Captain John Verney was captured in Sardinia and taken to a Prisoner of War Camp in Chieti, Italy in 1943. In September, he was transferred to a camp in Sulmona where he joined forces with Captain Martin Gibbs and Captain Edward Terry. The three managed to escape via a train window during the transfer of British troops from Sulmona to Germany, evading a lone sentry and sneaking off into the surrounding countryside.
During their time ‘on the run’, Verney, Gibbs and Terry lived mostly in caves and were aided by a number of generous Italians who brought food and supplies up the mountain. As the British advanced, the surrounding villages in the area began to be populated by an increasing number of German troops, leading the three to make an attempt through the lines. John and Edward were able to successfully make it through. However, Martin was recaptured. He later escaped again, returning to the cave the three had previously occupied and eventually returning home at a later date.
Verney’s well written account of escape is rich in detail and provides a fascinating insight into daily life on the run.
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.
[Details of letters and documents included, summarised by Keith Killby]
Documents from Mrs Martin Gibbs regarding Martin Gibbs, John Verney and Imbert Terry. Gibbs was in L.R. Desert Force and Verney and Terry were in SAS on Sardinia ‘do’ (Both were Coldstream Guard Officers).
Letters from Sinbaldo (Italian who gave exceptional help – ‘hero’ of ‘ Dinner of Herbs’) by Verney.
Letter from Terry to Gibbs’ parents when fate of Gibbs not known after Terry and Verney had got through lines but had lost Gibbs.
Letter written by Gibbs when hiding explaining how the three had escaped via the ventilators from the train when stationary outside Sulmona Sreet (originally brought down from Chieti).
24 pages by Verney on how the three of them first lived mostly on raw vegetables before meeting Italians. Lived mostly in caves, often with Italians and were supplied with food, especially in Sinbaldo. Gibbs gets captured but escapes again (originally south via Mt Genzano, Mt Greco and then Villetta Barrea and Barretti). Continuous rumours of the Allies having taken places. For 11 weeks, worst feature was boredom. Terry has attacks of malaria. Stayed in one cave for six weeks with Sam and Family climbing up for three hours to bring food. Main problem is lack of boots for Verney. Simbaldo gets pair. They rub pork into feet and make puttees against the deep snow. Fortunately, on the first night, they find a hut. See wolf tracks. Martin goes ahead to seek route. They see him and Germans. Gibbs returns to them and they set off one at a time. Verney and Terry get through. One letter from Sinbaldo (21/04/48) proves Gibbs got home and says that Verney and his wife had visited him.
[handwritten text] All connected to John Verney, author of ‘Going to the War’ and ‘Dinner of Herbs’.
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The Cervi Family
A personal memoir by Lucy de Burgh of a visit to one of the most heroic families in Italy.
“Early in 1947 – bitterly cold damp day in Northern Italy, near Reggio Emilia. Ice, snow, treacherous roads, narrow lanes, a bleak farmhouse with its worn grey stone buildings gathered around a muddy, frozen yard where a few chickens are pecking here and there some ragged looking small children gaze bemusedly at us. This was the Cervi farm and we met the children’s grandfather and two of their mothers. The seven sons had been shot – one of the worst tragedies of that terrible period. Even after so many years I can recall that scene, the British C.O of the Allied Screening Commission, Col Hugo de Burgh, thanked Alcide Cervi and the women and handed them a large cheque – for those days. He asked them why they had done what they did. Signor Cervi’s answer was ‘L’abbiamo fatto per umanita’.
There was poverty there and hardship but no bitterness and no complaining. The Cervis should surely be counted among the heroes of the war.”
Lucy de Burgh, at the time an interpreter in the Allied Screening Commission, later married Col. Hugo de Burgh who had uniquely defied the order from Whitehall and organised the exit from the camp at Fontanellato. She has kindly sent in her personal memories of her poignant visit to the Cervi farm.
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Account of escape of three Prisoners of War 1943, written by Captain John Verney
In the account that follows ‘Martin’ is Captain M.A. Gibbs and ‘Edward’ is Captain E. Imbert Terry. Both men were Coldstream Guards.
On 23rd September, the Germans moved the prison camp from Chieti to Sulmona. The new camp had originally held 3000 other ranks, together with an assortment of Indians and Yugoslavian troops. It was a rabbit warren of bungalows, divided up into compounds by shabby brick walls. After the Armistice, most of the British O.Rs had escaped into the mountains of Morona, against the foot of which the camp had been built. At the time we arrived, about 2000 out of the 3000 had been recaptured by the Germans or had returned from lack of food. The remainder were said to be still at large on the mountain and requisitioning cattle from the locals. Next door the camp was an Italian state prison. We heard stories of how a British officer from our camp had seized weapons after Armistice Day and had gone down to this prison with a party, releasing the inhabitants, including one British officer who was already mad as a result of his treatment. He was now rumoured to be living in a monastery built out from the precipice of rock immediately overlooking our camp.
While at Chieti, we heard from the Italians the rumours of the Sulmona break-out, and had been told how the Germans had shot hundreds of escaped British prisoners. We now learnt that all these stories were untrue and, in fact, the Germans seemed to have shown very good forbearance. They had to climb Mt Morrone two or three times in their pursuit of the escaped prisoners and had fired over their heads and shouted at them through megaphones to come back. By the time we arrived, their patience was wearing thin, and we did not expect that they would bother to climb after anyone escaping now if they could avoid doing so by shooting first.
We found the camp littered with possessions of the O.Rs who had not yet returned. The bungalows and the passages between them, and in fact every open space, was piled with dismantled beds, mattresses, and every sort of rubbish. These gave innumerable opportunities for making hide-ups. From the moment of arrival, almost every officer in the camp began to look around for something of this sort. Only about thirty had stayed behind at Chieti in tunnels and the like. Many more could have done so, hidden in water tanks, on roofs, and even behind beds, but we never expected that the Germans would leave the camp unsearched. Moreover, we thought the Carabinieri would certainly take the Germans round to the most likely places. As a result of the ‘atrocity’ stories, we felt that anybody found in a hole would be likely to be bombed or tommy-gunned mercilessly, and this had dampened the enthusiasm of the most ardent. We learnt at Sulmona that all those who had stayed behind in Chieti had got away and that the Germans had made no attempt to look for them, and we kicked ourselves for our cowardice. Consequently, every compound and every bungalow was now a hive of subterraneous industry and there was not a plaster board ceiling which had not been cut into within a few hours, the hole being concealed by the photograph of some leering film star. As the days wore on, the ceiling idea waned in popularity, for the Germans announced their intention to spray all ceilings with sub-machine guns before finally leaving the camp.
Martin, who was a leading light on the Escape Committee, Edward and I, began to immediately to make plans, just like everyone else. Our first effort was a hole in the ceiling of a deserted bungalow. We were busy tearing wooden beds to pieces and passing them into the roof to reinforce the plaster board when we were stopped by a foul mouthed and furious Sergeant-Major acting on the orders of the British camp commandant. He was concerned, apparently, for the damage we were doing to the barrack stores. Bitter recriminations ensued (it is generally true to say that ninety percent of the difficulty in escaping is with one’s one countrymen). Anyway, our hole was compromised, not that it mattered, and we began to dig a slit trench outside our own room. The ground was rock hard; the work was frequently interrupted by German sentries patrolling on the look-out, and in one big sweep about the fourth day, they did in fact discover the majority of similar undertakings. This was not surprising, for the whole camp resounded all day and half the night to the tune of picks and shovels being used with a sort of desperate haste. These efforts were uncoordinated and, consequently, defeated their own object. The best hole that I saw was made in our room, through the concrete floor, and cleverly concealed with a table. After a week, it was big enough to hold six, and there were six in it when
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we finally left.
Tunnels already existed in the camp when we arrived, and the best was only a few yards short of completion. Martin asked Edward and me to join him in an ‘official’ attempt to escape and contact local Italians outside. The idea was to go through the tunnel as soon as it was ready and then set up some sort of organisation in the Sulmona area for helping others out. There was also some talk of joining up with the ‘free’ Italians who were, according to the BBC, offering armed resistance to the Germans all over Italy. I cannot say that this idea appealed to any of us, but we need not have worried, for, as we discovered later, the idea of armed Italians offering resistane was original to the BBC. The tunnel scheme collapsed, because the Germans discovered and demolished it about the fifth day.
Martin, Edwards and I accordingly found our hopes of escape on our own still inadequate slit trench. We had made a roof for it from a wooden slatted bed, covered with tarred paper, earth and, for camouflage, a tomato plant. We had, like everybody else, scoured the camp for better places, such as an iron boiler for disinfecting clothes, the QR Mr’s stores, wood piles, and so forth, but the best were already booked.
Harry Webb and one or two other of our friends were living with the Ors in their compound in disguise. They hoped that a better chance might occur in this way of staying behind in the camp or escaping during transit. I know of at least one officer who had done the same coming from Chieti. The 1500 or so other ranks were those who had been recaptured or had returned of their own accord after the big break-out earlier in the month, and were markedly defeatist in their morale. They were, moreover, actively opposed to being involved in other people’s attempts, particularly when these might involve the Germans lobbing grenades or spraying sub-machine guns. Alan Duggin was turned out forcibly from a cubby-hole he had found in the cookhouse. We were all too busy with our own schemes to bother much about those of our friends whom we occasionally passed, like ourselves, carrying Red Cross cardboard boxes full of excavated earth. Ian Brinkworth was seen living with the Yugo-Slav detachment, though I never learnt whether he wore their national costume or what his plan was.
The Germans held a daily roll-call to check numbers, and it was obvious that only a few people could hope to escape by staying in the camp when the move to Germany began. The Germans had the figures wrong by thirty, and when roll-call was held, thirty people, of whom I was one, used to go into hiding till it was over. We knew that far more than this would try to get away with it eventually, and did not believe that the Germans would stand for it. We felt their most reasonable course of action when they found a big deficiency in numbers would be to burn the camp down for, at this time, so over-optimistic was our conception of the Italian campaign, we imagined it was still touch and go whether the Germans could move us before the arrival of the British. This blatant wishful thinking was encouraged by the report of a German sentry who had said to one of us: ‘I can’t think why you are making such a fuss about escaping. It is we who should be nervous, not you’.
The 400 Americans with us at Chieti had been moved to Sulmona in block the day before we arrived, and had found the perimeter wire in bad repair and the German sentries off their guard. About 60 of them had accordingly escaped the first night by simply walking through the gap, before the Germans realised what was up and began firing. Even then, the Germans appeared not anxious to kill, and finally, one American was wounded. However, as a result of this, the Germans moved up troops to surround the camp, in addition to the actual guards. By day, they had posts half a mile out, and these by night moved in to 200 yards, with machine guns on fixed lines. The wire itself was repaired. Odd individuals continued to make an attempt every night for the week we were there, but I don’t think anyone succeeded, though one man, wearing running shorts and gym shoes, escaped by walking through the main gate in broad daylight. The German guard never attempted to stop him. Another part of five officers, carrying Red Cross stores, and a sixth dressed in an improvised German uniform, marched successfully through the main gate, although none of them spoke German, in the direction of the Red Cross stores room, which was outside the wire. The guard presumably took them for a fatigue party under the charge of a German soldier. By bad luck, they bumped into a German patrol a few minutes later, before they were clear. They were personally congratulated on their effort by German commandant, and confined in jail for five days.
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The Americans had a compound to themselves, and as a result of the fiasco at Chieti after the armistice, an unfortunate coolness had developed between us. We heard rumours of a big plan they were forming to take over the whole train and drive it back South towards the British. The success of this plan depended on them being moved all together at the same time.
On 30th September, about one o’clock, the Germans unexpectedly announced that all British officers were to parade, within half an hour, with their kit. A steady stream of lorries began to arrive at the camp gates, obviously to take to the station at Sulmona, which was five miles away. The 400 Americans and 1500 British other ranks, not to mention the hundred or so black men and two dozen Yugo-Slavs, would follow us in the next day or two. Martin, Edward and I decided at once to stay put, and so did our six companions who had dug their hole in the floor. We watched sadly as the rest of our friends departed with their kit to the parade ground. Our own plans were extremely vague. There was only room for one in our hole and the other two would have to try and find somewhere else. Our first step was to become other ranks, which we did simply by walking across into their compound and, in the case of Martin and Edward, shaving off their unmistakably ‘Brigade of Guards’ moustaches. We sat among the other ranks for an hour or two and recognised many familiar faces disguised like us. Sooner or later, we knew the other ranks numbers would be checked, and if we went on parade with them, the discrepancy would be noticed. The other ranks knew this too and were far from pleased to see us. Alternatively, we could stay off their parade, using our hole and any other ruse, but we knew that sooner or later the time must come when it would be simply a question of luck whether we were found or not. We decided, therefore, to tray and crawl through the wire that night and if we failed, and had not been either shot or seized, we could still try the lying up technique the following day – or whenever the rest of the camp was moved. In our hearts, we did not much fancy the idea of being in that camp when the Germans began their final round up, and we frightened ourselves privately with the pictures of the camp on fire, a cordon of Huns outside potting the bolting rabbits. Again, as it turned out, this was a falsely pessimistic picture – eleven weeks later, the camp was still not only well preserved, but was acting as a barracks for Germans troops.
Having dug our hole, we thought it would be worth using it in case the Germans held a sudden check-up that afternoon, and Martin agreed to be buried in it as an experiment. Dressed in his immaculate Guards tunic and slacks and his service dress cap with the Coldstream star, he huddled himself into the trench with a book, while Edward and I put the lid on. We then covered it completely with earth, part of which trickled down Martin’s neck. However, he maintained that he was quite comfortable and could even see to read his book. By the time we had finished, there was nothing to be seen but one flower bed, like many others along the same wall, and a tomato plant growing in it. I rather regret that we shall never know whether this would have deceived the German or not. Edward and I then found ourselves cubby-holes behind a pile of old wooden beds in a store room. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking about with the other ranks and turning over the chances of getting the wire that night in our minds. The transport to the station was proceeding slowly and by six o’clock only half the British officers had left the parade ground. The Germans were checking the numbers as they left and realised that there would be a deficiency of about 200. Accordingly, they told the Senior British officer and the Senior American officer that, failing the appearance of these 200 within the next half hour, the shortage would be supplied by the Americans. This caused an immediate international crisis. The Americans told the S.B.O. that it was up to us to provide the missing men. Their own plans depended on them leaving the camp together, and they did not why these should be spoilt by us. The frantic S.B.O. went rushing round the camp putting the point of view to as many officers as he could find, including Edward and myself. Personally, we were delighted at the excuse for calling off our own plan, which we knew was a very bad one, and with lighter hearts, we went to take Martin out and tell him the news. He had spent about four hours underground and was apparently quite comfortable and unmoved by the experience. He agreed with us that it was our obvious duty to stand down rather than cause Anglo-American friction. With as much kit as we could lay hands on, we joined the remainder of the British officers on parade. We were still determined to escape at the first opportunity and made superficial preparations, such as putting food in our pockets and keeping a water bottle handy. We arrived by truck at Sulmona station after dark. In degrees, we were placed on the train in a cattle truck and we persuaded the German guard to let us open a small window at the top for air. On the train, I
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met John Cochrane, shivering with wet and cold. He had jumped off a truck on his way to the station and escaped, lain in a muddy ditch for an hour, and had eventually been handed over by Italian peasants to a searching German patrol which would otherwise never had found him. We gave him a change of clothing and something to eat as he had lost all his possessions during his escapade.
The train was a very long one and at about nine o’clock, we started to move towards Germany. We all dozed, for the day had been mentally and physically exhausting. The train stopped at about 11 o’clock and we had only a vague idea about where we were. In fact, we were about half a mile outside Sulmona station, having shunted backwards and forwards for two hours. The three of us were, I think, the only ones awake. We immediately looked out the window, which was still open. Our truck was in a low cutting. Outside, it was fairly dark and Edward, who looked out first, saw a sentry immediately below. The sentry then walked up the line and disappeared in the gloom. It was the perfect chance, if we could be sure that the sentry was out of sight. Immediately opposite the truck was a low bushy bank leading into fields of beans, maize, vines, and so on. We seized our water bottles and peered for a minute or two to make sure that the going was good. It did not occur to us, in the excitement of the moment, to wake up the others if they were not awake, and suggest to them to follow us. Then, one after the other, we crawled out of the window, lowered ourselves quietly on to the track, and crawled rapidly up the bank into the fields beyond. We listened a bit, but evidently no one had seen or heard us leave the train, which began to move on in about five minutes. As we lay in the damp muddy field, among plants which were, so far as I remember, either beans or tomatoes. We heard a man moving stealthily along, no more than fifty yards away. After John Cochrane’s experience, we regarded all Italians as dangerous and we allowed whoever this was to pass before we reckoned he was safely away. Subsequently, we often wondered whether it had been another prisoner from our truck.
We were still not sure where we were, but guessed, rightly, that the train had after all been only shunting for two hours and that the lights we could see to the south, about a mile away, were Sulmona itself. To the east, we could dimly make out a high range which, if our guess was right would be Mount Morone. To the west, we could see further mountains between us and the direction of Naples. It was a bright starlight night and the sky was continuously illuminated to the west by flashes, which I immediately assumed to be gunfire. However, Martin disillusioned me and said they were nothing more than summer lightning. We formed a rough plan to make for the hills to the west and thence southwards over them towards the British in the direction of Benevento, which was about a hundred miles away. We had heard regular BBC news from a secret wireless set in the camp and the last position of Allied troops had been given as a line stretching approximately from Foggia across to Naples. We reckoned, in our ignorance, that if we walked we would join the British advancing towards us rapidly, at the best in a week. We had on us two Italian rolls, one packet of raisins, and one tin of Canadian potted meat. We hoped we should find vegetables and grapes and fruit in the valleys, and with them and our own supplies, we thought we could manage to last a week, buoyed up as we should be by the prospect of freedom. We crawled and walked with extreme stealth across the fields towards the western hills for about four hours. We knew we could not reach them before dawn, so decided to find a fool-proof hideout for the next day. Finally, we decided on a cane brake beside a steam, which was far from impenetrable, but gave the best cover we had found. We had picked up, en route, a vegetable marrow as food for the next day. We concealed ourselves in the brake and thickened it out around us with broken pieces of cane. The ground was cold and damp and we were thankful for Martin’s greatcoat which he had the foresight to bring. With this over us, we huddled together for warmth.
I do not believe that in the cultivated areas of Italy such a thing exists as a deserted place. Every inch of soil, however barren, is visited at least once each day by some old man or woman whose life depends on it. Although our cane brake had appeared at night an unlikely place for anyone to come, soon after dawn, an old man and his boy duly appeared and spent the rest of the day shaking walnuts off a tree immediately besides us. Considering that we still thought of all Italians as potential enemies, the suspense of that day was almost intolerable. The old man, on a ladder and with a long pole, shook down walnuts, which fell in an ark around the tree, of which the nearest point was not more than
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ten yards from our brake. He spent hours with his boy crawling round this ark picking up the nuts. By some miracle, he never actually spotted us. He was joined during the day by a few women. Various peasants also passed to and fro in our area, and once actually along the stream besides us. The stream itself made the noise of footsteps, to which we never grew accustomed and which gave us numerous scares. At last, evening came. The landscape quietened down, and breathing freely again, we ate as much as we could stomach of the raw marrow to give us strength for the night’s march. We started off again after dark towards the hills, passing now through vineyards where the grapes were still ripe. We picked and munched them as we went along. We also found some raw beans and some maize. We moved all night with the same extreme caution, making wide detours of houses, of which there were many, and jumping out of our skins if a dog barked. We crossed a railway line and one or two roads before reaching the foot of the hills. We climbed above the line of cultivation into a wood of dwarf oaks, above which the hills became rocky and bare. We decided to wait here the next day as we did not wish to be caught by dawn on a bare hillside. We concealed ourselves among the bushes and spent a miserable morning shivering uncomfortably on the steep pebbly ground, trying to escape a slight drizzle of rain. In the afternoon, an Italian, who had been out shooting on the mountain with his dog, stumbled on us. This came as a mutual surprise. He turned out an ex-pilot officer, now in hiding from the Germans, like most of the Italian Air Force and Army. He assured us, to our relief, that there were no Germans in the immediate area, and we believed him. He also said that the civilian population would be more than friendly towards us. We would not follow his advice and visit one of the farms below for a meal, so he told us to wait while he went and fetched some food from his own house, which was about a mile away. He came back as good as his word just before dark with a magnificent bowl of beans and macaroni soup. He then put us in contact with a party of young Italian men living close by in a stone hut.
At that time, as we found out, the lower slopes of the mountain were populated with young men – giovanotti – taking refuge from the Germans of whom they were afraid would impress them for work and perhaps send them to Germany. They had mostly been in the Italian armed forces and carried some form of weapon each, which they loved to fire off in the air to prove that it actually worked. They spent the days on the hillside, boasting – in fact, actually believing – that the Germans were frightened to come up into the hills after them. At night, they returned to farms and villages for food. As a type, the giovanotti are conceited, boastful, cowardly, and physically unattractive, not half the men their fathers are. They have usually had the advantage of having lived in either England or America. The giovanotti to whom we were now introduced were particularly bad specimens. However, they had this hit, with plenty of straw and food, and we regarded them at first as a change for the better. They tried to create the impression on us of a reckless band dominating the neighbourhood. They repeated several times in the next few days the story of one of their exploits, which their excitability and our weak knowledge of Italian prevented us from ever perfectly understanding. It seemed that they had been into Intradacqua, where the Brigadier (Corporal) of the Carabinieri was a noted fascist, and had beaten him up and threatened him with further recriminations unless they got the food they wanted. Although Edward and I, from our past experience, could only be delighted to think of any Carabinieri being beaten up, we all the same felt sorry for this particular Brigadier, if half the things the giovanotti said they had done, and would do to him, were true. Of course, they were not. The giovanotti were banking on the early arrival of the British, or they would never have dared shown their faces to a fascist carabinieri, and I suspect that they subsequently kept the story very much to themselves.
With the giovanotti, were four British other ranks in civilian clothes, who had been walking for two weeks from Aquila, and were continuing the next day towards Campobasso. Their story of meeting hospitality and kindess everywhere from the Italian civilians considerably reassured us, and we parted from them after a warm and comfortable night together in the straw, with promises that whoever reached the lines first would pass on the names of the others. All of us imagined that it was merely a question of days, or perhaps two weeks at the most, before the British arrived.
Living in another hut nearby, we met two Italian officers; Claudio, who had been a gunner in Russia, and Alfieri, in civilian life a professor a Sulmona University, known respectfully among the others as Il Tenente and Il Professore. They were a very different type,
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powerfully built, intelligent and quite impressive. We discussed our future with them and finally took their advice to stay and looked after by them, rather than start off over the hills on a long unknown march which, as it seemed then, was unnecessary. Our first consideration was to arrive back sooner or later safely, even if this meant waiting a few weeks and not walking at once. The two officers seemed to think that the British would arrive in a week, or perhaps two, and we trusted them to look after meanwhile. Moreover, they had news daily from a radio, so we felt we could keep in touch with events. The giovanotti, with whom we lived, were a drawback which became more disgusting daily.
On the second evening, I persuaded Claudio and Alfieri to let me go with them to listen to the radio. I borrowed a civilian hat and coat and walked with them into the village of Intradacqua. To my embarrassment, we walked up and down the main street for about an hour while they chatted to their various acquaintances, and I was even given a drink in the local pub. I felt conspicuously English in spite of the hat and coat and I found out later that everybody knew who I was at once. Finally, we listened to the radio in somebody’s house, but all I got was a BBC pep talk in French to the Belgians about German morale. Coming back, we met an old American-Italian who, finding out who I was, insisted on us coming into his house to have some grapes. He told me that he would be visiting us in our hut. His friends began to collect and I could see that my companions were becoming more and more nervous of this publicity, so we left.
Joe, the old American-Italian, visited us daily after that, along with his daughter and niece who brought delicious bowls of macaroni, etc. Various other benevolent or inquisitive people from Intradacqua also came in daily increasing numbers. We were invited down to dinner twice at a nearby farm by a large family who had many relations in America. Some of them had been there themselves in the past. They, like every Italian family we met, hoped to migrate there after the war. We enjoyed our two dinners as our first insight of the Italian peasants’ home life, as well as the dinner itself, of course. We all sat in the kitchen by a large open fire. This was a large family, ranging from a dear old grandmother to a newly born baby, whose mother suckled it without the least reserve. They were really charming people – even their giovanotti were passable as seen in the home circle. They were full of optimistic rumour of the Germans evacuating Sulmona, and the rapid advance of the British. We left them testimonials to present to the British when they arrived and promise that we ourselves would visit them if we could, but we never saw them again.
We were grateful for their meals and Joe’s, as it became evident that our companions were not popular in the neighbourhood and were having difficulty in getting food. Claudio and Alfieri had relations and finances in Sulmona and spent much of their time there running the risk, if it really existed, of being taken by Germans. We had neglected to bring any books away with us, except one Penguin copy of ‘The Bridge of San Louis Rey’, which we soon knew by heart. We had more than one reason for wishing that the Wilder masterpiece had been twice as long. Boredom soon became, and continued to remain, for the next eleven weeks. It was by far the most serious enemy. However, the five days spent in this hut were not unpleasant, for the weather was still fine. We had a warm bed, constant visitors, and high hopes. On the fifth day, Joe came to tell us that an advance party of Germans had arrived in Intradacqua the day before to arrange billets for a further hundred. As we were too well known in the area, we decided that we must move on. Claudio and Alfieri, when consulted on the matter, agreed.
On the night of October 7th, they led us to another hamlet two miles away, where they had friends. The giovanotti came too, except one, who in appearance reminded us of both a fish and a pig, and whose noisy chattering and still noisier belching had become insufferable. We were thankful to see the last of him. We arrived in the hamlet about midnight and were introduced to a farmer, Gabriel, and his pretty young wife. We all bedded down in their pig sty after much excitement and a glass of brandy each. Early the next morning, we were taken out to a cave nearby for the day. This was supposed to be for the sake of privacy and secrecy. However, throughout the day, a steady procession of locals came to visit us, bringing food and Italian clothes bearing mostly an American mark. These were treasured family possessions presented in the past by luckier members of the family who had migrated to the States and had not been so rash as to return. Notable among our
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visitors were two older men, Lorenzo the miller, and another we only knew as the Pastore (shepherd). Both spoke a rusty American. There was also an ex-sailor boy waiting for the arrival of the British to return to his family in Sicily. He made a great gesture by taking off his shirt for me to put on. The pastore advised us to keep on the move from one cave to another as he feared our presence would become too well known and we might be betrayed to the Germans with repercussions to the Italians concerned. So, we arranged to stay the night in the pig sty again (the giovanotti had all disappeared by this point and we never saw them again. I think they were as embarrassed by us as we were by them). We were taken before light to a cave on the hillside, returning to the farm in the evening. Our guide was to be Gabriel’s nephew, a giovanotto par excellence, called Dionino. He was an erratic young man, the proud possessor of an American leather wind jacket.
No Italian can ever get up as early in the morning as he intends, and although our purpose had been to reach the cave before first light, it was almost dawn when we were called with very welcome cups of hot milk. Led by Dionino, we scrambled along the face of the hillside through the sparse dwarf oak trees, in full view of the valley below and the Strada Nationale. We arrived at a small cave in broad daylight. The ground in front of the cave was level, and although our instinct was to hide in the cave itself, Dionino assured us we were perfectly safe and inconspicuous sitting outside. We did this all day, except for when there was a short spell of rain. The memory of this time could be represented by a series of dots and dashes; single days stand out clearly in every detail here and there, with periods between them of sometimes weeks where no single day is distinct from another, being only a blurred impression of life as it was that survives. We used to comment on this ourselves towards the end of our time at large, when we tried to recall incidents of the past weeks. The day spent outside the cave – it must have been about 8th or 9th October – is one of those which has survived most vividly. Except for the two meals of bread and cheese which Dionino had carried up in a pack, it was a day of oppressive boredom. To pass the time, we played the first of the many games which we invented out of desperation during the following long weeks. Below us, the Strada Nationale flashed like a white streak through the valley, from Sulmona to our north into the hills to our south, beyond which lay Castel Di Sangro, Insernia, Campobasso and Benevento. About half a mile of ground and cultivated valley separated us on our hillside from the road. We could see the vehicles (German) and the occasional pedestrian quite clearly on it. Imagining as we did that the German Army was withdrawing from south to north, and that this road was one of the very few possible lines of retreat, we counted every vehicle in both directions, feeling that the statistics might give us an important indication of the way the war was going. Every vehicle returning from the direction of the front sent our hopes soaring; every vehicle going the ‘wrong’ way i.e. towards the front, brought them down again. By the evening, about 150 had passed the ‘right’ way against 50 the ‘wrong’ way. This seemed extraordinarily little traffic to see on such an important road at what we thought was such a critical time but, nevertheless, the ratio of three to one encouraged us an indication of the way the wind was blowing. Towards evening, a steady procession of trucks began to go past towards the front; we never knew how many, but quite obviously it knocked all our calculations and deductions silly.
The railway running south from Sulmona passed between us and the Strada Nationale, parallel with the latter till it reached Pettorano, then winding back across the face of the hillside opposite to us above the Strada, it disappeared in a tunnel through the mountain of Rotella. We made the same deductions from the trains as from the vehicles on the road, and came to the same unsatisfactory conclusions. The trains ran backwards and forwards over this line, carried often on dizzy viaducts, with apparent unconcern. We speculated as to where the German railhead could be and wondered why the line had not been wrecked by the RAF. We even toyed with the idea of sabotage ourselves.
Conversation with Dionino lagged after the first half hour, although I can remember struggling to teach him how to decline the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’. He was very keen to improve the occasion by learning English, which would come in useful when he, like everyone else, went to live in America after the war. We implored him to find us a book, even one written in Italian, and he offered hopes of a French book which he knew his fiancée possessed. He did actually produce this book some days later.
That night, as a precaution, we insisted on sleeping in the cave near
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Gabriel’s house instead of in his pig sty. A brigadier of the Carabinieri lived on the top floor of Gabriel’s house and our presence had been kept a secret from him. We were anxious to leave the area of the valley altogether and live, if possible, in the mountains where there would be no daily anxiety. Gabriel believed that he knew where a British General was hiding in a cave and planned to take us there the next day to join him. The next day, we set off later than we intended as usual, Dionio leading us ahead and Gabriel, with his shotgun, a dog and a donkey loaded with supplies for us, following along. Most of the Italian farmers kept a gun and still had a few mouldy cartridges left. They often talked of the wonderful sport to be had in the mountains, what with the hares and partridges. I never saw one that had any actual success. Usually, towards the end of their disappointing day, they would chuck stones in the air and waste their ammunition showing off their skill hitting them at two yards range.
We climbed up the mountain, Genzano, for about three hours. The valley, and the Strada Nationale, the town of Sulmona, and beyond it the prison camp and its monastery, dropped away in the distance and finally were lost out of sight. We entered the thick expanse of beech forest, which stretched like a tonsure below the crown of the Genzano range. The cave, when we finally reached it, was deserted, although there were signs of recent occupation and a few potatoes and nuts on the floor. We were later glad of these. Gabriel was apologetic at the absence of any general. He had been there, he was certain, the day before. We off-loaded the stores into the cave – enough for three days – and Edward and Martin then accompanied Gabriel a further half hour up the mountain to a water point. They returned, and Gabriel and Dionino went off with assurances of their return in three days’ time.
Our first visit to ‘Little Ease’, as we baptised this cave, is only memorable for its cold and hunger and discomfort. [Little Ease, a dungeon beneath the White Tower at the Tower of London named as such due to its tiny size which left occupants unable to sit, stand or lie down; a fitting name for a cave that brought Verney and his companions little comfort] It was a small hollow in the limestone rock, about four feet high, with just enough room inside for three of us to lie down and a little space on either side of us. We made ineffectual attempts to keep a fire going and ate up the food quicker than we had expected. Our clothing and blankets at the time were inadequate for existence in the open at approximately five thousand feet. Owing to the weather, no one arrived on the day arranged to collect us and our spirits had sunk extremely low the following day when through the thick mist outside we heard faint voices. Going out, we met Dionino, a strange man and two strange girls who had been looking for us. They had brought a most welcome dish of macaroni and had come to take us back into the valley as they said we were too far for them to continue to bring food. Dionino explained that they were a day late because the Germans had been searching their area for young men to take away to work and he himself, as he told us breathlessly, had to ‘scapare’. Dionino, we gathered, led a life of continual hairbreadth escapes from the Germans and from the unknown fate which awaited any Italian giovanotto they caught. He was, it seemed, always ‘scaparying’ by the skin of his teeth, but that such was his devotion to us and to the Allies, he held his own personal safety of no account. All he wanted was to help us.
Antonio, the stranger, was a middle aged peasant of few words, but an obviously kind heart – how king we came to know full well. The word ‘grizzled’ described his face exactly. He had been in America for a short time and fought against the Germans in the last war. Upon hearing about us from Dionino, who was his cousin, he had insisted on coming up with this meal. In fact, as we realised later, he had taken us out of Gabriel’s hands into his own. His two daughters, massive and bovine, had carried up the food and now sat shivering in the mouth of the cave. They were, like all Italian peasant women, miserably poorly dressed against the weather, but apparently quite accustomed to it. We tried to be polite to them and express our gratitude but they appeared now and always in the future not to hear what we said and not to care. Antonio himself was always embarrassed by our thanks. His reply was to wave a hand at whatever dish he might have brought with him and say, ‘Non importa ringraziare mangiare, mangiare,’ or something like that, which in any case meant: ‘Don’t bother about the thanks, get on and eat it while it is hot.’
Dionino handed us a letter. It went roughly like this:-
I am a British subject hiding from the Germans. It is both my duty and my desire to give you help. I
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I hope that these tins of meat and this dagger will be useful to you. You can use the dagger for opening the tins. I am in touch with Mr Boucher and Johnson, who are anxious to have your names. I shall be seeing you tonight.
God save the King. Rule Britannia.
Your humble servant
Frank Del Signorie
P.S. The glorious Eighth Army has taken Campobasso and is advancing rapidly on Sulmona.’
Dionino, in answer to our enquiry, said he had forgotten to bring the tinned meat and the dagger and that it was many days of constant reminding before we finally got them. He told us we should meet Frank when we came down with him that night.
As we walked back down the path we had come up, we fervently hoped that we should not have to make the same ascent again. We felt, as before, and so often again, that a few days more hiding up would see the end of our escapade. Antonio and his daughters had gone ahead and Donino led us on to their house after dark. It stood on a railway line immediately below or position a few days before. By the light of small oil lamp, we were led up a wide stone staircase to the loft. Inside we found Antonio and Alfieri, along with a strange dapper little man in a brown tweed suit. He introduced himself in polite and quite fluent English as Frank. Alfieri apologised profusely for having seen so little of us. We all sat round a tale and drank Antonio’s wine. We later ate some delicious gobbets of his pork. There was an amusing conspiratorial atmosphere, heightened by the inadequate and flickering light from the oil lamp.
Frank told us that his father had been a sculptor in England and that he had a British passport before the war, although he lived in Italy and worked in the films near Rome. He had been interned since the war and pressure had been put on him to renounce his passport and join the Italian army. He showed us a scar on his calf where a Carabinieri had prodded him with a bayonet. However, Frank had resisted all temptation and remained loyal to the British Crown. Now he was living quietly with his sister in the area with some peasants, waiting for the British to arrive and helping all the escaped prisoners he could get in touch with in the meantime. Among the latter were Brigadiers Boucher and Johnson, whom we made arrangements to meet. Frank boasted rather naively of his efforts to stir up resistance to the Germans among the locals but, and he shrugged his shoulders at this, he was ashamed to say he could do nothing with such people – they were all cowards – otherwise, he insinuated, there would be organised attacks on the railways, a massacre of detachments of Germans billeted over the area…
‘Surely, you are running a great risk as an Englishman dressed as an Italian civilian and doing what you do! Please be extremely careful,’ we urged him.
Frank shrugged it off with a reckless smile and talked about ‘we English sticking together’ and how he knew to take care of himself. He showed us the pistol he always carried in his pocket. If the worst happened, he hoped he would at least account for a few Germans before going under himself. It was all part of an act, which became familiar to us later on, and which never failed to amuse. In fact, he was a delicate neurotic, but we had much to be grateful to him for, in particular, a reasonably reliable supply of BBC news.
The party finally broke up, with all proper conspiratorial precautions – lights being extinguished, doors opening noiselessly and single figures disappearing into the night. We three were pleasantly intoxicated and full of excitement at the course events had taken – contact with British ‘generals’, regular news supply, the friendliness of Antonio – all of which inspired confidence in the early British arrival. Antonio explained that being on the railway line was too risky. Further whisperings in the dark, doors opening and shutting quietly and we found ourselves in a hayloft, where we slept in most welcome warmth and softness.
The hayloft belonged to Antonio’s greatest friend, who also became ours from then on. His full name was Sinibaldo Amatangelo and he began a long series of kind and generous acts by calling us in the morning with a cup of hot sweet milk each. We called him Sam. He had lived in America and spoke English better than Antonio. He was short and wiry, about forty years old, with blue eyes, and looked more like an English
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farmer than an Italian. The hayloft was part of his house and a step ladder led down to a small room below. This went down again into a cattle shed on the ground floor. As his house was built against a steep hillside, we could enter the hayloft from another door at the back. We spent the next two days in the sitting room below by day and the hayloft by night. Sam and his wife, and Antonio and his wife, and Sam’s two sons, and Dionino, fussed over us. They shaved us and cut our hair, brought us water to wash, and even gave us some literature in the shape of an Italian-French school book (which Dionino had promised formerly) along with a guide book to Italy and its empire which contained some maps. The latter remained with us until the end and I still have the small scale map of the area around Sulmona which we tore out for our final march. The shave that we were given during this time actually ended up being our last until the end of November. We had been shaved once by some friends in the stone hut, but we decided from now on that it was a waste of time and, in any case, we rather fancied the idea of being photographed with beards when the English arrived. Indeed, we now rather regretted not having grown them from the start, being so sure at the time that the English would arrive before we had any growth to proud of.
On the second day, Edward began to shiver violently and suffered the first attack of malaria, which he had hoped had been cured in the prison camp. Sam increased our wardrobe with two Carabinieri cloaks and we added these to the two blankets and an invaluable rucksack that the original giovanotti had left with us.
We were rudely awakened at first light on the third morning by Sam, who told us with scarcely controlled excitement, that the Germans had begun to comb the area for young men, and that all the people around were flying to the hills. He had prepared some chillies for us and stuffed them, in Italian fashion, inside a large split loaf of bread. This, with a flask of wine and our kit, we now carried up the hillside in a disorderly flight. Sam had shown us the path to take, and having finally selected a good bush, we watched a crowd of giovanotti and older men toiling up the hillside, sometimes followed by their women carrying extra food. Everybody was talking to everybody else at the top of their voices, or shouting greetings to neighbours in the distance. They seemed very cheerful and we could not believe that if the menace had really been serious that their behaviour would be so conspicuous. They settled in the bushes around us and continued to chatter all day like starlings, returning home finally before dark. Sam himself only stayed behind us to settle his own affairs. He followed later, searching for us over the hillside. After wandering some distance, somebody put him on to the ‘Inglese’ and he came and sat with us some of the time. We were joined too by Antonio and his wife and his little son, Manfredo, a splendid little specimen, as good hearted and taciturn as himself. The danger, if there had been any, apparently disappeared during the afternoon and the hillside emptied back into the valley. At dusk, we too returned to our barn. Sam and his wife (a pretty and kind, but rather naturally nervous, woman) produced a meal in the ‘sitting room’. Outside, somewhere near in the valley, we heard intermittent firing. It was probably giovanotti showing off, as usual, but we were nervous; the shots only heightened our sense of insecurity. I can remember that Sam’s wife was almost in tears with apprehension, particularly as the small light in the sitting room could be seen outside. Altogether, the meal was gone through hastily and we were glad of the darkness and warmth of the loft above.
The next few days we spent in a cave that Sam took us to, returning to the barn each night. All the men in the area of working age repeated their performance of the day before, leaving their homes before dawn for the mountainside, returning during the afternoon. The Germans, at this time, were mostly concentrated in Sulmona and Intradacque, and only one or two villages in the country itself. They had not yet begun to occupy farm buildings as a precaution against air attack. The appearance of two Germans on a motor bicycle along one of the country tracks was immediately interpreted as a round-up – it spread panic for miles. We ourselves considered our safest place would be to remain in Sam’s barn, hiding, if necessary, under the hay, although we thought it most unlikely that the Germans would ever search a house, particularly one lying so far from any road. But we were driven out by his wife’s nervousness that if we were found he would be shot and, naturally, we could sympathise with her. After the first day, so confident were we, we sat outside the cave mouth unless people came within sight. Edward, on account of his malaria, remained in the barn, unless there was an actual alarm in which case he would be chivvied out by Mrs Sam in tears. Martin and I passed the days, which seemed interminable, by telling each other ridiculous stories and playing a sort
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of Pelmanism [a popular and simple memory game]. We took it in turns to think of things each suggested by the one before, sometimes with a double skip in the train of thought. After about an hour, we would reverse the process and try and work our way back through the association of ideas to the point we started from. It was a fascinating game, enabling us to recall names from our schooldays, from the books we had read, mutual friends, countries we both knew, and so forth. After a time, some of the associations of ideas began to recur, and try how we might, every game included in it reference to, for example, Windsor Castle, Jaffa oranges and John Buchan.
One morning, a gun began firing a few miles away, near Sulmona. We hardly dared to believe that it could be firing at British troops, even supposing its range was fifteen miles away. It fired about fifty shells which, from the sound of their explosion and the echo, seemed to be bursting on the hillside of Mt Morone. We heard later that it was an ack-ack [anti-aircraft gun, the name ‘ack-ack’ came from the spelling alphabet used by the British for the voice transmission of ‘AA’] gun which had been turned on to the old monastery above our late prison camp. The Germans had possibly got to hear of British P.O.W or fugitive giovanotti hiding in there or, alternatively, they had singled it out for target practice as an act of deliberate wantonness.
There were a good many ack-ack funs centred round the area at this time, which opened up at British fighters when they swept the valley, machine-gunning the road and railway station, as they very occasionally did. The Italians loved these raids and retailed to us afterwards the news of heaps of Germans lying dead along the roadside. There was never any bombing of Sulmona itself.
During this time, Frank visited us once or twice in our barn after dark. He had a vivid sense of the dramatic – I discovered he had been a third assistant director in Cinecitta, the Hollywood of Italy. To signal his approach, he always whistled ‘The British Grenadiers’, it became his signature tune. About the fifth night, he offered to take one of us to meet the ‘Generals’, Boucher and Johnson, and as Martin had known the latter in the desert, it was agreed he should go. Frank amused us by his reassurances that whoever went had no need to fear, for he himself would go ahead with his pistol n his pocket. Martin returned three hours later with an interesting account of the life being led by B. and J. They and their batmen had, together with all the other generals, escaped from their villa in Sulmona only just in time. Klopper had preferred to walk for it at once and we already knew he was through, but the others considered the walk unnecessary and had split up among various families in the neighbourhood. B. and J. and their batmen had been living since mid-September with their present family in civilian clothes, sharing in the family life. Martin had even seen them kiss the babies goodnight. They lived in a village, where all the families were related and had a highly organised system of warning if the Germans were seen approaching. If this happened, all the men took to the fields with their cattle, and B. and J. considered themselves perfectly safe. They were armed and reckoned that if the odd one or two Germans did actually stumbled on them, which was most unlikely, they would be able to dispose of them quietly. They suggested to Martin that we three should follow their example if we could find a suitable family in the same village. We lay in the dark, debating the pros and cons of this or any other plan. Frank thought he might be able to fix us up with a family in a day or so. We were tempted to follow B. and J’s example, for they were living in much greater freedom and comfort than we were. On the other hand, their village was in the plain nearer Sulmona and was without our excellent line of retreat into the hills.
The next day, Frank did not arrive as arranged in the evening. We heard that German troops had been billeted suddenly in the ‘Generals’ village and in others in our neighbourhood. A bigger and better flap had begun than ever before, and out of consideration for Sam’s wife, we offered to go and live permanently in a cave, if Sam could find us a safe one. Accordingly, he led us the following morning, about 14th October, to the cave of Adullam.
We spent a week in Adullam. It was a large high cave with a smooth floor, facing into a small gulley on the hillside, so that we could not be seen from the valley below. Although, at an angle, we had a good view of the Strada N. Sam’s house was about a mile away and either he or Antonio came to see us every day with food and wine. Gabriel and the others, even Dionino, seemed to have faded out of our picture. Sam used to be very cutting about them. Lorenzo once came with some nuts and apples, but no hot meal, which made Sam, when he heard about it, indignant, and he explained that Lorenzo’s wife was notoriously mean. The rather sly, loquacious Gabriel, he obviously despised and mistrusted as his wife was a chatterbox, as we later found out. Even our friend the Pastore fell short of Sam’s exacting standards. He had
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lent us his invaluable pocket-knife which we had not so far had an opportunity to return. Sam told us how the Pastore had been to him and asked if he knew when he would be getting it back, to which Sam gleefully replied: ‘If you wanted it yourself, why did you give it them?’. I can still hear him chuckling over the story when he told it. Dionino occasionally sent his regards, but, as Sam said, there was not much use in that. As a matter of fact, we suspected, though we never proved, that Dionino had disgraced the family and made friends with the Germans. This suspicion arose as a result of the following unhappy incident.
One night, Antonio and his son, Manfredo, brought us food. The next day, we heard from Sam that while they had been away from home, an unknown German had broken in and stolen sixty thousand lire from Antonio’s wife. Apparently, before coming up to us, he had left his wallet with all his money with her; she had put it in her dress, where the German had noticed it bulging. This was an appalling blow to him and to us, for had he not been away, the German would not have found the money nor, probably, have broken in at all. Antonio reported the matter immediately to the nearest German H.Q. and we heard a story about Dionino accompanying a German patrol in search of the culprit. They never found him. To retain Antonio’s friendship and to clear our own conscience, we guaranteed that this sum should be made good to him, like so many other things, ‘quando arrivano Inglese’ and we could ‘raggiungere’ our friends, but to do him justice, I do not think this promise made the least bit of difference to Antonio’s feelings towards us. He took his loss calmly and he continued to look after us, if possible better than before. We often hoped that the devotion that he and Sam showed us was based on sound financial interest, that they regarded us as a good investment. Otherwise, their kindness seemed to us superhuman and, as such, almost embarrassing.
Life in Adullem was not uncomfortable, if dull. We had found some straw already in the cave for a bed and at night we made a small fire, concealing it from outside by means of a Heath Robinson [arrangement of blankets suspended from the roof. By day, we played the game of watching traffic and trains, wishfully deducing signs of a German retreat. We set each other general knowledge papers in English literature, played the Pelmanism game, gossiped about Eton, and made plans for the ideal life after the war. Pork in various forms was the greatest delicacy that Sam or Antonio could bring, and all our post-war plans included in them the keeping of at least one pig. We were visited daily by a strange creature called Caliban. He was an Italian soldier who had deserted from the army in Yugo-Salvia and arrived, after months of walking, in our district where he was now living with a couple, Francesco and Marguerite. He was unashamedly lazy and used, apparently, to escape to our cave whenever Francesco suggested he should go and help work in his fields. He was already living, like most Italians, in mortal dread of the Germans, and he repeatedly told us how much he suffered for his ‘paura’. He annoyed us with his unattractive presence, particularly as we felt bound to offer him an apple whenever we ate one, though in return he did produce three baked potatoes. I amused myself drawing a caricature of the three of us in charcoal on the cave wall, with our dishevelled hair and beards, which Martin said looked like three Arab bandits during the Palestine troubles. There is also a large and anatomically freakish nude lady on the same wall. I often wonder what legend will grow up around those drawings.
About our sixth day, Frank arrived. He apologised for having neglected us, but he had been hiding himself in another cave, as the Germans had occupied the house next door his own. He had been suffering with rheumatism as a result, and had developed a complex about his brother-in-law, who was a corporal in the Carabinieri and had fascist leanings. His character was antipathetic to Frank (we deduced he was a rather more virile type), and Frank was afraid of being betrayed by him. Frank was obviously suffering from persecution mania, which, when we saw him six weeks later, had become still more acute. He had with him a letter written by Boucher to the villagers he had lived with, who had taken it to Frank for translation, and who showed it to us.
From it we learnt that B. and J. had taken to the hills on the opposite side of the valley from us on the same day that we had come to Adullam. The presence of Germans in their village was too dangerous and they had been guided up to a hut in the woods where they were now staying. There, they had been contacted by two ‘representatives’ from the Eighth Army, who had been sent to help escaped POWs. These representatives said that they would be in the area of Sulmona within a week. It was possible, they
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said, to join the Eighth Army in two days across the hills and the woods, but they strongly advised B. and J. to stay and wait.
We had never ceased to weigh the chances of walking as opposed to waiting. We believed that when the arrival of the Eighth Army was imminent, the Germans would possibly comb the area for cattle and perhaps remove the inhabitants to the north before withdrawing themselves. We therefore decided to return to ‘Little Ease’ with a stock of food and wait in safety there. Frank himself considered joining us, but owing to his rheumatism, he decided to remain the valley. We were relieved. We finally said goodbye, with promises to meet in Sam’s house when the week was up and the British had arrived. Sam promised to fetch us down if this occurred sooner. We arranged for him to bring as much food as we could carry around to the cave two hours before dawn, so that we should be able to climb well clear of the valley in darkness.
He was, of course, late in coming, but more than generous in the food he produced. We fixed a date five days ahead for him to visit us in the cave with further food, if this should be necessary. He offered to accompany us on our path, but obviously he was worried to death over his own affairs. Like everyone in the area, he was facing complete ruin and, although the Germans had not touched his possessions so far, we knew the following days, and as it turned out – weeks, were going to be critical for him and Antonio. We staggered up the hill with our food and blankets, hoping this would be the last time we should have to do it. We reached ‘Little Ease’ after three and a half hours of hard climbing.
On the way up, we stopped to watch British fighters circling high over Sulmona, and then diving to attack some target on the road. The noise of machine-guns and of ack-ack fire we found to be invigorating, particularly as no planes were hit then or at any other time. It seemed to bring the war closer, and was therefore ‘good news’.
The cave was on one side of a valley, which ran steeply up towards the peak of Genzano. The beech trees still had their leaves, though these were yellowing and beginning to fall. There were several spirals of smoke rising from the woods around, and ‘Little Ease’ itself had been lived in since we were last there. Someone had erected a screen of branches across the mouth and constructed a bench of beech logs. There were remains of a fire outside, and inside scraps of bread and apples, which we immediately added to our store. Any bread, even half devoured by mice, was a welcome asset. We remembered from our last visit to ‘Little Ease’ how much less long our food lasted than expected. There seemed to be several other parties inhabitation the area and we contacted the nearest in a hut made of branches immediately below us. There we found some young men and women, and with them two British Sergeants in civilian clothing, Brewerton and Sullivan, of the 60th Rifles. Two further sergeants, Godwin and Wells, were living close by in another hut with other Italians. All four of them had escaped in the break-out at Sulmona. They had tried living in the mountains with the rest, but they found the Germans at the water points and were driven down into the valley as a result. Here they had the good luck to be adopted by a large family who occupied one village near that of B. and J. They were now living in these huts with the young men, while the girls made the three hour journey every morning with food for them, returning at night. The girls arrived punctually every day whatever the weather, at nine o’clock, and even maintained that they enjoyed the exercise. Certainly, they always arrived at the hut singing with their laded donkeys, carrying further supplies on their heads, and seemed tougher than anybody I have ever met. Italian peasant women all have the looks and the physique of that nation. Much to our embarrassment, they supplemented the rations we had from Sam and Antonio, and even brought up dishes specially prepared for us. The greatest advantage of their daily visit was the news they brought, obtained second hand from somebody with a wireless set, with the consequent inaccuracy. The sergeants said they had heard themselves the fall of Isernia announced on the BBC news ten days earlier, but for the next two weeks, the Italian news brought by the girls gave the fall of Isernia as still being imminent. It was slowly, though not less bitterly, that we came to realise how grossly over-optimistic those two representatives of the Eighth Army had been.
We arrived at ‘Little Ease’ about the 23rd October and lived there until about 27th November. I have forgotten the chronology of events and, except for occasional vivid incidents the memory of it is an impressionistic blur. Fetching water and cutting wood for the fire kept us busy. We were able to spend much time in the preparation of cooking and eating our food and, thanks to Martin’s talent in this direction, some of the dishes tasted better than anything I have had before or since. Our
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technique with the bones was to boil them two or three times in a broth, then Martin would devote a day to breaking them up with a knife and scraping off the marrow, which gave us a broth for another day or so. Bread we could toast and potatoes we roasted in the embers, or boiled in their jackets. We closed in the front of the cave with a screen of bush, laid twigs on the floor, and with the fire, which never out for six weeks, we considered we were living comfortably; except for Edward, whose bouts of malaria recurred about every four or five days. He had, because of them, to remain almost continuously in the cave, as the slightest exhaustion brought on a shivering fit. We became steadily grimier. Our hair grew into a sort of bird’s nest and our beards became daily more impressive. Sam or Antonio, or both, accompanied sometimes by their children, visited us about every fourth day with further supplies – huge delicious loaves of bread, pieces of veal or pork (they killed all their pigs rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Germans). Usually, they brought a cheese or a pot of honey, and sometimes some chicken, the bones of which could be used to flavour the broth for literally weeks. Walnuts and almonds and apples made up the diet and we found we thrived on it. We were always hungry and our economy was rigid to the point of absurdity, but we were never starving. Every piece of food was divided with particular care into three pieces. We found time less heavy on our hands during this period for the housework kept us fairly busy. We had social contacts with the sergeants and Italians in the area. Other activities were learning poetry by heart as well as we could remember; cutting ourselves pipes from Hollywood, and stems from a rose bush conveniently growing inside the cave. We even had two pet mice, Mickie and Minnie, who grew bolder and bolder in the theft of our food till finally they paid us no attention; it must have been the most prosperous month in their lives, and they certainly could never have dreamed of finding so much food once the snow had fallen.
Martin carved himself walking stick with a train on the handle, symbolic of our escape. I whittled away at a portrait from memory of my wife, which the others unkindly said resembled one of Rostein’s statues. Martin killed an adder and cured the skins with the ashes – a beautiful job of work.
These activities were spread out over the period; each hobby started in a burst of enthusiasm and finally gave place to the next. The pipes were inspired by a present of tobacco from Frank, brought up on one occasion by Sam with a characteristic letter hot with news of the wonderful Eighth Army, which seemed to be advancing rapidly backwards according to the place names given and our previous information.
Frank’s own health was bad, and he had returned to live with his sister in the Valley in spite of the continual menace from his brother-in-law whose character became more and more unsympathetic to Frank. He ended on a note of unshakeable patriotism and patient courage in the face of all his difficulties, crying ‘God save the King!’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ His letters were remarkable documents which unfortunately we thought it best not to keep, for obvious reasons.
The poetry phase lasted fairly steadily for the whole period. Martin could remember nearly every poem he had learnt at Eton, and had more over an inexhaustible supply of limericks, which it appeared he had learnt in his pre-war soldiering days when he was on duty on King’s Guard. Our favourite, which we learnt laboriously from him, was Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’. Others were several stanzas from Byron’s ‘Don Juan’:-
‘The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece were burning Sappho loved and sung’ etc.
Houseman’s ‘Epitaph on a legion of mercenaries’:-
‘These in the day when heaven was falling’ etc.
‘The owl and the pussycat’, the ‘Jabberwock’ and ‘They tell me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’. Edward contributed Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and I am afraid I could remember nothing but a few lines from ‘Kubla Khan’ [poem by Sam Taylor Coleridge]
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Sergeants Godwin and Well set off a few days after we arrived to try and reach our line over the hills southwards. We believed that the English had nearly reached Castel Di Sangro about 30 miles away in a straight line. They returned the following day with gloomy stories of walking into Germans stationed in the woods. There was, they said, a big valley cutting through the hills in which the Germans had a concealed patrol dump and across which it was necessary to pass. Their verdict was that it was impossible to get through. Godwin seemed a sensible and determined sort of man, but Wells was a familiar type of moaner and we suspected that the difficulties were not as great as they said, particularly as they admitted the valley could be avoided if you were prepared ‘to go mountaineering’. We debated whether to try ourselves or not. The road leading west from Castel Di Sangro towards home would have to be crossed and as the British had not yet reached it, we felt this would be an unnecessary risk to take. As a result, we decided to wait.
About the end of the second week, we had a heavy fall of snow and all the Italians packed up to move back to their homes in the valley. They had come up in the first place with all their cattle to avoid ruin and capture, but they said that now the snow had fallen, their womenfolk could not continue to maintain them and they would have to take the risk of returning.
We were left in splendid isolation on the mountain. The snow never troubled us very much except when it made the climb to the water-point rather slower; on the other hand, we used the snow outside of our cave for melting down into broth. Our neighbours had left plenty of logs behind which we burnt on our fire and we felt safer than ever before, provided Sam and Antonio could continue to face the journey up. They did, in spite of blizzards which lengthened their climb up by an hour each way.
They thought we were quite mad, preferring to live about the snow level rather than return to the valley with them. Although, I think that at heart they were relieved we reused their offer. There was always a certain tenseness the day they were due to arrive as we never had more than a day’s food in hand unless we broke into our three tins of meat, which we wanted to keep unopened in case of some eventual emergency. Sometimes, owing to the weather, they were a day late, but never more than this. We always could have wept for joy and relief when we heard Sam’s well known voice outside calling ‘Merteen, John, Read’ (his pronunciation of Edward). Sam had a few favourite English which we came to love. He always referred to the Germans as ‘them German peoples’. When he had some new tale of woe to report, with the Germans having done something outrageous they were ‘them son-of-a-bitch’. If he was remonstrating at the state of our boots or our general dirtiness or the conditions we were living in, which he considered appalling for British officers, he used to say sadly, shaking his head, ‘That’s not right – that’s not right. You fellas livin’ like that!’ One notable action he carried out for us was when he brought up a heavy shoemaker’s last and nails in the worst blizzard of all to repair our boots in the cave. The fact that he himself was soaked to the skin apparently did not worry him in the least. As for Antonio, he pointed to a bare chest under his cotton shirt as proof for how little the weather troubled him. His bovine daughter, though she never complained, was chattering with cold. It was the nearest she ever came to human expression. Words fail to express the goodness of that man’s heart and the affection we mutually felt for each other. From time to time, we gave him a testimonial to present to the English when they came, just in case we ourselves had left or been captured. I think he was pleased to have them, although he protested that it did not matter. One of our greatest anxieties was how to repay him and Antonio and we often discussed the various ways of doing so. We might each adopt and educate one of Sam’s three sons or buy him a great quantity of cattle for his farm, or simply give him some unspecified lump sum of money. In addition, Martin was in favour of presenting him and Antonio, and all our friends, with large locks. He thought that this was the sort of present which they would treasure and remember us by. We amused ourselves deciding the kind of clock or watch we would give in accordance to the degree of service given to us. For instance, Dionino, who had at first qualified for at least a gold Half Hunter, had now fallen down the scale to an Ingersoil. Sam and Antonio, of course, must have the most elaborate and, if possible, accurate Grandfather’s Clocks that could be transported from Bond Street to Italy.
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Frank, owing to his rather superior status as a British citizen, we felt should receive a decoration rather than an emolument, but the value of his services fluctuated a good deal. We estimated at the beginning that an OBE would meet the case; then when he appeared to have ratted on us, we thought he would be lucky to get a ‘mention’, but I am glad to say that in the end he redeemed his position in our eyes. I am afraid he will never get any official recognition. His own ardent patriotism will have to be his reward, and the consciousness of having done his duty by his fellow Englishmen. ‘We English must stick together’, was a favourite slogan of his.
About the fourth week, we had a heavy fall of rain and found that the roof of the cave had begun to leak badly. The drips were local at first, but soon spread over the whole ceiling so that it was impossible to escape them with one’s entire body. The misery of the next three days became almost intolerable and we spent most of the time drying our blankets and clothes. However, they became sodden again almost instantly. The drips continued to a slighter extent for the rest of our time in the cave.
We had begun to hear distant gunfire ever since the first few days in ‘Little Ease’. This must have been when the nearest British troops were about Isernia, but during the next week, although the British were presumably advancing, the gunfire by some trick of the mountains, sounded further and could at one time only be heard from the water-point a thousand feet above us. The snow, of course, may have helped to deaden the sound.
One fine day, about the 20th November, we saw a party of Italian men and donkeys coming up the valley from below. Two of these came up to our cave. They were in an incoherent state of excitement. They came from Petiarano, where the Germans had announced that they would move the entire population in two days’ time to North Italy for labour, separating men and women into different camps near Padua. Most of the village was, accordingly, escaping with their possessions and livestock into the mountains. These men had come on ahead to erect huts and make preparations. These two asked if they could share our cave. It was, they said, not on account of themselves, who could put up with sleeping in the open, but for their women and bambini. If we agreed, they would enlarge the cave at once and construct a shelter as an extension to it. All in all, they were a family of eleven they said. In the circumstances, we could hardly refuse for ours was the only cave on the whole mountain at that level, and we thought too, that if Sam was in the same desperate straits, we might become dependent on these people for food. It did not occur to us that Sam might also wish to come and share our cave till too late.
One of the men was young, small and wiry, with dynamic energy and an appalling temper. He suffered severely from malaria and we referred to him as the ‘Yellow Peril’. The other was elderly and slightly mad, and we called him ‘Old Misery’. Yellow peril began work at once with a pick and shovel, widening the cave and later began to construct a hut propped against the cave’s mouth. Owing to the slope of the hill, he constructed a platform for the floor. He did all the work himself, shouting instructions mixed with abuse at Old Misery, who pottered in the background as we sat looking on, feeling thoroughly wretched at the prospect of such an intrusion.
Early next morning, they arrived again with donkey-loads of flour and other stores and continued work on the hut itself. A little later, Sam and Antonio arrived with food for us. They had not yet had orders of a move, though they expected them in due course. We could not be certain whether they had hoped to come and share our cave if it became necessary or not, but the thought that we might have let them down by admitting these other strangers made us utterly miserable, particularly as Old Misery and Yellow Peril were rude to them. Sam told them pretty firmly – he was white with anger – that they had, as he thought, imposed on us and that we were to remain in the cave whatever happened. Then he and Antonio returned with promises that they would be seeing us again in a few days. They seemed to have no definite plans about their own future and could not be sure of the steps they proposed to take to protect themselves and their cattle. They begged us not to worry about them, but they both looked tired and anxious and we felt overcome by the fact they had spent six hours bringing us up food at such a time. The fact that Pettorano was being moved was a good omen and showed that the battle was sweeping our way, though we were still very uncertain where the line was.
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The BBC had announced the fall of Castel Di Sanoro a week earlier, but there was said to be heavy fortifications at Roccarasso where we believed the battle was now raging and continued to rage for the next three weeks. We formed a picture of the British striving to break through at this point. If they succeeded, they would sweep on the past Sulmona until they reached the next fortified line at Popoli on the Rome-Pescara road. Meanwhile, we could see gun flashes every night behind Maislia to the north-east, and it was possible that the main attack was aimed along the coast, and that the Roccarasso position would be turned from the north and become untenable. However, the trains continued to run from Sulmona, south over the little mountain railway, and we knew that long before British troops arrived, the Germans would have blown up the viaducts, all of which were mined.
Edward was laid up again with malaria. Martin and I decided to make a long reconnaissance over the hills towards Castel Di Sangro, and see if we could find out the chances of reaching the British lines that way. My rubber-soled desert boots were finished, so I wore his, a good Italian pair that he had brought in Chieti, and he wore Edward’s, which were also good. We left Edward lying miserably in the cave, surrounded by the manic activity of Yellow Peril.
Climbing past out water point, we reached the second ‘Fontana’ – there were altogether four on this side of Genzano – and we reached the fourth in three hours. There we met some boys watering their cattle. They were refugees from the village of Roccapia who had been living up in the snow some weeks. There was also a very old Italian-American who advised us to make for Alpedena and not Castel Di Sangro. He said it was closer and that he thought the English must be there (its fall was announced by the BBC about the same time. This is significant to my story later). The fourth water point was not far below the highest ridge of Genzano, along which Martin and I had come after the second ‘fontana’. We now climbed to the nearest high point and had a perfect view of the plain called Cinquemilla, which stretches from Roccapia to Roccarasso. The road cuts across the middle of it. We could see the hills behind where we believed the British lines to be. We thought we could see the valley that the sergeants had mentioned and the mountains where we must go ‘mountaineering’ to avoid it. We got some idea of the route we could follow if we should try and join the British that way. Although, from where we stood, the line could not be more than about 12 miles direct across the plain. We reckoned that by marching over the mountains, it would be at least twice as far, and in marching time, perhaps three times – about two all days marching in total. The snow though which we had come all the way was not deep, except in drifts, but the old man had advised us that it might become too deep if we delayed. We could see no signs of the battle in progress, and even the gunfire was rare and sounded very distant. There was practically no traffic using the road across the plain. The two major snags to attempting it were my lack of boots and Edward’s malaria. We rejoined Edward in the cave after dark that evening, and decided to continue waiting, unless life with the Italian family at such close quarters became unbearable. The whole family were due to join us the next morning, and the men had returned to fetch up more supplies etc.
The next morning, it poured with rain, alternating with sleet. The family began to arrive with donkeys and ponies laden with their bedding and more food soon after dawn. The ceiling of the cave dripped and the water poured through the roof of the hut. The women wore blankets over their heads, on which they also carried further stores. There were five of them, the eldest about eighty, and they and their four children were dripping wet, but amazingly cheerful. The Yellow Peril was now in the throes of a malaria fit and muttered an unceasing flow of curses, mostly at Mussolini. He never stopped quarrelling with the women, who took it calmly the first few hours, but finally broke down. I can remember the next four days chiefly for the incessant wailing and sometimes shrieking when the Yellow Peril occasionally beat his wife with a shovel. The women smacked the children. The children hit each other, and the noise and general misery was indescribable. The old grandmother sat huddled over the fire, cooking up dishes of beans or chilli for her old husband, who spent the days leading the cattle up to the water. They were a fine looking old couple, with the dignity which only old Italians possess, and we felt for them, but they were bowed with misery and the bleakness of their future, and it was hard to know how to talk to them. Their house had been ransacked, even of its doors and windows, by the Germans, and except for food and stores left buried, all their worldly possessions were now with them in the cave. It might be weeks before the British arrived and they could return.
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We shared their polenta – maize flour boiled in water into a thick paste – and some delicious baked quinces. They had plenty of flour and potatoes and some chickens, for which they dug a hole in the ground, and they also had a cow stabled in the hut where Sergeants Brewerton and Sullivan had lived, together with a donkey and a pony. At night, all fourteen of us somehow piled on top of each other in the cave and the stores were stacked round the wall of the hut. The fire was kept going on the floor of the latter. The women were miserably incompetent at stoking it and it was the source of innumerable rows between them and the Yellow Peril. Old Misery always seemed to be wetter than anybody else and rarely spoke, so deeply was he plunged in gloom. The fire, for some reason, poured smoke into the cave, and Edward suffered great pain from an inflammation of the eyes caused by it. We managed to see what might be called the funny side of our position, though we thought it was a joke in poor taste and we never raised much of a smile.
About 27th November, in the early afternoon, we were sitting round the fire talking with the family during an unusually quiet spell. Suddenly, one of the women, who could see out of the door, whispered ‘Tedeschi’. Two German soldiers with rifles were about five yards away. Martin, Edward and I plunged under the bedding at the back of the cave and the others stood up, with great presence of mind, in the door of the hut. We covered ourselves over completely, but I could just see two pairs of gartered khaki legs and the young face of the nearest German soldier beyond the Italians standing up. They were part of a sweep to find the cattle the Germans knew were being hidden in the mountains and after a few minutes of conversation, the men led them down to their cow. The women rushed in and besought us hysterically to leave immediately, or they would all be shot, and grabbing our water bottles and a few garments, we left the cave and climbed into the woods. We squatted in the snow out of sight, and later were joined the Yellow Peril, carrying the rest of our kit, hastily packed in a rucksack. He told us to ‘raggiungere’ the ‘Inglese’ across the hills and not come near the cave again. The Germans had taken their cow with them. They had also said that the English had reached Chieti. This was startling news coming from the Germans and bore out our theory that the English would eventually force the Germans to retire from Roccarsso by advancing along the coast towards Pescara. Of course, we were by now too wise to believe the story about Chieti literally, but it was certainly a good piece of news. We held a hasty council and agreed that the best thing was to return to Sam after dark and find a hide-up in the valley. We were unprepared in the way of food for the march in the hills and because of my boots. So, when it was dark, we started down the weary path back to the valley of Sulmona. We arrived at Sam’s house at 10 p.m. and fetched him out. He and his eldest son were genuinely delighted to see us and their greetings and kindness after the atmosphere we had been in were very welcome. Their own news was not as bad as we had feared. They were still unmolested, though Antonio and Sam were taking turns looking after their remaining cow in a nearby cave. Sam’s wife fried us some sausages, which we ate in the kitchen, and after bedding us down in the old barn, Sam even rushed off to tell Antonio the good news of our return. They had intended to come up and see us the next day with good. In contrast to ‘Little Ease’, the warmth and softness of the barn was marvellous and we had the first good night’s rest for many weeks.
Sam led us before dawn to a cave nearby where we spent the day writing letters to our families on sheets torn from the Italian-French primer. We felt that our position was proving more and more critical and that if we were recaptured these letters, which we have to Sam to hide, might eventually find their way home when the English came. Sam also insisted on shaving us and cutting our hair as our appearance, now that we were living in the valley again, encouraged suspicion.
During the day, we also had a visit from Frank and the son of the family he was living with, called Nerio, a friendly and honest youth of fifteen, whom we were to see often again. Frank was dressed in his immaculate ‘English’ plusfour tweeds and Homburg hat. The Germans, we gathered, were billeted in many houses in the area and he spent the days in a cave on the hillside, returning to the peasant’s house at night. His sister had gone to live in Sulmona to have a baby. His brother-in-law was now employed in the Carabinieri by the Germans and wore a special armband. Frank had plenty to tell us about him and lived in continual dread of betrayal. We noticed he no longer carried his pistol. Like all Italians, he had ceased to carry arms, as the arrival of the British became longer and longer postponed and the danger of being shot by the Germans,
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if found in possession of a firearm, became greater. We advised him, to his great delight, that he looked conspicuously English in his present attire, and that he would do better to dress like a common labourer. So far as I know, he never followed our advice, for his vanity was greater than his nervousness.
We spent the night again in the barn and the next day in another cave with a well concealed entrance. Frank and Nerio embarrassed us by coming in daylight and thus compromising it. However, they brought generous presents of milk and cheese, as well as bread and tobacco. Nerio’s mother was a washerwoman to a doctor in Sulmona who had a wireless set, so we got indirect BBC news. It was about this time that the BBC announced that British troops would be in Sulmona within two days. The Italians believed, and from them we believed, that a battle was raging for the Roccarasso positions, although, as these were known to be strong, it seemed more likely that the break-through would come first in the north. There was a rumour that Palena was in English hands and this lay immediately behind Maielia to the north-east, only ten miles on the map from us. We did not believe it, but even if it was nearly true, it was a threat from the north to Roccarasso. The Italians also believed that the British had pushed on to the west from Castel Di Sangro along the road to Rome and a side road which led from this around the back of Genzano into the Sulmona valley. They said the BBC had announced the fall of Alfedena again and of Villetta Barrea. At the junction of these two roads, Scanno had also been mentioned by the BBC, they said, as lying immediately ahead of the Eighth Army’s advance. This was wildly optimistic news, for Martin and I had looked down on Scanno from the top of Genzano, and if the English were to reach that we could join them in four or five hours walking over the mountain. Frank and Nerio talked of this as a possibility. All the same, with the attack along the coast near Ortona and the indication that Roccarasso might be passed, it would mean a German withdrawal to Popoli. We had good reasons for hoping we should be released before Christmas, so we continued to encourage the Italians and ourselves with the phrase ‘ancor una setti-mania’ – ‘only another week’ – which we had now been saying for over two months.
Owing to the British air attack, the various Germans administrative troops had left Sulmona and the vicinity of the main road and were billeted all over the valley in houses under the hillside. The nearest to us were in Gabriel’s village, about three hundred yards from our cave. We were right over them and could watch their trucks coming and going. Sometimes, a small body of Germans marching smartly along a track could be seen. There were many stories of Germans dressed as civilians searching for British prisoners in the area. One calling himself a British POW had visited an Italian Carabinieri and asked for food, which he had been given. The Italian had been arrested and taken to Sulmona. There were fascists suspected of tipping off the whereabouts of British POWs to the Germans. Our friends, the Sergeants, had a narrow escape of this sort, and had only been smuggled out a back way from the house the Germans raided in the nick of time by the girls I have already mentioned. We saw these girls later, who said they know the names of the fascist who had betrayed them, and we assured them he would get what he deserved ‘quando arrivano Inglese’. One Italian in Sulmona, so the story went, who was feeding British POW in hiding, had been ordered by the Germans to give them up. In spite of their threats, he had refused and had been shot. Nerio, who told us this tale, was eloquent in his description of how this Italian had preferred death rather than betray an Englishman. Nerio was just the same, he assured us: ‘rather we were taken than you.’ He repeated, smacking us on the shoulder. We felt deeply grateful, though perhaps a little sceptical. We also felt that the news from the front must be good to inspire such sentiments and local morale was indeed high at the end of November, partly due to the extraordinary statement made by the BBC. There were daily incidents of Germans finding and taking cattle in the area, though none so far from our friends, who had killed their pigs for our benefit, had sold one cow and were hiding the other. The Germans had moved the population of Pettorano and the neighbourhood, but had so far stopped short about a mile from Sam and Antonio. Sulmona itself was full of these involuntary refugees, in transit to the north, and there were grim tales of their starvation and disease – probably exaggerated.
The third day, we moved to yet another cave in the same area on the hillside, which was honeycombed with them. This was recommended by Frank
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for its second and hidden exit. However, because of its size, it was well known, and we were discovered by some small boys with their flock of goats and sheep. They too were up there to keep out of the way of the Germans and we trusted them. At the same time, we were terribly nervous of too many people knowing about us. Our old acquaintance, Lorenzo the miller, also discovered us quite by accident. He promised to return with a meal, but we never saw him again. Sam, when we mentioned it to him, reminded us that Lorenzo’s wife was notoriously mean. Nerio also came with the latest news, which was no different from what we already had. Frank sent a letter, explaining that he no longer dared move outside his house by day and that he was suffering from ill health, but he ended with his usual flourish of ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. Nerio, upon hearing that we felt insecure in this cave, showed us yet another, better concealed, which was to become our final abode. He and Frank had slept in it at one time. The floor was earthen and dry and there was still straw there. We decided to go there instead.
Late that afternoon, I was sitting in a bush outside the cave, watching Gabriel’s village below, when I noticed people running towards it from the fields around, and heard women crying and shrieking. The noise continued for about half an hour. A platoon of Germans marched into the village as if they had been sent there for some purpose. The whole incident was strange and gave me an uneasy feeling and only added to the sense of insecurity we had in that cave. A day or two later, I discovered an explanation: the Germans billeted there had left some hand grenades lying about in a house. A boy of seven had picked one up and it had blown him to pieces.
We returned to the barn that night, without seeing Sam, who woke us early the next morning with a tale of woe. Antonio’s wife, he said, was furious with us. She had met the old grandmother, who had been driven down by the cold from ‘Little Ease’, and had told her that the three Englishmen had talked of being fed by Sam and Antonio. We remembered guiltily having mentioned to the old lady one night how fond we were of them both, because they were friends of hers, but as it was on that morning they had met Yellow Peril and Old Misery with us, we imagined that there was no secret in this – but, of course, our last wish was to be indiscreet and thus endanger Sam and Antonio. Sam had all along repeatedly begged us not to mention him to strangers and we had been careful not to do so. He was, for very good reasons, extremely sensitive on this point, and his wife still more. Now, he was as nice as ever in offering us the use of the barn at night as long as we liked, but we felt our presence there was putting a strain on him, and we decided to move at once to the cave and stay up there. He gave us a bale of straw for the bed and promised that he would be along in a day or two. The date was by now about 31st November.
The mouth of the cave was small and could only be seen by anyone actually walking past it. Inside, it was warm and dry, and until one’s eyes were accustomed to the light, almost totally dark. There was never more than a faint shaft of light coming in during the middle of the day. We spent two weeks in this cave. We lay most of the day in the back of the cave on the straw, in an almost perpetual state of nervous tension. The small boys and their flock, who know of the cave, were always somewhere about, and a day never passed without somebody else going by outside and giving us a fright. Thanks to the presents of food from Frank and, of course, Sam, we had plenty to eat, and did not wish to be visited with more by Lorenzo or anyone else for fear of compromise. We had an unexpected visit the first day from Gabriel. He had heard we were in a cave in that area from Lorenzo and brought us a minestra and some odds and ends of bread and apples. He was jumpy and ill at ease and obviously suffering from a bad conscience about us, both because he had neglected us in the past and because now, with the Germans at his house and village, the act of bringing us food was dangerous. He finally left, after a quick look around outside to see there was no one about, and we never saw him again.
Another visitor was a strange young man, partially dressed as an Italian soldier, who said he had come on behalf of two British sergeants whom he was feeding in a deserted house some distance away. They wanted to rejoin the English across the hills and wanted to know if we could take them with us if we went. It was disturbing that this stranger had known we were here and had been able to find us. He said that he heard about us from his uncle, whom we knew and who spoke a little English. The mystery was cleared p the next day by the appearance of this uncle, the Pastore, who, I suppose, had been put on to us by Gabriel or Lorenzo.
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We offered him his knife back again, but he would not take it. He was just as jumpy as Gabriel had been and we told him we expected to leave the next day for the British line towards Castel di Sangro. We hoped in this way to discourage him returning again and we succeeded. Nerio came to see us two or three times during this period and it was sad to notice that he had lost his form optimism. He brought with him, on one occasion, the sailor who had, two months before, given me his shirt. He was still waiting to get back to Sicily and showed us photographs of his family who had been killed there by the British bombings. We had, by now, decided to walk as soon as I could get a pair of boots, and we asked everyone who came to try and find some. The boredom and the suspense of this period were the worst we had ever suffered, perhaps because life in the cave itself was a depressing affair.
One night at the end of the first week, Sam appeared suddenly outside, accompanied by the girls, who had been and still were, looking after the sergeants. Sam had brought a hot meal and was apparently in high spirits. We were pleased to see how much these girls obviously liked him. They called him Baldo. The reason for their visit was that they now had three more ‘Inglese’ in their care. These three were at present in a cave a hundred yards away from us, which was damp and unpleasant. Could they please bring them in to join us? The three new ‘Inglese’ turned out to be Lieutenants Leighton and Mitchell of the U.D.F. and Sergeant Hewitt of the R.E.M.E. They had an amazing story which we heard from them in the next days and which is worth repeating. All had been captured in or near Tobruk in 1942. The two officers had been at Modena and escaped after the armistice. Hewitt had already escaped unsuccessfully twice, once while still in North Africa, dressed as a German, and again from his prison of Carpi in Italy, dressed as an Italian soldier. The Italians had decided to court martial him in the latter case for breaking the Geneva Convention i.e. improper use of Italian uniform. Pending his court martial, they had kept him for five months in solitary confinement. He had managed, somehow, to remain sane. Accompanied by two Carabinieri, he was on his way to the court-martial at Modena when the armistice was signed. He was taken to the officers’ camp at Modena and was locked up. However, he managed to get out and to escape with the rest. He was quite an extraordinarily intelligent, resourceful and lucky man, and quite obviously was in command now of their little party. All three had eventually met in the house of a well-to-do and kind Italian, with whom they had lived literally in luxury for two months, hoping the English would arrive in the north. At least, realising the true position, they had taken bicycles and peddled their way down the main road into the area of Sulmona. They had an amazing stroke of luck all through and finally, perhaps greatest of all, had met their present Italian family, who had been feeding them now for ten days. At one time, they had been living in Adullam, until turned out by the arrival of a large family from Pettorano taking refuge. A few days later, we were also joined by a young Montenegrin. He had been with the two sergeants we had heard of through the Pastore and his nephew and he had come along in hopes of being taken with us to rejoin the English. Originally, he had been captured in Yugo-Salvia in some partisan rising against the Italians, and had now walked his way south from a camp in Northern Italy. He wanted to get back to Montenegro via the 6th Army. He seemed quite a good chap, but we were far from glad to see him now. However, we kept him with us and fed him, rather than let him wander at large and possibly give away our whereabouts. He had no boots, only thin shoes, and we did not feel that we could ever saddle ourselves with him when we made the attempt.
The need to get started soon was urgent. The Italians expected snow to fall in the valley any day and footsteps would then give away our cave if the Germans chose to follow them. Moreover, another fall of snow might make the mountains impossible. The other three were as keen as us to get going, but boots were their problem too. Their shoes had been worn out in the bicycling. We sent frantic messages to Frank for four pairs of boots and we decided to start immediately after these arrived. Sam too was trying to find a pair for me. On 10th December, Martin, who had been down at night to see Sam and draw water, came back with the news that Sam himself would come the next day with a pair. Sam had also said that he believed Frank had found three pairs, but this was not certain. It was out of the question for all six of us to move across the hills in one party and we had agreed that as soon as I got my boots, Martin, Edward and I would start, followed by the others as soon as they got theirs. Sam arrived after dark on 11th December with a pair of heavily studded Italian mountain boot. The previous owner of them was a young man we had not met before, whose name I have forgotten. It was a generous gift on his part, for I had no money,
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and could only give him, in exchange, the tattered remains of my rubber soled desert boots and, of course, promises of what I would do when the English came. Sam tried to dissuade us from going, as he had done all along but, seeing that we were determined, he promised to come immediately after dark the following night with a hot meal, wine and supplies for the journey.
Our plan was to leave immediately when it was dark and try and get past the valley which Martin and I had seen and which was said to be dangerous. We would go that night; lie up the next day and the following night reach Villetta Barrea which had been announced as in English hands for the past two weeks. Indeed, the English were said to have reached Opi and there were strange rumours of a raid that had been carried out by the English troops from Opi on Scanno. Our main difficulty, as we saw it, was the march over Genzano and the mountains beyond, which had to be crossed to reach Villetta. It was, we thought, mainly a question of endurance, with perhaps some necessary luck getting past the dangerous valley. The very height of these mountains and the difficulty imposed by the snow were in our favour as we did not imagine the Germans could have troops stationed above the snow line. Two nights marching – and then freedom…
We spent our last day, 12th December, rubbing pork fat on our feet and into the boots to provide some protection against the cold and wet of the snow. We also cut ourselves puttees from an old coat and tried on the various garments we intended to wear. It was an exciting day which would not draw to a close soon enough.
Shortly after dark, Sam arrived. He had brought a wonderful dish of macaroni which we wolfed down. He also brought huge loaves of bread, several pounds of meat, sausages and cheese. Antonio, he said, whom we had not seen since he last came to ‘Little Ease’, and whom, on account of his wife’s anger, we had not hoped to see again, would be arriving shortly. It seemed Antonio had expected Sam to wait for him and for them all to come up together because, when Antonio arrived, he was in a towering passion – the only time we had ever seen him excited. He did not know the best path to this cave and, consequently, in the dark, his unfortunate daughter had fallen and upset the special minestra which had been prepared for us. Perhaps, for our sake, this was fortunate, for we had stuffed ourselves son Sam’s macaroni to the full, but we were very sorry that this incident should so have upset Antonio on the last meeting with him, for he never recovered his spirits and we were frantic to get away. He had also brought two pots of his wonderful honey and so much bread that we had to leave some behind with the others. Finally, we packed all the food into a rucksack and our pockets, and after saying the usual things to the other three, who hoped to get their boots the following night, we left the cave. Outside, I noticed Antonio’s daughter standing rather miserably in the cold. She took no notice of our greetings and I’m afraid had the full weight of her father’s wrath. Sam and my boot benefactor said they said they would come with us on our way, so we said goodbye to Antonio. Sam and his friend shouldered our packs for us, and for the third time we set off up the mountain, only with lighter hearts than before. On the way, Sam fed us with apples out of his pocket and his friend insisted on stopping to cut us all sticks. Every minute of time that night counted and it was hard not to be impatient. When we came near ‘Little Ease’, the worst of the climbing was over and we persuaded Sam not to come any further. Our leave taking was one of the most touching I have ever known. Sam broke down completely and asked very sweetly if he could kiss us all goodbye. He was terribly upset at the thought of us being stranded on the mountains and implored us to return immediately if we found the snow too difficult. We tried to be as cheerful as we could and have him hearty promises of returning with the British troops for Christmas. We were none of us very far from tears ourselves. As we walked off, we turned repeatedly and waved to the pathetic figures of Sam and his friend standing looking after us and after about a quarter of an hour, we still thought we could see them standing there below us in the moonlight.
We climbed past our old friend, the first water point, and then along the way that Martin and I had gone on our reconnaissance. The food given to us was so heavy that we had to jettison some of the bread. We reached the ridge of Genzano, above the fourth water point, about 2 a.m. The last hour had been a stiff climb, on slippery, hard snow. Martin, near the top, had slipped and skidded down about a hundred yards on his back, though fortunately without hard. It was misty on top and we were beginning to feel the strain. We made roughly in the direction of the dangerous valley, which only lay, we thought, about three miles ahead. However, at the slow of progress, we despaired of getting past it that night. About four o’clock
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We had begun to descend again towards the valley and I think each wondered how we should ever fare the following day lying up. It would be necessary to descend below the snow line which would make absolute concealment in our lying up essential. We doubted whether in this cold it would be possible to lie still for more than a few hours. Edwards, naturally, was suffering the most from exhaustion and I had horrid visions of the famous Captain Cates sacrifice being repeated. And then, quite unexpectedly, we saw a hut. Inside, when we reached it, we found two Italians asleep by a blazing fire.
They were giovanotti, trying to rejoin the British line, like ourselves. They had reached the hut that evening and were leaving it again at dawn. The hut was used by the shepherds in the summer, but now, for us it seemed to have appeared there by some miracle. We were able to spend the day sleeping beside the fire and eating as much of our rations as we could. We felt sure we could reach Villetta Barrea the following night. We had more news of the dangerous valley ahead from the two Italians and there was said to be Germans high up in the mountains at this point, though they could not give us any definite information on this. In daylight, we could see the valley about three miles away, cutting across the direction we should be going in, thought it seemed possible to keep above it. The sides of the valley were grown with fir trees – with these half seen in the mist which hung over the mountains, it all looked very black and menacing. By evening, we felt one hundred percent better, although in fact we had none of us slept for more than perhaps one or two hours. At the back of our minds had been the fear of Germans arriving at the hut and catching us. They had been up to the hut, the two Italians said, some weeks before when the shepherds were hiding there with their flocks. However, now that these had been seized there seemed no reason why they should come again and nor did they.
The second night’s march was a nightmare. Far in the distance, we could see a smll conical white peak which became our target. At first, we thought it was part of a range behind Villetta Barrea, but discovered many hours later that it crowned the pass which led down on the far side to the gorge of Sangro We by-passed the dangerous valley successfully quite soon and came out on a huge plateau of unbroken snow which rose steadily towards the conical peak. There were a few clumps of trees, but on the whole, the landscape resembled a deserted room under dust-sheets of moonlight. We passed tracks of single wolves frequently and only once came across human tracks. These looked like the tracks of a patrol sent over the hills for they deviated to visit a small charcoal burner’s hut as if to ask if there was anybody inside who had no business to be there. We climbed steadily towards the peak in snow which, though never deep, became softer and more tiring towards the top. Our movements became automatic and I don’t think I have ever felt so utterly tired and miserable. We had to keep moving to keep warm and we finally reached the top of the pass just below the conical peak about four a.m.
Imperceptibly at first, we started to descend, until the pass narrowed down to a steep, almost precipitous valley. We climbed down this rapidly and left the snow line. We could see below us a gorge that we hoped was the Sangro and the white gleam of what we hoped was the road to Villetta Barrea. An hour or so before dawn, we sat down to wait for light and to check up on our position. When daylight came, we began excitedly to compare our tattered little map out of Sam’s guidebook with the landscape below. It was a beautiful sunny day and the various features became gradually clearer. The gorge of Sangro, which we could not actually see, though we identified the main road in the distance near it, approximately five miles away from us. All the roads visible fitted in with those marked on the map and we felt more and more certain that the little village below us on the far bank of the Sangro, where the road crossed it by a bridge, was Villetta Barrea. In which case, we had but to walk from the hill for perhaps half hour to be in British lines. However, there was always the possibility of a mistake somewhere and we warned each other not to be over rash. We were puzzled by the complete absence of military activity. This we took to be a good sign, suggesting that the British front was out of sight and earshot behind us; that if the English and Germans were facing each other still anywhere on the ground below, surely there would be firing, or at least some signs of activity. As it was, there were none. However, as much as we tried to control our excitement, it was impossible not to feel confident. We were still tired, but with the prospect of safety ahead, we could cover any distance that remained gladly.
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Indeed, it would be a pleasure to spin out this final walk as long as possible. Except for my feet, we were all surprisingly fit. Edward said he felt better than when he had started and Martin was positively energetic. He saw a flock of goats a short distance away, on the hill below, and offered to walk down and find the shepherd to make sure there were no Germans about. We arranged, to save him the trouble of climbing back to us, that he should stand and wave if everything was alright, and then we would join him.
We watched him disappear down the hill, and evidently there was no shepherd to be seen, for he passed the flock and continued on looking round. We lost sight of him for a time and then reappeared, standing in the open. It was too far to see whether he was waving, but we were so sure that things were alright that we began to climb down to join him. When we came within earshot, we shouted to him, and he shouted back that he had not found anybody and began walking downhill. Edward and I sat in the sun under a rock and dozed. Some shelling started the other side of the Sangro and we suddenly became attentive. The guns were firing from south of Castel d S. in our direction and we watched the shells bursting about two miles away from the other side of Villetta Barrea. It did not last long, but it threw a very different light on our position. There could only be one explanation – the German line was between us and Castel D.S. We saw a small party of men with a laden donkey moving across the hill not far from where Martin had finally disappeared. We could catch the sound of their voices and were almost certain that they were Germans. Edward and I, after Martin had left, had been foolish to start congratulating ourselves and to picture ourselves arriving at the British lines. We now bitterly regretted having done anything so premature. We became increasingly nervous as to what could have happened to Martin. It seemed incredible that he could have been recaptured and yet we feared that he must have been. Our spirits were now as low as they had been high before and the very sunshine seemed to be mocking us.
About midday, to our immense relief, Martin reappeared. Finding no shepherd, he had gallantly gone on walking down to the village of Villetta Barrea. He was only about two hundred yards from it when he saw the German troops. He spent some time sitting watching them. They saw him, but paid him no attention, presumably taking him for a civilian. Then he climbed back to us. Shortly after his return, two Italians we had met in the hut two nights before came down the mountain as we had done. Somehow, we had passed them. We showed them the directions of Castel D.S. and where we thought the German front line was, and they set off to cover the five miles to Castel D.S. in daylight, keeping well up on the mountain.
The German line, we reckoned, was about one mile from us, and stretched from the mountain that we were on across the Sangro gorge to the road, a mile or two beyond Villetta Barrea, where the shells had been landing. Throughout the day, we watched occasional parties of Germans with pack animals coming back from their front line, or taking stores up. There was no more shelling and no sign of firing, though behind Mount Meta, presumably on the Fifth army front, there was a continuous cannonade, which we had heard the night before. This continued all day and all night again.
We decided to leave immediately when it was dark and to try and cross the German line in the two hours of darkness before the moon rose. We knew it would probably mean crawling past sentries and that success would depend mostly on luck. We decided, therefore, to split up and make the attempt singly. We agreed that the best place to try seemed to be the left of the line on the mountain side. It was bare, except for small clumps of trees. As the German line did not stretch, we believed that high up it should be possible to by-pass it, or at least sneak between sentries. We had no idea how thin the Germans might be on the ground or what a ‘line’ in the mountainous country would be like. It was reasonable to suppose that it consisted mainly of sentry posts. We opened and ate the tins of Canadian meat loaf which had survived all this time since our escape for just such an occasion. We each had left one tin of Italian ‘bully’ in case we did not get through that night and lay up the next day. We drank the mixture of honey and water – a delicious combination. We believed that there was plenty of water in a steam on the hillside not far away where we could stop and end drink on our way. We planned to split up before we started and to follow each other in the same direction but with five minute intervals. Accordingly, when darkness fell, this is what we did. Martin left first and Edward and I watched him disappear quickly in the darkness, though we could hear his boots on the stony ground for some minutes after. It was a sad parting for all of us after so long together. Then I said goodbye to Edward and too disappeared, though I could follow his movements by the sound of his boots.
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[Letter in Italian from Simbaldo to Martin who did get home]
Carissimo Martina non ancora posso di ?menticarnii di quando passammo le linee con tutto il tempo cattivo sul Monte ?Maiella credevamo di perdere la vita con quel tempo cosi cattivo e poi ha ?let ?Palene quando i tedeschi cianno sparato e voi vi ?aveti disperso da me non sapendo se ero passato avando lo rimasto indietro figuratevi i miei pensieri come stavano ma ora ringraziamento Tiddio
[4 lines unclear]
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[handwritten letter in Italian dated 21.4.1948]
Ti servo questa lettera, attendo tue notizie, ti ho seritto un’altra lettera come mai non vi hai risposto? Ti so sapere che qua e venuto a trovarmi Giovanni con la sue moglie, ora attendo tue notizie e spero che to farai anche tu una camminiata e ci viene a trovare. Io non mi ?dilungo a dirto alto ricevi tanti saluti da me, da mia moglie da mio figlio Manfredo, dai miei figli e figlie.
Tanto saluti tuo amico.
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[handwritten letter in Italian]
Pettorano Sul Girio 1 Feb 1947
Carissino Martino con pochi giorni di ritardo io sono in risposto alla tua lettera e dono captio tutte quelle che me dite e sono contento della sua lettera che siete in buoni stati con al sua famiglia e nello stesso tempo vi posso ?Tirare anche di noi stavo bene e sono molto contente che prendete moglie e vi do un buono augurio e ti non aspetto altri [1 word illegible] qui e mi fai sapere piu ho ?meno il mese che viene.
La vendemmia e stata bene
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E abbiamo vino
attastanza da bere quando voi venite e anche dell’Olive ne habiamo fatto ma non
Vi mando i miei cordiali saluti a tutti e auguria una felicia Pasqua.
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August 27th 1942
I am so very glad that you have at last heard from Martin. The Italians appear to be very slow at getting Tobruk prisoners to Italy. I heard yesterday that Ronny Dawnay was near Milan and he described it as a very good camp in nice country and they were allowed out of the amp for walks etc. So, I hope that Martin may get to an equally good, or better.
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Copy of letter from E. Imbert-Terry
John Verney telephoned me the other night to say that he had seen yourself and Mrs Gibbs and had given all the details of Martin. I greatly fear that I cannot add anymore news to what John has already told you, as previous to the night that we split up, December 14th. We had been together continuously day in day out. I cannot begin to tell you how unhappy and miserable I am about the whole affair and only hope we shall see or hear from Martin very soon.
Throughout the eleven weeks that we were hiding in caves above Sulmona, Martin, naturally, was quite wonderful, never complaining or showing any signs of worry or anxiety, a fact which was greatly responsible for keeping up our morale and hope the whole time, and for that, John and myself must thank Martin beyond all means for our safety today.
As I think you may already know, I have seen a great deal of Martin in the last three years, as I was in the same company, to which he was second in command, under Buster Guard in the desert, and I certainly count him as one of my best friends. You can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was for me, when arriving at Chieti P.G. to find Martin, and most of the other Coldstream Guards officers who were so unfortunately captured at Tobruk, already there. For this reason, my short stay in Italy passed extremely quickly.
Copy of letter from John Verney
I was just about to write to you when your letter came. I felt I had given you a hopelessly muddled account and not mentioned half the things about Martin which I know he would want me to. Our sense of humour was pretty warped, t thank God we all saw things the same. I don’t think three people could have been better suited to spend so long together in such circumstances. Certainly, Edward and I owe Martin an enormous debt for his company.
I found it difficult to talk to you as much of him as I should have liked. I became tremendously fond of him, we shared so much – no brothers could have been closer and now that I have had the luck to get back and he hasn’t, the thought prevents me rejoicing. Without him, the achievement is tasteless.
I can’t tell you how bitterly disappointed I am, and I well know how much more disappointed you must both feel, but I refuse to believe he came to any harm that last night, or that he will eventually spend the rest of the war in a German prison camp. I feel sure in my heart that he is alright now and that he will get away again – he probably has already. I really do feel sure of that – I am not just saying so for your sake. Anyhow, I am afraid nothing I can say will prevent you from worrying. I cannot believe in the cruelty of providence which would bring him so close to freedom and his family after so long a wait, only to be frustrated.
No one deserved more than he did to get back. His record with his regiment and in L.R.D.G. in the desert is second to none, and at the Chieti camp he had been one of the most ardent escape plotters. When he asked Edward and me to join him in making plans, when we were in Sulmona, expecting removal to Germany, we were delighted to have such a companion and never ceased to be delighted during the subsequent eleven weeks.
There can be few people who have so much in common. To help pass those long hours, our talk never flagged for want of a mutual topic.
Talking of Eton was one of our pastimes; we celebrated St.
Andrew’s day in our dismal cave, though we did not actually play a wall game.
Martin and I found a very similar taste in English literature and I might say
that I benefited enormously from his much greater knowledge of the classics –
he educated me, to my great joy, in Dickens, Fielding and Surtees and a dozen
others. Above all, he educated me well in poetry, of which he had a simply
amazing store in his mind – we never exhausted it. He always said he only knew
the poetry he had learnt at Eton and never quoted again from that day till
then, in which case, his memory is simply astonishing. When making plans about
what we should do first when we got back, we used to laugh at the idea of us
arriving in some army H.Q. and being asked what we should like, demanding an
Oxford book of English verse immediately to check up on Martin’s memory of the
various poems. By far our favourite was Grenfall’s ‘Into Battle’, it had always
been one of my old friends in the desert, thought I’d never before learnt it by
heart. One day, Martin and I amused ourselves setting each other a general
knowledge paper in English literature. I had put as one of my questions – ‘In
what poem do these lines come from?’
‘And he is dead who will not fight. And who dies fighting has increase’
To my surprise and great joy and utter discomfiture, not only did he know,
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but he could recite the whole thing from beginning to end. I think Edward and I spent about a week learning it from him.
Towards the end, we knew so much poetry of Martin’s – it had become our chief occupation – that we used to talk in quotations, which was very amusing. It must have sounded strange to hear, had there been anyone to listen. Is the honey wrapped up in its five pound note? – Owl and pussycat, or if Martin bumped his head on the roof of the cave (which he frequently did) he would immediately say in answer to our enquiries ‘my head is bloody but unbowed’. ‘Invictus’ was a great favourite – we thanked God continuously for our ‘unconquerable souls’ but as a standing joke. No bogus sentiment. Martin had the keenest, surest and purest literary taste of almost anyone I know, he detested false feeling, emotional vulgarity – incidentally, for that reason, he hated Americans who represented to him all he meant by self advertisement and public display of their inner feelings. I used to defend them and he we had many a grand argument about it and so many other things; blood sports, the middle classes, the house of lords, public school education, farming – those are a few of our pet discussions, what fun they were. Martin is one of those lucky people who has genuine ideals of how life should be and how people should live and he can express them excellently in talk. I always believed it was so fascinating to work him up into an argument, on behalf of the things he loved and believed in, and to allow myself to be won over by him, for I always was.
He is the most English person I know, in the very best sense that can be given to the word English – devoted his own home and school and the English country and his regiment. But I must control my pen from saying the things about him which he would hate to hear said and would class me forever in his eyes as an American. This letter is not for his consumption when he gets back – only to bring myself some consolation and I hope a little to you both in your terrible anxiety. Finally, please believe me when I say I feel sure Martin’s alright. If I sound gloomy in this letter or sounded so when we met, it was from disappointment and not foreboding. He is better able than most people to take care of himself. When I last saw him, he was perfectly well and full of determination. I have great confidence in him escaping again and getting through, if it is humanely possible, and being granted the necessary luck to do so, which I am afraid is an all important factor.
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[hand drawn map of the route taken by John, Martin and Edward]
[typed text below map] The red x near Sulmona is the area of the many caves in the valley. The x south is ‘Little Ease’ and water point. The red line shows approx route to Barrea (it is called Villetta Berrea in narrative, which was the place mentioned by BBC. The ‘Conical Peak’ referred to is Mt Greco. I have tried to get a large scale map of this area, but failed, so the sketch is a copy of the actual map they used (a good deal enlarged) plus a map out of Baedeker; both these maps were different and probably both inaccurate. The map they used was only torn from a guide book.
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[handwritten text] Letter from Martin
Cave near Sulmona. 27th November 1943
Dear Darling Mum & Dad. I haven’t written to you since the armistice in Italy because everything became a bit disorganised then, and anyhow, I rather hoped to be home before any letters arrived. However, the Germans arrived in Chieti and took over the camp about 18th September and that was that. The Senior British Officer refused to allow anyone to leave the camp and take to the hills, as he had been told by the Italian Commandant (a Fascist) that the Germans had made examples of the prisoners at Sulmona and other camps by shooting all who had been recaptured after breaking out. These stories, we found out afterwards, when we arrived at Sulmona, were completely untrue. We were all taken to Sulmona about 24th September, except for a certain number who hid up in tunnels etc. Peter Cooper and Hamish St. Clair Erskine stayed behind in a loft with a good supply of food and water with full intention of getting out – with luck, they should have made it. On 30th September, we were loaded on a train for Germany, presumably it would be a three day journey. John Cole (2nd Bn) stayed behind in a hole under the floor of a hut. I dug a hole outside the hut as disguised by a flower bed, but after sitting in it for three hours thought better of it and decided to take my chance on the train. We were put into closed goods trucks and one officer was shot dead at the station trying to make a break for it. Owing to my attempt to hide in the ‘flower bed’, I had been separated from all the others before, except for Edward Imbert Terry (ex 3rd Bn) and John Verney (ex N Som Yeomanry) who had arrived at Chieti long after us, having been captured in Sardinia while blowing up aeroplanes in David Stirling’s organisation. They also had tried hiding while the others were taken off. We three joined the rest and were about the last to be taken to the station. The trucks had small oblong ventilators in the sides rather high up and the Germans allowed us to open these for air. At about 11 o’clock, the train went backwards for a long way due, I think, to the air raid in the district. It stopped outside the station afterwards. As there was only one sentry, we squeezed through the ventilators and crawled up the side of the cutting. Whether anybody else got out, I don’t know. As we were in a hurry we only had our water bottles and our tins of meat (which we still have as a reserve) and what clothes we were wearing which was, in my case, rather a lot; flannel shirt, cardigan, the service dress you sent me, battle dress trousers, boots, the cap you sent me and a great coat. We walked more or less southwards all that night, carefully avoiding houses and at first light, we lay up in a clump of bamboo where we spent all the next day, eating a raw vegetable marrow and raw beans like Monmouth after Sedgemoor, and a little bread that we had in our pockets. As we didn’t know the form with Italians, we had to keep very still as there was a man picking walnuts all day close by. The next night, we went on in the same direction and on the way stopped for a long time in a vineyard and stuffed ourselves with grapes – they were so wonderful. We reached the hills we were marching for about midnight (the same ones we are underneath now) Monte Genzano, and we climbed up to where the trees seemed to end, and then slept, all of us under my great coat. When one wanted to turn over all of us had to as we could only all fit in by lying in the same direction. In the morning, we spread out a bit, each under a bit of cover as it began to rain. About midday, a young Italian out shooting with his dog found us and took us to a little hut like a lambing pen to shelter us from the rain. In the evening, he brought us a hot meal from his house which was good after the beans. Later on, he showed us where some young Italians were hiding in the woods from the Germans, along with four British soldiers who had walked down from a camp in the North. There were in quite a good little shepherds hut. We spent the next four days with them and they were the usual bloody bombastic young Italians, all armed to the teeth, and talked very big about the things that would like to do to the Germans when the British arrived. We rather got to hate them but they were our hosts. We had some very good meals with a family near us called Giulini. There were two lots of them and in each case the old man had been some years in America and talked a sort of English. We haven’t met a family yet which has not had a relative who has been there themselves. After four days, we became rather popular in the neighbourhood as anyone who arrived in Sulmona or Introdacque with nothing better to do came up to look at us. As a result, the leader of the Giovanni we were with took us down in the night to a farm quite lose here owned by a man called Gabrielle. They took us in, and we slept on some straw in a farm building where some pigs were kept. The next day, they took us to a cave just up the hill to spend the day in. They fed us well and all their friends brought us presents of food as well. That night, I ate some much that I was sick. However, the pig discovered it and cleared it up. After two days, there was a (legible) rumour that the Germans were doing a drive in the neighbourhood to take cattle and pig,
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so we were taken to a cave up the mountain with a supply of food, partly for our own safety and partly for theirs, as the Germans had announced that they would shoot any Italian harbouring British escapees. We saw no more of the Giovanotti after leaving the farm, thank goodness, they were the type to make good gangsters and bandits, but we managed to keep two of their blankets and two of their haversacks. After four days in the mountain, we were fetched down one evening by a cousin of Gabrielle’s called Antonio Croquale and we were taken to his house for dinner; fried pork and potatoes with lots of wine. There we met a little man called Frank del Signorie, who is a British subject, and as such had been interned in Italy for refusing to fight against us; he was in touch with others like ourselves, including two Brigadiers who had been let loose by the Italians at the armistice. Our host for that night was Sinibaldo Amatangelo [Sam] as Antonio’s house was too close to the railway. We stayed at his house for a about a week, sleeping on maize straw in his loft, lovely and warm and plenty of good food and wine. After about three days, his wife got so windy about us, as Germans were constantly coming to the neighbouring houses and stealing food or young men for labour that we ended up only spending our nights in the loft. We went at first light each day to a small cave nearby. In the end, we thought it better to get away from them altogether, so they took us to a bigger cave up on the hill and came up every day with food. We spent a week in this cave and were very comfortable, having a fire to keep us warm each night. After this, we then went back to our other cave on the mountainside, with the idea of walking over the hill to rejoin the army. However, the BBC news we received was very garbled and we ended up staying here for four weeks. The valley that this cave was in was full of Italian families hiding themselves and their beasts from the Germans who were living off the country. There were also two sergeants of the 60th who had escaped from Sulmona – Sullivan and Brewerton – as well as two other Tank Corps sergeants. When the first snow fell, these families went down, as the Germans had temporarily ceased stealing animals. We had filthy weather most of the time and the cave dripped after rain. John and I went for one long walk over the hill to see whether it was possible to rejoin the lines, but decided that it was still too to attempt in bad weather. The weather broke the next day. A few days later, the Germans started to clear the neighbouring villages of local inhabitants, as they had been joining in all battle areas, and the valley swarmed again. A really bloody family of eleven came to our little cave and said they had lots of women and children. We let them stay on that Monday. They enlarged the cave and fed us, but they were so bloody to each other and fought so continually that we were glad to leave. Yesterday, some Germans arrived at the cave on a foraging expedition while we hid under blankets. They took the cows of this family and we ran up the hill while they were doing it, coming back to collect our kit after dark. We came down the hill and here we are. We are now in a cave near Sam’s house and we are writing these letters to leave with him to give to the British when they come, just in case we are recaptured. He is expecting the German to come and turn him out of his house any day now.
I think Johnson, who was commanding our Bde in Tobruk, may have got back, I saw him one night near here – I think probably Uncle Lags knows him. Edward Imbert Terry, though occasionally suffering from bouts of malaria, is very well. His family lives near Exeter and know the Pytte family. John Verney is a great friend of the Crawley’s and his Mum and Dad are living at the Old Vicarage for the duration. I am very lucky to be with two such nice people. Edward was in the same company as me up to Tobruk. The British government have said on the wireless that they will reward any Italians who help escaped POWs, but knowing the British government, I suspect it will be a long time if that cash is to ever be forthcoming. As a result, we have agreed that if we get back then we will get together as much money as we can lay hands on immediately to give to these people and anyhow compensate Antonia for 6000 lire he had stolen from his wife by Germans when he was bringing us food up the mountain. I don’t expect that the British government will repay this. I can’t tell you how good Antonio and Sam have been to us; the whole time we were up the mountain, they fed us, walking up through horrible weather. I should like to do something really special for them after the war. These unfortunate peasants who have lost almost everything are expecting to loss more still, continue to give us their best to look after us like fathers. The only thing that will ever bring me to this country again will be to visit them. I am very well and quite determined not to go to Germany, but one never knows, and that is the worst part of this existence. We are hoping very much to be able to send a telegram for Christmas as the English are fairly close now – Roccaraso, about 35kms from here, is supposed to have just fallen. This paper is our only reading material and is used for all purposes. If we are caught, please try and do something for our two hosts. Best love, Martin.
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Captain Verney and Edward Imbert Terry, after being shot at by Germans and other adventures, got safely to our lines.
From Sgt F Wells, Royal Tank Regiment who escaped with Sgt Godwin on March 12th 1944, I have received the following aount, some of which must have been told to him by Martin.
‘After leaving John and Edward on 14th December, Martin bumped into some Germans and was recaptured. He was put in a house with some Italians, but after a day or two managed to escape through a window followed by the Italians. He returned to his former haunts, where he lived in a cave by himself, being fed by Sam, but would not live in Sam’s house, as he was afraid that if he was discovered it would go badly with Sam. He, however, on various occasions, visited Sgts Wells and Godwin, who were fairly well provided for in another house, living with a family, and there he now and then got a wash.
About the beginning of March, some Italian guides came to conduct them to the British lines, but their departure was postponed owing to the bad weather. Eventually, it was decided to go on the night of March 11th. It was thought that only a small party would be going, but when Sgt Wells arrived at the rendezvous, they found about 50 British and 150 Italians, including Sam, who were trying to get away to avoid being conscripted for German labour. Martin, who was suffering from malaria, was with the party. They marched for about 20 hours, seven of which were through a blizzard, when the guides lost the way. All of this march was over the mountains through thick snow. Eventually, they arrived near the road near Palena, which the Italian guides said had been in English hand the last time they had been that way. The Italians in the party then began to shout and sing in spite of protests. Here the Italian guides seem to have gone on ahead and left the party, so Sgt Wells made arrows in the snow to show the direction. The party seems here to have got a bit split up, Sam and some others were over the road, others were resting on the other side of the mountain. Sgt Wells asked Sam if he had seen Martin, but he said that he had not, so it is presumed he was in the rear party. Anyhow, at the result of the noise made by the Italians, two German patrols turned up and cut both parties off, and did a certain amount of shooting and throwing grenades. Sgt Wells and Godwin and three others managed to get through by making a circle and contacted the Indian Division after about another two hours walking.
Sgt Wells does not think that it would have been possible for the remainder to have got back to where they started from as they were far too exhausted. They also could not have lived where they were surprised if they evaded the German patrols as it was now a devastated area and there were no inhabitants.
The above is as far as I can remember what he told me and it seems that escape is getting increasingly difficult. The best time was without a doubt the first week of the armistice. Many more would have gotten away if it had not been for the stupid instructions sent by the W.O. [War Office] to Senior British Officers in POW camps that they were to stay put in case of an armistice.