is very, very scarce we all wash with it on Sundays only, or when they are going out somewhere special. You’ve no idea what a job it is to wash without using soap but I’m past caring now.
I can hardly credit it is Christmas Day today, The weather has been quite sunny and everyone except me and Mama went out after dinner dressed in their Sunday best. We had a good dinner and drank the best, strongest Vino we have. Tonight was just the same as all others. I was left in the house with the women and children. Me and Zita played cards, but they’ve all gone to bed now and it is just quarter to eight. I just imagined what it was like at home today, with all the presents and things, and a lovely fire, and the wireless and Nancy.
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It’s a lovely day so far, without a cloud in the sky, but a bit windy and cold, so I’ve taken nearly all my photographs. I’ve taken one of me and Lepanto with two oxen, one of Zita with the same two oxen, one of her in her very best, one of Mama feeding her precious chickens, and one of Anna with a lamb in her lap. The other three have to be of me so they all say, but I always take a hopeless photo, I know I’m no beauty.
By gum, it was cold last night in my oven bedroom, there was a thick frost. I was damned glad when morning came and I had a bit of work to do to warm me up. I don’t like this breakfast at 10.00 a.m. business, but that’s what we’ve done for the last two months – breakfast at 10.00 a.m. Lunch at 2.30 p.m. (or thereabouts) then dinner at 6.00 p.m. I tried a new idea for my lunch today because we have run out of cheese now. You must try it sometime – salt sprinkled on dry bread, quite tasty I can assure you. I had another surprise today after we had carted four loads of wood to the house. Me and Mario went to the only pine tree we have on our land and knocked down all the pine cones from it and carried them home (we got over 100). Strange to say, but inside a pine cone before it dies and falls off the tree are a lot of little nuts which when shelled are okay; but it is a lot of work and takes a lot of patience to get them out and shell them.
I’m sleeping in the cowshed for warmth tonight and Mama is baking in the morning so my bedroom will get warmed up again. We heard a lot of bombing not so far away this afternoon, but we saw no planes. If I try to write any more with this light I shall go mad, so I’ll say good night to you all.
It’s been pretty cold yesterday and today, and tonight there is a damned cold wind. Just imagine what it’s like in this house here during the day in winter, with the door wide open for light, and no curtains at the window, no mats on the floor, no comfortable chairs, and no wireless or newspapers. I can’t imagine an English woman of any age sitting on a stone hearth with a small stick fire, and the door wide open with the wind whistling in, patiently knitting away like Mama does every day.
I’ve got a new job to pass the time away at night now and that is teaching Zita to read and write. She is by my side now struggling to write small three letter words like and, the etc. (In Italian of course). We were all down in the wood working today, and it was O.K. while the sun shone, but we soon packed up and came home when this cold wind sprang up. We heard more bombing today.
More woodcutting today, and was I fed up. We all had a bit of excitement though about 2 p.m. We heard the sound of planes, and about 50 or 60 English bombers passed overhead, and soon after we heard heavy bombing in the distance.
I paid a visit to my house in the wood today to get a jacket I had left there, and lo and behold, it isn’t a house any longer. It has all caved in with the heavy rains we have had, and the weight of the tiles and clods of earth on the roof. The jacket is under about a ton of earth, and so are all my letters and what little kit I did have. Me and Mario are going to clear the earth away and get the stuff out.
New Year’s Eve in Italy, by gum. We had a taste of good old English weather today, sleet and rain and a gale of a wind. It was enough to cut you in two and when we tried to take the oxen to the pond to drink they wouldn’t face it and we had to carry water into the cowshed for all of them.
After dinner the rain etc. ceased but the wind got worse and blew half our straw stack away. I’ll be sleeping in the cowshed as usual tonight, by gum I don’t fancy it much. Nine o’clock and I’m going to my straw bed to dream of all the other New Year’s Eves I’ve spent in better circumstances.
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New Year’s Day.
Another holiday here today, but nobody went very far from the house because the wind was worse if anything, and a few straw stacks of our neighbours have been scattered over the countryside. As I expected I was b…… cold all night and had no sleep at all. Let’s hope it’s a bit warmer tonight; but I don’t fancy it much.
Another bad night for me through the cold, but the wind has died down and it was frosty with ice on the pond this morning. It turned out a lovely day with warm sun and we finished taking our photos. Zita is taking the film to Sienna to be developed next time she goes. I hope the snaps turn out very good because I want to take them home with me to England along with this diary.
We have run out of oil for the lamp and I’m writing this by the light of a home made candle, it’s great fun I can tell you.
One of the great days of the year for our family tomorrow, the killing of our fatted pig (not calf). We’ve been feeding it for months, and when it’s killed it will feed all our family for months. It will be welcome, I can tell you, because all our cheese has gone and dry bread with nothing else is too bad. This is the end of my 16th week here, it’s incredible and I really think I’ll be here another 16 at least.
We killed our pig this morning. Guido did the job with a big knife while we all held it, and did it shout. We cleaned it and everything – we didn’t get a bite to eat till 11.00 a.m. then we had a darned good scoff. Me and Mario went digging in the garden afterwards and the sun was quite hot, I was sweating.
We heard the alarm at Sienna and bombing in the distance, then 24 English bombers passed overhead. It’s getting quite common now to see English planes in the sky, but it’s fighter planes I want to see, and many of them.
I’ve had quite an interesting day today. Me and Guido and another man cut our pig up, at least they did the cutting up and I did the mincing etc. with the mincing machine. I made the sausages and helped make the black puddings and the dripping. We had three good meals today and I ate till I couldn’t eat another bite. We worked till 9.00 p.m. tonight and I’m quite tired so I’m off to my strew bed and my oxen bedmates now. Goodnight.
Another day has passed over and it has been quite a birthday for me. A man friend from Sienna brought me a good dress shirt and a pair of long underpants (which I’ll never wear). Then my posh ‘Senorita’ friend from the village arrived to see me with a present of 60 fags and a pair of very good trousers. What a Godsend the fags are, how she got them I don’t know, because a man’s ration here is 30 a week. There’s no doubt about it, I have a few good friends outside of this group of farms and I appreciate them and can’t thank them enough.
I forgot to mention before now, our pig weighed 400lbs.
Today was another holiday here and I had quite a good day with fags to smoke, plenty of good Vino to drink and an excellent five course meal. By gum, we might have some poor meals at times, but on Sundays and holidays we certainly eat as well as any king. Our dinner today was excellent with pork, chicken stew and the usual bread and Vino. I got weighed today just out of curiosity and to satisfy Mama. I found I was 10st. 9lbs. the most I’ve ever weighed in my life, so this life here isn’t doing me any harm.
We went cutting wood today and it was glorious weather, but damned cold this morning and tonight. We saw 24 bombers pass over (English) and heard bombs exploding in the distance.
Another weekend has passed over without anything out of the way happening. The war seems a long way off at present and I’m just a proper Italian labourer now till I’m in my straw bed at night and I think of Nancy and home and all my friends. We’ve been cutting wood as
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usual today but another day or two will see it finished for this year, and I won’t be sorry because today I’ve had more thorns in my hands than a b….. rose bush. Happy days in Italy.
After another three quiet days our peace was shattered this morning again, and it is now impossible for me to stop in or near this house, so tomorrow morning I am taking to the woods for once and for all, to sleep and eat where I can. The Fascists are hunting for escaped men like me now, and three farmers, all within five miles of here, have been imprisoned for hiring men. At one place where five were living in a wood the farmer has been put in prison for feeding them, and also the manager of that farm. One of the five English lads tried to get away when they were rounded up and the fascists shot him.
So now I’m a hermit of the woods, and it’s no joke because it’s cold, frosty weather. Guido is going to keep me supplied with grub, but I must only call at the house for it late at night and go quickly away again. I’m going to sleep in a different cowshed every night and stop in a different wood every day, so that if I’m seen one day I can’t be caught in the same place the next day. These woods are only very small (about 100 yards long) but there is a good few of them scattered around here.
Well, I left the house this morning, and let myself be seen by quite a few people so that the rumour will soon get round that I’ve gone for good this time. I’ve come about 12 miles so far, and I’m writing this in a strange wood then I’m going to look around for somewhere to sleep.
By God, there are some grand people in this world. I got talking to a bloke who was cutting wood last night, and told him I was an escaped English prisoner who was just dodging around the country, and he invited me to his farm house for a meal and to sleep the night. He said ‘Come and meet the family’ when we got to the house and I went in. I nearly dropped dead when I saw eight women and girls above fourteen sitting round the fire. More kids came in later, and two more men. It was two families in one (two brothers) twenty in one house, but six lads were away at the war so 14 were at home at present. Six lads at the war, two prisoners in Africa and four missing in the present mix-up, yet they took me in and gave me a seat at their fireside and made me sleep in a civvy bed instead of the cowshed. I left these good people early this morning and made my way back to my home district here, and here I’m staying till I either freeze to death in a wood or get captured, or the summer weather comes, or our army gets here.
By gum, this life is going to get me down, I’m afraid. Stopping in a cold wood from 6.00 a.m. till 7.00 p.m. without doing anything or seeing anyone, then sliding home in the darkness and snatching a quick meal, then out again to creep into somebody else’s cowshed to sleep. Then out again and the same again on a cold, frosty morning. Just imagine me sitting in a wood at 6.00 a.m. on a winter’s morning toasting bread on a little wood fire and drinking a bottle of water, then the long dreary day. I can’t help smiling but it’s no joke I can tell you. What is it like to have a hot cup of tea, in an armchair before a lovely coal fire, with electric light and the wireless, and above all your wife by your side. HEAVEN. What is it like to go and sit on a nice lavatory seat in comfort, I’m fed up with going behind bushes and other similar places, and finding dry soft grass on a frosty morning is a big problem. However, as this is my 19th. week here I’m past worrying and I’ll just laugh and wait and see what the future brings.
It was a very bad day yesterday, cold and frosty with no sun at all, and I spent a lousy twelve hours in a wood. But if you keep heart something always turns up, and about 5.00 p.m. last night I heard somebody shouting ‘Alfredo, Alfredo’ in the wood. I went up and found it was an old man friend of mine from one of this group of farms, the
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most isolated. It is over a mile from all the others and well out of the way of everybody along a very bad track. It is two farms actually, but I knew both families pretty well and I now know them much better. This man said to me ‘Alfredo, come to my house now at once. As long as I’ve got a house you won’t have to stop in a wood on a day like this. I’ve talked it over with Guido and the manager of this group of farms and we’ve decided for you to sleep in my cowshed always, and feed with my family and Guido’s on alternate days, and only stay in the woods from about 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. when it’s a decent day. On bad days stop in my house when there is no fear of anyone coming owing to the bad weather’. What can you say to good friends like these, eh?
I went up to the house with him and soon was sitting by a lovely fire, laughing and joking with him and his wife, and the two daughters Elena and Delfa. We had a good feed then all the family from next door came in and we spent the evening talking by the fire. About 9.00 p.m. I went to my bed of straw in the cowshed supplied with a blanket and two overcoats, and I spent a decent night. This morning, because it was very misty I stayed at the house till after 10.00 a.m. then came down here and lit a small bonfire, and here I am sitting over the embers writing this. I’m going down home tonight after dark to see how Mama is because she is bad in bed now.
I went down to our house and had my dinner last night, and Guido insisted that I slept in the cowshed there. He gave me a haircut which I badly needed, then I just took my usual seat at the fireside and stopped there till bed-time. Mama is still in bed and they are getting the doctor to her today. This morning I left home at 6.30 a.m. when it was still moonlight, and came out here to this wood, and I’ve had a rotten five hours so far because there was a hell of a frost but the sun is breaking through a bit now.
One thing our women would find very strange here, and that is these farm women never go out shopping for groceries or anything in the eating line. Everything needed in either home-grown or home-made, and the only thing bought is salt. Sugar is not needed because tea and coffee they don’t drink, and they don’t make sweet puddings or cakes. Just imagine one of our houses at home without it’s tinned stuff and tea and sugar etc. still it’s a true saying that what you’ve never had you never miss.
I had an enjoyable evening last night. I went to this other house for my dinner, and, after we had had a good tuck in, Pasquali the son brought out his piano accordion, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, and he played for nearly two hours. It was great. I knew very few of the tunes, but we all just sat and gazed into the fire and thought our own thoughts, and you can all guess of where I was thinking and dreaming. This family are grand people, I’ve got two homes now, one with them and my own home at Guido’s with Zita and Mama and all, so I shouldn’t come to any harm. I’m going to have a night at each, but I must still stop in a wood all day without anybody seeing me. All my other friends think I’ve gone for good this time.
I’m writing this in the bedroom at home. I came here for my dinner last night and was ordered to sleep here and hide in the houses all day without seeing a soul, so this morning I’ve had a good bath in a big dish and changed all my clothes and had a shave, so I feel on top of the world now, after a good dinner.
Well, what I prophesied the other day came true about an hour ago. Our bombers bombed Sienna, but only in the area of the station. It was the people here’s first taste of actual bombing and what confusion there was. I saw all the bombs bursting quite plain from here, and by gum how the ground shook, our house nearly fell down. Mama, who is bad in bed, screamed the place down and Zita had a job to calm her. In no time rumours were flying round as to how many civilians has been killed, and what damage had been done, but if they get no more bombing than that they are very lucky, because this morning’s was very little.
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Another week is started now – my 20th here, but if the weather gets no worse I won’t come to any harm in the wood. It is very mild and sunny this morning, not a bit like winter in England, and all last week it was very cold and frosty in the morning but the sun always broke through by about 10.00 a.m. and was quite warm till about 3.00 p.m. then cold again. We’ve had no snow and very little rain lately, but I suppose this good spell won’t last much longer. The alarm has gone off at Sienna and a dozen of our fighters are flying around now, but at a good height. I want to see some more bombing today, and lots of it this time.
No bombing at all yesterday but a lot of alarms. I think that the war in coming this way at last, for better or for worse for me. I don’t know yet but my fate might as well be settled one way or the other as hang in the balance like it is now. My life here is becoming more uncertain than ever now because after Sunday’s bombing of Sienna the people have the wind up and are evacuating from the city into nearby farms (like ours). All this group of farms except the two I live in have taken either relatives or friends in to live with them, so now I must keep to the woods all day and be more on my guard than ever. I wonder what will happen next?
It rained like hell this afternoon, and it was great fun sitting under a few bundles of brushwood just waiting to get wet. After two hours of it I was feeling happy I can tell you. Then Pasquali came down looking for me with a big umbrella, and he carted me back to the house where we all got round a big fire and talked the time away.
It’s a lovely day today so far, with a clear blue sky and a warm sun, so it’s alright sitting here in the wood writing this. I might see a bit of air fighting today, or very soon, because six German fighters are at the aerodrome at Sienna now and as soon as the alarm goes – up they go and fly around till the all clear sounds. When our bombers return this way I can see a spot of bother in the air here.
Well the days are passing slowly. I have now been a hermit of the woods for a fortnight and I’m no worse for it. I went home for my dinner last night and found Mama no better, and Zita is in bed with her a damned sight worse. I had a good feed and stayed talking for a while then went back to the other farm to sleep. I found some relations from Sienna had arrived to stay, so now I can only sly in and sleep in the cowshed without going into the house and sitting by the fire. I brought my food and drink with me today from Guido, but about 1.00 p.m. this afternoon I heard Pasquali shouting for me in the wood, and he had brought me a good meal of a bottle of wine, half of a loaf and some cooked meat because they killed their pig this morning.
Since 10.00 a.m. this morning the sun has been very warm, but it’s turning cold again now it’s 3.30 p.m. I’ll soon have to leave my seat here and get moving to keep warm.
We have had no sign of English bombers this week, but plenty of alarms and those six German fighters are always flying around.
All day, every day now, I sit and dream of Nancy and home, and what they are doing, and what a day it will be when I return to them once more. I pass the time away by thinking of what I’ll say when I walk in the door, and how Nancy’s face will light up when she sees me, and what my little girl will have to tell me, and what Janet will think of her dad. Pleasant thoughts, may they soon be reality.
Another day here and nearly gone, but the war is creeping up here now. Last night I was going home for dinner, but the other family here got me to stop end eat with them, and about 7.00 p.m. the Sienna alarm went and we heard heavy bombing in the distance. We all trooped outside and for over an hour we watched English bombers knocking hells bells out of somewhere about 30 miles from here. It was like a firework display and reminded me of the days when I was on Northolt aerodrome and watched the bombings of London, although in this case here I have no regrets, and I
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can watch and listen quite calmly while all the others with me are weeping and swearing and gazing awestruck. One of the brothers of the other family near here brought me a good meal out today, so between these two families and Guido’s they don’t intend to let me starve.
By gum, it’s been rotten cold today, and it’s been great in this wood since 7.00 a.m. this morning. If we get weather like an English winter here I’ll never stick it out. Thank heaven very cold days are very scarce here. I had two bright periods all the long day – one in the morning when our bombers did another little bit of bombing on the outskirts of Sienna and the aerodrome near there which the Germans are using a lot now – the other bright spot was spoilt because one of the American fighters, which I was very pleased to see and which skimmed over this wood in a mix-up with Jerry fighters, was daft enough to get shot down half a mile from me here. I heard the machine gun fire and saw the smoke as the plane burnt out. The war is certainly moving nearer here every day. The roads are swarming with German troops and gun convoys. The village here is practically empty now. The people have all debunked, scared to death of both the bombing and the Germans.
Another cold miserable day with no sun and not even a bit of bombing to cheer me up. Twelve hours of this every day for weeks – I hardly dare think of it.
Last night at dusk Pasquali came and fetched me because the relations from Sienna had gone back. I went home with him and all the family made me eat and eat till I could hardly move. Then we played cards and joked around the fire till 10.00 p.m. I was wanting to go down home tonight but the other man came down a few minutes ago and said I must have my dinner with them tonight, so there you are. It’s impossible to disappoint or refuse such good friends, and Mama and Zita will guess where I am. It’s been another rotten day today, but as I didn’t come down here till 10.30 a.m. I’ve had only eight hours of purgatory instead of eleven or twelve.
This morning I was sitting with Pasquali and all the family round the fire having our breakfast when someone knocked at the door. It was Zita who had come to find out if I was alright, because I hadn’t been down home for two nights, and they were all worried in case I was ill or something had happened to me. Zita was relieved to find me alright and has gone home now. I’m definitely going down home tonight. It is dull and colder than ever today.
I’ve nothing at all to write about today, except that the weather is still dull and miserable, but no frost, snow or rain.
I had my dinner at Pasquali’s again last night, and he played his accordion so the evening passed over very well. I’m quite used to sleeping with the oxen now, and their snorts, snores, grunts, groans and rattling of horns and chains all night doesn’t disturb me in the least, neither do the mice running around.
A dozen German fighters are flying around overhead now, but we’ve had a quiet week here owing to the dull misty weather. Today isn’t too bad so I might see a bit of action.
Still no more activity in this area by our planes. I sit all day in this wood here and watch German planes of all descriptions flying around, and now I’ve lost all my good hopes of a quick end to the war here in Italy, which were raised by the bombing of Sienna a fortnight ago. The time isn’t passing too bad for me here. The days in the wood are horrible, but on an evening, and in the mornings I laugh and talk with the women Zita, Elena (23), Delfa (18), Fosca (24), and Primetta (37), and play cards with the men so it’s alright. I had a good laugh with Zita last night. She was talking to one of the Fascist soldiers who man the post 500 yards from our house, and he was cursing the English and the
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Americans all ways. He said ‘If I could get my hands on one of them now I’d murder them without any weapons just my bare hands’. Little does he know I’ve been living 500 yards from him for 5 months. What amused me me was Zita said ‘I agree with you, and would like to do the same myself’. I told her to send him down to this wood and see who’d do the murdering, because I’m in the right state of mind these days. After our army pass here I’ll have to call at the post and see this brave man who talks so big when he knows he is safe.
If this diary ever reaches home in England I shall be very surprised, because I’m leading a very precarious existence at present, and I’m very doubtful if I’ll be here when our lads do reach here. A new and worse development has taken place since I last wrote. The German Commander has given orders to the effect that the Fascist soldiers must make a search of all the woods and farmhouses in each district for English escaped prisoners like myself, because he knows that a lot are still at large. So now what next? I’ll have to sleep with one eye open and keep a watch all day when I’m in the wood, both for myself and the sake of these good people who are shielding me.
I saw a grand sight yesterday, and I left my wood to get a better view. Forty English bombers, supported by ten fighters, came over and bombed Florence. Then on their way back dropped a few on Sienna and flattened the station. The German fighters which are always around here were conspicuous by their absence.
It’s been raining today for a change, and I’m writing this by the fire in the house because one of the lads came for me in the wood when the rain got too bad.
I had quite a surprise yesterday when Pasquali opened the cowshed door – snow, 4 inches deep. So yesterday and today I haven’t been down to the wood but have stopped by the fire and shivered with all the family. By gum, these big stone kitchens are awfully cold. Even when you are huddled over a blazing wood fire your back and feet are cold. I’m going down home tonight for the first time for four days, because the snow is melting today even if there is an icy wind.
I came down here last night and slept in the stall, and now I’m writing this over a bucket of hot embers in the bedroom where I’m going to stay all day because it’s too risky to stay in the kitchen with so many people wandering around outside.
The snow has practically all gone, but it’s very cold this morning and I was cold last night in my straw bed.
Well, I got yesterday over alright but, by gum, what a long day it seemed in the bedroom all the time. About 60 of our bombers did a bit of work not far away but I saw nothing. It’s very frosty this morning so it’s b…… cold in this wood today. I’ll light a fire before long and risk somebody seeing it and coming prying around. 4.00 p.m. More bombing today, and lots of it, but all in the distance, and I heard the planes without seeing them. After the all-clear had sounded ten German fighters went up and did a bit of flying around in safety.
Well, I’m writing this on the trail again. I’m a wanderer once more, and every day I can be seen wandering the countryside with a sack upon my back containing my overcoat. By God, it would break Nancy’s heart to see me begging at the farmhouses for food and drink, and a bed in the cowshed. How it happened this time was that a Fascist soldier saw me at Pasquali’s house, so his father properly got the wind up, and said I couldn’t go there any more. As it’s impossible for me to sleep at home with so many strangers stopping on the neighbouring farms, I’ve had to adopt this tramps life for a while, because it’s impossible to sleep in a wood on these cold frosty nights.
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I’ll return home to sleep an odd night or two every four or five days. What will happen to me next?
More bombing every day in this area. They gave the area of the station in Sienna another bit of a do yesterday, and the station is no more, and the main road is a bit bent. Last night I struck a nice family and after a good meal and a night by the fire I slept in a lovely warm single bed in the kitchen. Then this morning I left after breakfast. Nearly all these are for the English because they have one, two or three sons prisoners in Germany. Well, the day is dying again, so it’s about time for me to wander on a bit and find another night’s lodging – may I be as lucky as last night.
Another day or two has passed over, and they could have been a lot worse, but the sun has been quite warm, even if there has been a very cold wind, so I’ve been lucky to just lay in the sun in the daytime in a spot sheltered from the wind. I slept in a cowshed last night and I was damned cold – but warmer than if I’d slept in the woods.
I’m going down home tonight even if it is about twelve miles from here. I’d make a good boy scout now, what with the wandering around in the woods, and finding my way across strange country in the half darkness, and lighting a fire with leaves and twigs. Everybody I meet and speak to thinks I’m an Italian, and they all say I speak Italian very well.
I haven’t written anything for a week because I left this book hidden at home while I was on my travels, and as I returned last night and I’m stopping in the bedroom here all day today, now is my chance to get it up to date.
I’ve had a decent week on the wander, and have met some grand people, and made some new friends. There was another fall of snow on Wednesday, and I would have had a bad time in the woods, but instead I stayed two days with a nice family with good food and a seat beside a big fire.
The situation here in Italy gets worse and worse. The latest Fascist and German order issued officially yesterday is that all the 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 year old’s must join up when called (and more classes later), and if they don’t they will be shot when they are caught, or their father or mother will be if they escape. All this makes it worse for me, because all the people are scared to death now. I think I’ll give up my wanderings as too dangerous now, and take to sleeping in the wood near here, or wherever I can, although it s still winter. I want the sun now all day and everyday.
Twenty four weeks today I’ve been here. Good God, how many more? No bombing in this area now for over a week. In the mountains not far from here are a thousand rebels, English escaped prisoners and Italian soldiers. They are well armed, and our planes keep dropping them supplies and food. I know personally three of their agents (money men), and they are trying to coax me to join them. At present I’m sticking the way I am. Possibly later, when the situation gets worse, I’ll go and join them. This life is just like one reads about in an adventure story, with rebels and escaped prisoners hiding in woods etc. I wish I was just reading about it instead of being in it.
Another fortnight has slowly dragged by and it’s been a long miserable one for me, because there has been a lot of rain and wind, and I have had a grand time in a leafless wood from 5.30 a.m. till 7.00 p.m. every day, because the days are getting longer now and I must be away from the house before dawn and not return before dark.
At my family’s suggestion I’ve taken over my old bedroom again, in the oven but it’s a risky business. Where would I have been now if it hadn’t been for Guido, Zita, Mama and the rest of the family? In Germany or dead. One or the other.
Bombing has increased round here again these last few days and there was a heavy bombardment for hours during the night last night (Livorno, we think).
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I hope and pray that our army makes a landing somewhere up here very shortly or I’ll go mad. Exactly 26 weeks or half a year I’ve been here now. It seems incredible.
The other night, or in the early hours of the morning, two big dogs on the prowl around the farms broke into some of our rabbit hutches and ate eight of our rabbits (5 young ones and 3 big ones). I heard the commotion, but was too late to do anything but catch a glimpse of the raiders. All the family went raving mad when they heard about it, and every night since then we’ve set a big trap. Our bag up to now is one cat, one terrier and one sheep dog. The first two we let go, but the sheep dog will die unless it’s master pays for the rabbits (which he won’t do). We hope to catch the real culprits before long and kill them for their hides, which fetch a decent price just now.
It’s really astonishing to me how ignorant these people really are. They are damned good workers, and good people, but they have never read any papers or books, and all they know about the outside world is what the Fascist Government has drummed into them. It’s pitiful really. The grown-ups tell each other fairy stories around the fire at night, in all seriousness, and they listen enchanted. I asked Mama for a book of any sort to read and pass the time a bit. She said ‘ I’ve got a really good one for you, it’s a grand tale and you’ll enjoy it’. She gave me it and it was a fairy story all about knights and dragons and giants etc. I told the family the story of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ around the fire the other night, and they were as pleased as punch and want to hear more. They believe all the daft rumours they hear about the war, and the German propaganda takes advantage of their ignorance. Posters have been stuck up everywhere showing the savage British soldiers taking away all the little children from their parents, and the best one is that a lot of our soldiers are half wild natives who will ravage all the girls and women when they get here.
They don’t credit that the Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders are white men who speak English. They think that they are black half trained savages. It’s laughable and yet it’s tragic. I can quite understand how Mussolini and the Fascists led these poor people to war and ruin. They are so ignorant, and believe anything they are told or hear. But they are good workers in this farming business here, and know all the tricks of the trade. It would take a good man to swindle them in the money line.
And so ends my 29th week here, and still no development for the better. It hasn’t been too bad in the wood this week because the weather has been quite good, but sitting and thinking for 13.5 hours a day, every day, is a rotten pastime.
Our dog trap caught the real culprit on Thursday night and Mario killed it and skinned it at 3.00 a.m. in the morning, and sold the skin in Sienna.
Well the Fascist Government lived up to its threat this week, and of ten 18 year old’s who were captured after deserting, or for not joining up when sent for, six have been shot and the other four sentenced to 24 years imprisonment each. What a death for an 18 year old lad, to be shot in public. The shootings took place at Sienna on Monday. Now the people are in a fine state, and the young lads don’t know what to do or where to go. A lot of them are going to join the rebels in the mountains. When will our a army get here.
The 6th. anniversary of my wedding day today. By gum, what a celebration I’m having here, 6 years married and 4 of them in the army with possibly more to come. I’m getting really desperate now after all this time. Things are getting worse instead of better and there isn’t any sign of our army advancing up here, instead they are retreating, or so the local paper says.
The weather is perfect now, and if I was working and moving about a bit I could stick this life here with my family, but this hiding and not speaking or seeing a soul for 14 hours a day is a killing life.
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My day at present is this -escape from the oven or the cowshed at 5.00 a.m. collect my hunk of bread and maybe a tiny bit of bacon or cheese, and a bottle of water. Make my way to my haunt on the edge [original document it’s spelt adge] of the wood. There, with my overcoat around me, I shiver and doze till broad daylight. Then I eat a bit of dry bread and have a drink of water. Then I doze and think till the sun gets up a bit and shines on me where I sit. Then I doze and think till about 2.00 p.m. when I eat the rest of my dry bread and have another drink. Then I doze and think till the sun goes down, then I shiver and think till it’s dark, then I return to the house. After the usual macaroni soup and bread I sit by the fire for half an hour or so, and they all go to bed so I have to go to bed in the oven where I doze and think till dawn brings another day. Six days of this, then on Sunday I stop in the bedroom all day, which is little better than being out.
I’ve given up hopes of getting home to England for ages yet (if ever). I often wonder where I’ll end up.
I had two narrow escapes from being caught this week. On Monday it was cloudy and windy, and I was sitting with my British army overcoat round me about 4 p.m. when I heard voices approaching. I peeped out and nearly fainted when I saw two carabineers with their rifles coming over the meadow. I crouched down and hoped for the best. They passed about 10 yards from me without looking round, prowled around our wood a bit and then passed by me again without seeing me. After that escape I thought I had better screen myself a bit with bundles of brushwood, so I moved my place about 10 yards and made like a little hideout where I can sit all day in the sun without being seen unless they come right up to me. On Tuesday morning I went into my new spot, and I’m damned if about an hour later two men didn’t come and sit and talk on the very spot where I used to sit. I crouched down as still as a mouse and thought they must surely see me, but away they went some time later and I breathed again. On both occasions Guido and all the others watching from the house in the distance thought I was done for, but the old saying is true ‘The devil looks after his own’.
There has been a lot of bombing this past fortnight, but not enough to satisfy me. Sienna has three or four alarms every day now.
Palm Sunday today – Happy Easter.
Well, another Easter has come and gone. I remember the Easter two years ago when me and Nancy spent the weekend at Fia’s house, and had a good time. Then last Easter I was in Prison Camp 82, and this Easter I am worse off than ever, in a hideaway in an Italian wood with only the birds for company all day every day.
The weather has been very good, but the time hangs heavy on my hands, and it’s 15 hours a day now. I’m getting quite interested in ants, spiders, lizards, grass snakes and birds etc. and it’s really astonishing what you see when you sit quietly and study them for hours on end.
It’s been quite thrilling this week with our planes on the job every day. A dozen American fighters come over four or five times a day, and they’ve put the fear of God into the whole country. Every bit of road, railway line, village station, crossroads and bridge has had it’s share of canon fire and machine gun fire this week. Five German lorries went up in smoke last night at dusk, and on Easter Monday the local bus coming back from Sienna market caught it, resulting in 20 dead and all the rest wounded. All the railway stations are in ruins from our bombers, but when will our lads get here – it is 31 weeks for me now.
The busy part of the year is coming on now for these farmers, and the working days are longer. I wish I could work, the time would pass better. It is breeding time now, springtime, and everything is having babies, the birds, ducks, sheep, hens, pigs, geese, oxen etc. We have four calves, had fifty lambs, and have 20 goslings and dozens of chickens. The lambs have been sold, and now the women have the dirty job of milking 50 sheep three times a day and making the cheese (which is very nice when newly made). The corn in the fields is well up now, and the beans as well, (the beans that I sowed), but rain is badly needed, because the ground is very dry.
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The weeks are passing over slowly and still no sign of our army making any progress, always below Rome, what a war. I’ll do something desperate before long because this life is driving me nuts. Just imagine yourself sitting in a space 5 feet square by yourself for 15.5 hours every day with nothing to read and nothing to write.
A lot of activity in the air this week, our planes definitely rule the sky in Italy, and do what they like. Those dozen American fighters seem to carry a bomb or two each, and they’ve had a good time in this country lately. Half an hour ago they dive bombed and machine gunned two or three spots plainly seen from this window and I had a grand ringside seat.
Well, this book is full and it’s impossible to get another one, so it looks as though my diary is finished. It’s matter-less because it’ll never see England, I’ll be lucky if I do. 32 weeks here.
What a picture I make now, boots in pieces and trousers patched and patched and still ragged, I can’t help smiling; if Nancy could only see me now. Well, after another week I’ve decided that it’s impossible to stop here any longer, because it’s too dangerous for the family, so much to my regret I’m leaving early tomorrow morning. If there were any prospect of our army getting here in a month or two I’d risk it and stop here, but it might be another year and I can’t possibly keep hidden all that time here. I’m bound to be seen by somebody, then Guido will suffer for me, whereas if I go away and get caught or shot only I am the loser. But I hate to leave this family, they’ve been so good and done so much for me, and after all I’m English and they’re Italian. So tomorrow I hit the trail for once and for all, where to God knows, but I think I’ll join the rebels because I can’t hope to wander around Italy till the war ends without getting caught. I’m making a parcel of my diary and my photographs and leaving it with Guido, so that it will reach home if I don’t, and Nancy will know I did my best. Cheerio.
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When I finished the other part of this diary I did not intend to write any more because I thought I’d join the rebels, but not having done so, and having time oh my hands, I’m going to try and bring it up to date.
When I left home for the last time and said goodbye to Mama, Zita, Guido, Lepanto, Mario and Anita I felt like crying, but since then I’ve wandered around for a month and met hundreds of people, so my days with them are only a memory already. I left at 5.00 a.m. on a misty morning and I had no idea where to go. I gave my overcoat to Lepanto and wore all the clothes I had so I was carrying nothing, and to anybody who met me I was an ordinary civilian. I fully intended to join the rebels, but first I decided to call on a good family I knew very well, about 10 miles away. They were all very pleased to see me again, Guillio and his wife, his two daughters in-law, Armida and Olga, his son Rivo and his nephew and niece Renato and Egle. (His two sons are missing – one in Corsica and one in Germany). We had a good gossip and Guillio made me stop a couple of days with them. I slept with Renato in a lovely spring bed so I was satisfied. I told them of my intention to join the rebels but they all talked me out of it. They said I could come and stay with them any time for as long as I liked, but as the situation was very serious I thought it best to wander round for a few weeks in the hope of the front below Rome moving up a bit. So one morning, with a huge loaf and a hunk of bacon under my arm in a parcel, I said goodbye once more and took the lonely trail. Thinking it best to keep away from the main roads and villages if possible I kept away from them and kept to the winding cart tracks, but as there are no fences or hedges here, and all the houses are on little hills, the people can see you coming when you are a good distance away. With all these little hills and woods, and winding tracks I soon lost all sense of direction and just wandered on, talking to people in the fields and calling for a drink at the houses because the weather is very hot now. In a month of wandering like that you cam guess I met a lot of people and as I slept at a different house every night I had some strange experiences. When I come to think of how shy I used to be at home in England it seems incredible, my life here. I never once asked for food, I asked only for a drink of water, and if they didn’t offer me food I went without. Some days I fed very well, and other days I had only dry bread and water. All these farms are occupied by families with swarms of kids and four or five women, and many is the time I’ve been surrounded by a dozen or more, all staring at me as though I was a miracle, while I ate a hunk of bread and cheese with a glass or two of wine. I’ve sat down to dinner with a family of twenty more than once, and at every house they ask the same questions. How old are you? Where were you taken prisoner? Are you married? How many children? What work do you do at home? The ignorance of these farm people is really astonishing, they all think that everyone in England is rich, that nobody works, and that we live on chocolate, butter and jam (seriously). Even the educated people here think we still have gold sovereigns in use in England.
Four nights when on my travels I slept in a real bed with the son of the house. It’s astonishing, isn’t it, now who in England would take in a complete stranger (a foreigner), give him a seat at the table with the family, then send him to sleep in the same bed as one of the men of the house?. Twice I’ve slept in the same room as some of the young women of the family (but not in the same bed). In every house I slept at we sat gossiping till after midnight about politics, Mussolini, Fascists etc., of which I’m no expert, but I know more than all these people put together. One night I slept at a monastery, but even the monks are scared of the fascists, so I left early the next morning.
On my travels I saw a lot of our fighters in action, machine gunning and dive bombing, and there isn’t a railway station, or a railway line in action in Italy above Rome.
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All the roads are constantly watched and guarded by our planes, and only at night can German lorries get on the move. Many a time a German car or an isolated lorry has passed me on a lonely country road without even looking at me, but once I had a real scare. I was walking alone a narrow road looking for a sidetrack to take when a cart came round the corner ahead of me and I saw the Fascist uniform in it. It was too late to dodge out of sight so I kept walking calmly on, but my heart was in my mouth when I saw that it was a sergeant and two soldiers (all armed). All three stared hard at me and I thought ‘Fred, this time you’re in for it’ but when I said ‘Good morning’ all of them answered me and they passed without further words.
So the days went slowly by, and I wandered on meeting many good people, and one or two bad ones, but my luck held. Once I ate and drank at a house with two German soldiers asleep in the shed. Another time I passed within 100 yards of an ammunition dump (hidden), guarded by German sentries who had orders to shoot anyone approaching the wood where it was. Then one day I heard the news that our army were making a great offensive, and advancing, so my hopes rose and I felt a lot better.
I used to wash and shave and clean my teeth in the water of a ditch, or a little stream, and it tickled me to think of some of my men acquaintances doing the same and wandering around Italy alone like me. I don’t think my friends will believe me when I tell this story at home.
Twice I met bands of rebels on the prowl at night (twenty or thirty), but they were all Italians, and all brag and talk, and I put no faith in their courage in a fight. A lot or the farm workers have arms (rifles and hand grenades only) hidden away in readiness for the time when the front moves here, and one night I slept with a South African who had all the farmers around where he was staying organised into platoons and a company, all with rifles hidden away. He always went around with a loaded revolver in his pocket in case of emergency.
So the days went slowly by and the weather was always very hot. Being without socks, and my boots rather worn, my feet began to show signs of wear and tear, but I didn’t walk far every day, just wandered slowly on. Seven age groups of men had been called up for service by the Fascist Government, but very few had turned up, so they fixed the 25th May as the time limit and after that anybody caught would be shot at once. As the fateful day came nearer I noticed a big change in the attitude of the people towards me, they were all scared to death, and many of them thought I was a German spy on the prowl to find out where all the young men were hid up. Instead of crowding round me when I approached a house they now used to scatter at once and watch me from a distance. It amused me very much, but I saw that it was impossible to keep wandering around in the circumstances, so on the 24th. I turned my tracks north again, and made my way back to Guillio and his good family. It was difficult to find the way and I had to be very careful of all the people I talked to. That night I slept in a wood without any covering of any sort other than my jacket, and it was damned cold, so on the 25th. I got on my way at daybreak and, without anything to eat all day, I kept hiking in the heat and did 20 miles all along the main road because I was in a devil may care mood and keeping to the woods would have taken me three or four days. Absolutely done in I at last arrived at Guillio’s house and they were all very pleased to see me, and said that I must stop with them and see the finish of the war.
Renato, Rivo and Pekio (a neighbour’s son) are all classed as rebels and liable to be shot, so we four slept in the fields for the night in case the Fascists carried out their threat of searching all the farms. But nothing happened (the Fascists have had their day), so we slept in the house after that. Having a good friend who listened in to a London news every night we were kept in touch with the war, and the news from the Rome front was encouraging so I had hopes of the war in Italy finishing in a few months; and as the Fascists definitely had the wind up and daren’t do anything against anybody we all began to feel happier about the
state of affairs, but we all wondered how we would get on when the front came here.
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As it is haymaking time I am helping in the fields of my own accord, and by gum it’s very hot work. Now is the busy time of the year for these farmers, and they all get up at 4.30 a.m. every morning and work till 10.00 p.m. every night (women as well). I get up at 5.30 a.m. and work when I feel like it. As it hasn’t rained since January the drought is very bad, and all the plants are in a bad way(tomatoes, beans etc.). This year there isn’t enough hay to last the animals for four months, God knows what they will eat after that. At this farm we got 22 cart-loads of hay, whereas last year they got 98 cart-loads (all due to lack of rain).
Our planes are very active every day, the fighters especially, and the news from the front is good. Rome will be ours any time now.
Well, at last what we wanted has really happened. Our troops have occupied Rome this morning and are still advancing, thank God. But this war is moving up on us here and we will be very lucky if we are alive when it passes. The sky is always occupied by at least 20 of our fighters, and bombers are always passing overhead. Dive bombing is thrilling to watch, and so is ground strafing by Spitfires (I really saw some today), but the war is too close to be healthy and I’m sorry for the people here, especially the ones I know.
Guillio went down to Asciano to get the latest wireless news for us, and when he came back there was a gang of us standing outside the house gossiping. He approached us with a very serious face and said ”Well, we are in for it now, the English have lost Rome and are retreating South”. I felt like crying, and you should have heard some of the women, but I didn’t believe him, so I followed him into the house and said “Now Guillio, what is the real news?”. He looked at me and laughed, and handed me a letter written to me by a good friend in Asciano. It was in Italian, of course, but when I read it I could have jumped for joy. Our troops here are still advancing North, and a big scale invasion of France has taken place with 11,000 planes, 4,000 navy ships, and four divisions of parachutists. I read no more, but rushed out of the house yelling the news to the gang gossiping, and we stopped up half the night discussing the situation in general. Of course, I know it must be absolute hell on the French front, and casualties are bound to be enormous, but it’s the only way to finish the war.
The situation here is getting worse. The roads are swarming with German trucks at night, and all day there is hell on with our planes doing as they like with no opposition. The fields are swarming with young men escaping from the towns and villages, and everybody is scared to death of everybody else. I wonder how I’ll get on in the next week or two? I’m going to sleep out again from now on, and be on sentry all day.
We all got up at 5.00 a.m. to find the main road, which is about half a mile from here, and in full view, absolutely blocked with horse-drawn wagons carting war material from the front. The Jerries were lucky today, because the rain absolutely flooded down all day so our planes were unable to operate, and the wagons and lorries kept on the move all day. A German lorry came to this house this morning and I had to make a quick getaway, but the driver only wanted to find out the best way to some place.
We watched the traffic all day, and cursed the rain which everybody has been praying for, for so long. As night approached the activity near
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this house increased and I’m damned if Jerry hasn’t made an ammunition dump in a wood less than half a mile from here. When it was dark we could plainly hear them at work unloading lorries and talking in German, and we could see the lorries passing about 500 yards from here. This morning our fighters set on fire another ammunition dump about ten miles away, and by God what a blaze and the explosions went on for hours. If they spot this one near here this house won’t be a healthy spot to stop in.
After standing outside till after midnight listening to the activity in the wood we decided to go to bed till daybreak, but we had hardly got our clothes off when there was a hell of an explosion and a sheet of flame. The house seemed to nearly fall down and all the women screamed, and the kids cried, so we grabbed blankets etc. and settled them in the wine cellar which is half underground. They didn’t feel like sleeping but they sat and gossiped while me, Guillio and Rivo kept sentry outside. About 3.00 a.m., as things were quiet except for the lorries on the move, Guillio packed them all off back to bed in the house, but I took my blanket and slept in the haystack in case any Germans came to the house for food etc.
This morning we were all up at dawn and saw the cause of the explosion, seven wrecked lorries altogether, and what had happened nobody knows, but it was certainly a mess, and a good few must have been killed. As I write this I can plainly see some Jerries working on the ruined lorries, possibly salvaging the good parts.
The front isn’t far away now because we can hear the rumble of the guns, and the bombing and machine gunning here is continuous. Thank God my home is in England, and my wife and babies are safe from the horrors we are seeing here now, and will see much more of in the next few days.
I’m writing this in the vineyard because two Germans came to the house about an hour ago and had a good look round. We are expecting more tonight, because in this big retreat they are travelling at night and hiding up and sleeping and feeding at the farmhouses during the day. I’m sleeping out by myself tonight, and not too near the house.
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What a day today. I’m having my meals brought down to me because the house and all around it is occupied by ten Jerries with twelve horses and wagons of ammunition. They came in the early hours of the morning, turned loose all the oxen and put their horses in their place, and fed them with half our haystack. Then they ordered food, and after a good feed they all went to sleep. The women are all scared to death, and no-one has done any work in the fields because our fighters are swarming the sky, and if they catch sight of these wagons and horses it’s goodbye to the house and all the stuff near it.
Wednesday evening. I’m bloody lucky to be still here, because some of our fighters did their best to wipe me out this dinner-time with dive bombing and machine-gun fire. In the middle of our vineyard there is a small shed with no walls, where they keep the tractor. This morning Aguisto, our neighbour here (68 years old), brought two of his oxen down and tied them up near the shed. Me and him were sitting talking when we saw ten fighter planes coming swooping pretty low. I said to him “Look, they are coming down to attack the road, they must have seen some German lorries”. They had, and in a minute there was hell on, but I never dreamt we were in danger till the last two or three of them let fly at us. Two bombs exploded very near and I could hardly see for dust. Then came the machine gun fire and I thought I was a goner. The sky seemed full of planes and they were machine-gunning everywhere, it was a proper inferno. Aguisto said “Alfredo, I’m hit” and I saw blood on his trousers. I dragged him to a deep ditch where we crouched till the ten minutes of hell were finished. On the road nearby were three blazing lorries, and in the vineyard were two bomb craters. Aquisto’s trousers were soaked with blood and he was as pale as death and moaning. I half carried him as near to the house as I dared, then he staggered the rest of the way till one of the Germans spotted him and helped him into the house, where a German Officer bandaged him up, then the county ambulance came and took him to Sienna hospital. He had been hit in the thigh by a bomb splinter. All the women and girls were as white as ghosts, and some were crying. How they’ll all get on this next week, God only knows.
All the Jerries moved on at dusk last night, and no more came to this house this morning, so I came up here and had a wash and shave, and I have hung around here all day. I can hear the rumble of guns plainly now, and last night as I lay on my bed among the beans in the vineyard the sky was continually lit up with flares etc., and I could see the German lorries passing, and hear the men shouting to each other. The fighter pilots yesterday must have seen us sitting near that shed, and the tractor and the oxen, and thought it was a Jerry lorry and two horses or something hidden there (the bloody fools). I like to watch them knocking hell out of the Jerries, but I want to see England and Nancy and my family again, not die here. The Germans took away with them pigs, chickens, rabbits etc. from some of the farms, but luckily nothing from this one up to now.
The villages on the main Rome road are in ruins now, because more Jerries are passing that way and our fighters are doing more work there. I can see them all day swooping down in the distance. This morning I had a gander round in the vineyard and had a shock, because I found two more bomb craters and an unexploded bomb, so I had a narrower escape than I thought.
I slept in the house in bed last night, on Guillio’s orders. He said if any Jerries come they can’t get into the house without knocking, and I can hide under the bed or somewhere like that,
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and escape afterwards.
We were having dinner today when some planes passed over low and thousands of leaflets came showering down. Everybody rushed outside and grabbed one, but they couldn’t understand a word because it was in
English, German, Polish and French. The leaflets said that if any German soldier wanted to surrender he must carry one of these leaflets and he would be well treated and removed immediately from the battle area. The Germans laughed when they read them, and said they would rather die than surrender, but that was just to bluff the Italians. The gossip that is flying around (as you can imagine) is absolutely ridiculous, and all the women, and a lot of the men, are in a panic. By gum, give me the good old English anytime when there is trouble about. They are scared, but they keep cool and don’t panic.
I forgot to mention it before, but this last week or two we’ve been burying and hiding all the good clothing, and anything of any real value, such as bedspreads, sewing machines, bicycles etc. We’ve got stuff buried everywhere, but the most valuable is buried in a hole under the stone floor, and I relaid the bricks and did the brickwork, and now no-one would guess that there were three trunks full of stuff hidden there. The Jerries are just doing as they like here now, and taking away oxen, pigs,etc. They don’t annoy or molest the people, they just walk into a house with a revolver in their hand and say what they want -and naturally they get it.
The gossip says the front is very near now, and the London wireless said on Saturday our army occupied a town 25 miles away from here – so they can’t be far off now; but these roads are still swarming with Jerry lorries. Even the weather is against because we’ve had us three days of pouring rain and haven’t seen an aeroplane, while the Jerries have taken advantage of their luck and carted stuff everywhere. Two farmhouses about half a mile from here, and in full view of me, are ammunition dumps, and are occupied by Jerry soldiers. All day they are pottering about with their rifles and revolvers to put the wind up the people. The German officer in charge says if they can’t get the stuff away they’ll blow it all up, and if they do the blast will blow all the houses down for miles around. Our army can’t be far away because the Jerries have all the roads mined ready to blow up, and they have already blown up the railways etc.
Another few days have passed and still the front is in the distance, but less than 20 miles away now. There are a lot of anti-aircraft guns around this area now, and they are banging away all day at our fighters, but the planes are fewer now than a week ago, and we don’t see so much activity.
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By gum it’s a risky life this at present because the Jerry lorry drivers etc. (who are hiding from the planes during the day and travelling at night) wander round the fields and farmhouses for chickens, eggs, cheese, etc. and they keep popping up everywhere. All the family here, and the neighbours as well, keep a strict watch out and I generally manage to escape to the wood or the vineyard, but I’ve had some narrow escapes, and I’m a dead man if I’m caught now. Once I hid in the haystack while two Germans ate and drank at the house, and yesterday I couldn’t escape because two were coming one way and three another way, so I hid in the loft under the root and listened to them talking as they sat at the table and ate more of our bacon and eggs etc. This diary isn’t a film or an adventure story – every word is true, but I don’t think my wife and friends will believe me when they read it (if they ever do).
Well, things are getting desperate now, and it’ll be settled for us one way or another in the next few days. Six times today German soldiers came to the house and I’ve been dodging everywhere, but it’s impossible to miss them now and I think I’ll have to dig a hole somewhere and bury myself for a week till it is all over.
By God, I had a nightmare experience last night, and now I’m writing this in the wood with a company of Germans at the house 150 yards. Last night, after dodging about the vineyard all day, I returned to the house about 10.00 p.m. to have a drink and get a blanket and top-coat to sleep in the haystack. Rivo was on the balcony watching the flashes from the front in the distance, and he shouted to me to come and have a look. I went to him and we were just leaning on the rails looking over when a gang of about 12 Germans came round the corner of the house, and one of them shone a torch up at us. I dodged back into the passage, but it was too late to escape because they were all in the kitchen where Guillio and his wife were. I said to Rivo ‘You go outside and put a ladder up to the balcony and I’ll climb down and escape while they are still in the kitchen!’ He went outside. The house was in uproar with the Germans shouting about, wanting everything, and I was behind the passage door in a cold sweat, praying that they wouldn’t search the place till I had got out. I gave Rivo a good ten minutes to get the ladder in place, then I edged slowly on to the balcony and had one leg over the rail groping for the ladder when I nearly fell over with shock as I heard a German voice underneath, a sentry, and no ladder or means of escape. I crept back into the passage and thought of the only possible hiding place, under the bed in the women’s bedroom where Olga and Armida were in bed in two beds with their three children. The kids were asleep, but the women were awake and nearly fainting with fright. I crawled under Olga’s bed and said to her’ Olga, keep cool and I might be safe, get panicky and we’ll all be dead in five minutes’ (which was true). Thank God for Olga’s bravery – I’ll never forget her. The soldiers started to search the house, and I could hear them going from room to room turning everything upside down. Guillio was protesting, but they were going to shoot him if he didn’t shut up so he had to be quiet. I was sweating and I felt Olga’s hand and she was trembling. Armida was crying and young Bertino (3 years old) said ‘What is Uncle Alfredo doing under the bed, Mummy?’. I lay still end prayed as the bedroom door opened and four Germans came into the room, the first one an officer with a torch in one hand and a revolver in the other. He flashed the torch around (I could just see their legs from the knees downwards), and Olga sat up in bed and gave a hell of a scream (Half real and half put on) so he murmured apologies for disturbing them and backed out of the room. They left the house 10 minutes later and we all breathed again, but I think everybody in the house that night put on five years in five minutes. I grabbed two blankets and a topcoat and came down to the wood here straight away and it’s a good job I did because the company of soldiers moved in about midnight.
After yesterday’s escape I was very jumpy, and as these
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Jerries at the house were all wandering around and pot-shooting about with their rifles and revolvers, I didn’t feel too safe.
This morning Rivo ‘slyed’ down here to tell me it was impossible to bring food down without arousing suspicion, but he’d try and bring some wine about an hour later. I told him not to worry about me, and to be very careful what he did. About an hour and half later I heard somebody walking through the bushes and I thought it was him. I was just going to shout when I thought better of it and by God it’s a good job I did. I looked up and coming through the bushes towards me was a German captain with a revolver in his hand. My heart stopped, I stayed dead still but thought it was impossible for him not to see me – he came nearer and stopped less than 5 yards away, He stood looking about, then turned round and went in another direction. I was too weak to move, and for two hours I never moved a finger. Then, as darkness came and nobody else came too near, I crawled out of my bedroll and, with the sound of German sentries shouting to each other in my ears, I escaped to what I thought would be a safer place about four miles away, with some more people who I knew very well, and who had always promised me every assistance when I needed help. It was very bad going across country to their farm, but at last I did get there, and I found the house packed with about 30 people who were friends and relations of the family, who had fled from their homes in a village which was being shelled by our guns.
All these people were very good to me and I got on very well with all of them, especially the younger ones – Franka, Gina, Ellia, Marina, Gino, Aldo, Beppo, and others. Last night I slept in the fields near the house and woke up to find the German troops had moved in on all farms nearby, but not this one. In anticipation of the front coming up this way the men of this farm have made a big dugout under the hill about 100 yards from the house. They have made it absolutely bomb proof and shell proof, so now the women and children have moved down there with food and drink and bedding, while me and the men keep constant watch.
Last night we had our first taste of shelling, but it was from big long range guns and all the shells just whistled over our heads and exploded on the main road about a mile away. I made my bed in the open about 50 yards from the house, but nobody felt like sleeping with the shelling going on, and machine gunning in the distance. About 2.00 a.m. I heard a band of men coming along the path so I grabbed my bedding and slipped into the bushes – just in time, as about 30 Jerries came into the house. They had been doing the job of blowing up the bridge on the main road. I ‘slyed’ down to the dugout and told the people the news, and as the Germans could hear them easily talking and shouting I thought it best to sleep on my own in the wood.
Well folks, it’s over, the front has passed, and I’m still here, alive, but as pale as death and two stone lighter at least. On Saturday morning, after a bad night, I crept down towards the dugout and had a hunk of breed and cheese and a drink. Then I went into the thickest part of the wood and burrowed into the bushes. Just in time – in the early morning light a battery of Jerry guns moved below the wood, and the officers made their observation posts above the wood so I was right in the middle of them, and could hear all the orders being shouted.
Then all hell opened up. The Free French who were attacking on this sector blasted those woods and the narrow valley, and the houses and the paths, all day, without stopping for five minutes. Shrapnel rained about me from shells and mortar bombs, the blast threatened to blow my clothes off. I was deafened, and thought I’d never get out of that wood alive. I smelt smoke and heard flames crackling, the wood was on fire but I daren’t move and lay there all day. At night the shelling eased off a bit, but there was a hell of a lot of machine gunning very near, so I knew that another day would see the finish.
When it was dark I crawled carefully towards the dugout because I was mad with thirst. As I got within 15 yards I heard a flood of German and saw that the safe dugout had been taken over by the Jerries, and about
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30 men and women and children had been turned out into the hell outside.
I crept away and returned to my nest in the bushes. About midnight the firing died down, but I never moved till about 9.00 a.m. yesterday morning when I heard Gino shouting ‘Alfredo, come out, the Germans have gone’. I could hardly credit my senses but I went to the dugout and found everybody badly shaken and white in the face. They had been turned out and had spent a terrifying day in the wood. Two of the lads had been badly wounded by shrapnel, but were keeping as well as could be hoped. We had a bit or a meal of soup and wine, but the Germans had taken away all the bread. Then the men and me went up to the house.
It hadn’t been actually hit by the shelling, but some had been very near misses. All the windows were out and the Jerries, in their usual style, had ransacked everything, and scattered all clothing, bedding, etc. all over the place. We cursed them heartily, then Gino shouted ‘The Americans are coming’. I rushed to the broken window and could have wept. I saw hundreds of men in American uniforms advancing over the fields and hills. There were also tanks, guns and many jeeps. I stared enthralled after ten weary months of waiting end praying.
The Germans had only withdrawn about two miles, and now they started shelling us, but I was too happy to care and too excited to eat or drink, but my narrowest escape was yet to come.
For hours we watched the advance go on, the troops didn’t go far past us, but took up positions about half a mile past this house where they began to dig in and fire their mortars etc. so we were a long way off being safe. I found out that they were not Americans but French Moroccans and Algerians with real Frenchmen in command. Having heard a lot about these troops and their ferocity I thought I would pass myself off as an Italian to them and wait till some American or English troops came up. As most of them passed along a track about 150 yards from the house we felt we’d be alright, and stayed where we were, the men and me, while the women and children still stopped in the air raid shelter. Then about dinner time I saw four Arabs coming towards the house. I had no fear because I knew they thought I was an Italian, and everything would have been alright if one of the neighbours had kept quiet, but he rushed up to them and started excitedly telling them about me being English in a flood of Italian. The soldiers couldn’t understand a word he said, so when he kept pointing at me they thought I must be a German who had put civilian clothes on to escape. All four of them came up and grabbed me, the leader shoved a tommy-gun in my stomach and started jabbering away in Arabic. I tried to explain who I was but they couldn’t understand Italian or English so I thought my hour had come, because it looked as if they were going to put me on the spot. I was just saying my prayers when I saw a French Captain passing, so I shouted in English and, Thank God, he understood, because he came over and my life was saved once more. I told him my story and he told me to make my way back because the Germans were still very near and shelling and mortaring was still going on. I stayed to dinner with my friends at that house, then after a tearful goodbye to all the women and girls and a kiss from all – men, women, and children, I left them to make my way back to see how Guillio and all my other good friends had got on. This kissing business is very embarrassing for me, but it is the custom among relations and close friends in Italy. The other person kisses you once on each cheek, then you have to do the same to them. It’s alright when you do so with a nice girl or even a women, but it is embarrassing when it comes to a young man, or a bearded old man. Still, when they want to kiss you it shows they feel a genuine liking for you, and I couldn’t hurt their feelings.
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As I made my way back across country to Guillio’s house I passed through camps of soldiers everywhere in the fields and woods, with tanks, guns, lorries and jeeps. They were all Moroccans and French and I wasn’t too angry as I walked through them in my ragged clothes, but there were quite a few civilians making their way back to their homes. As I approached our house, Olga saw me and came running to meet me in tears, and hugged me tight. ‘Alfredo, we thought you might have been killed in the shelling’, she said. We hugged each other in relief and soon all the family came running out and we all laughed and cried together after the terror of the last few days.
When we had all calmed down we had a meal, but we were on edge because there were soldiers all around the house, and there was still a lot of gunfire going on as the Germans had only retreated about 3 miles and were still firing towards us. Then I had a surprise when Guillio said he had heard that there were English troops in the village. My heart leapt, and I couldn’t believe it after eleven long weary months. I said I must go and meet them and hear English spoken once more, so I dressed up in Guillio’s best clothes, shoes as well, and Rivo and I set off for the village on two old bikes. I hadn’t ridden a bike for years but I felt on top of the world as I wobbled along the bumpy, shell-blasted road. I was going somewhere at last. It was five miles of very rough riding and we found the bridge over the river had been blown up by the Germans so we had to carry our bikes across a rickety bridge of brushwood and you can guess what happened, I fell in up to my waist with my bike round my neck. Leaving a wet trail on the road we pushed on, and at last in the main street I saw English soldiers for the first time. They were Infantry men and they were pushing forward in pursuit of the Germans. It was a strange feeling to be free to walk about in view of everyone after months of dodging and hiding. Rivo was proud of what the family had done for me, and told the whole story to everyone we met and they all crowded around to shake my hand and make a fuss of me, but I am sure that some of them would have betrayed me and the family to the Fascists or the Germans if they had known where I was hiding. However, all that was forgotten in the excitement of being free at last, and after a good meal at a friend’s house we went to a bar to celebrate. Everybody wanted to buy me a drink, and after a while we were all very merry, when the door opened and in came two burly English Military Policemen. I was in the right mood to deal with them but they thought I was an Italian until I spoke to them and told them who I was. When I told them I was in the Coldstream Guards they said that my battalion was actually only about five miles away. I could hardly believe it was possible so my one thought was to go and find them.
So next morning, dressed once more in Guillio’s clothes, and with my faithful old bike, I set off across country hoping to find some of my old friends. The countryside was very hilly and the roads and paths so bad that I left the bike with a friendly farmer and continued on foot. As I once more approached the fighting area the activity with troops and guns increased, only this time they were my people. I at last got on to a main road and it was absolutely jammed with tanks, guns and men. I must have looked a bit out of place in my civilian clothes and I was soon stopped by the Military Police and asked who I was and where the hell I thought I was going. I told my story once more and just then a jeep pulled up and an officer asked what was going on. The police told him and he said to me ‘Jump in, we’ll find your friends’. So there was I, Fred Telford, riding in a jeep in civilian clothes with an officer who turned out to be the General in command of the South African Armoured Division. As the jeep weaved it’s way past all the other vehicles I just couldn’t believe it was all happening to me.
After a few miles drive we arrived at a small town where the Divisional Headquarters were, and when the General got out he shook my hand and said to his driver ‘Take this man wherever he wants to go’. We drove around for a while looking for the Coldstream Guards Headquarters Camp and at
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last I saw the Flag flying over a gateway into an orchard. I thanked the driver and he drove away, and with my heart pounding with excitement I walked through the vehicles and tents. Suddenly a soldier came out of one of the tents carrying a mug of tea and a plate of food and I could not believe my senses when I saw it was Steve Rowan, one of my best friends. I shouted ‘Hello, Steve, you old bugger’. He turned round and when he saw me standing there in civilian clothes his eyes boggled and he dropped his plate of food on the ground as if he had seen a ghost. He rushed over and hugged me, saying ‘I thought you were dead long ago’. In no time I was surrounded by a back-slapping, hand-shaking gang of friends giving me cigarettes, money, and food which I didn’t want to eat then, as I told my story once more to eager listeners. One severe shock to me as we chatted together was when they told me who had been killed and wounded among my close friends since I had been captured. It upset me very much, then I thought how lucky I was to be alive and well.
An officer heard my story and said I had better report my reappearance to the authorities, so once more I was given a vehicle and driver, and away we went to find the main Guards camp so that I could report in. When we got there all the men were lining up for their dinner and I just joined on the end of the line amid strange looks from some of them who didn’t know me. When it was my turn to be served the cook nearly dropped his ladle when he saw a civilian holding out a plate to be filled.
I knew a lot of the men there but red tape soon took over and I was a soldier under military discipline once more. I immediately sent a telegram home to Nancy to tell her that I was safe and well. God know what a shock it will be to her when she reads it, because she hasn’t heard anything for eleven months. I hope I’ll be home with her in a few weeks time.
The R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] said to me ‘Right, get those clothes off and let’s make a soldier of you again’, but after so long away I had lost my fear of authority and to his surprise I told him to b…… off. I said I was going back to my Italian friends with the suit and the bike to say goodbye to them all. He didn’t like it much but away I went, and after getting a few lifts I finally got home with the bike the next day.
I was happy and excited at the thought of going home to Nancy, and Shirley and Janet, the daughter I hadn’t seen yet, but when the time came to say goodbye to Guillio and Olga and all the others, after what they had done for me, and what we had been through together, I was very upset. After tears and kisses all round I turned my back on my dear friends and set off once more across country to my first home with Guido and Mama and their family, to see if they had got through the fighting safely.
As I approached the group of farms I saw that there had been heavy fighting round there, and there were several fresh graves, both of German and Moroccan soldiers. Some of the houses had been damaged by shell-firing, and I was very worried about the family. There was no sign of life, and I wondered what had happened to everybody, then the house door opened and all the family – Mamma, Guido, Zita, Anna and all came rushing out to hug and kiss me, shouting ‘Alfredo, we thought you might be dead’. They were all unharmed but very frightened, especially the women. It seems the Moroccan soldiers were roaming around stealing food etc. and raping the women and girls, and the French Officers had told the people to stay in their houses and barricade the doors and windows. It seemed that several farms had been pillaged and the men and women knocked about by these vicious soldiers, even the Germans were afraid of them.
The situation wasn’t very pleasant, and although I was sorry to leave my family I thought it was time to say goodbye and return to my regiment and see what the position was about me going home to England. One more thing I must tell you about before I finish – About 30 women and children had taken refuge in a barn while the fighting was going on outside. Suddenly a shell from a tank gun hit the side of the barn and went through both walls and out the other side without exploding.
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If it had burst everybody in the barn would have been killed or badly wounded, what a miraculous escape.
Well, the time had come to say goodbye for the last time, and amid kisses and hugs, and tears, I set off down the stony road in my old tattered clothes and worn out boots – after promising to write and come back for a visit after the war.
After a twenty mile trip across country, and lifts off various army vehicles including a ride on the pillion of a despatch rider’s motorbike, I managed to find our camp and I was in the army once again. I soon got fitted out with all the usual kit, and my old rags and boots caused great amusement in Quartermaster’s stores. They were still waiting for official papers to send me back home and I got really fed up hanging about, even though I was safe and well fed and had a comfortable bed in a tent. I was dying to get home to Nancy and the children.
One day I happened to hear that the 2nd. Battalion in which my brother was a Sergeant Major were fighting on the other battle front about 80 miles away, so I thought b—— the army, I’ll go and see if I can find him. Armed with an official army pass I set off once more on my travels and after 2 days of hitch-hiking on all forms of army transport I arrived at the city of Perugia. It was a beautiful place but now absolutely packed with soldiers of all nationalities. My brother was supposed to be at a Coldstream Guard’s rest camp just outside the city, but when I at last found it with great difficulty I was shattered to find he had gone back to the front the day before. I was very disappointed and didn’t know what to do, whether to take a chance and go to the fighting area to try and find him, or turn back and return to my own unit. I decided to risk it and go up to the front in the hope of seeing him. The roads were packed as usual with guns, tanks, lorries and soldiers going in both directions, and there were camps everywhere with soldiers resting from the fighting which was about 5 miles from where I was now wandering, looking once more for the Coldstream Guards base camp. Time was getting on and it was growing dark when I saw two Coldstream Guards Officers on the other side of the road. I asked them where the camp was and they said ‘About 200 yards down that lane over there’. With my heart pounding I approached the camp, and the sentry asked me who I was and what I wanted. When I said that I was Sergeant Major Telford’s brother he said he’d better warn him, in case he died of shock, but I took no notice and walked towards the tent where he should be. I saw a man stripped to the waist washing in a bucket of water. It was him. As he bent down I tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned round and saw me he when as white as a sheet, as though he had seen a ghost. I’ll never forget that moment, and neither will he. After warm greetings, and after he had got over the shock a bit, we both went and saw his Commanding Officer who, when he heard the story, gave him three days leave, and in no time at all we were on a lorry heading back to the rest camp in Perugia.
We had three lovely days together, resting, swapping stories, and looking around the beautiful city. We even went to the cinema which had been taken over by the British Army and was showing English and American films for the troops. One day we took an army vehicle and went for a trip, my brother wanted to show me where they had been fighting just a week before. It was strange to see the actual trench where the officer and him had spent two days and nights under German machine gun fire, and all the other holes and trenches where the Germans had been, and all these men had been trying to kill each other – for what? We went to an old farmhouse which had been blasted by shellfire during the fighting and was now deserted. He showed me six new graves of some of his men who had been killed, and I could have wept. They were all graves of young lads aged nineteen and twenty who had only arrived from England three weeks before as reinforcements for my brother’s company, and had been killed before they knew what the war was all about. What a terrible shame to be buried in such a lovely spot a thousand
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miles from home, dying fighting on a desolate hillside in a foreign land – for what? No doubt they were only six out of millions who died during the war, but it still makes you wonder – why?
I was glad to get away from that farmyard, but I thought then that only a few miles away men were still getting killed and wounded, both German and English.
We drove back to the rest camp and the next morning the time came to say goodbye to my brother. He had to return to the front line, and I was eager to find out if my papers had come through so that I could head for home in England. I didn’t know what to say to him as we parted, but I could only wish him good luck and hope that he survived the war.
The trip back across country was uneventful, but I had a hard job finding my battalion because the Germans were still retreating North and the front had moved up about twenty miles in a week. However I found the camp at last, and after a good night’s sleep I saw the R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] and asked him what my position was now, He said he would find out for me and in a few minutes he came back and said ‘You lucky b….., you’re to make your own way _down to Naples to catch the boat for England, due to sail the following week’. So I was faced with a 500 mile hitch-hike, but I was delighted to be finally on the way home, so I didn’t care for anything or anybody, and I would have run all the way if necessary.
On my way down south by various means of transport I passed through some of the places where there had been very heavy fighting, including Monte Casino, and I saw what devastation and heartbreak war can bring to people and places. The weather was very hot, but I enjoyed the trip and made quite a few friends on the way.
After four days en route I eventually ended up in a Transit Camp just outside Naples where I was interrogated by the Military Police once more, in case I was a deserter from the front. Then I was fitted out in all new uniform and given money and cigarettes and somewhere to sleep. Two days later, along with several hundred other soldiers, I was taken down to the docks and put on board a liner called ‘The Empress of Scotland’ for the trip home to England, and Nancy and my two daughters Shirley and Janet.
I’ll never forget how I felt as I walked up the gangway onto that ship. I turned round for one last look, and I said to myself, ‘Well, Fred, you’ve made it’. My many months of trials and tribulations were over at last, and many was the time I thought I’d never see it through. But I had, and I felt quite proud of myself.
Well, that’s my story, and every word I have written is the Gospel truth. I’m glad I started this diary, and now I’m glad it’s finished. I only hope that anybody who reads it will make allowances for the
difficulties under which some of it was written.
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Frederick Telford in front of the wood (where he hid from the Germans) at Basso. 1998
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Frederick Telford outside Basso farmhouse 1998
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Frederick Telford with his daughter Janet, and Bruna and Delphina. Daughters of Juillio of Lucolo farm. August 1998.
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Frederick Telford (and son-in-law) outside Lucolo farmhouse 1998.
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Copy of photograph of Guardsman F. Telford. (Italy) Christmas Day 1943. (See diary page 35).
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Copy of photograph of Fred Telford and Lepanto with two oxen, taken Boxing Day 1943. (See diary page 36).
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[Photograph with caption on the following page] Copy of photograph of Fred Telford taken Boxing Day 1943. Outside his hide in the woods. (See diary page 36).