Tom Vickers (Coldstream Guards) tells a fascinating story of his escape from Fontanellato and adventures covering 220 miles between the camp and arriving at the Swiss border in November 1943. For some of the route he was accompanied by Ronnie Orr-Ewing and Philip Kindersley. The account is notable for the extensive daily detail of the route covered, the food and lodging and particularly of the substantial assistance provided by various Italian families. It is remarkable for his memory of the names and well-defined characters of the many Italians who helped him along the way, as well as their enormous courage despite the appalling conditions in which many Italians were living.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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‘REMEMBER WITH ADVANTAGES’ An Escaper’s Life and Friends in wartime N. Italy.
9th September-19th November 1943
TOM VICKERS, Coldstream Guards. FONTANELLATO
8pm. 8th Sept ‘ 43 Camp hears of Armistice.
12.15 pm. 9th All march out of Camp as organised by SBO (de Burgh) and the Italian Commandant (later to pay for it in German POW Camp). Ronnie Noble, with camera given by Italian Commandant, takes photos.
10th Hearing Germans had taken over the camp and all things in it, they move to higher and more distant ground and then in the night dispersed. Like so many, TV finds himself around – but not in – Bardi and that so many Italians in that area had lived in Britain or America. Meets many in his wanderings – Philip Kindersley, Ronnie Orr-Ewing, Tony Laing. Remains mainly around Monastero di Gravago. 18th September: Germans announce reward for betraying POWs and next day Allies announce reward for helping them. Like all others undecided to go north or south and how and when but TV has also good reason to go towards the Italian Riviera as an uncle has a house there and though TV had not been there he remembered the name of the gardener who would still be there. He decides to go in that direction but meets on the way former Thomas Cook’s guide who remembers making bookings for his aunt and uncle. Finds a comparatively modern and rich village in which to stay and then a widow agrees to go off with a woman friend on his behalf, by public transport with a note to the gardener of the villa. After 3 days they return with money and much useful clothing. One helper gives him the name and address of a man in Como (on the Swiss border). TV decides to return back to his many contacts around Monastero to decide whether to go to the coast around Genoa for though the Allies had not landed, he might get away from the coast to Corsica, north to Switzerland or the long way south to the Allies stick on the Sangro. Around Monastero finds things much more difficult as the Germans have moved in and they and fascists much more active. With the one contact TV makes decision to go to Como and Switzerland. He sets off but soon by sheer chance two cyclists see him and stop. One is Yugoslav officer, the other a radio engineer from Milan whose brother is Mayor of a nearby village, who produces immediately an identity card for TV and the two brothers, going to Milan, with much food, take him by car for 56 miles until near Milan. He skirts the city and gets to Monza where on the outskirts a desperately poor but genteel lady, looking after sick mother in one room gives him hospitality and takes him next day to Monza station and after getting ticket on a train for Como. There he finds shop owner who reluctantly agrees to help but takes him to another poorer family to hide. After false starts and alarms is guided under wire and away through the snow into Switzerland.
For over a month PK R, O-E and TV were mainly based in a casetta 10ft by 4 and 4 1/2 feet high, which in the extremely rainy weather leaked through the roof and flooded.
This comparative short account is perhaps richer than any in detail of terrain, weather, the unending problem of food for Italians and POWs, the dangers for all, the poverty and the hardships, the weak but, usually, strong characters of individuals, the contrasting radio news from German or Allied sources and the inevitable rumours inspired by fear or optimism. As a whole it underlines the uniqueness of the situation, the hardships, the force of will power needed to survive, the chances of fortune which none could foresee and nine times out of ten the courage, generosity and defiance of the average Italian contadino. KK. [Keith Killby]
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“REMEMBER WITH ADVANTAGES”
An Escaper’s Life and Friends in wartime Northern Italy
9th September – 19th November 1943
(formerly Coldstream Guards 1940-1945)
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Given to the Monte San Martino Trust by the writer, Tom Vickers, June 1996
Dedicated with lasting admiration, affection and gratitude to my wonderfully kind and courageous Italian hosts.
“I was a stranger and ye took me in”.
St. Matthew 23.v.35
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In 1924 during my first visit to my aunt Evie and uncle William Hamilton-Gordon at their Hampshire home, Bywater House, Lymington, I learned she also owned a villa on the Italian Riviera at Camogli, five miles west of Rapallo. They had no children. I had not been there before the war, but my parents had; and they had met the gardener, Carlo Pagenti.
In September 1943 I was without news from my family about the fate of the villa and Carlo since the Mussolini Government’s declaration of war in June 1940. Nor did I know what effect Mussolini’s fall in July 1943, the Royal Government’s Armistice on 8th September and the swift German reaction might have had on the fate of the villa “Monte Cristo”.
Unless the Allied armies had been able to occupy the Italian Riviera and its hinterland within a few weeks, I would walk to Camogli in mid-October on a personal recce. There was just a chance the property might be in friendly hands and Carlo able to provide me with money and civilian clothes.
The following account is a fair copy of the day-to-day story which I recorded early in 1944 after my arrival in Switzerland. That covered sixty-five pages of very closely written, and barely legible, notes in a ring-back, cardboard-covered A4 size exercise book.
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’. And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way’.”
From ‘The Gate of the Year’ 1908 by Miss Marie Louise Haskins, quoted by H.M. King George VI in his Christmas broadcast of 1939.
(NOTE: Please refer to the back of the booklet for two maps with explanatory text.)
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PG 49 Fontanellato, Reggio nelle Emilia, Italy
Wednesday, 8th September 1943.
The daily evening roll call at 6.30 pm took 25 minutes because of the recent arrival from PG 29 at Viano near Reggio of 29 senior officers with names unfamiliar to the Italians. About 8.00 pm we heard shouts outside of “Armistizio; Guerra Finita; Pace; etc.” Orders came from the Senior British Officer (SBO), Colonel Hugh de Burgh, RA, for all ranks to assemble in the main hall at once – all 610 of us – 490 officers and 120 other ranks. The SBO announced the Italian Commandant was still without any official news from the Italian High Command but would let us know as soon as he had any.
Thursday, 9th September 1943
After breakfast we were all told to parade in the courtyard. This time the SBO’s news was not so good: the Commandant expected German troops to seize the camp. He had patrols out. We were to put on our battledress, pack our kit on our beds, draw 24-hour rations and be ready to move at five minutes’ notice. He had offered our help to defend the camp but the Commandant had politely declined it.
I left my greatcoat and service dress uniform in the wardrobe of Room 63 and packed only washing and shaving kit, a pullover, scarf, gloves and some letters and family photographs. From the basement I collected my emergency rations – a tin of service biscuits, a meat roll, 2 peaches and a small bar of ‘Motta’ chocolate. I also took the remains of my Red Cross food parcel – sugar, cocoa, nescafe and a large bar of chocolate – and some cigarettes for barter. During the morning Colonel Hugh Mainwaring, RA (one of the 20 Old Etonians in Fontanellato) and Captain Prevedini, the camp’s Italian security officer and interpreter, returned from their two-hour recce for a suitable hide-out. It seemed strange to see the latter, an ambivalent character, on our side. Before the war he was on the staff of Thomas Cook and spoke fluent English.
About 12.15 pm, when most of us were drinking vermouth in the bar, the camp bugler sounded the three G’s – the alarm call. We trooped off to our various dormitories to collect our kit and parade on the playing field. Within 10 minutes, all five companies – HQ and Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 walked out through the gap in the wire to the north side, cut for us by two Italian guards. The alarm caused panic among the latter: some scuttled into the air-raid trenches beside their huts, others sought safety in the pigsties till driven out by an officer.
I was in No. 3 company, commanded by Lt. Colonel Peter Burne, 12th Lancers. My platoon commander was Major Donald Nott, DSO MC, of the Worcesters. Captain Ronnie Orr-Ewing (2nd Bn Scots Guards) was my section commander. Each section was in pairs – our’s were Ronnie and Philip
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Kindersley (2nd Coldstream); Jack Younger (3rd Coldstream) and Richard Brooke (2nd Scots Guards); Carol Mather (Welsh Guards) and Desmond Buchanan (Grenadiers); and finally, Tony Kinsman (Grenadiers) and myself (3rd Coldstream). Between No. 3 Co. and No. 4 on our right rode Eric Newby in his Black Watch bonnet, riding on a fat horse led by an Italian soldier. Eric had fallen and broken his ankle two days earlier and could not walk. We crossed fields and vineyards and caught up with the SBO and his HQ party, moving on then into a sunken ditch below a grass bank and in thick undergrowth. This was the site chosen by Hugh Mainwaring. We spent the afternoon drying our sweaty shirts, eating grapes and waiting for news and orders.
We received our first news at about 4.00 pm and it was not good: 40 or so Germans had taken over the camp and captured the Commandant and all but two of his officers. They had seized all the livestock and then left. Jack Younger managed to use some of his escaping money to buy bread, eggs and wine from a nearby farm. Under cover of darkness a few officers decided to slip away despite the SBO’s advice to stay together.
Later that evening we learned that 200 German soldiers had raided the camp, eaten our lunch and thrown all our belongings out of the windows, auctioning what they did not eat, nor want to take with them. They had told the locals they would return in the morning to search for us.
Before dossing down for the night, we all moved further west into thicker cover. It was a very cold and sleepless night.
Friday, 10th September
We “stood to” at first light and moved on to higher ground till we reached really good cover – high maize running right down to a hidden stream and ditch. We lay hidden there till dark and shaved in the stream. Donald Knott’s advice was to make for the hills and the Ligurian coast in the Spezia area. The SBO held a ballot to decide which Companies should leave that night and which should remain hidden for a while in local billets. Nos. 3 & 4 were to go and HQ and Nos. 1 and 2 were to be billeted.
Supper consisted of bread, eggs and vino. Pay slips organised by the camp bank were given out and 100 lire in cash to each pair. After my arrival in Switzerland, I learned that Ronnie Noble had obtained a camera and film from the Commandant and made a record of all he had done to help us.
At 8 o’clock all sections closed on Platoon HQ under Donald Knott, who after a personal recce during the day led the way by compass. We were to walk south-west towards Salso-Maggiore, cross the main railway line and the Via Emilia and then split up into two’s and three’s and head for the hills. We crossed both railway lines without difficulty and about midnight we reached the road. We trampled down the five foot high, chain-link fence like a herd of buffalo. In the ploughed fields beyond Donald gave us a final
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compass bearing and his best wishes. In the darkness I lost sight of Tony Kinsman and after waiting quietly for two or three minutes, I went off on my own.
The countryside was flat: ploughed land to begin with. By 2.00 am I felt the ground rising with vineyards and grapes to pick at will. In the early hours there was moonlight to make the going easier. Just as it was getting light, I decided to halt.
Saturday, 11th September
Below me was a sizeable farmhouse with a cypress tree on either side of its front gate. I remembered from “Perfume from Provence” by Lady Fortescue, that they stood for “Peace” and “Prosperity”. A recce before anyone was astir revealed notices “Viva Vittorio Emmanueli and “Viva Pace”. Hiding in the vines, I found a laden apple tree to provide an early breakfast. Then a peasant appeared driving his ox team across the ploughed fields – “Vola! Vola!” Then women and children came out of the house with a woman in white accompanying the children to play in the garden.
I went up to the house to announce myself in Italian as the women on the balcony stared half-frightened, half hostile, before reappearing with an old man to whom I again explained myself and what I wanted. Eventually, I was taken into the kitchen for some wine and bread. One of the young women explained her brother was a POW in the UK. The old man told me a neighbour, Giovanni Ampolini, had a wireless and that he lived near the church.
I decided to retreat under cover till dark. I awoke to find two decidedly dirty Italian peasants sitting on the grass beside me. I eventually accepted their invitation to go home (“a casa”) with them. “Andiamo!” (“Let’s go”).
After some ten minutes’ walk we came to a largish, pink-coloured farmhouse opposite the one I had visited that morning. The peasants explained that the padrone’s son was an army officer, who could speak English and would be back home later. I was shown into the kitchen to meet his wife and their three small sons – Antonio, with a badly swollen leg from an adder bite, Franco and Berto. They were very poor and had no fuel for their lamp. I was taken round to the padrone’s end of the house and shown into his parlour. The padrone and his son had left Parma for the country. The soldier son was on sick leave and his English proved a complete myth. They offered no help and went on about the Germans being so “duri” and had seized their guns. But they had kept a small pistol hidden in a flask.
The five of us sat down to a supper of soup, rabbit and finally chicken. Disguised as it was by thick, dark gravy, I mistakenly chose the bird’s head! I quickly returned it, whereupon the old lady gobbled it up with evident relish. Waste not, want not!
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Sunday, 12th September
Breakfast of ersatz coffee and bread with the older of the two peasants, followed by a second one brought to me by the wife of the younger one. Their end of the house housed two families; the young one below and the old one above with his four children. All of them were most friendly. Aida, the daughter, aged 14 was an attractive girl in a pretty flowered dress ready to go to Sunday Mass. She explained marriage at 16 was quite usual.
I returned to the padrone for lunch, where there were the other guests, a greasy-faced youth and his heavily painted girlfriend. Aida, on the other hand, was most ready to help and produced an old shaving mirror for me.
After lunch I helped to load bags of maize – half for the padrone and half for his tenants- on to the ox-cart. Several Italian deserters passed by – two soldiers from Civita Vecchia, four sailors from Spezia and finally, a cousin of the family on a white pack-horse from Genoa. All were on their way home – “a casa”. They repeated that all the Ligurian ports were full of Germans and suggested I should make for Pellegrino and thence for Bardi, where many of the locals could speak English.
I had supper of fried potatoes and rabbit with the two peasant brothers and left my own remaining food – some biscuits and my bully beef -with my original host. I left at dusk and continued to walk south-west until the road stopped near Pellegrino. On the track through the woods I had a five-minute halt beside a log pile for a few more grapes. I heard steps approaching and saw two tall figures in the dark – Philip Kindersley and Ronnie Orr-Ewing. They had begun their walk on a most encouraging note – kindness and plenty of vino all round. They had encountered an old man drawing water from a well, who had taken them to a young grass-widow, Lucia Sbottone, who had put them up since the Saturday. Besides excellent food, she had produced a map and the address of her brother, Guiseppe Dotti, in a hill village called Monastero di Gravago near Bardi. He had money and a wireless set. We agreed to join forces with my limited Italian to help us along.
The path took us along a stream bed to a little white cottage in the trees, where a young woman said she had two other escapers asleep in an outhouse. We decided not to wake them! Another hour or more further on we ran into Ballantine of the 17th/21st Lancers and Tony Kinsman. We compared notes and then continued our march into the higher hills. At about 3.00 am, when it was almost light, we found a hay loft and climbed up the ladder with the noise and smell of the cows below.
Monday, 13th September
A friendly farm boy woke us up and showed us to his gnarled, old grandmother. She gave us an excellent breakfast with most delicious cheese. After that we had a wash and shave in the farmyard water trough. An older son then took us up to the priest’s house some ten minutes’ walk up the hill. His
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housekeeper met us and told us to wait for him in the church. The priest proved very helpful and clear in his directions, after Philip had shown him our map and I had explained we were making for Bardi. He showed us both on the map and on the ground that our route should be to Mariano and then through the valley to Vianino and Varsi. In the distance was the Monte D’Orsa and Monastero di Gravago on its lower slopes.
Now that we were up in the hills, we decided it was safe enough to walk by day and set off at about 10 o’clock. At one farm a nice-looking woman in a white, silk blouse produced just what we wanted – fresh milk to drink ad lib. We had a steep scramble down a gorge and up the other side to near Vianino. A friendly farmer invited us to eat our fill of his grapes. After some discussion we decided to by-pass the village. Next, we came across a group of villagers, who told us two other escapers were lying up in the vicinity. A boy on a bicycle offered to show us the way. He was lost in admiration for our “ammo” boots. Footwear of any kind was virtually unobtainable by the civilian population. The boy confirmed that we would find many friendly ‘ladies’ in Bardi! By now the river Ceno was a quarter of a mile away on our left. We had a bathe and “dejeuner a l’herbe” of the hard-boiled eggs, bread and cheese given to Philip and Ronnie by their very kind weekend hostess, Lucia Sbottone.
Philip nearly lost his signet ring during his bathe in the muddy waters of the Ceno. Fortunately, he found it. The locals gathered round to watch the strangers and one old man among them, who had worked as a tile-maker near King’s Cross, asked us in for a drink. His name was Virgilio and he spoke a little English. To our further good fortune, the local electricity company’s engineer looked in on the party complete with purple uniform, bicycle and tools. He knew Giuseppe Dotti in Monastero and expected to see him that evening. He would give Giuseppe warning of our impending arrival the following day.
We had supper in a meadow by the bridge over the river and finished our bully beef. A nearby farmer’s daughter gave us some tomatoes to go with it. We set off as dusk fell, Philip and I in front with Ronnie and the girl behind for about half an hour or so. When Ronnie re-joined us on his own, he came in for a good deal of chaffing! We next stopped a little way short of Varsi to talk to a group of girls. Suddenly a man rushed up to say there had been a telephone call from Varano to say that three lorryloads of Blackshirt Militia were expected shortly in Varsi. We had to leave the road at once and retreat into the cover of the wooded hillside.
The women at the hill farm we chose were very nervous but did agree we could sleep outside in the loft. Our form of introduction on such occasions ran like this – “Siamo officiale inglesi. Tempo fa prigionieri di guerra in Italia. Adesso, grazia a nostro gentile commandante italiano siamo liberi. Aspettiamo l’arrivo delle nostre truppe. Prego dormire qui stanotte”. We knew it by heart!
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Tuesday, 14th September
We did not wait to be called but were off at first light on the track towards Gravago. The road was below us and beyond it the river with hamlets dotted over the opposite hillsides. A guide took us round the steep Rocca Varsi and showed us the collar we had to make for and the church spire at Tosca. Just short of the church we came across a bullock sledge cart full of maize cobs. (There were no wheeled vehicles on those steep, rock paths). The cart blocked the path and the peasant and his wife were busy picking the cobs in the adjoining field. Both were friendly and gave us grapes. His name was Bernardo Gianelli. He had worked as a vegetable cook at the Cecil and the Savoy Hotels in London before the war. He invited us into his tiny house among a cluster of old farm houses higher up the hill for food and drink. Such a feast! His salami was out of this world and his cheese and wine were also excellent. He had fled from Paris in 1940 to escape the German Army and longed to return there. During lunch an Italian sailor and his fair, and rather fat girl-friend joined us. She was evidently not a local country girl and explained that she had lived with her parents in London. She gave us a letter to deliver to them in their little restaurant, when we got back to England. Another girl in an adjoining house had a brother, who before the war worked in a bar in Earl’s Court. They reckoned we should reach Monastero di Gravago in another two hours.
We soon had our first view of Bardi over on the far side of the river. A neat, little town clustered round its mediaeval castle, which stood guard over the river and bridge. An old woman confirmed that we were on the right path to Gravago, which turned left, i.e. southwards, away from the main river valley and up a smaller one.
We found a convenient, wayside halt between two farmhouses overlooking a village called Castagneto. We asked for a drink of water and the way to the house of Giuseppe Dotti in Monastero. A friendly, middle-aged man, named Giacomo Restegini (“Jacko” to us) volunteered to take us over there after a brief halt at his own house under the spreading chestnut trees. Hence the name of the hamlet.
Monastero di Gravago, which we reached at about 5 o’clock, proved to be a very old village of stone-built houses, built on a rocky hillside with just a steep, cobbled path as its roadway. Jacko led us to a house with new paintwork and a superior air. Signora Dotti was a thin, rather care-worn woman of about 35 years, with many gold fillings in her teeth and an American accent. Unlike most of the married women we met she was not wearing black but a coloured dress. She was not pleased to see us and led us up steps into her kitchen and through to the parlour. This was well furnished: a large Kennedy wireless set stood on a side table. About 5 o’clock, Giuseppe Dotti himself appeared. He too was not pleased to see us, unlike his sister, Lucia Sbottone, near Fidenza. His English was poor but he could understand
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us well enough. Before the war he had been a chef in Boston, USA, and had married there. The Dottis had three children, Dino, Rita and Gino, the latter a terrible fidgety Phil over whom his mother had no control.
We explained that we planned to stay in Monastero for a few days to see which way the wind was blowing. Could he find us billets? Rather grudgingly he said he thought he could and went off to look for some. Meanwhile his wife started to get supper ready. While we waited a thin, wasted girl called Aida, whose parents had owned two restaurants at Shepherds’ Bush, called to see the “inglese “. It was extraordinary to find a young woman with a cockney accent in this remote, hill village. Her husband was a Government forester. Giuseppe returned in due course to say that Jacko, his uncle, could fix us up. Signora Dotti was a good cook and gave us an excellent supper – mountains of pastasciutta and plentiful wine. More inquisitive locals, including the parish priest, then began arriving to take a look at us and to listen to the wireless. Jacko joined the gathering and was to prove one of our most trusted and ever helpful allies. A little monkey of a man of about 55, he had worked in America years ago.
Then we all sat round the parlour table for the evening news bulletins; first the “Voice of America” in Algiers and the BBC in London at 8.30 and 9.00 pm respectively. “Ascoltate la voce del America, una delle Nazione Unite. Ecco le ultime notizie.” Then to our even greater excitement we heard the strokes of Big Ben and the familiar tones of the BBC news reader: “This is the BBC Home and Overseas Service. Here is the 9 o’clock news and this is—reading it.”
We learned that the battle at Salerno was critical. Jacko showed us into a spare room in his old nearby stone house with a bed, straw and two rugs. Philip, as the oldest, had the bed with a mattress and a small, yellow quilt on it. Ronnie and I had the stone floor to sleep on. The room had wooden shutters and no glass in the window. Beyond it was Jacko’s restaurant/bar.
Wednesday, 15th September
We had the first of many hospitable breakfasts in Castagneto on the edge of the chestnut woods beside Gravago. Jacko had two houses, an old one by the path and a newer one 20 yards below. He was better off than some of the other peasants: he had made money, when he was in America, and from his restaurant/bar in peacetime. His wife had been dead for a long time. So his 22 year-old daughter, Maria, a plump, good-natured girl with a row of perfect dentures was in charge of the household. His 16 year old son, Lazaro, had recently left school. The fourth member of the household was a serving girl, Angelina, from nearby Tosca. She was very strong and Philip called her (in private!) the “horse”. Maria cooked and did the indoor housework; Angelina worked outside. The kitchen had the usual type of range with a tall chimney pipe and room for two large pots. Beyond it was the parlour, with the usual religious pictures on the walls and a large photograph of all the 1914-
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18 ex-servicemen from the Commune of Bardi. There was a dresser with the builder’s name and date stamped on it and an alarm clock. A small scullery adjoined one side of the parlour. Breakfast was cafe au lait with bread and cheese.
Monastero di Gravago was some 300 feet above the dry bed of the river Ceno at Noveglia on the road to Bardi. We spent that first morning stripping leaves for cow fodder during the winter. During our task, Jacko’s aunt Zia, Luigia Bergassi, came up to inspect us. Luigia was a bright-eyed little woman of about 73 and was accompanied by her dotty brother with a patch over one eye and an insatiable curiosity with the other. He examined Ronnie’s pipe and all the rest of our few belongings with minute care. For lunch we had minestra. After it we picked white beans, pulling up their support stakes as we went. In the evening we walked over to Giuseppe Dotti’s to listen to the evening news. We heard of the announcement by the German High Command that anyone finding any escaped POWs was to report them to the authorities at once. Those helping them would be liable to summary execution. This news carried considerable alarm, especially with Signora Dotti. So to bed at Jacko’s, thinking we must move on right away. But, first we needed money. Tomorrow, Thursday, would be market day in Bardi. We would ask the ever helpful Jacko to try and sell Philip’s gold signet ring and my Parker fountain pen. But I would keep my precious Benson wristwatch bought from “Opportunities Ltd” the exchange shop run by “the Baron”, an American POW, in the camp.
Jacko’s parlour had cream-wash walls with red, green and blue floral designs stencilled on them. There was a red and white check cloth on the centre table and a polished dresser with a display of American china. There were two small, blue basket chairs with cushions and sundry kitchen ones. On one wall there was a large war map with the Russian front marked and kept up to date by the parish priest – to our surprise a keen war-watcher. The whole room was bright and clean, thanks to Maria, very much above most of the rooms we had seen. The house also had electric light as did all the village houses: it had been installed just before the war. The outlying houses, however, still had oil lamps.
Thursday, 16th September
Jacko returned from Bardi having sold Philip’s ring for 550 lire (£8) but there were no buyers for my pen. After a longish debate, we decided to give up our plan to start walking south to the Allied lines and to stay and wait for landings in the Livorno area. Jacko took us for a drink with the parish priest in his decent sized house with a little garden right beside the church. The priest was sure that in 200 years England would again embrace the Roman Catholic faith. He travelled a good deal on horseback for he did not have the figure of a strong walker. After the wireless news that evening, Giuseppe Dotti
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and Jacko decided it was too risky for us – and for them – to remain in the village. They suggested we should leave next morning for Jacko’s little casetta half an hour’s climb up the hill.
Friday, 17th September
The five of us went up to the casetta. They had kindly given us an old, white blanket and an old and torn brown rug, three pillows, a bill-hook and baskets of food and wine.
A steep path led up a woody glen of chestnuts and oaks beside a little mountain stream. A final climb up a very steep, little spur led to a small hollow with a tiny stone hut in a clearing. This casetta was to be our base camp for the next six weeks. It was 10 feet by 8 feet with walls about 4 1/2 feet high and an even lower entrance. We always bumped our heads going in! The hut had a pitched, stone roof, 9-foot high along the ridge, supported on wooden beams. There were signs of former fires in the corners of the floor -earth covered with leaves. Giuseppe and Jacko showed us another small hut some ten minutes away among the chestnut trees. But it had no handy water supply and was less well hidden. So we decided to stick to the lower one.
Giuseppe and Jacko left us to rig up our new home. We cleaned it out, cut bracken for bedding, collected firewood, built an outside fireplace, dammed the stream and made a wash basin. Philip put in a conduit with a fall so we could draw water that much more easily. Finally, we made a rough little shelf for each of us for our shaving kits and mugs.
As yet there was no pronounced scare and Giuseppe agreed we could descend to Monastero in the evening to listen to the news. During supper, four fellow escapers form PG49 came through the village – Lemacq, Chamberlain, Day and Winchester, all of them in motley civilian clothes. The 9 o’clock news from the BBC brought better tidings: Salerno was safe – the American 5th and the British 8th Armies had joined up and the Germans were retiring. One of the four “escapers” went with us to sleep in Zia Luigia’s hay loft and the other three were put up in an old barn in Castagneto.
Saturday, 18th September
During the night it rained heavily. We climbed back to the casetta for a “council of war”. One of us would go each evening to listen to the news. Philip had spotted some dye on Jacko’s parlour mantelpiece. Maria kindly dyed our battledress trousers black and our shirts green, the only two colours she had. In addition, Jacko produced three old pairs of trousers and three old shirts to wear while our own were dyed.
We arrived back at the casetta to find the bracken floor stuck in a sea of mud. So we lined the floor with stones and shale from the stream and laid fresh, dry bracken on top. Jacko lent us a hoe and we dug a sump pit with a trench above the casetta to stop rainwater pouring down into it. The rain that evening was very heavy and none of us went down to Monastero to listen to
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Sunday, 19th September
Thank heavens – a glorious day. Philip and Ronnie went down to the village, while I walked up to the spur and considered going over to Camogli to find my aunt Evelyn’s villa and to obtain money and clothes from her gardener, Carlo. We might then be able to get to Corsica by boat.
Monday, 20th September
Philip and Ronnie had breakfast with Jacko in Castagneto and then came up to the casetta with gifts of milk, bread, cheese and wine. Jacko’s cousin, Antonio Pighi, came with them with a large bundle of straw strapped on his back. When he had the time, he would make us each a ‘branda’, a camp bed of branches.
Antonio, the elder brother of the man who had guided us to Monastero, was a thoroughly good fellow. He had served as a fitter in the Italian Air Force in Russia. After lunch the weather broke and we had to spend the rest of the day in our tiny hut. By now we had made ourselves reasonably comfortable with a fire in the opposite corner and an old blanket hung over the open doorway. Zia Luigia had given me a white, cotton pullover and a small, pale blue bath towel. A cooking pot hung over the fire. It was the job of the man nearest to it to keep the fire going during the night. We took turns to sleep next to the doorway covered by our one and only old, brown rug.
Jacko also lent us a bucket and a small copper cooking pot. Signora Dotti produced three plates, a knife and three spoons. Zia Luigia gave us salt,”coffee” and sugar. Jacko produced 15 lire worth of potatoes. We had a large open basket for our rations. In one cache of the casetta we had our potatoes, in the other our plates and bottles of milk and vino. The bread and cheese resided in the basket under a blue and white check handkerchief to keep the flies off.
Conditions in the casetta were tolerable, although it could be very hot during the afternoon with little lizards darting in and out of the stonework. Initially Philip was head cook, having had a good deal of practice in 1942, when the 2nd CG were training in Scotland for the invasion of North Africa. His usual routine was to peel the potatoes, boil them, drain and mash them and add a little milk, chopped bread and grated cheese, reheat and serve. Occasionally we had other vegetables, e.g. onions, and could make ourselves soup to start with, with toast, cheese and vino to finish. We usually succeeded in toasting ourselves rather than the bread, which often ended up in the ashes because we only had narrow forks and the bread kept slipping off.
We hung such kit as we had on crude pegs stuck into cracks in the walls of our hut. I had just a SD cap and a battle dress jacket to hang up; the other two had rather more on their pegs. In the corner behind our food basket, we had a rough broom to sweep back our straw bedding every morning. Each of us cut himself a stout stick to help us up and down the steep
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hill paths. We were short of soap, razor blades and shaving soap; and Philip had broken his camp canteen Italian razor. Our routine was two shaves a week and before any visit to our village friends. We had no nail scissors and had to borrow a large, household size pair from either Maria Resteghini or Signora Dotti, when we were with either of them. Our inside fire carried the risk of setting the hut’s corner beams alight, so we rigged up a large stone under them as a fireguard. One day, despite the stone, the beams did catch fire and it was some time before we had it out.
Tuesday, 21st September
As glorious a morning as Monday had been nasty. We were able to have lunch (merenda) under the trees. The fine day brought us a strange visitor – a wild, fair-haired boy, wretchedly clad and below normal intelligence. His name was Giuseppe and he had five mangy hungry cows with him. He was keen to help and proved a good hewer of wood. His feet and hands were absolutely black. He told us he washed as often as anyone did – face and hands once a week and a complete bath once a month. We too had to be very sparing with our soap supply – one small tablet each – after Ronnie had swapped his reserve one for three of my spare razor blades. It was quite impossible to get any soap worth the name from any of the villagers. So we had to make up our needs with a very smelly, home-made, yellow lump from sheep’s fat, or sow’s ears. During the day Maria returned us our dyed shirts and trousers, learning from her of the order issued by the German Commander in Bardi on 18th September of a 2500 lire (£35) reward for turning in any POW, which was followed on the 19th by a counter appeal from the BBC.
Wednesday, 22nd September
The day was wet once again but I was able in a break to walk down to Jacko’s for lunch and supper. He was in excellent form and liberal with both food and wine. He, Maria and Lazaro would eat at the parlour table, while poor Angelina – for reasons it would have been most impolite to ask – was relegated to a corner and a plate of ricotta (curds and whey). I had already grown very fond of Jacko and his children. Maria was goodness itself with thick, black hair in pigtails on the top of her head. Lazaro was quiet but thoroughly good natured. Angelina had mousey coloured hair worn in a bun. Maria amongst her many roles was available to cut my hair after supper.
Later we ran through the rain to Giuseppe Dotti’s for the evening news. Whichever of the three of us heard it on any evening, jotted down the essentials for the other two to hear at breakfast in the casetta the next morning.
Thursday, 23rd September
I had taken back with me from Jacko’s some maps and an old Italian grammar of Lazaro’s. Passages were still marked with pencilled crosses- “Per la prossima lezione 12.3.41.”
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We woke that morning to find the casetta soaked: water draining in from the hill above as well as leaking through the roof. However, the skies cleared and, while Philip who was not feeling well stayed at home, Ronnie and I went down to the Pighi’s in Castagneto to help their uncle Adolpho Barbuti, their next-door neighbour, with his vendemmia – grape harvest. This was a very big day in the calendar – on a par with trebbia – the wheat harvest. Each man’s relations and friends came to help him to get his grapes in. Signora Pighi gave us some minestra first and we then set off for the vineyard. We were quite a party – the four Pighi brothers, a friend of theirs, Maria, Lazaro, Ronnie and myself. We found it quicker to cut the bunches off with a knife before putting them into large baskets. When full, we carried them on our shoulders to the wine press. It was the privilege of Giovanni Pighi, the eldest of the four brothers, to roll up his trousers above his knees and tread the grapes with his bare feet. We just poured our baskets of grapes into the trough for him to trample. We finished by picking the overhead vines near the house. All four Pighi brothers were good company: the three older ones had all served in the Italian Armed Forces – Giovanni in the Julia Division, Antonio in the Air Force and the third brother in an artillery regiment in Cremona. The fourth was too young for call-up.
After washing our stained hands in the yard, we repaired to Adolpho Barbuti’s parlour for “cena” – dinner. And we were all more than ready for it! We sat together at a long table with two vast bowls of pasta, one with cheese, the other with tomato puree.
As in the Arab world it was impolite, even insulting, not to eat greedily – and noisily. If you did not do so, you would elicit an anxious query “Vi dispiace? – Don’t you like it?” It was a most enjoyable day altogether and Ronnie and I looked forward to joining Jacko’s party for his vendemmia in a couple of days.
After dark, Antonio Pighi, equipped with a lantern, led us 3/4 of the way back to the casetta laden with more kind gifts of food. We found Philip had had a surprise visit from Tony Laing (Royal Signals). He had found an excellent billet for himself in the nearby village of Sbottone. The old lady’s son was missing and she treated Tony as his surrogate. He would return to pay us a second visit in a few days.
Friday, 24th September
We spent a day at home – mainly to get clean! We heated a bucket of hot water and used it in turn finishing off with a sluice of cold water from the next-in-line. Maria Resteghini had kindly agreed to do our laundry and mending. The next one of us to go down to Castagneto would take whatever needed attention with him.
That evening we found some blackberries – dessert for supper!
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Saturday, 25th September
My 27th birthday! We closed up the entrance to the casetta with our old blanket and a rough door I had made from criss-crossed thorn tree branches tied together with the local type of osier.
The three of us then set off for Jacko’s vendemmia at Castagneto. This vineyard was next to that of the Pighi’s on the southern slopes down to Noveglia. We all fed together – Jacko, Maria, Lazaro, the Pighis and the three of us. Giovanni was again the wine presser. First, we threw in man-sized baskets of grapes and then a larger one brought down on the bullock sledge-cart. For a time, we had to stop because of heavy rain. Antonio Pighi produced a small wooden tally for each of us to inscribe our names as a record of vendemmia ’43. Rain began again when the picking was done. So we all put sacks over our heads and ran for cover into the house like a lot of dustmen or coal-heavers in England. It was a killing sight to see Philip chasing Antonio “all the way home”. Maria had gone over to the house early and had a splendid meal ready for us. We were all very relaxed and happy and “laughter learned of friends” filled the room. Jacko, remembering it was my birthday, produced an especially strong drink for the celebration. Despite further rain we went up to Giuseppe Dotti’s as usual for the evening news: Smolensk had fallen to the Russians, but Allied progress up Italy was very, very slow. All three of us spent the night in Zia Luigia’s hay loft.
Antonio Pighi, aged about 30, was a very nice chap – one of the best we met. Always ready to help and compassionate with his frequent words to us “poveri cari raggazzi” (‘poor dear boys’).
Sunday, 26th September
After all yesterday’s rain we expected to find the casetta a muddy mess and borrowed a hoe from Luigia. We were right. Everything was soaking. Ronnie dug a trench system to direct the water, while Philip and I mended the roof. Further rain helped us to see where the leaks were. We marked each with a small stick poked through to the outside and the man outside filled each of them up with clay from the stream-bed.
Despite the rain, we had a visit during the morning from Jacko and four of his friends going out for their regular, Sunday morning shoot. They had old hammer guns and two dogs. One was a mongrel called ‘Bobby’, belonging to a man whom we had not met before, Giuseppe Negri, from Noceta half an hour’s walk over the hill. He had worked in Paris for many years as a mosaic worker and looked more French than Italian in his blue trench jacket and cap. Philip knew Paris well and lost no time in making friends with Giuseppe. Jacko told us they had not seen any hares or rabbits for weeks, but they would still go out each Sunday morning. “Speriamo” (‘let’s hope’). None of them were churchgoers. They left that to the women. The
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men regarded the priests as idle and too well-off, but the women still revered them.
During the afternoon the skies cleared and I went down the hill in search of more blackberries. Jacko also wanted me to meet some people who wanted to help feed us. Bertorelli Tubbia, a renowned drinker, was out but his wife and a teenage daughter with pigtails were in. Neither was very forthcoming but they led me upstairs to the cleanest kitchen I had yet seen and gave me a drink of vino. An old man, almost stone deaf and with a huge goitre, came in to inspect the stranger. Both the bread and the wine tasted very good!
On my way back, I came across an apple tree about 100 yards from the house. So I took some for the three of us in the hut. During my absence Philip and Ronnie had walked over to Noceta at Giuseppe Negri’s invitation. They returned after me with baskets of food. They had found the villagers in Noceta most friendly, especially a man named Eugenio Gandolphino. He had worked for several years as a pastry cook in the Vauxhall Cake Company in Wandsworth, so he at once became ‘Wandsworth” and proved one of our most staunch allies.
We were anxious to get to know at least six or eight local families so that we would only need food from each of them once a week. Our daily rations were three small home-made white loaves, cheese and half a dozen potatoes for supper – and milk and vino or pasta. Occasionally Zia Luigia gave us a little “coffee” made from barley, enough for two or three breakfasts. The salt was very coarse and we had to grind it up between two stones before putting it into an old 4 oz. tobacco tin. About one day in every three we had a bottle of milk. It quickly turned if we left it corked in the casetta. So we then left it uncorked in a bucket of cold water outside. Butter was even scarcer – once a week maybe. Maria made it by skimming and shaking until it was almost solid. As yet there were neither chestnuts, nor mushrooms, but both were expected soon – in early October.
Our routine at the casetta was reveille at about 8.00 am. Then rekindle the fire for breakfast at 8.30 followed by wood-chopping and such like chores. Lunch was at 12.30 and supper at 7.00 pm. Our daily companion was Giuseppe, the tousled cow-herd with his five cows.
Monday, 27th September
Another day of pouring rain. We spent it huddled in the casetta feeling rather depressed and miserable. Jacko had bought us ink, three exercise books and three pencils in the Bardi market on the previous Thursday to give us something to do. Philip and I both wanted to rewrite our accounts of Fontanellato. His began with his wounding and capture in Tunisia on Christmas Day 1942. Jacko also bought me a comb and Philip some shaving soap.
Bardi was 11 kilometres away by the quickest route and 1 1/2 hours on
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foot. The “tedeschi” (Germans) visited Bardi about once a week in a lorry to issue orders and see everything was in order. They were seldom there for more than half a day. Their principal effort was directed at the handing in of all weapons, of which the ‘podesta’ (mayor) had a list. Jacko handed in two of his three guns but recovered the best of them in return for a gift of cheese to the carabinieri (policemen). Others found that the carabinieri were selling the guns after they had been handed in! Jacko also told us that there was no longer any business on market days. People just went in for a gossip with friends.
Later that day “Wandsworth” (Eugenio Gandolphino) and his next-door neighbour, Giuseppe Negri, the pre-war mosaic worker in Paris, called with food, despite all the rain. Both carried umbrellas! Everyone had one. Mackintoshes were unknown. “Wandsworth” was in his middle forties and fair. When war broke out he was in Noceta on one of his periodic visits to his old mother. She had refused to move and rather than leave her on her own he had stayed behind. His English was fair. He and Giuseppe Negri were two of our best friends. They were not scared, unlike many others. Both enjoyed life- and lots of vino! They each had a small wireless set and we were cordially invited to either of their homes, whenever we wished.
Tuesday, 28th September
Yet another day of unceasing rain. The wet days were especially trying for both Philip and Ronnie, because they had neither cigarettes, nor tobacco. They had only taken a limited supply with them from Fontanellato. It had lasted only ten days and it was quite impossible to get any locally.
On wet days there was always much discussion of our plans. It was hard to know which course to take. Whether to go south with no money, no reliable maps and no suitable civilian clothes. Here in the hill villages the peasants were too poor to have any spare clothes: Philip stood 6 feet 6 inches, while both Ronnie and I were over 6 feet tall. All three of us looked English and, as yet, neither Philip nor Ronnie could speak or understand Italian. Moreover, the Allied advance was disappointingly slow. Given the near certainty of not finding any adequate civilian clothes locally, we decided it would be wiser to wear our own relatively warm battle dress (with the shirt and trousers dyed green and black by Maria Resteghini). Ronnie’s pre-war brown officer’s boots were on their last legs.
If not south, what then? The casetta would be quite unfit for winter quarters. So, if there were no allied landings in the Spezia-Genoa area by mid-October and we were still above Monastero di Gravago, we would have to move into houses, or at least a two storey casetta with a door and windows. Escaping was on our minds “day and night, night and day”. The casetta’s hard floor became more and more uncomfortable: the bracken lost its spring and the straw was scanty. Philip was already getting rheumatism.
After lunch we had another visitor, a man we had not previously
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met, Celeste Pesca. He had come from a farm over our hill beyond Noceta. He too had lived some time in London, working in the kitchens of the Connaught Rooms off Kingsway. He and Ronnie soon hit it off, as Philip and Giuseppe Negri had already done. Celeste was violently anti-Fascist. We christened him “Napoleon”, when he described Mussolini as having wanted to be a “xxxxx Napoleon”. He would welcome us at his place.
In the evening the weather cleared and the three of us walked down to Monastero for supper and the wireless news. Foggia was in Allied hands. We again slept in Zia Luigia’s hay loft. It was very cold indeed and we had little sleep.
Wednesday, 29th September
The day began grey but dry. It was San Michele (St Michael), one of the four big market days in the year. A villager called Natali pressed us to come and breakfast with him at his house half way between Castagneto and Monastero and just above the path between them. It proved quite the smelliest and dirtiest we’d been in and swarming with flies. I was nearly sick. His mother in black and barefooted, his sister-in-law and her 10 month old baby girl were there. Rita was sorry for herself with tummy-ache but alert enough to take an infant interest in my watch and badges of rank. Much against my wishes they all pressed me to stay for lunch. That meant sitting all morning in that nauseating kitchen. Rita was given a bottle feed, depositing it in another form on the kitchen floor. Nobody took any notice. For lunch, unpleasant lumps of meat were produced and I thought how much I’d prefer bread and cheese in the casetta. Finally, I was pressed to a lot of sickly, white wine. All very kind but I could well have done without their hospitality.
Just before lunch there was a slight commotion outside and I was told four more inglese had turned up. I went out and found four ’49ers’ -Alexander, Lacey and two others whose names I forget. They were all in very disreputable civilian clothes. They were from one of the three companies initially left behind in the Fontanellato area and were now on their way south. After their departure lunch was served. It was not nearly as unpalatable as I had feared – excellent, white vitello (veal). There was very little meat available of any kind. Such as there was came from the black market, fetched from the butcher by night.
I stayed the night at Natali’s. After breakfast he proudly showed me all his photographs. He was rather a lad, well-built, with good features and a carefully shaped, little black moustache. He had been a soldier in the Trento Division in the Western Desert. He had been captured with his whole battalion in an abortive attack on Tobruk in April 1941. They had had no artillery support and had surrendered en bloc to a few British infantry tanks. Among his photos was one of a German with whom he had made friends. He scribbled all over it, tore it up, threw the pieces on the floor, spat on them and
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threw them into the fire with a curse – “Brutta razza”! (Brutal breed!). There were other photos of the Division’s embarcation at Naples and a heart-shaped one of his fair “fidanzata” (fiancee) inset over the bows of the troopship. In fact, he had several more photos of “la bella signorina”. She was in London and he had not heard from her for over three years. Natali was an “Orfano di Guerra” from the Great War and wore on his sleeve the distinctive gilt, embroidered badge – a star surrounded by a laurel wreath.
I returned to the casetta to give the others the latest news and to share with them half of Natali’s very maggotty cheese. They had been out looking for mushrooms. So we had some hot mushroom soup as a first course at supper.
Thursday, 30th September
Philip and Ronnie had evidently picked the edible sort of mushrooms for we felt no ill effects from the soup. Philip managed a morning visit to Dotti’s but it was too wet to revisit the village for the evening radio bulletins. Fortunately, our roof repairs proved effective and there was only the odd drip, drip through the roof.
We had now been over two weeks in Monastero and had a fair idea of conditions and sentiments there. The ground was very stony and short of soil. There was no chance to make money farming. That explained why so many young men had emigrated pre-war to England, Wales, America or France to work as cooks or waiters. Giuseppe Negri had a younger brother, Eugenio, in Wales with a shop at 64 High Street, Blaenau, Monmouthshire. They could save enough money abroad to return home and buy a small holding for themselves. There was much intermarriage and everyone was some sort of cousin. The peasants we knew were freeholders, independent of rationing and self-sufficient in basic things. They had their own plot of wheat and a little, blackened bee-hive of an oven in their yard. Baking usually took place twice a week. The loaves were baked round and on top of chestnut leaves to prevent burning. They had oxen for haulage, milk, cheese and butter. Cattle feed was a problem and the animals had to Jive on leaves all the winter. They were therefore of poor quality. Most homes had a few sheep to provide woollen socks, pullovers and vests as well as soap. There was also the indispensable pig, bought in the New Year, fattened till Christmas, killed and made into salami for the rest of the year. It was quite delicious. The peasants seemed to have a sound knowledge of pig-keeping and were surprised at, and in disagreement with, the practice of shutting pigs up in a dark pigsty. Calves were killed young, when they were easier to hide, and more milk was available for the household. The oaks were stripped of their leaves, when still green. For later on dead leaves were stored in a sort of beehive built round a stripped sapling.
Cattle roamed, apparently unattended, all over the hills. Giuseppe’s
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little herd of five cows were an awful nuisance to us in the casetta. They ate anything and everything on sight and made messes all over our billeting area. There were not many hens; eggs were accordingly scarce. The villagers were too poor, by and large, to own either geese or turkeys. Since the Armistice everything had become disorganised. For four or five days there would be neither post, nor papers. The schools were shut with no date for their reopening. When the “Gazetta di Parma” did appear, it contained little but German orders and propaganda. Salt, olive oil, sugar, tobacco, fuel for lamps, clothing, boots and shoes were unobtainable. “Non c’e! Non c’e!” (“There is nothing. Nothing”) was the invariable response. Our boots were objects of particular envy. A paper pair cost 1000 lire (£14) on the black market. The women went barefoot and the men had wooden soles nailed on to their old, pre-war boots. Married women usually dressed all in black, but the men displayed a little colour and variety in their clothes. All wore belts with a steel hook at the back from which hung the indispensable bill-hook. We never saw any braces – except for Philip’s until Giuseppe’s cows chewed them to bits!
As for politics Jacko explained that the Province of Parma was traditionally the most anti-Fascist in all Italy, with the old city itself a centre of communism. In the Commune di Bardi there had been only two known Fascists, one who had money in England and the other was a dangerous criminal. The former was now too scared to show his former sympathy and the latter, named Gabordo, with a history of 18 prison sentences was, thank goodness, temporarily away from Bardi with the “tedeschi” (Germans). As yet there was no danger but the Fascists, because of their local knowledge, were more feared than the Germans. The latter had introduced reichsmarks’ credit vouchers at the rate of 10 lire per mark, creating flames of hatred for themselves. Even so, there was a constant and widespread sense of unease and fear of spies. You could not trust anyone. For example, the schoolteacher in Sbottone, the village beyond Noceta (where Tony Laing had found such a kindly, temporary home) was believed to be a Fascist spy.
Jacko explained that a good indication of the feelings of the men of Bardi for Mussolini was that some 150 of them had had all their back teeth taken out to avoid military service. Dentures were forbidden in the Italian Armed Forces. They thus avoided conscription. The people were genuinely pro the Allies and England in particular. It also mattered to them that we were “proprio inglese” (genuine English). They had high hopes of what the Allies could do for them and were disappointed at the slowness of the advance up Italy. We carefully pointed out that other countries, e.g. Poland, France, Belgium and Holland, had been under German occupation for over three years and Italy must take her turn. Few of them had anything good to say of King Emmanuel. They wanted a Republic. In their opinion the King could, and should, have kept Italy out of the war. But he had not had the guts to do so. They showed little patriotism. It was just “Povera Italia” (poor Italy).
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They also showed no concern for the city people, who were having to put up with spoliation by the Germans and were known to be very short of food. The Italian food ration scale was so small as to be derisory. The result was great distress and a huge black market. Peasants had been assessed every grain harvest by Fascist agricultural officials – one quintal (100 Kg) per head per annum for the farmer and the rest to the Government. Of course, none of them stuck to such a rule. Especially nowadays, as a quintal per head was not enough and the surplus would only go to the German occupying forces. So everyone had a store of grain hidden away for themselves against still harder times to come. They also complained of very heavy taxes; every new law imposed yet another tax. So this year they were growing just enough grain for their own needs with no surplus. Why toil and sweat to provide corn for the hated Germans.
Rumours of course abounded. The main one was that Mussolini was dead, supported by the fact that he never appeared in public and there were no photographs of him in the papers. Another rumour was that an Alpine Division was holding the Brenner Pass and that the IVth Italian Army was still holding out between Turin and Ventimiglia on the Italo-French frontier. One day Giuseppe Negri told us that Toulon had been surprised and captured by the Allies! More real were the stories of the hapless Italian 8th Army on the Russian Front. The retreating Germans had seized all the Italian lorries and cut off the hands of any Italian soldiers who tried to cling on. When the few survivors of that decimated Army reached Italy, the war-time ban on dancing had been lifted – just for one evening! The Fascist drive against popular amusements and pleasure had had a noticeable effect on people, who normally relied a lot on such things.
Friday, 1st October
The day opened uncertain with the threat of yet more rain. So much wet weather was most depressing and added to the difficulties of everyday life in the casetta. However, there were still no reports of any organised searches for us, beyond a report that the local carabinieri had orders to do so but were not carrying them out.
After lunch the skies cleared and the three of us walked up to the Piso D’Occa, whence we could see all the way to Parma on a clear day. Philip went down to Giuseppe Dotti’s, while I paid a second visit to the Tubbia family. This time they gave me three very good, little white rolls in addition to the usual cottage loaf. But Signora Tubbia remained unforthcoming. She did not exactly light up when I arrived!
The Dotti’s was not a home we felt comfortable in. There was discord and we could feel the tension. Giuseppe was not an attractive character. There was always something amiss. We suspected he was an idler, who made his wife his slave. And he was apt to be rough with his children. He was so unlike
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his sister, Lucia Sbottone, down in the Po valley, whom Philip and Ronnie had liked and admired so much. Thirteen years of work for Giuseppe had aged his wife prematurely. Philip was forever looking at their wedding photograph in Boston in 1930. She was quite a pretty girl then but now in her 30s she looked more like 45 years old; a woman who had lost her looks and knew it. Her hair was dull and straight and her teeth were full of gold fillings. She did her best for us but her constant whining over the slow advance of the Allies and her fear of spies did not endear her to us. She had no control over her three children. Dino, a quiet, indeed lifeless, boy of 12, hiding rebellion against his father but too weak to come out openly. Rita, aged 11 with pigtails, was the bright spark of the family, bright-eyed and intelligent. She was top of her class and had several letters from her teacher singing her praises. Only once did we find her out of sorts because of a bad headache. Lastly there was 6 year old Gino – a real “fidgety Phil”. He would never sit still and at times was exceedingly irritating. “Sta fermo” (sit still)! But he never would. It was not for some days that Maria Resteghini told us that Signora Dotti had suffered a brain fever just before the war and not been quite herself ever since.
It was a pity that her husband was not more helpful. He was the richest man in Monastero and could have done a lot. He had a second farm near his sister Lucia, in the Fidenza area. As Jacko put it one day, “that man has much money”. His home was definitely a cut above the rest except for the priest’s: it was the only one with what we would call a kitchen range. And he had sparkling white wine as well as the usual red vino!
Saturday, 2nd October
The skies were still overcast but it was fine enough to allow us a bath: a bucket of hot water first and then a cold douche from the stream, if you wanted it! Philip went down to Giuseppe Negri’s in Noceta for supper and the night. It was Ronnie’s turn to do so with Jacko in Castagneto. I was left on my own “to guard home” and to cudgel my brains on the best course of action. I enjoyed cooking my own supper: it was an unwritten rule that the man staying behind in the casetta could tuck in. On your own you could heap all the straw together and use all our three pillows. So there was some compensation for the Home Guard!
Sunday, 3rd October
At last the day was fine and I put some bread and cheese in my pockets and climbed up the hill above the casetta. After half an hour I reached the middle of a saddle-back hill with a lovely open grassy sward with daisies and a little stream. Crossing to the far side I looked down on the valley we had travelled along and on Tosca, Varsi and the Rocca. It was a perfect and peaceful spot, as I thought, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.
After lunch my nap was disturbed by the shrieks and yells of two girls, one of them quite attractive in an orange pullover, and a young man, followed
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by three young children: two small boys, one girl and some cattle and sheep. I pulled my cap over my face and feigned sleep. The children must have wondered who the strange recumbent figure was in a green shirt, black trousers and a khaki service dress cap (with no badge – my captors outside Tobruk in June 1942 had stripped me of everything except what I stood up in).
Later on Natali joined me from the festa at Tosca. Two women also arrived to collect the animals. I was stopped on my own way back to the hut by the two small boys, saying their mother insisted I return with them “a casa”. They just would not be put off. I walked with them along the top of the hill for about half an hour. Casa proved to be an almost brand new home: painted pale grey, with a well varnished front door, smart shutters, a delicate little Madonna over the doorway and flowers against the walls. Plum opposite and only a few paces away was the old, rough, stone house, now used as a store. But they were built much too close to each other for my liking.
This proved to be the first of several visits I paid to the Michelotti’s, some of the nicest people I met. Papa was in the same “class” as Jacko Resteghini. In Italy a man was not asked his age but his “class”, i.e. his conscription year. Michelotti was unusually tall for an Italian peasant – six foot and almost fair. His wife was a kindly, grey-haired woman with a peaceful expression. They had five children. Giovanni, the eldest aged 22 and an ex-Alpini soldier, was away in Tosca and would not be home until late. Next came Maria, the attractive 15 year-old girl in the orange pullover. Then came Agostino, aged 13, in a grey pork pie hat. After him came 11 year old Bertino, who had extended the invitation and, lastly, his 8 year old younger brother.
We had a frugal supper with pear and apple juice in place of wine. It was too high up for grapes. Then came the tricky question of where I was to sleep. They pressed me to stay and, as the height of hospitality, suggested that I share Giovanni’s bed. Fortunately, I had a genuine excuse for declining their kind offer, explaining that it was a cardinal rule between the three of us to return to the casetta every night, unless we had agreed beforehand to be billeted with friends.
Giovanni returned about 9.00 pm – much earlier than expected. He was a thoroughly nice, fresh-faced young man. There was much laughter when the local ‘ancient’, known to be well over 85, came in for a gossip. Deaf and a bit gaga he kept on insisting he was 44. Giovanni offered to accompany me back to the casetta with the help of a lantern. I introduced him to Philip and Ronnie, who had not been out that day. Giovanni invited me to join him the next day and watch him light the charcoal beehive.
We retired to bed a bit brighter in spirit. The rain was over and Naples and beyond were now in Allied hands.
Monday, 4th October
Ronnie with his long legs and Scottish upbringing was happy to spend
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fine days out walking in the hills. Philip preferred to stay at home and get on with his planned book. So I alone took some bread and cheese and went up the hill to watch the charcoal burning. I had arranged to pick up one of the boys at the Michelotti’s and to go on with him as my guide. Our route lay through what he called “the deserted village” – three old, stone houses now only used for storage and fodder. We found an old man and a boy there stripping leaves.
The old fellow spoke a little English and said he had been in America years ago as a cook. His son was a fair-haired boy of about 13 with a pleasant face. He had picked up a few words of English from his father and always said ‘yes’ rather than ‘si’. The old man’s coat was all “tattered and torn”. Had “a cow with a crumpled horn” decided to try it for lunch? His name proved to be Agostino Sbottone. His son, Giovanni, would be going up to the charcoal burning anyway. So like good King Wenceslas and his page the two of us set off together. Giovanni had a rucksack with his lunch and wore a pair of bright, navy blue socks and sandals.
When we had almost reached the top of the hill, we came to the clearing and saw Giovanni Michelotti and some other children gathered round the heap of charcoal. It was the first I had ever seen, so I was interested in the process. The beehive was some 9 foot high with a 2 foot square funnel down the centre from top to bottom. The hive was made of neatly criss-crossed logs covered with sods of earth, which had been smeared over with coal dust. It was nearly complete and Giovanni explained he would light it next morning. All that remained for him to do was to add more coal dust and to saw up wood for the fire. There was a rough ladder against the fire. Giovanni stood at the top most of the morning patting on more dust, as Agostino threw it up to him with a big shovel. The chosen site was an old charcoal one from a previous year, so there was no shortage of dust.
It was a glorious day and I was glad I had come. Tiring of spectator status I helped split logs and then did some cross-sawing with Agostino. We had no proper cradle – only a rough Y shaped stump. All four children were there; Bertino Michelotti and the other two who’d been with him the day before at Piso D’Occa – Beppo and Alba. The fourth boy, Gino Barbuti, was a quaint, little chap with a black fringe and features more oriental than Italian. Despite his seven years, his skill with an axe was remarkable – and he knew it! He loved showing me how good he was. He was certainly in “gamba” (‘good form’). Alba, a keen featured little girl with pigtails was pathetically thin and ill-dressed. She wore one “Mussolini boot” split at the back and a white gym shoe in similar state. She had a great game running about like a wild thing with her face buried in an old, coloured hanky. Gino Barbuti decided to join the fun and began pelting her with wood chips. All went well until one hit her in the face and she burst into floods of tears. Gino was completely unsympathetic. I took her on my knee and tried to stop the crying. I thought
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of the Alderney in A.A. Milne’s ‘The King’s Breakfast”- “There, there, he didn’t really mean it.” Alba eventually dried her eyes and decided she would be safer at home.
The next excitement was the noise of aircraft engines. In the clear sky we saw about thirty American Flying Fortresses heading north-east.
Just before noon, we were joined by two Other Ranks from 150 Brigade in 50 Div. Both had been cooks at Fontanellato and were in “borghese” (“civvies”). They explained they had been in the area for some time and were living in a casetta above Sbottone, which they described as “the RASC Depot”.Both were in good heart and full of praise for what had been done for them.
We all had a picnic lunch together just below the charcoal beehive. Afterwards we heard aircraft again and saw the Fortresses, pursued this time by two German fighters. Some 20 minutes later only one fighter flew back. I went home with the three boys, Agostino, Beppo and Gino, raiding apple trees as we went.
On my return I found Ronnie had picked another lot of mushrooms. Despite Philip’s warning that some might be poisonous, Ronnie insisted on putting them all into the pot. It was the first day of wintertime and we did not welcome it. Unless we chose to have supper absurdly early, we had to cook it and eat it in the dark, except for the light from the fire. This was not only inconvenient; the food was comparatively tasteless, when we could not see it.
Tuesday, 5th October
All three of us climbed the hill to watch Giovanni Michelotti light the charcoal hive. There was also another bigger one close by due to be lit that day. Next to it was a little, round cabin with a “Branda” inside. So this was what Antonio Pighi had promised to make for us, when he had the time. It was a rough sort of camp bed of branches and an old blanket. The charcoal hives required constant watch day and night lest they caught fire.
Giovanni’s procedure was this. First he emptied a good amount of logs and chips down the funnel. Then he lit a fire on the adjoining ground. When it was well alight, he shovelled it up and emptied it down the funnel. As the first wisp of smoke appeared, he went round the base of the hive, driving in ventilation holes every six feet or so. As the smoke increased, he took a long pole, stuck it down the funnel and gave the fire a jolly good stirring. Once the fire was well away, a trap door was placed over the funnel. After that it was a matter of ten or twelve days on watch to keep the fire going but within bounds. Only the peasants living in the high hills went in for charcoal burning as an additional source of income. Their usual practice was to burn five hives a year each, which in peacetime had produced the equivalent of about £200.00.
Ronnie was restless all morning and kept wandering off. Before lunch he admitted to feeling unwell from his mushrooms. So he and Philip went
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home early, while I went back with the Michelottis’ for lunch with them. On the way we met a woman toiling away tilling the ground in a nearby field. We said “buongiorno” and she stopped work for a chat with us. Middle-aged and worn, she told us her dear, darling only son had been in the military hospital at Spalato. Since 3rd September she had had no news of him. Her husband had written to the Italian Red Cross but they feared the worst. At that she broke down like David over Absalom. When she recovered, she explained it was her son’s empty room that she had given to Tony Laing. They had treated him like a son. Then on last Sunday week to their surprise and mortification he had suddenly gone off without saying a word. He had done so before but had come back a day later. This seemed strange to me, given the grateful enthusiasm he had expressed to Philip about his billet in Sbottone.
Philip and I returned to the casetta to find poor Ronnie very sorry for himself. No more mushrooms! Antonio Pighi sent us rumours of an Allied landing at Termoli.
Wednesday, 6th October
Philip was longing for a change of scene so we went over the hill to Tosca to visit Bernardo Gianelli, the former vegetable cook at the Savoy. He had particularly asked us to look him up, whenever we wanted. It was my turn to sleep at Jacko’s and to listen to the news with the Dotti’s. She had already asked Ronnie to supper that evening. So we all went down to Monastero. Giuseppe produced some of his new 1943 wine; the news was better; Corsica was entirely in our hands; Termoli was threatened; and part of the American 5th Army had crossed the river Volturno.
The parish priest was usually at Dotti’s for the news. Tonight he brought his brother from Bedonia with him. A wild and talkative man he told us he was the area agent for a group of partisans. He asked if we were ready to join it. We then asked him for proof that he was genuine, fearing a trap. Everyone else assured us that he was known to be bona fide and a long-standing member of an anti-Fascist group. In that case we were ready to join – and the sooner the better; anything to justify our existence. A representative was due to visit Bardi before the end of the week and he would see we were kept informed of any plans.
That excitement over, two more ORs from Fontanellato arrived. We arranged for them to sleep in Zia Luigia’s hay loft and for them to be shown the way to the other two in Sbottone. I slept at Jacko’s.
Thursday, 7th October
For a start I began making notes about our life. After breakfast I watched Jacko adding a blue disinfectant to the sacks of seeds he was going to sow. I then went to the Dotti’s for a supply of bread and cheese. I was back at the casetta by about 11 o’clock, just before the rain began. Philip and Ronnie were already there, the former feeling very rotten with a continuing tummy
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upset. He had left Tosca after breakfast and was worn out by the long, steep climb to the casetta. But he had much enjoyed his visit to Bernardo Gianelli. Ronnie meanwhile had handed over the two ORs, “Tich” and Jones, to the other two, Saunders and Thompson. He learned that six officers had been recaptured near the camp as well as two ORs, who had been too ill to get away from the old people’s home to which the sick POWs had been moved after the armistice. One officer caught there had lain stiff and corpse-like under a sheet and been ignored and left for dead by the Germans. The ORs had also told Ronnie that the SBO (Colonel de Burgh) and his immediate staff had crossed into Switzerland.
During the afternoon it cleared up and that gave me the chance to go out and collect chestnuts. Agostino’s wife kindly came over with food in case we were running short. It was a 40-minute rough walk each way and she was barefoot, and she had done it that day, before the rain stopped!
The organised chestnut picking had not yet started, although there were plenty of ripe ones lower down the hills. In five or ten minutes one could “gather quite a store” – like the young man in “Blow away the morning dew”. We found the best way to eat them was peeled and boiled for about 40 minutes after the potatoes had been done. Their only disadvantage was the awful stains they left in the pot. It had to be scoured hard and at once.
By dusk the rain began again and the roof started leaking. To avoid eating supper in darkness, we tried to rig up a candle on a wall bracket, but it melted in the heat of the fire! Then to make a real evening of it Ronnie found he had used up the last bit of his soap. Originally we had each had one used piece, but Philip had lost his and the other two did not last long, so we were left with a very unattractive slab of sheep’s-fat soap.
On such occasions, we talked a lot about our respective prep. schools -‘Evelyn’s’ (Philip), Elstree (Ronnie) and Heatherdown (myself). Philip was 37 and Ronnie 31. Both were married. Philip had been a successful stockbroker and in the Supplementary Reserve before the war. He had a Rolls, a private aeroplane, was a successful amateur rider and hunted every weekend during the season. He had been sent from the Training Bn. at Pirbright for five days duty on the beaches at Dunkirk, after which he had joined the re-formed 2nd Bn. in Lincolnshire. He had been wounded and taken prisoner in a German counter-attack on Green Hill in Tunisia on Christmas Day 1942. It had been a terrible day for the 2nd Coldstream – 178 casualties in a few hours. He had been treated by a German MO in Tunis and moved to a hospital in Reggio Calabria. The sisters had been most kind, but the medical and surgical conditions were terrible – no anaesthetics, and Allied bombing had made things worse. He had then been moved to PG 66 at Capua, north of Naples. Major Gussy Tatham, another OE, and First World War Coldstreamer with the MC and an Eton beak between the wars, was already there. He had rejoined the regiment in September 1939 and been in the 2nd Bn. with Philip.
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He too had been badly wounded on Green Hill. In June 1943 Philip had been transferred to PG 49 at Fontanellato.
Filippo was a great success with the Italians from the word go. He had a most engaging way and purposely put on a wildly exaggerated manner for Jacko and others. They liked his banter and the spirited way he entered into whatever was afoot. They were also intrigued to learn that he was the son of a “Lord”.
We also discussed local topics – spies; the problem of billets; and the continuing rain. The casetta was only fit for the spring and summer. We could accept Zia Luigia’s kind offer of an empty house in a more remote village, or a bigger two storey casetta with doors but no adjacent water supply. There was no bed available in Noceta with either ‘Wandsworth” or Giuseppe Negri, nor with Celeste Pesca (“Napoleon”) on the hill.
Ronnie’s background was Sandhurst and 13 years as a regular soldier in the Scots Guards. He had been in the 2nd Bn. in Egypt since before the war – like the 3rd Bn. Coldstream. He had been captured on Rigel Ridge in the Western Desert in June 1942 and, like me, been a POW successively in PG 75, the transit camp at Bari in the heel of Italy, then PG 21 at Chieti in Pescara in central Italy, and finally PG 49 at Fontanellato, between Parma and Modena in the Po Valley. Neither Ronnie nor I had any idea why we and a few others had been moved from Chieti, a camp quickly taken over by the Germans on 9th September, from which only a handful of officers managed to escape. We had been extreme!y lucky. Because of his Scots reserve Ronnie was less successful than Philip in his relations with our various Italian hosts.
That night there was more heavy rain – and more leaks in our roof!
Friday 8th October
There was no sun to dry us out, but the rain had stopped – at last! So we settled down to roof-mending and shopping for fire-wood. Earlier on it had been easy with plenty of fallen branches close by, but the four Pighi brothers had recently cleared much of it away and we had to climb higher for it. We liked to get as much wood as possible into the casetta early in the morning before the rain began again. Our fire used a lot of wood from six in the evening to eight o’clock next morning. Then, if the day was especially damp and raw, we would re-light the fire at midday and roast potatoes and chestnuts in the embers for some sustenance during the long afternoons.
While we were patching our roof, Bertino and Beppo Michelotti turned up with a basket full of pears. They were small and hard but quite sweet. If we had been lucky with a gift of sugar, we would have stewed them. Both boys were intrigued by the casetta and anxious to help us in the repairs. After lunch Philip went down to Jacko’s in Castagneto to continue his book, Ronnie visited Aldo Barbuti, the near neighbour of Giuseppe Negri in Noceta. The latter could speak French from his time in Paris. I stayed home and got to work
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with my “house-wife” and note-book. Barbuti’s gift of soap was very “muttonish” and Philip’s from Jacko was little better. He had bought it in Bardi the day before for 10 lire. It was just a grey-green greasy lump of putty-like substance, akin to what the Italians had provided in the POW cage at Barce in the Western Desert. It would not lather and yet it went quicker than proper soap.
Not long after both Philip and Ronnie had returned, the rain began again. We all thought the weather gods were treating us very badly indeed! In such dreadful weather, we could not start to walk south.
Saturday, 9th October
The day began splendidly, thanks to steaming hot coffee for breakfast, and sugar too! Both were presents from Zia Luigia to Philip the previous day.We all considered her the kindest and most generous woman in all the world and told her so several times. Strangely she was very strict, almost cruel, towards her gaga brother, treating him like a naughty child, or an obstinate farm animal. He was a sly old chap and seized any extra bread or cheese as soon as her back was turned.
It was just as well that the day started well, because the wretched rain began again soon after breakfast – just as we were shaving. It was after four o’clock before the sun came out and it looked as if the rain was over-for the day at any rate.
Fortunately, each of us had been asked to supper “a casa”, Ronnie to the Barbuti’s in Noceta and Philip and I to the Dotti’s in Monastero. He was to sleep in Zia Luigia’s spare room and I was to go to Jacko’s in Castagneto. We arrived for supper at Dotti’s to find Giuseppe was away in Fidenza (? visiting his sister, Lucia). His wife’s other news was that friends in Bardi had told her that Allied aircraft had dropped arms for the partisans near Ferriere – in the hills south of Piacenza. We were of course excited to try and find Ferriere on the map. With this latest news we really must do something. I could go to my aunt Evelyn’s villa at Camogli near Rapallo for money, civilian clothes and perhaps a pair of my uncle William’s binoculars. The other two could make a preliminary recce of the Ferriere area and see whether the report of arms dropping was true. Rain or shine, it was no use sitting on our bottoms in the casetta any longer.
At about 8.30 pm, Jacko joined us with the parish priest and the latter’s brother-in-law, a former maresciallo (warrant officer) in the Trieste Division, the only Italian division to escape from the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. He had found things too hot in Piacenza and had fled to Gravago with his wife and daughter. We did not take to him at all! He barely disguised his hostility towards the Allies, especially the Australians, but the war news was encouraging: Capua and Caserta had been taken; we were holding our own at Termoli, despite the awful weather.
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Sunday, 10th October
Leaden skies again. After breakfast at Jacko’s, Philip and I spent the morning stripping leaves with Maria and Angelina. All of us went out for lunch. The Michelotti’s had asked me and the others had gone to “Napoleon’s” (Celeste Pesca). I arrived to find the family not yet back from Mass, so I waited with the Barbuti’s next door. His was also a new house but unfinished since the outbreak of the war. The Michelottis were very well-turned out, when they did arrive home. Maria was attractive – and she knew it. Beautiful white teeth and large, soft, brown eyes, especially as she chose to change places at the lunch table and sit right in front of me. I was sorry I was not a young Italian contadino! As British officers, we were all very careful indeed not to start any affairs with any of our young female friends, but it was not always easy to remain totally unresponsive.
I got back to the casetta to find Philip and Ronnie prostrated by Napoleon’s huge lunch. They had eaten till they could barely stagger home. Pesca had told them he knew perfectly well why I liked going to the Michelotti’s!
It was a rather tiresome evening: a smelly and almost pestiferous mongrel insisted on joining us in the casetta, so we had to show him the door, so to speak, and lock the entrance firmly.
Camogli was much on our minds. Perhaps we could find a boat to Corsica, especially as it was now in Allied hands. At least a trip there could be exciting and would provide exercise and “pastures new”. If Camogli proved a no go area, then we would have to get billets elsewhere before 1st November. The casetta would be impossible after that date. Zia Luigia said she would play and Maria Resteghini thought her father Jacko would do so too. When pressed, Giuseppe Dotti might agree to take the other one of us. In case he would not, we decided to go over to Sbottone and see if Celeste Ricci, who had put up Tony Laing, would do so for one of us.
Monday, 11th October
We all felt someone must have run away with the sun, for we woke to face the same grey skies. After breakfast the three of us walked over to Sbottone, half an hour away, to look at Celeste Ricci’s house. Sbottone was a most attractive little place – just a tightly packed cluster of old, stone houses with a tiny, paved square with a fountain and water trough. What touched us most were the window boxes of purple flowers.
Celeste’s house was on the edge of Sbottone and relatively new. It looked OK from the outside, so we decided that I should visit him the next evening and see if I could fix something up. On the way home we split up; Philip to Noceta and “Wandsworth’s”, while Ronnie and I stopped for lunch with “Napoleon”. He had the best farm and the best land in the area. His buildings were low and snuggled down into the rolling ground around them.
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His whole acreage was in one piece, giving the effect of a really complete homestead. His wheat was already visible.
It was my first visit to Noceta and my first meeting with “Napoleon’s” family. His wife was a plump and most kind-hearted woman. There was his aunt, a grown-up niece, as a maid of all work and his own small daughter, Anna. Lunch was enormous: bowlfuls of minestra, followed by bread and cheese galore. “Napoleon” talked volubly about politics and the burden of taxes on peasant farmers. He had the idea that Marshal Graziani was only biding his time to change sides and turn on the tedeschi, but I was not so sure.
He talked for so long that I was late keeping an appointment with the parish priest at three o’clock. I wanted to get the latest news of the partisans and his advice on the best route to Camogli. On my return to the casetta I found Philip had arranged to take lessons every afternoon with Mariella Barbuti in Noceta. She was a school teacher. As the schools did not re-open until the 8th November, she had time on her hands. She was quite taken by the idea of having two married English officers in their thirties as her pupils! She was 21. It was bright moonlight when we turned in, hoping for a fine day on the morrow.
Tuesday, 12th October
To our disappointment we woke up in thick fog. Happily, it cleared by 10.30 a.m., and gave birth to a glorious sunny day, after which Philip and Ronnie went down to Noceta for their first lesson. I took some bread and cheese, our map and a notebook up to our vantage point above Monastero to plan my route to Camogli. This was a spot we often went to on the SE spur of our hill, the NW one being the Piso D’Occa. From one side we looked down over Monastero and Noveglia and the valley running eastwards into the hills, which hid the main river Taro valley, and westwards to Bardi and the valley of the little river Ceno, along which we had walked five weeks earlier. We could also see the red roofs of the new house in Noceta and beyond them “Napoleon’s” farm and beyond it again the little grey cluster that was Sbottone. On the other side towards Bardi, one could see the Pighi’s red roofed house with Adolpho Barbuti’s next to it and a little higher up the hill, that of the Tubbia’s, and finally the white bridge over the Ceno and beyond it Bardi, standing guard above. We never went into Bardi itself, although often tempted to do so. Distance lent enchantment, with the old castle and the yellow and red houses. Sitting there and drinking in the picturesque view, I heard the bells of all the little village churches telling their people it was noonday – time to rest from their labours, say a prayer and stop for lunch. I thought of “A Shropshire Lad” and Houseman’s lovely lines:
“In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear,
Round all the hills they ring them
In valleys far and near”;
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I loved those church bells, perhaps even more at “buio” (dusk), when they called the villagers home – “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day”. A message of divine peace in a war-torn, weary world. So it was three o’clock before I left the hill and walked down to the village. Past the calvary, the scene of the local patronal festival. Its three crosses stood alone on the very edge of the bare spur. The first person I met was Mrs. Guiseppe Dotti. She ran up to say she had interesting news: her husband had been in the little bar at Noveglia that morning and had met an Italian “general”, who was organising partisan groups in the area. I next met a visiting priest on a mule, who told me the parish priest was at home. Neither the latter, nor his brother-in-law the maresciallo knew anything whatever of the “general” nor of arms at Ferere. Things would develop but not yet. A knock at the door interrupted our conversation and, before I could say a word, both the priest and the maresciallo had bolted out of the study, through the back door and locked it behind them. It was a scary moment for me – a trap perhaps – and the visitors might be the hated Fascist camicie nere (Blackshirts). I was looking for a way of escape, when the maresciallo reappeared. The visitors were three forest guards from Bardi and the priest was seeing them upstairs. Even so, I had better hop it right away.
I went over to Noceta, having arranged with Philip and Ronnie to meet them at the Barbuti’s to pass on any news, before I went on to the Riccis in Sbottone. It was the first time I had gone right into that hamlet. The first man I met was “Wandsworth” from nearby Noceta. He took me to see his newish house, completed just before the war. Like all the recently built houses, it sported a smart red tiled roof. I then called at Aldo Barbuti’s, where I found Philip and Ronnie closeted in the parlour with Mariella, struggling with Italian grammar. Mariella, the school teacher, was not good looking, but she was well groomed, had a keen sense of fun, and in the round was quite attractive. Teacher and pupils got on very well together. Philip’s book “For you the war is over”, quotes in full her affectionate and sad letter to him, when they left the area on 1st November to walk south.
After Mariella had given us all a cup of hot coffee, I continued my walk to Sbottone, after I had met “Wandsworth’s” wife and mother for the first time. The mother was an old lady, and both were out ploughing.
Then I spotted some men in a nearby field and was suddenly hailed by one of them-“Hello Tom”! Ken Fraser and Charlie Castle from PG 49 wore homburg hats and good suits provided by a cinema owner near Fontanellato. He had lived at one time in Morpeth, Ken’s home, and still had relations there. Just another example of the amazing links we found with England and Wales. They had a good deal of news for me, as they had stayed some three weeks in the Fontanellato area before leaving for the hills. The SBO was definitely in Switzerland but John Dugdale and ‘Doc’ Boyd were among those recaptured near Fontanellato. A party of officers from the camp’s bank staff had left their
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casetta two days previously en route for Naples. Ken and Charlie, both in their 40s, had not yet decided what to do.
I arrived at Celeste Ricci’s in Sbottone to find only his wife at home. She was friendly, but after the sudden departure of Tony Laing, rather hesitant about a billet for me. I was on the point of saying goodbye, when Celeste himself arrived, so I thought I would try my luck again. He was an oldish man, most kind and courteous. He too had been a cook in America and still remembered some English.
I restated my case, as the billeting officer for the three of us. The casetta would be no use after the end of October; and there was only room for two in Monastero. We knew Tony Laing had been very happy with them, sleeping in their son’s empty bedroom. Would it be possible for me to have it from 1st November? Failing that, could he suggest an alternative? A house with few or no children and a spare room was not easy to find! I tried to be as solicitous for them and their son as I could. I was then invited to stay and share their supper. Over the vino, Celeste agreed I could come on 1st November and, of course, stay with them overnight, i.e. the 12th October.
Would I like to help strip leaves for a bit? So the five of us, including their two just-grown-up daughters, walked along a narrow cobbled street to his old house. The plain daughter was the one I had met ten days previously on the Piso D’Occa. The other was quite attractive with an air of natural coquetry. We stripped leaves in the dark of the old kitchen till nine p.m. Celeste then opened the door to his son’s empty bedroom. It had a large double bed with a plum red quilt, a rough chair and two sporting guns on the wall. Breakfast was at seven a.m. Buona notte! I slept well but the walls were far from soundproof and I could hear the sounds of the family in the adjoining house. The night was moonlit and cold and I hoped for a fine day on the morrow.
Wednesday, 13th October
I walked back to the casetta in the early morning. It was sunny with clear skies, but several degrees colder. Both Philip and Ronnie looked pretty blue when I arrived. They had spent a very cold night and had hardly slept a wink. The winter was approaching. Like Caesar’s legions we would have to go into winter quarters very soon. The other two were out all morning collecting chestnuts. After lunch they went down to Noceta for their Italian lesson with Mariella.
I stayed home and tried to formulate my plans for my excursion to Camogli. It might be possible to get a fishing boat to Corsica, especially as the Germans had evacuated it the previous week and it was in Allied hands.
I had supper at Giuseppe Dotti’s and slept in Zia Luigia’s hayloft. Ronnie was in another loft in Castagneto, Philip was in Noceta. So we all had hopes for a better night’s sleep.
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I found a South African OR at Dotti’s. He was one of a large party of officers and men, who had left Fontanellato on borrowed bikes a month earlier with a chain of guides. This South African had sprained his knee, had it dressed by a dentist in Bardi, got separated from his party and had landed up in the bar at Noveglia on his own, when Giuseppe Dotti had picked him up.
It was “lovely ravioli for dinner again” that evening and we all tucked in. The calm was suddenly broken by news of German soldiers in the village. We all bolted like rabbits. I went down to Castagneto to warn Ronnie. As I left, Zia Luigia whispered she’d come and let me know when the coast was clear. I found Ronnie and the Resteghinis huddled round Jacko’s kitchen stove in stony silence. Before the panic spread to Jacko’s, Zia Luigia came in with heartening news. There were no Germans, but a mixed group of British and Yugoslav escapers, passing through our side of the Ceno valley and over to the north side. It was the young Italians of age for military call-up who, on such occasions, were even more anxious than Ronnie and I not to get caught.
The “flap” over, we walked back to Giuseppe Dotti’s kitchen to listen to the two evening news bulletins from Algiers and London. They both brought dramatic news: the Badoglio Government in Brindisi had declared war on Germany! Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel were safe behind the British lines, but their decision cost their countrymen very dearly. The Germans were enraged and went for their former allies in the most brutal way. On the plus side, the bed in Zia Luigia’s spare bedroom was quite comfortable. Next to me, in his own room, was her half-crazy old brother, in ancient yellow underwear, and a woollen night-cap. Visions of Mr. Pickwick!
Thursday, 14th October
The day I left for Camogli. I awoke with an anxious look at the sky. It was fine! Zia Luigia predicted it would not rain. While she was preparing some black coffee, I hid my mug and bottle of ink at the back of the dresser. She had no food in the house, so I walked down to Castagneto for breakfast at Jacko’s. I found Maria and Aida there, the latter hardly recognisable with her hair very carefully done and her person smartly dressed. The two of them were going into Bardi. Aida made a special brew of tea for me – a rare treat. I then went and called on Jacko and said I expected to be away for two weeks. I did not reveal my destination to any of the locals. I was just going on a general recce (for the three of us) for any other escaped British officers, or partisans.
We had breakfast at 8.15 and I set out in sunshine with my SD cap slung over my shoulder with a strap and my battle-dress jacket turned inside out over one arm. I went down to the riverbed and along it towards Bardi, until I was short of the bridge, climbed up the other side of the hills and over into the next valley. There the road ran down to the electricity station. I had chosen the best day because people were on the road going to market. The first
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pair I met was a Yugoslav civilian internee and his wife. Three miles or so from Bardi, I turned into a track, where a party of woodmen assured me the track was not hard to follow and would take me “sempre diretto ” (straight) into Bedonia.
It was a stiff climb and by lunchtime I was almost over the head of the pass. During lunch, a fugitive Italian soldier, a Bersaglieri (sharpshooter) from Bedonia came along. He was too frightened to live at home for fear of being rounded up for more military service. He was rather a tiresome travelling companion as his only interest was running after mushrooms, which always turned out to be toadstools! Although a native of the area, he was little better acquainted with the way to Bedonia than I was. A boy with some mules passed by and redirected me down to San Buceto. I asked him if there were any “Tedeschi” about. Yes, just below our path and past a farm. When I got there, the owner stopped me and on learning I was English at once bade me welcome and asked me in for a drink. He was a rubicund, old fellow, who had once been the head waiter in some US hotels. He gabbled away about the menus he had served and the many languages he used to speak. I was now nearing the main Taro valley with Bedonia below and the castle of Campiano to the left. It seemed a well-to-do area: most of the houses were new and red-roofed. Perhaps for that reason the old fellow warned me of spies: I must move al largo (“away from”) from Bedonia. I took his advice and skirted above it to the right. I then met two Italians who told me it would be mad to go on: the Germans were in a very bad temper indeed because of Marshal Badoglio’s declaration of war against Germany. I had much better go back to Monastero and wait there for two or three weeks, till the situation was calmer.
I halted under cover away from the main road near a Roman Catholic seminary. One of the Italians said a priest in a nearby house was a friend of his and he would be staying the night there. The priest in question came along soon after with a young, red-haired postulant – from Wales! We talked in whispers and I was given directions to Camogli. He scribbled down some place names and the house of one, Callegari, in Caneso, some four hours away by foot. Priest and postulant said farewell – auguri – and I crossed the road and went on to Caneso. It was a long way round the hills of chestnut woods and almost dark, when I arrived. I asked for the priest’s house as I’d been told that Callegari was his father and also of the priest I’d already met. A woman showed me the way. I rang the bell and a very scruffy old man in a black habit and supposedly white dog-collar appeared. Yes, he was the parish priest but he had no room for me himself. However, he would see what he could do. He led me through dark streets into a dark, upper room with wooden benches along three sides, a central stove and against the fourth side a small table with a lamp. Sitting at it was another priest – fat and well-looking with a shiny, red face and bald head. On the benches sat a mixed company of various ages and both sexes. That day had been the chestnut harvest, hence the company. The
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village priest was called Don Giovanni and his friend had come from Piacenza.
Callegari, the tall, old man in one corner, owned the house. In mediaeval times it had been the “palazzo” of the local “prince”. For the benefit of the visiting priest, the supper table was carefully laid with a white table-cloth, a napkin, bottle of wine, bread and cheese. After he had said grace in Latin for what seemed like five minutes, we all sat down on the benches for bowlfuls of minestra. Callegari placed me at the table opposite the fat priest. He proved an excellent trencherman with no apparent pangs of conscience, as he consumed bread, cheese, apples and wine galore, while the rest of the company, limited to minestra, sat and watched, Don Giovanni among them. He was very poor with an income of only £50 a year, but a real shepherd of his sheep. Later on, he and I, over roast chestnuts, not oysters like the walrus and the carpenter – “talked of many things”: celibacy of the clergy, the Reformation, the Oxford Movement, the eventual return of England to the Roman Catholic faith and, of course, present day politics. Both priests were articulate and well read. Don Giovanni told me that three officers from PG 29 at Viano (the senior officers’ camp) just south of Reggio, had told him that all the POWs there had been able to escape. This was the first news I had had of Viano and I made a mental note to pass on the good news to Philip and Ronnie on my return.
Where was I to sleep? Good question! Old Callegari was rather suspicious of me from the start – my khaki BD jacket and SD cap might be German. He had no spare room in his own house, but he gave me a large, black overcoat and escorted me to a barn of his just outside the village. I made a hole in the straw and had quite a good, warm sleep.
Friday, 15th October
The Callegaris were taking no risks. I was woken at 7.00 am by his wife to say they did not want me to enter the village for breakfast and she had, therefore, brought it out to me in the barn; a bottle of hot milk, bread and apples. That was fine but the weather was not: low clouds with the threat of drain. Fortunately, there was none till the evening. I faced nine or ten hours walking on steep, hill paths with the Taro valley below. I was often tempted to go down and walk along the road but, dressed as I was, that would have tempted Providence. So I stayed fuori dell’paese (out of the villages), as I was always advised to do.
One consolation of sticking to the hill paths was that I ran into several fugitive Italian soldiers on their way home – a casa. They were all most helpful. The first was a young man aged 20 in a corduroy jacket and trousers and a green, pork-pie hat. He was from the 65th Infantry Bn. of the Trieste Division. It had never served overseas but had fought the Germans for five days after the Armistice near the Trebbia bridge at Piacenza. He had been captured but had bribed a sentry with 50 lire and gone free. He was using the road home from late at night until first light. He showed me the way to Strapeto, where the
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blackberries proved bigger and better than any I’d seen before. My route took me into much barer hills with beech woods as the only vegetation. After lunch I passed through a tiny, mountain village, where a peasant stopped me. He could mumble a little English and was most anxious lest I was hungry. I assured him I had already eaten. Then he led me to another fugitive Italian soldier, an Alpini from the Julia Division, my companion for the next hour of my journey. He confessed he had been drunk for three days after the fall of Mussolini in July. He handed me over to another hill peasant, who showed me the way to Menta, the next sizeable village. There was a path down to the main road but with no cover at all on either side, if I was surprised by a truck/van of German troops. So I went back up into the hills.
At the next paese (village) I made enquiries from a woman who was the wife of a carabinieri (policeman) at Bedonia. Her son would be back anon and he’d show me the way to Squeri. From there I should be able to see Casari and Piagvarolo, both of which she recommended for the night. But she warned me to keep well away from Santa Maria del Taro on the main road. There was a carabinieri station there, which the Germans often visited. Her 17 year old son had a pack of mules with him. I reached Squeri about a quarter past five, as it began to rain. Casari and Piagvarolo were both a little off my best route and another 1 1/2 hours uphill. I tried several casettas but they were all locked. So there was nothing for it but to go on walking. About half a mile on at a bridge over the path I was stopped by two women, who seemed ready to help. As we talked a uniformed carabinieri came round the corner. My heart sank through the wooden, planks of the bridge and into the stream below. Who was 1? So I showed him my receipts and buoni (vouchers) from Fontanellato and letters from home. He expressed himself satisfied that I was not a spy and offered to help. My intended route via Monte Penna would not be easy, because there was a lot of low cloud up there. He would try and get leave to go fishing the next day and join me at the next bridge upstream at 6.00 am next morning. I was to wait for him there in the trees.
It was then that Angelo appeared. He was a shuffling old Italian who lived near the bridge. It was quite extraordinary to hear a broad Yorkshire accent addressing me. Angelo had worked for ten years in Rowntree’s factory in York! He knew just the place for me to spend the night – a “casa isolata” with “bravi genti” (good folk). He and his young nephew led me for 25 minutes up through the woods. We arrived just as supper – a very good minestra with vegetables – was starting. My new hosts were most kind. There was Virgilio, his wife and their infant daughter and his brother and sister-in-law. None of them could speak any English – but they had relatives in Birmingham! Virgilio provided several sacks and a rug and showed me to his hayloft, where I slept very well. The hamlet was called Santa Maria.
Saturday, 16th October
I awoke to pouring rain, so the intended 6.00 am rendezvous with the
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policeman was out of the question and I returned to my nest in the hay. Breakfast was at 7.30 – bread and milk and then the best cheese so far – old, yellow and strong. The rain went on till mid-morning. I watched Virgilio’s ten month old daughter being “fasciata” (very tightly swaddled in bandages). There was a medical magazine on the breakfast table deploring the practice. But Virgilio’s wife would have none of the advice. “Fasciata” would keep her limbs straighter and longer! It was too wet to go out and Virgilio was busy resoling and renailing his boots. A handful of studs cost 25 lire.
What Virgilio most enjoyed was crooning his baby daughter to sleep. That was not easy, because she was teething. He told me Borzonasca was the best place to make for. If I waited till midday, his sister-in-law would be taking the cattle out and she would set me on my way there. So we had lunch at 11.30 am and set off at noon. She had a stick and the usual umbrella and I had a basket with her knitting and some sacks to sit on. We called at the byre and released four cows and a donkey. The cattle were very wilful and hard to control. We went up a bare hillside with little for them to feed on. Eventually there was rather more vegetation and she left them to feed. She led me a little further to the top of the hill, from where we could look down on Sopra La Croce, the next paese. There was a peasant boy and his old mother on the hill-top. She wore thick, khaki socks and wooden sandals. They invited us to share their roast chestnuts over their little fire.
This side of the hills the dialect was different – a form of Genovese and very hard for me to understand. The descent to terraced Sopra La Croce was very steep; so steep that there were no streets and only steps between the houses. Chestnut woods and a good path led towards the main road to Bedonia. Just before reaching the road I came across a labourer. He said it would be mad to go on: Bedonia was full of tedeschi. The hills were a little safer but they had patrols there too. Movement had to be in civilian clothes (borghese). Could, he, the workman help me? He was most distrustful. I produced all I could to prove my identity and, failing to do so, decided to proceed as I was. But he did agree to draw me a rough map and explain how to skirt Bedonia. His directions proved good and I made it without error to the outskirts. It looked a nasty, dirty, impoverished, little town. It was then about 5 o’clock. My route over the hills beyond the road looked steep and unpromising, with only a few, scattered houses. So I decided to ask. At that moment two Italian civilians approached, one a well-dressed man in a dark blue suit, a trilby hat and the ubiquitous umbrella. They at once offered to help me. The smart one switched into English and said he was sure I was an English officer. “Mirabile dictu!” He was Cook’s Wagon Lit agent in Santa Margarita! He had had many English clients and reeled off a string of names. I replied I was on my way to my paternal aunt’s villa “Monte Cristo” in Camogli. Perhaps he knew her? And, would you believe it, he did! He had
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booked Mr and Mrs William Hamilton-Gordon’s tickets for many years. I had better come along with him to a safe, quiet place in the hills to which he had retreated from Santa Margarita. His companion was a small, dark man with a dark moustache, called Ettore. He was a Chief Petty Officer in the Italian Navy and a W/T instructor at the petty officers’ training school in La Spezia. He too was an evacuee with his family to escape the Allied air raids. He explained there was a local Fascist in the next village, though not a very ardent one. So, when we halted for a wayside drink, I became a German deserter with nothing to say for myself. Back on the road we had to dive for cover, when we heard an approaching car.
Ettore was most friendly and told me that the village we were heading for was his native paese, called Temossi. An anti-Fascist he proudly showed me his toothless, back-gums. No active service for him although he was a regular. He had once sailed as far as Sicily, but otherwise had been careful to remain ashore. He had been a keen listener to the BBC news from the start of the war. Eventually, we left the road and climbed up through chestnut woods to the right. The Wagon Lit agent said it was very quiet up in the hills. Ettore added that his own hostess in Temossi was an old friend, a sterling character and an excellent cook! Next door to her was a young half-American woman, who would certainly wish to meet me. They would also be sure to ask the Wagon Lit man for Sunday lunch the next day.
We reached Temossi around 7.00 pm. It was quite different from any village I had previously seen: villas rather than cottages. My new home was a fair-sized, square villa with a wrought iron gate, a small, front garden and steps up to the front door. I was led up to the first floor and shown into a clean, well-lit kitchen. Ettore at once explained to the lady of the house who I was and then introduced me to her – Signora Pina Agretti. Again I had been very lucky. She was about 30, well-to-do and quite evidently capable. Would I like some food right away? Yes, please! A big bowl of boiled chestnuts and hot milk was very soon before me. By 7.30 pm the pasta was ready – and the rest of the Agretti household likewise. Besides Signora Gina, Ettore’s dark and rather adenoidal wife, there were their two children: Giovanna, aged 6, with raven black hair and eyes and the liveliness of a kitten and their infant daughter, Carlotta, still breast-fed and tightly fasciata. Pina Agretti had three children: Cesare, aged 13, in the grigio-verde (grey-green) shirt of a Ballila and a plum-coloured pullover, then Bertino, aged 11 and Emilia, 9. They were the first decently dressed Italian children I had seen. Though not fair, none looked at all typically Italian.
Pina’s kitchen had a proper range, white-washed walls and neat wall cupboards. After supper the young half-American came in to ‘vet’ me. She might well have arrived straight from New York by air. She was nice-looking, fair and decorative. Both her father and her husband were Italian. Her mother was American. Her husband had worked in the Banco Commerciale d’Italia
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but was sadly a POW in Germany. He had been taken prisoner at Pavia after the Armistice. She had since had no news of him and was quite distraught. The next-door villa had been left to her by her father and she had come to live in it, because her own flat in Milan was doorless and windowless. She had been to the villa often before the war for holidays and knew both Pina and Ettore well. We decided my own plans should be made the next day. A Sunday was not a good day to move – too many curious people about – and there was no great hurry. Pina showed me to a comfortable bed to myself in a spare room. What a miraculously lucky day I had had! I had found ideal friends for the onward journey to Camogli.
Sunday, 17th October
It was 9.00 am, when Pina came to wake me with hot water for shaving. What luxury! Then she produced a vest, shirt, breeches, stockings and her late husband’s old shooting jacket. At the same time she whisked away my own dirty clothes for washing. I was not sorry to see the last of my old shirt: it was rotten with sweat and on its last legs – or rather its last arms! So I was able to join the family for breakfast decent!y dressed. Tina was there and gave me the score: Pina was the widow of an artist, who had died six years ago. She had a house in the centre of La Spezia and a car. That house had belonged to Pina’s parents, who had left one floor of it to each of their three daughters. Tina confirmed my own first impression that Pina Agretti was a most competent person in whom I could have complete confidence. Ettore too was a good scout and would certainly wish to help me. Tina insisted on cleaning my black ‘ammo’ boots for me, which I had already cut down into a very strong pair of walking shoes.
It was decided to give up the idea of asking a family evacuated from Camogli, who had come to live nearby, if they would help me. Their house was next door to a Fascist sympathiser and they might be tempted by the reward of 1800 lire to give me away. Ettore then volunteered to go to Camogli on my behalf. He knew it well and it would be madness for me to go myself, when it was so full of Germans. So I gratefully gave him a note to take to my aunt’s gardener, Carlo. (I had known him, by name only, for a good many years).
Most people were at Sunday Mass that morning and I spent it quietly in the villa. Everything went on in the kitchen: Carlotta’s breast-feeding; the dressing of Bertino’s boil; lessons; chestnut-peeling, and most interesting of all to me, the making of pasta. Putting it through the machine to flatten it and then cutting it up into strips.
After lunch there were frequent Sunday visitors and I had to be ready at any moment to slip back into the spare bedroom, if the visitors proved to be strangers. The rest of the household at Pina’s included her two sisters – neither a patch on her – and their paying guests. One was a middle-aged spinster who
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had worked in some British Institute in Genoa, accompanied by her old and rather dotty, aunt. The latter wore a long, brown cardigan reaching well beyond her seat. Though told countless times who I was, she never remembered from one sighting to the next. She was always surprised to find me in the kitchen and would ask me querulously “Signore, signore, di quel paese siete” (where are you from?). I always replied “da Londra” as that seemed easiest. She would reply “Proprio da Londra?” (from London itself?). And I’d reply “Si, si, proprio da Londra”. At that she would beam and shake hands. When, as there often were, roast chestnuts as a snack, we peeled them for each other and exchanged compliments.
Other visitors that Sunday were Tina’s two brothers-in-law, Ricco and Ettore. She had seven and was expecting to have to put them all up! All of them had been army officers and were now fugitives, like myself. One had his wife and mother with him; and all of them had cases and trunks of clothes and personal belongings.
The people in Temossi had no farms of their own and depended for food on the official ration card, the tessera. Food was still plentiful, if you had the money and knew where to find it. But the banks were now allowing only 200 lire a week in cash per person and the main, black market food centres were in the Po valley and Lombardy, so townspeople were already stocking up for the winter. Ettore had been to Parma the week before for a sack of flour and to Brescia on the Tuesday.
Pina baked very good brown bread into large, flat, round loaves. She told me that a German remount unit had been in the area in August, but there was not enough water for their horses and they had moved elsewhere. Everyone was bitterly anti-German and anti-Mussolini, but they could not agree what they did want! Tina’s brother-in-law wanted an independent maritime Republic of Genoa!
Monday, 18th October
I woke at 5.00 am to hear the rain pelting down and feared for the prospects of Ettore’s planned visit to the Villa Monte Cristo in Camogli. By 7.00 am the rain stopped and I found he had already set out. Monday was Pina’s baking day. After lunch, I went to an outhouse to help strip maize cobs and to tie them together for hanging up. Everyone was roped in: also Tina, Ricco and Ettore (the army officers) and two other women. It seemed quaint to see three smart women from Milan sitting in a shed on that sort of chore.
We had barely finished, when the Ebrai (Jewish refugees), whom Pina was expecting, turned up. He was an hotel manager with his wife and children. They had already stored bicycles and luggage along the first floor passage. This time they brought a complete stove with them and numerous brown paper parcels. When they had gone, I am afraid Pina and I, very naughtily, could not help opening them at their corners to see what goodies
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they contained! Most of them proved very disappointing!
Tina came over to supper again and we fed very well off fried potatoes and mushrooms. It was the childrens’ job to pick them. To my surprise and pleasure supper was not long over, when Ettore burst in. He had gone by bus from Borzonasca to Chiavari on the coast. There were no trains, so he had hired a bicycle. He reported that Camogli was full of German troops and that they occupied most of the villas. By the greatest good luck my aunt’s villa had not been commandeered. An Italian lawyer had occupied it since 1940 and he had been left undisturbed. Ettore had found Carlo. Much of the linen from the villa was in his cottage and he was living well. Ettore’s impression was that he had been busy feathering his own nest. He also seemed to have forgotten my aunt Evie and to be reluctant to admit he had ever heard of me. After his wife had jogged his memory, he said he would come out to meet me with clothes and money. Then he changed his mind! Ettore thought we should give him 48 hours in case he did come out to Temossi. I had the initial impression that Carlo was a disappointment contrary to the impression of him before the war as a loyal servant of my aunt and uncle. If he did not arrive, we planned that Ettore and I should go over to Camogli on the Wednesday or Thursday: I would wait in the hills directly above Monte Cristo and Ettore would bring Carlo up to meet me. Ettore also told me that the old gardener’s two sons were both prisoners of the Germans and that he was in a state of nerves. So I went to bed fearing I might have come all the way from Monastero for nothing.
Tuesday 19th October
Pina and Tina went in to their bank in Chiavari. Pina looked a new person; nails varnished, hair curled and very well dressed. Ettore had gone off to Brescia for a sack of flour from the black market, so I spent all day indoors with Ettore’s wife, Gina, and the children. Pina’s two boys, Cesare and Bertino, were eager to show me their school text-books. Most were full of garish pictures and Mussolini’s propaganda slogans, such as Vinceremo (we shall win). Their sister, Emilia, was a plain little girl. Giovanna, Ettore’s elder daughter, was as lively as a kitten and given to peals of laughter. Her baby sister Carlotta was the centre of attraction for all the four other children and the object of constant hugs and kisses. Gina’s answer to any tears from Carlotta was to go to the kitchen cupboard and dip the rubber teat in the sugar jar. Sometimes she dropped it on the floor, never bothering to wash it before replacement.
The older children were especially fond of pane marmellata. There was a large jar of red stuff labelled “Jam”. Spread on a hunk of bread it was one of the treats in the Agretti family. Cesare did not make his own subsistence any easier by disliking pasta. He preferred chestnuts and milk, or bread and milk. Milk was brought locally at five lire a litre.
After lunch the children went off for their siesta, leaving me to get
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down to my escape plans. If only I could find a bicycle, quickly and safely. But a bike cost 2000 lire and was very hard to come by. Hiring was no good: you had to deposit your identity card with the shop. I had not got one. If only I could get one from Carlo, I reckoned that would be the best way to return to Monastero. One of us might then use it to ride south east to the Adriatic coast and Ancona and southwards from there to the Allied lines. Carlo’s answer about finding a fishing boat to take us to Corsica was that the Germans had recently commandeered the lot. During the afternoon Pina’s sisters and their aunts appeared. We spent the time chatting and eating roast chestnuts – an excellent way of spending a horrid wet afternoon! The oldest aunt was as scatty as ever. She was quite unaware of Mussolini’s fall in July. In her youth she had been an earnest and loyal Fascist.
Pina and Tina returned about 6.30 pm after an unsuccessful day. Ettore’s Gina, not a good cook, had prepared polenta at its heaviest for supper. Wondering afterwards how I might keep the children amused, I thought of “Up Jenkins” and all the fun I had had in the day nursery in my own home in Englefield Green, Surrey. I tried it out and it proved a great success, though Giovanna’s hands were too small to hide anything effectively.
The external news was encouraging: the opening of the Moscow Three Power Conference of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill; the Americans were well over the river Volturno; and on the eastern front, the Russians were increasing their pressure. I escorted Pina and Tina to the latter’s house – she hated sleeping alone-and went to bed early. Pina’s daughter, Emilia, went with her mother. Ettore and his family shared one room on the landing opposite the kitchen. There was an inner door to the sitting room and my bedroom on one side and another spare room and the boys’ bedroom on the other. Their procedure was to lock the inner door, a practice adopted when they were on their own in the house, and not yet abandoned.
Wednesday, 20th October
I learned at breakfast that Ettore had returned at midnight having only reached La Spezia. Next Monday he would go back to the market in Brescia. When he appeared, he was bubbling over with ideas about how best to get down to Camogli. He said he knew the surrounding hills well and suggested he and I might do a night march. I was to remain in hiding by the Madonna della Guardia an hour’s walk above Camogli, while he went on down to see Carlo again.
For lunch we again had Gina’s very stodgy polenta. Sliced and well fried by Pina it was quite palatable. Pina then started on more clever conversion of my clothes. Two days earlier she had dyed my battle-dress jacket dark blue. Now she removed the shoulder straps, sewed their large, bone buttons on the outside of the two breast pockets, removed the waist-band buckle and extended the waist band to look like any Italian civilian blouse
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by the time she had finished. She also dealt with my trousers: she took off all the outside pockets and buttons. The only give-away of the former pockets was that their former shape was still visible where Maria Resteghini’s dyeing had not penetrated fully. By then there was little sign left of my former military status: and my cap and any other incriminating articles had been carefully hidden in the oven two days earlier. I was very much impressed by, and grateful for, Pina’s quiet efficiency.
Ettore and I supped off pane marmellata and chestnut bread. It looked at first sight much like pane scuro (brown bread) but was softer and sweeter. Then with our rations – two loaves, some cheese and some chestnut cake packed in a little attache case slung over my shoulder with string, we set off at about 6.30 pm. Ettore had a torch and the invariable umbrella. We spent the first hour descending to, and crossing, the road and then ascending a good path on the far side. The going was easy. We reached a small, isolated church and called at the priest’s house for a drink. A very old man with spectacles, he had known Ettore since childhood. He took us to his cellar which was full of vats of wine. After much struggling and sucking with a rubber tube, he persuaded the wine to flow and we enjoyed several glasses with him.
The old priest was very much against our going across the hills on such a dark night; it would be so easy to miss the path. Despite Ettore’s confidence that was just what happened. By about 9.00 pm we had lost the path and had to spend the next six hours in a vain and most exhausting struggle against nature. The hills were very dark, very steep, very overgrown and very wet. Progress through thick, thorny scrub and undergrowth made it a really frightful night. The string over my shoulder broke and the little attache case fell to the ground. I managed to retrieve it, as wet and slippery as a live fish. Ettore was full of encouragement as we scrambled up the hill. “Coraggio sempre coraggio! Avanti! Avanti! Forza!” But the summit never got any nearer and some hundred feet below it we decided to give up and go home.
The descent was even worse, until the moon came out; then we could see our way and the going became easier. It was after four o’clock when we got home, soaked through and dog-tired. Gina got up to scold, rather than welcome, the unfortunate Ettore. She told him he was a bloody fool to try etc.
Thursday, 21st October
It was 10.30 am before I was up, dressed in some clothes lent me by Pina’s sisters. Ettore came in later with a streaming cold. I had not caught one but I had a mass of small cuts and bruises on my hands from the thorn trees we had so often encountered. It was another wet day and I was glad to spend it quietly in the kitchen, after a large lunch of bowls of minestrone and a mass of fried potatoes.
Afterwards Cesare kindly ran across to Tina’s villa to fetch her large
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Italian atlas which had a better set of maps than any I’d seen before. I pored over them, trying to decide which would be the best route to take, either down the Mediterranean, or the Adriatic coast. I decided on the latter via Ancona and Pescara, the side with a lower rainfall.
Then as a result of the previous night’s failure, Pina, Tina, Ettore and I had a “council of war”. The two ladies very sportingly offered to go and see Carlo themselves. They would run no risks; they would take the bus to Chiavari, where they would hire a car to take them right to the villa Monte Cristo. I thanked them most warmly and gave them pre-war photographs of my father (known to Carlo from his pre-war visits to his sister and brother-in-law) and of myself as well as a list of my needs and a further note, this time in Italian, to Carlo. As before, Pina was very smartly turned out with re-varnished nails into the bargain. She and Tina left the villa about 4.30 pm, leaving me more than ever grateful that I had, quite by chance, found such wonderfully good friends. Pina said she thought Carlo had felt he could not trust Ettore. There were many rascals about!
For supper we again had boiled chestnuts in bowls of hot milk. They were delicious. The evening news from Algiers and London was encouraging. The Three Great Powers were in their second plenary session in Moscow; the 8th Army was only 2 km from Biberino; the American 5th Army was well north of the river Volturno, where there were estimated to be nine German divisions.
Friday 22nd October
Yet another wet day. It must surely be the wettest autumn for years. At about 10.30 am, while we were all busy peeling chestnuts, Pina and Tina returned. Thank heavens their mission had been a complete success. Hiring a car in Chiavari, they’d reached the villa by 9.00 pm and were back to the station hotel in Chiavari by 11.00 pm. The night was pitch black and there were Germans everywhere. Carlo, though very nervous, turned up trumps. As Pina had guessed, he had not trusted Ettore. For her he had produced all our needed civilian clothes and 4500 lire (£63.00), all he had. He had wished me well and advised me always to go “con attenzione”. It was all too good to be true. Pina declined to let me pay anything towards the hire of the car or their hotel bill. Instead she dived into her bag and produced three articles which she had noticed I needed – a good strong comb, some toothpaste and some hair oil. She really was quite wonderful. The clothes from Carlo consisted of a black polo-neck sailor’s sweater of my uncle’s, a large bath towel, two shirts, a pair of pyjama trousers, two pairs of vests and pants, one pair of thick green Italian army socks and two pairs of thin ones.
We had lunch of chestnuts and milk followed by more games of “Up Jenkins”. The last one ended in tears; Emilia claimed she had caught the others cheating and she marched off in high dudgeon, loudly declaring she would not
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play with them any longer.
And so to bed in the highest spirits. I planned to return to Monastero on Sunday 24th October. I hoped the others would be ready to move.
Saturday 23rd October
I woke to the first sunshine since my arrival at the villa a week earlier. Pina gave me breakfast in the parlour, its walls hung with her late husband’s oil paintings. She was going to spring-clean the kitchen and kill the flies with a flit-gun. Soon she had it all stoppered and thoroughly sprayed. In the middle of the operation, the Jews came in and I had to remain in the parlour.
How was I going to travel? Pina and Tina said the trains were choc-a-bloc and nobody was being asked for their identity card. A night train to Parma might be best. Freed from the Ebrai and the dead flies, Pina came in to see about some luggage for me. She found me a small, cardboard suitcase of her husband’s with a gaily coloured label “Hotel Select, Messina” and an old haversack, his 1914-18 war one. I could keep whatever I liked of his clothes. With those from Carlo, I was able to return everything except the vest, shirt and stockings. But had I a scarf, she asked? No. She then produced a pale-coloured home knitted one for me (which I still had six months later in Switzerland).
It was such a lovely day after lunch that I broke my usual rule of staying indoors during the day and went for a walk up the hills. The autumn colours of the chestnuts and beeches were lovely. I arrived back at the villa to find the Ebrai had come back again with still more kit. So I went round the back way to the side of the garden and sawed wood with Ettore, staying well-hidden till the Jews went away. It was just as well that I had removed all my things from my bedroom after breakfast. They had asked to look at it, decided to take it as well as two other rooms and had locked the door and taken the key away with them. So for my last night at Pina’s villa I slept on a sofa on the landing.
Left to my own thoughts I could not help looking back on the past week with very great gratitude. I had found in Pina a most wonderful person: very capable and full of spirit and intelligence, and so very kind and thoughtful too in so many small ways-the articles she had bought for me in Chiavari, the extra helpings of food at meals. In return I gave her and Tina some cigarettes, something they most wanted. They were almost unobtainable elsewhere. I also gave each of them a signed chit for the British authorities as soon as the Temossi area was liberated.
Sunday, 24th October
The sky looked foreboding, so I was away before 9.00 a .m. with ricotta, pane marmellata and pears in my haversack and, last kind touch of all, a bag of sweets. I was wearing the black sweater from Carlo and on my way home was several times taken for a sailor. Pina insisted that Cesare should go with me as
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far as the lakes on top of the hill. There he and I had a ten-minute halt, divided the sweets and said goodbye. “Arrivederci!” “Auguri!”
My plan was to make old Virgilio’s house by nightfall. By cutting across the hills, instead of going round Borgo Taro and the valley, I thought I could do it easily. I had lunch by a mountain stream. All was going fine, until about one o’clock the sky grew dark. Before long I had run into one of the mists about which the policeman had warned me. That made it difficult, if not impossible, to make out the pass where Virgilio’s sister had left me eight days before. I spent the next two and a half hours of unpleasant walking along seemingly endless mountain paths without getting anywhere. Fortunately the mist lifted at about 3.30 pm and I chanced to find a woodman who put me right: I had come too far along the mountains and already missed my pass, that path over there would get me to Santa Maria del Taro in under two hours.
I was there by five o’clock but I could not find Virgilio’s own house. I had been taken there by night and from quite a different direction. The only thing was to go down to the bridge where I had met the policeman, find old Angelo again and ask him to show me the way to Virgilio’s. Italians stopped me twice on my way down to warn me that Santa Maria was fu]l of tedeschi. Luckily I found Angelo in, and though not overkeen (he was well over 60 years old) he agreed to set me on the right track to Virgilio’s.
It was just getting dark when I reached his house. His wife and the baby were out in the garden. I received a chilly, panicky reception but she took me in to see her husband. He was much less windy. The trouble he told me was that his wife was terrified that the tedeschi, reportedly in Santa Maria, would raid their house. They would not be after me in person but the people next door were hiding five fugitive Italian deserters. It was a tempo brutissimo (an extremely hard time): she had heard of whole families being arrested and taken into custody for helping fugitives of any kind, Italian or British. Virgllio eventually agreed I could stay the night but I must hide in the hay-loft as soon as we had had supper and I must leave very early next morning. Then an elderly neighbour called to say the Germans had left Santa Maria. The rest of the evening was much more relaxed!
I realised that spy mania had greatly increased since my previous visit to Virgilio on 15th October. That set me wondering whether at this stage it would be feasible to walk south to the Allied lines. There would be still more spies further south. If that option was closed, we would have to make for Switzerland. We certainly could not spend the winter in the hills above Monastero. It was then that Virgilio produced his trump card. He had an old friend from the village called Gerardo Mazza. He was now a prosperous seed merchant in the frontier town of Como. His address was 7, Via Milano and Virgilio was sure he could arrange to get me over the Swiss frontier. I was to tell him that Virgilio had sent me. When I took out my pen and notebook, his wife grew very alarmed. I assured her that I would write in such a way that
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it would be meaningless to anyone but myself. Once more I had struck gold, this time with a name and address in Como. I gave the good Virgilios the usual chit to present to the Allied authorities in due course.
Monday, 25th October
It was raining slightly when I left Virgilio’s at 7.30 am with my haversack over my shoulder and my little attache case in my hand. I had had quite enough of the hills and valleys during my outward journey to Temossi. This time I would skirt Santa Maria del Taro and take the road through the Taro valley. By doing so I calculated I could reach my ex-waiter friend from America by the end of the day. Then I should be able to be back at Monastero the following afternoon. My decision to choose the main road proved justified. Although I was on it for five hours, I did not meet a single German truck, or cyclist or foot soldier. In fact I only saw three civilian vehicles – a bus, a large hay lorry and a private car. Even so I had to keep a sharp lookout: the road was twisty and in many places afforded nowhere to hide: on one side there was a very steep drop to the river below and on the other an abrupt cliff.
It was a beastly day’s march in almost continuous rain-and I had no umbrella! I went slap through Bedonia after learning on the outskirts that there were no tedeschi there that afternoon. Then I climbed up past the R.C. seminary and on to the self-same public track I had used on my way to Temossi.
Luckily my friend’s farm was easy to recognise. Like “Napoleon’s” (Celeste Pesca’s) it stood on its own in its own fields on an open area of ground. You could spot it from some way away. As I drew near, I had thoughts of welcoming friends, a warm fire and food. Here too the atmosphere had changed: the old man, unshaven and barefoot, did not recognise me at first. However, he took me into the house and out of the rain. Here too the trouble was paura (fear). On the previous Sunday Fascist patrols had been in the neighbourhood and had caught a fugitive Italian deserter at a nearby farm. But he had managed to escape the three Fascists. So things were bad. He dried my clothes, gave me some bread and cheese and then sent me on my way.
The idea of my going on walking did not appeal: there were only three hours of daylight left; by night it would take me twice as long to find my way by mountain tracks. So he suggested I should go on to Fanfaria and complete my return journey the next day. Fanfaria was only about one and a half hours from home but high enough to be out of the range of any Fascist foot patrols from the valley. By then it was four o’clock. As I was getting ready to go, the rain began again. This time it came down in torrents.
It was impossible to go on in such weather. The old man relented and said I could sleep in his hay-loft. It was not the sort of wet night that foot patrols would choose to visit isolated, hill farms like his. What a relief!
His family was a rum lot. Their children, from their two grown-up sons downwards, had some kind of eye complaint – a squint or goggle eyes and
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ultra thick spectacles. Pierino, their youngest son, aged 12, was the only child with normal sight. The rest were uncouth creatures and the flies were terrible.But the kitchen was far better than outdoors in the pelting rain.
On the plus side was the delicious potato pie produced for supper -two great, flat, square tins of it and we all ate greedily. With that pie and some wine inside him the old man cheered up a lot and told proud stories of his time in America. It was still raining, when his wife showed me to the small barn some 50 yards below the house which was to be my billet for the night.
Tuesday, 26th October
I always enjoyed bread and “coffee” for breakfast, so it was rather a disappointment, when I reached the kitchen, to learn there was no bread in the house and that we were to have boiled, unskinned chestnuts instead. My only comfort was the thought of the excellent bread Maria Resteghini would have for me on my return to Jacko’s.
Happily it was a glorious day and I left the farm at 8.45 am with Pierino to show me the track which led sempre diretto to Bardi, some four hours away according to his father. That meant I should be home by 2.30 pm. The track, of course, soon split into three or four branches with no means of telling which was the right one. So I went on in what I hoped was the right general direction. My route took me through lovely, golden brown beech woods to the river I had previously used, skirting below Bardi, and on to the bridge at Noveglia at about one o’clock. There I met a woodman, who had lived in Morpeth for some years before the war. Another surprising encounter! He assured me that there had been no alarms recently. So it was with high hopes and a great sense of relief to be home that I reached Castagneto. It was soon after 2.30 pm. The house was locked and there was no sign of life. Then I saw Zia Luigia approaching with a couple of well-dressed strangers.
I asked Luigia whether Philip and Ronnie were still sleeping in the casetta and whether they were in good health. For a moment or so I could not understand her blank looks and negative replies. Then I realised that the two male strangers were also strangers to her and she did not trust them. They explained they had come from Pieve di Cusignano and intended to set up house in Monastero. So they were going round with Luigia looking for beds, furniture and stores. One understood a little English and told me he had been in the original Ariete division as far as El Alamein but had left it before that battle. Then Jacko, bless him! turned up. While he talked to the two men, Luigia hid my kit in a cowshed and took me off for a late lunch. We were no sooner inside and out of earshot than she told me how very difficult life had become since my departure for Camogli a fortnight previously. A militant Fascist, called Gabordo, had taken over in Bardi and was organising searches for illicit arms and food, as well as Italian deserters and escaped British prisoners.
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Zia Luigia was always full of guts and afraid of nobody. Nevertheless, the trend of events was disturbing even her. Another Fascist from Salsomaggiore had actually come to live in the village. Fortunately, he was away for a week in Alessandria. It had, therefore, become quite impossible for Philip and Ronnie to sleep in the village. They were still up in the casetta. For all that Luigia busied herself with a late meal of chicken broth (brodo) and some chicken wrapped in paper (for our lunch at the casetta next day), bread and some delicious Parmesan cheese. A rare luxury. I picked up my mug and ink, left behind two weeks earlier, and walked over to the cowshed in Castagneto for my hidden haversack and attache case. Maria was there when I arrived. She too was shaken by the turn of events. We were having a chat together in the parlour, when Ronnie appeared on his way to Celeste Pesca.
Ronnie agreed that the situation had become impossible during the last two weeks-so much so that he and Philip had already made up their minds to walk south with Florence as their primary objective. He added that Desmond Buchanan and Tony Kinsman had arrived and were installed in “Wandsworth’s” casetta. Desmond had a tiff with Ballantine, who had gone off with a party of Yugoslavs. His other news was that he and Philip had gone back to Lucia’s at Pieve di Cusignano on a recce. In a large casetta above were six escapers -Pain, Blunt, Craddock, Hugh Holmes, Robert Ferguson and another. They were planning to stay there all winter and had acquired a stove and a branda each to sleep on. Two other “49’ers” in the Cusignano area had already gone off south; and two recent visitors to our little casetta above Monastero had been two RAF officers, Humphrey Turner and Butcher. Humphrey asked what “the grub stakes” were like for us. Later on Celeste and Philip joined us. The latter in a green, pork pie hat and his moustache trimmed to look more Italian. Philip said the bottom for him had been lunch with Aida last Sunday in a private room on their own and behind locked doors. Ronnie then left us for supper and a bed at Celeste Pesca’s.
Rather to my surprise in the circumstances, Jacko was keen to give Philip and me supper. He had a hare and vino for us and agreed we could stay overnight in Castagneto. Natali arrived to cut Philip’s hair and mine. At 8.15 pm there was a sudden alarm: three of the Pighi brothers rushed in to say a truck load of tedeschi had reached the little bridge at Noveglia, only 10 minutes’ walk below. Jacko turned white. Without waiting for him to speak to us, Philip and I put on our coats and prepared to trudge up to the casetta. Jacko gave us a lantern with instructions not to light it until we were well out of sight. Not long after Ronnie also arrived at the casetta in some alarm, saying he had seen a light coming up the hill! It proved not to be our lantern so it had to be some other unknown person’s light. For some 15 minutes, we left the casetta and waited in the trees above, ready to run for it, if the party with a light was hostile. Happily nobody came. Nevertheless, we did not sleep peacefully that night!
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Wednesday, 27th October
In the light of day things seemed a bit better: the weather was fine and there was plenty of food for breakfast. I gave Philip and Ronnie 2000 lire and kept the balance for myself. We also divided the clothes and I said I would ask Maria to cut the large bath towel into three. We all then had a welcome bath and shave. The intrepid old lady, Zia Luigia, appeared soon after with her dotty brother, Giuseppe. She, if you please, had a large basket on her head containing a tureen of hot minestrone and a bottle of wine from Aida. What a Trojan the Zia was! It took us men with no head-load more than half an hour to climb up from Monastero, hot and tired by the time we reached the casetta. Here was Luigia, aged over 70, making the ascent with such a load on her head and not turning a hair. At 2.30 pm Philip and Ronnie went off to Noceta for their afternoon Italian lesson with Mariella. That left me to myself to try and decide whether to go south with them, or south on my own (two’s company, three’s none), or on my own to Gerardo Mazza in Como.
Philip and Ronnie had already planned and mapped their route south. Giuseppe Dotti had produced some first class Italian Touring Club maps and they had made copies of the relevant sheets. I could get the ones I needed: Giuseppe was still away in Fidenza – his third visit there in recent weeks. It now transpired that he and his wife had been at loggerheads from some time and had had a flaming row only the other day. So Luigia did not know if he would be returning. The route Philip and Ronnie had chosen did not appeal to me. I thought it better to go back to the western fringe of the Po valley and there decide whether to go north to Como, or southeast to Ancona. I would go to their original kind hostess, Lucia Sbottoni, Giuseppe’s sister in Pieve di Cusignano and seek her help and advice.
I was expecting the others to stay in Noceta for supper and was preparing myself a frugal meal of boiled chestnuts and toast – our potatoes had run out – when they appeared laden with food. Milk, potatoes, bread, butter, barley coffee and sugar. What a feast! Philip also had a blanket from Mariella. We decided it would be a waste to eat Zia Luigia’s chicken (from the previous day) in the dark and that it would taste better if we left it for lunch next day. Philip and Ronnie had learned in Noceta the cause of the scare in Monastero the evening before. Cars with two Germans and a Fascist militiaman had raided a house on the far side above Noveglia to impound a rifle which had not been handed in.
Thursday, 28th October
During breakfast a visitor called to tell us that the Tubbias had been told to expect Gabordo and a Fascist patrol that evening. The object of their visit was unknown. Perhaps they were looking for his radio set? That news was nothing like so upsetting for poor Philip as discovering just before lunch that one of the boy Giuseppe’s errant and ever hungry cows had chosen to eat
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most of his precious vest, left out to dry on the roof of the casetta. Now it was a tattered, slobbery mess. Philip’s language was understandable! Fortunately I had a spare one for him from my present of old clothes from Carlo.
At lunch time Zia Luigia again came up, this time with bottles of milk and wine. Philip carved yesterday’s chicken and we ate it cold with cold, jacket potatoes and my own brand of bread sauce. After lunch the others went over to Noceta where sentiment was less panicky than in Monastero. I walked over to Sbottone to inform Celeste Ricci that we would be leaving and that I would therefore not need a room with him. I arrived to find only a daughter at home – luckily the attractive one! Her parents were still out in the fields and we went to find them. They were both so nice, inviting me back to supper and a bed for the night. In return I asked anxiously after their son. Happily, the Italian Red Cross had told them that he was a POW in Sparlato. Celeste was all for going there to see him but I said I thought it would be impossible.
In the Ricci’s kitchen was a lovely, new wireless set. Celeste had been into Parma four days before and bought it. He was like a little girl with a new doll! Things in Parma were not too bad and he had seen no evidence of any strong German forces there. But things were certainly bad in the Commune di Bardi: Gabordo was its podesta (mayor), despite his 18 times in prison! I asked why the locals did not ambush him one night, when he visited a distant village. Celeste said it was the fear of savage reprisals that made any ambush a non-starter. He reckoned neither Gabordo, nor the Fascist schoolmistress in Bardi, would last long. She was planning to retreat to Fidenza, but they would get her there just the same.
Friday, 29th October
My path back to the casetta took me past “Wandsworth’s” house in Noceta. Desmond Buchanan and Tony Kinsman were having a stand-up breakfast of barley coffee, bread and cheese provided for them by that invariably good soul “Wandsworth” (Eugenio Gandolphino). They would be heading south but had not yet chosen their route. Philip and Ronnie joined us and they and I went on up to the casetta. About half a mile from home we met Giuseppe Negri (the former mosaic worker from Paris) shouting and yelling “Gabordo! Gabordo!” This was the worst ‘flap’ we had had. The seven Fascists,who had supper with Tubbia the previous evening, were now out shooting in the woods. They would be certain to find the casetta, even if they did not already know we were there. So we descended to it very cautiously, Philip and Ronnie by one approach and I by another. To our great relief there was nobody there and it had not been disturbed, as far as we could judge. So we packed our kit, divided our rations and arranged to meet at Noceta at four o’clock. In the meantime I would sit above the path from Castagneto to intercept 16 year-old Lazaro Restighini coming up with food and our laundry. He might go on to the casetta, unsuspectingly and be caught there. Instead of
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Lazaro, it was his sister, Maria who appeared. According to her the rumours were all nonsense: Gabordo and his henchmen were already back in Bardi. What was more he had told Tubbia that he knew there were escaped POWs in the Pieve area. Had he known of our presence above Castagneto, would he not have said so? I thanked her warmly and with a light heart and a basketful of food and laundry I went back to the casetta.
In the afternoon I walked down to Noceta, as previously arranged. Soon after there was yet another scare – a truck load of militiamen had returned to Noveglia. So Giuseppe Negri bundled us into his high barn until nightfall. “Wandsworth”, as ever in charge of things, called us over to share a very good supper upstairs – risotto, excellent onions and bread. His wife, poor thing, was a bundle of nerves. For her sake we retreated to Negri’s barn as soon as we had finished eating, taking with us from “Wandsworth” some lovely white English blankets. Ronnie and I left the barn just before 9.00 pm to listen to the BBC news with Giuseppe Negri. The news from the Russian front was most encouraging. From the Italian one it was the same old story of mud and rain and very little Allied advance.
By now my own plans were made up: I would leave in the morning, Saturday 30th October, for Lucia Sbottone’s farm at Pieve di Cusignano near Fidenza by the same route as we had taken from there seven weeks earlier. I would stop at Bernardo’s at Tosca the first night, at Mariano the second and reach Lucia’s on the third. There I would see what the form was. The other two planned to start south on the Monday. They would find a guide to take them across the Taro valley. If all went well, they would reach Rome and find the house of Guido Comba, the head of the Waldensian Church at 107, Via Quattro Novembre. They had met him when he visited Fontanellato and before that Chieti. He had done some of his theological training in Scotland and was a first-rate chap, who would be sure to help them. They were dubious about taking any guide, but on balance considered an Italian companion would be worthwhile as interpreter, forager and scout. In any case the particular chap suggested to them was himself uncertain about accompanying them. My own trouble was that I had a thorn puncture in my right palm from the night climb with Ettore. I had paid it little attention at the time, but it was now starting to fester .
Saturday, 30th October
It was once again the sort of wet day we had already had all too often. “Wandsworth” gave us lashings of caffe latte and bread. As my hand was getting quite painful, he suggested I should ask Mariella Barbuti, who had passed an exam in first aid, to dress it for me. She put on a fomentation, pricked the boil and let out the pus, disinfected the wound with alcohol – all she had – and bandaged it up.
Then I began my farewells, starting with ‘Wandsworth”, one of the
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best of our friends. I said I would write to the manager of the Vauxhall Cake Company and tell him what a splendid help he, Eugenio, had been to us. Next I called at Celeste Pesca’s (“Napoleon”). His wife burst into tears. Their daughter, Anna, led me higher up into the woods where Celeste Ricci and his aunt were collecting chestnuts. He too had been a very good friend to us – most generous with his time. He was a handyman and did many small repairs for us, e.g. Ronnie’s boots and my torn haversack. He told us that Desmond Buchanan and Tony Kinsman, who had been in his casetta for as long as we had been in ours, were also leaving immediately. Everyone was moving out, before there was a tragedy.
I returned to the casetta for lunch. Jacko arrived with more food, including a pot of hot rabbit and potatoes, cooked specially for us by his aunt Luigia. We were already full up but courtesy – so important always – required us to finish the rabbit and potatoes. My time was short, which fitted in well with Jacko’s wish that I should not go back with him to Castagneto to say goodbye to Maria and Lazaro. Jacko was another very staunch friend but his house bordered the path from Bardi to Monastero. Since the recent scares he admitted to being very nervous. He was quite frank and said he only wished it was safe enough to stay where we were all winter. But for the Fascists he would be only too ready to put us up. With tears in his eyes he bade us farewell and went back down the steep little path to Castagneto. He took with him some of the kit he had so kindly lent us, including the white pullover and small towel which Zia Luigia had given me. He would return next morning for the pillows and any remainder.
The three of us cleared out the casetta, lit a bonfire for the straw, stacked Jacko’s things in one corner and saddled up. Philip and Ronnie would stay overnight in Noceta and leave first thing on the Monday morning. My first stage was a short one – at most one and a half hours to Bernardo Gianelli’s at Tosca. And so the three of us parted company, wishing each other a safe journey: Philip and Ronnie to Noceta and I over the hill to Tosca. All three of us were glad to be leaving an area in which it was no longer pleasant to be in; it was quite impossible to relax with the villagers in such a nervous state; and we would be endangering them unnecessarily by staying.
I got to Tosca quicker than I had expected; it was only 4.15 p.m. when I reached the Calvazzani’s, where we had halted seven weeks earlier. The old grandmother was sweeping her front door steps as I passed and stopped to talk. She was a most kind-hearted old lady-I was always caro (dear) and she pressed me to stay. She could put me up on a kitchen bench and there was a wedding party next door to which she was sure I would like to go. Moreover, there was another English officer only a few houses away. He would be at the wedding and it would be nice for the two of us to meet. Bernardo Gianelli’s house was only half a mile further on but I thought it would be impolite to decline her suggestion. Good manners towards our Italian friends were so
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I went next door and met the girl, who had given me a letter to her relatives in Shepherd’s Bush. She was busy preparing the festa. All the others were already at the wedding party. She had stayed behind to cook. There was then a great hulla-balloo: the key to the wine cellar was suddenly found to be missing! There was a long and anxious hunt before it was found. When the wedding party arrived, it was dusk. Bride and groom, the best man, Maria Calvazzani and three other girls. The bridegroom had served in the Alpini Julia Division in Russia, been frost-bitten and lamed for life. Another British officer ‘escaper’ arrived, a small, fair haired RAF Flying Officer called “Blackie”. He had been living in the village for nearly three weeks and planned to stay all winter. He spent the whole of his days up in the woods with the children and the cattle. He was Frederico to the farmer!
Then everyone got stuck into the wedding feast. An enormous affair; minestrona ad lib, boiled chicken, roast chicken, fried potatoes, fruit tarts, dessert and coffee. They were only poor people but they put on a magnificent feast. Talk was of the Russian front, Fascists and Gabordo. He was well-known in this village too. The family’s eldest girl had married a man from Monastero.
After supper “Blackie” and I went into a corner for an exchange of news. His was mostly depressing. A few days previously, Freddie W – from PG 49 and another RAF officer had been picked up at Casanvora along with the whole family hiding them. Today he had heard of more recaptures at Pezzola, where it was rumoured the Fascists had beaten up the escapers. “Blackie” thought Switzerland was not on. You needed £80.00 (5750 lire) to bribe your way over the frontier and a Lieut. Colonel’s pay to support yourself there. That was why he planned to stay put all winter. He was sure it was the wisest thing to do. I duly went to bed on a bench in old Calvazzani’s kitchen with a quilt and rug for a more comfortable lie. I lay awake thinking of the poor unfortunates from Fontanellato who had already been recaptured – and carted off to prison in Germany. The events at Casanvora had reached Monastero di Gravago. The news that the whole family at the former had also been carried off was enough to break the nerves of any other Italian hosts in the area. And there were the stories that they had been beaten up by the Fascist militiamen. I wished I had a platoon of armed Guardsmen on hand to find the culprits and give them their deserts.
It was cold and hard in the kitchen and I had little sleep; my right hand was worse; the sepsis was deep and I could not move my fingers.
Sunday, 31st October
I was woken at 5.00 am by the Calvazzani’s small grandson. He was a spirited boy with big, blue eyes and a blue, cloth cap. He had in fact been born in London and knew more Cockney slang than I did! He padded around
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the stone floor in his bare feet, collecting paper and straw to light the fire. His grandmother, as a great honour to her unexpected guest, produced tea for my breakfast. But she was not a very practiced tea-maker. What would my father, a connoisseur of tea, have thought of it! Words fail me!
As usual the Calvazzani’s advised me not to walk about outside on a Sunday, with so many people about. I must stay for lunch and go on to Bernardo Gianelli during the afternoon siesta. During lunch two British ORs from PG 49 came and joined me. They had been to the Calvazzani’s two or three times before. They had had their HQ in Casanvora but had moved out the day Freddie W was taken. They had been out for a walk and had run slap into the arresting patrol on its way to pick up the other two escapers.
The latter must have been betrayed, for the Germans had made straight for their hideout – an isolated house above the village. They had been there for four weeks and had unwisely been about quite a bit in the village. My two interlocutors were, therefore, on an itinerant, round tour till the excitement was over -” sempre in giro” – always on the move.
Just as I was preparing to leave for Bernardo Gianelli’s, the alarm went: a forest guard was on his way and I was hastily pushed back indoors. I had to wait there a seemingly endless half hour, while the guard and the old lady had a Sunday afternoon chat. At last her grandson took me out by the back way and on to Bernardo’s. The house was locked on my arrival, so I dumped my kit in the pigsty and went for a walk in the woods till 5.30 pm.
On my return, the first person I met was Bernardo’s daughter, Marina. She gave me a most warm welcome. Not long after Bernardo himself turned up. He too gave me a warm welcome. He was yet another very good friend. He was a scarecrow to look at with yellow, parchment skin, very bad teeth and closely cropped grey hair. He was obviously worn out by three years hard toil on the land. He had left Paris because Marina could not stand the sirens. He had come back to the village to find his father’s old house empty of furniture and the land a wilderness. He had had to borrow everything from his neighbours and, quite unused to physically hard, outdoor labour, all on his own, even so, he was full of spirit. The worst was now over but neither he nor his wife, nor Marina, liked the rough, rural life and longed to return to their flat in Paris. Marina was a very nice girl, quiet and composed and keen to get on in the world.
Bernardo was dead against my going south. All southern Italians were rascals and they would give me away. For example, two Sicilians had recently spent a night with one of his friends and decamped next morning with two pairs of his best woollen socks! Why, he would rather fight them than anyone! So I must stay three or four days at least with him. In fact my stay would largely be decided by my right hand: it was now very swollen and painful and it would be sensible to get it healed, while I was with known friends.
Bernardo said he had been delighted with Philip’s visit seven weeks
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previously and was only sorry he had not returned. He and his wife had sheltered two British ORs from PG 49, Edwards and Clarke, for quite a while and had liked them both very much. They were now billeted with a neighbour. He also showed me a chit signed by Colonel Peddy and Ian Bell, also ex-Fontanellato, who had passed through five days before en route for the Ligurian coast.
There was no room for me to sleep in the Gianelli’s tiny house – just a kitchen and storeroom downstairs and one large bedroom upstairs reached by an outside staircase. So I slept on the leaves in the cowstall -and very well too.
Monday, 1st November
Happily another lovely day like yesterday. Bernardo reckoned that the almost incessant rain in October was now giving way to something better, Marina kindly dressed my hand, smothering the poison to draw it out. Bernardo suggested I should spend the day with him up in the woods with his four cows. One was a maddening beast; it was always on the move and refused to graze – very tiring to look after! The woods belonged to the parish priest. But he had sold the timber to someone else whose men were now felling the trees. Anyone was free to collect the debris – small branches and chippings. We both took baskets of them back to the house, while Bernardo regaled me with stories of Paris. His last job there had been head chef at the Palais de Sport. He had left Paris on 5th September 1939 and his wife and Marina had followed in 1940. I went back to lunch, followed by Bernardo, after his wife, called Pierina, had come out and relieved him as cowherd.
Lunch was largely of potatoes. Sadly, they had finished the last of their delicious salami a fortnight before. His present pig was suffering from rheumatism, or something like it, in its hind legs and was scarcely able to totter a few steps. Even so the pig had a very healthy appetite. However the cock and hens were still greedier. They would dash up almost under the pig’s snout and peck away like birds possessed.
Later that day the two British ORs he had mentioned the day before, Edwards and Clarke, looked in. Both were sterling men from 50 Div. (Tyne/Tees), whom I remembered from Fontanellato. I duly repeated the warnings to keep out of the village. Clarke then pulled a photo out of his wallet – it was of his hosts’ daughter. Her father was quite unaware of their clandestine romance!
Tuesday, 2nd November
Edwards’ and Clarke’s host came in to tell Bernardo that both men had been recaptured. Most unwisely they had gone into the village to buy cigarettes in the ristorante. Four men were there in civilian clothes. They had bought drinks for Edwards and Clarke before inviting them to accompany them. He was sure they were at the very least Fascist sympathisers. He had liked both the British escapers very much and his unhappy wife had broken
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down in tears. Even old Bernardo Gianelli was in tears. It had all been so sudden and so near. After that a man called to buy his chestnuts. Bernardo had had a very bad year – only two and a half quintals (250 kilos) as against seven last year.
After dusk, Bernardo, Marina and I walked over to see his neighbour. Now there was good news. It seemed the recapture of Edwards and Clarke was a rumour and not a fact. So we had a family party and played “Forfeits”, a popular choice. It was hard work getting Pierina to dance but two small boys proved most talented imitationists. Outside the dance floor I could hear “La Voce del’ America” loud and clear. Next we played “bugiardo”, a lying game, with Italian cards.
Wednesday, 3rd November
Another lovely day. It seemed Bernardo’s weather forecast was correct. My hand was a lot better and I told him I would be leaving the next morning. It was the Feast of the Departed – All Souls’ Day. Marina and Pierina were both devout Catholics. They made themselves posies of small, pink roses from the garden to take to the Requiem Mass. Bernardo, like most of the peasant men, had little use for the Church and its representatives on earth.
Thursday, 4th November
It was the last day for Bernardo’s chestnut harvest. He had to take two quintals (200 kilos) to the food control office in Varsi. He was furious at having to do so – handing over what he had sweated to collect for a lot of German robbers to eat. Left to himself I doubt if he would have handed any in: he was full of guts and his boast “Io niente paura” (I have no fear) was not an idle one. He had served in an assault unit in the 1914-18 war. But his wife, Pierina, was afraid of reprisals, if he did not hand in his quota – everyone else did. Otherwise their own state would be much worse – everything would be seized. So with an ill grace, Bernardo was loading up his quota.
I gave Bernardo a “chit” and left at 9.45 a.m. Both Pierina and Marina burst into tears. I again decided to stick to the road wherever possible. So I set off towards Varsi, where I made a short detour, before resuming the road. I had barely got there, when a girl on a bicycle stopped to warn me that there was a German truck in Varsi and she expected it to come along any time. So I left the road again and had my lunch up in the woods. I then returned to the road, past my picnic supper place on the outward journey, past the muddy bathing pool, through Vianino and up the hills towards Mariano. There was the same gorge as before to be descended and scaled. It was a lovely afternoon but darkening, as I walked through Mariano. The local bus was just setting down its passengers, as I walked past. I then struck up to the left to find my former friends of September. I knocked and found them all at supper. Very kindly they readily agreed for me to stay the night. Supper was a mixture of pasta and spinach. My hosts told me of an escaper who had recently been
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recaptured. He had unwisely sat drinking in the ristorante in Mariano; a passing patrol of Fascists had caught him there – a sitting duck for them.
Friday, 5th November
The fine spell was over: an unpleasant day with low clouds and fine rain. It looked as if I might have another horrid day’s walking like the one to Santa Maria and San Buceto. I went down to the road end where I had unexpectedly run into Philip and Ronnie on Sunday, 12th September. By then the day turned dry and fine. I went on to the village where I had made my first call after getting out of Fontanellato. I asked the way to Pieve di Cusignano and Lucia’s farm where Philip and Ronnie had spent their first weekend. I found I was already in Cusignano! But I drew a blank several times, when I asked for her in person. Finally, I was advised that the only person who would know was the parish priest. I went down the road and knocked at his door. A rubicund, portly man appeared in a round hat. According to my friends Lucia’s husband, a maresciallo, had been captured by the Americans in Tunisia and was now a POW in America. She had two small children and an old grandfather. The priest said he had never heard of her, but he’d consult the parish register. There I spotted the name “Sbottoni, Lucia”. At last! That was the woman. He knew her but her husband had only been a private not a warrant officer. He would show me the way to her farm. The parish was very scattered and the farm was some way off. Would I stay for lunch first? An invitation I was glad to accept.
We lunched off salami, bread and cheese and some excellent wine. Then we walked back uphill together and he put me on the right path. At the end of it there was a small, wayside oratory with a pink farmhouse next to it. Its owner had made all his money in England and would be sure to show me the further route to Lucia’s, half an hour’s walk away. A young man answered the door and hurriedly pointed to a large, blue-painted farmhouse, I should ask again there: Lucia’s was just beyond it. When I had walked about 400 yards from the pink house, the young man called out loudly, was there something wrong I thought? No, it was only to give me some bread and three very good apple fritters, which he thought I’d like.
I was now in the rolling foothills above the Po valley. The local farmers were evidently well-to-do with large, well-built brick homes and big barns. The blue house looked especially well-found. A well-dressed, middle-aged man was there with his son. He too had been in England before the war. In the early days after the Armistice he had put up three officers from my platoon: Antony Simkins, Clifford Bass and Larry Holroyd, all ex 8th Bn., Rifle Brigade, the Tower Hamlets. The area was safe then but very risky now: a man had been arrested in a nearby house for harbouring escaped prisoners. I assured him I never went into any intended billet before dark. He advised me to hide in a copse near Lucia’s house and to wait there until the light faded.
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Lucia’s was a well-maintained brick farmhouse with a huge adjoining barn. A man was gathering wood in the yard. Was this Lucia’s I asked? Yes. Could I see her? I waited outside till a young woman with an infant in arms came out to see me. She was suspicious and very much on the defensive. Who was I? What did I want? I explained I was an escaped British officer from Fontanellato, that I had come from her brother Giuseppe Dotti, in Monastero, and that my two fellow escapers, Philip and Ronnie who had stayed a weekend with her in the second week of September, had recommended me to seek her help. She continued to cross-examine me: they were dangerous days with spies everywhere. At last satisfied that I was a bone fide British escaper, she led me into her kitchen. Her grandfather, a doddery old man in an ancient trilby and steel-rimmed glasses was even more fearful and suspicious. With him was another small child, a girl of about four or five years.
During supper I gave Lucia news of Monastero and of her brother, Giuseppe Dotti, as well as of Philip and Ronnie. I myself was still undecided whether to go south, or to head north for Switzerland. Lucia herself could not help much except point me to the other side of the farm where there was an evacuee family from Fidenza. One brother was a school teacher and now an army officer. They would probably be able to help. Grandad was afraid they might give me away, but Lucia was confident I could trust them. She was right. The brother in question proved a considerable help: he produced maps and we went through various possible courses together.
My plan, if I decided to go south, was to board a train, getting on at a small rural station between Fidenza and Parma. He did not recommend that, because there was a check-point at Reggio, the next big town after Parma; all passengers had to show their identity cards and there were more such controls further on. My best bet was a bicycle. My height would be less obvious and with an old mackintosh on I would be able to go anywhere. The snag with that plan was that a bicycle was so hard to get: two British escapers had been stuck in Fidenza for two weeks, waiting for a chance to get one. What about a lorry? There were two firms of carriers in Fidenza but their trucks only went to Milan; and he was doubtful if their drivers could be trusted. His sister-in-law from near Fontanellato and another brother joined us and attention switched to the possibilities of getting into Switzerland. The crucial thing about that was how to cross the river Po: all the bridges were guarded, so I would have to be rowed over. They then gave me the name of the priest at San Nazarro, a little village some 12 kilometres NE of PG 49. The priest would be able to recommend a reliable boatman. That settled, attention turned to my clothes and haversack which looked rather suspicious. Lucia kindly fetched me one of her husband’s long coats, an old cap and a smaller attache case. I slept on the kitchen bench and planned to leave for San Nazarro next morning.
All my hopes now rested on Lucia. The others (Philip and Ronnie) had told me she was afraid of nobody and the best, young woman in the world.
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Perhaps then, I could stay with her for a day or two, while I found better clothes and a set of maps. I had learned that there was an Italian Touring Club office in Salsomaggiore, a town eight kilometres south of Fidenza, where Lucia might be able to get me the sheets I wanted.
Saturday, 6th November
Lucia produced the best cafe latte for breakfast that I had ever had since escaping. It was piping hot for one thing not just lukewarm as at Bernardo’s. I reckoned it might pay me to wait for a day or two to see which way the wind was blowing. I asked Lucia if I might do so, provided I was out in the woods all day and only returned a casa after dark. She was particularly anxious lest anyone had seen me arrive the previous day. How had I found her house? Here I told a fib and said that Philip and Ronnie’s directions had been so good that I had not had to ask any of the locals the way. She then agreed to my request and I retreated into the wooded hills with two boiled eggs and some bread and cheese. I might on my wanderings come across another unexpectedly lucky encounter. And so I did!
I was eating my lunch beside a stream, when some Italian workmen hailed me from a small wooden shed at a water-boring plant. The foreman extended me a cordial welcome to join them – three locals and a Sicilian evacuee from Messina. Then a woman and a girl came up to speak to me. Would I like to return with them a casa? There were four South African escapers in a nearby casetta . I was dubious and politely declined.
The foreman was a particularly nice man with a rugged face and strong frame. He wore dirty blue overalls and an old hat. He told me that another British officer from Fontanellato, a Captain in the Royal Tanks named David, had fetched up with him in mid-September in a very bad way. He’d stayed with the gang for nearly a week. The other three local men were also friendly. One a tubby, button-faced little chap took me aside after lunch to confide that he had an Italian colonel in his casa. He was sure the colonello would like to meet me. I could look him up on my way home. I said I would but did not in fact do so. I was not keen to get embroiled with Italian senior officers.
The gang’s lunch came from the next-door farm and was brought over by the Sicilian evacuee – lukewarm minestra with carrots in a tin bowl, evoking wry comments from the others that it was not hot enough. The Sicilian was a forlorn, lonely man; about 50 with only the clothes he was wearing and they were mostly in rags. His home in Messina had been destroyed by Allied air bombing and he and his family had moved to north Italy to avoid it. They had nothing at all – just their ration cards and straw to sleep on. He looked forward keenly to the arrival of the inglese. People in Sicily would be happy to be under English control. I found him hard to understand: his Sicilian dialect was so different from the Parmesan to which I was accustomed. He explained that on
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the following day, Sunday, it was his turn on duty. He would be alone all day in the hut, half-roofed to allow for the shaft gear. He would be glad if I would come and spend the day with him.
I found Lucia’s farm difficult to locate in the dark – no landmarks and so many houses looking like hers. Eventually I found the right one. Lucia’s confidence had returned and we had very good pasta fritta (fried). She told me her sister was married to Eugenio Negri and was living at 68, High Street, Blaenau in Monmouthshire. As a little girl she herself had lived with them for a while and gone to the village school. She still remembered quite a little English. Until the Armistice her husband’s letters had been getting through to her: he was being well-treated in the USA – almost too well in her opinion! For the night she put me in a small and narrow upstairs bedroom, with a divan bed made up for me.
Sunday, 7th November
Lucia again produced lovely hot milky coffee for breakfast. But the weather was dull and it started to rain before I reached the plant. It was raw and cold and the Sicilian and I lit a fire from odd bits of wood and the supports of the nearby vine-rows. We found an old bucket and some oil and soon had a blazing fire. We had minestra again for lunch and, being Sunday, a bottle of wine too.
I waited as long as I dared for the rain to stop and then seeing no break in the sky set off home at 4.30 pm on the one and a half hour walk back to Lucia’s. Though not soaked to the skin, I got very muddy, trudging across soggy, ploughed fields and by the time I was home at 6.30 pm, (memories of the steeplechase at Eton!) I found Lucia concerned lest I had been recaptured. I again assured her that I had not been seen returning to her farm. She was able to fix me up with other clothes, while mine dried. The old man was in very good form. Both he and Lucia were devout Roman Catholics. He had the idea that Protestants were not Christians at all – quite a widespread view among the peasantry, fostered by their priests. They found married clergy and divorce especially hard to grasp. Then the old man changed the subject and asked if there were any “public women” in England. I forget how I answered that question! His conversation then turned to military service. His own had been the best time of his life. He had been stationed near Chieti. On one memorable occasion during pre-war exercises, when he was a corporal, he had captured an officer and an entire “enemy” platoon singlehanded!
For the second day running there was a splendid bowl of hot milk -with sugar! – at supper. The pastures were good and Lucia’s cows produced more milk than she and her family needed. That milk and the hot caffe latte at breakfast remain two things for which I particularly thanked her.
Monday, 8th November
For the first time there was snow on the mountains to the west. It was
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high time to move on. As nothing had turned up to encourage me to go south, I decided to make for Switzerland. For that I had a recommended river crossing over the Po and a specific “safe house” in Como. I stayed indoors all day, while Lucia very kindly washed and dried my clothes and got everything set for my departure the next day.
She produced two fried eggs for my lunch. I suggested that if she liked to write letters to her husband, recently moved to a P.OW camp in Arizona, and to her brother-in-law in Blaenau, I would hide them in the lining of my cap and post them from Switzerland via the International Red Cross. I further suggested she should send her husband a photo of herself. As a POW myself, I knew how treasured family photos could be. For supper there was a very good dish of fried potatoes and the usual night-cap of hot milk. Just as Philip and Ronnie had found eight weeks before, she did everything she could to help us. Bless her!
Tuesday, 9th November
Fortunately a lovely morning. I had my converted battle-dress jacket wrapped in a brown, paper parcel under one arm and Lucia’s little attache case in my other hand. The map sheets from Lucia’s brother, Giuseppe Dotti, extended well north of the river Po, though not all the way to the frontier. So my initial route was clear enough. When I set out at 8.15 am, I had a fine view over the Po valley with Fidenza half-left and Parma half-right. I crossed the Via Emilia and both railway lines about a mile east of Fidenza without meeting anyone dangerous. I then carried on northwards along a white, communal road. Occasionally a militiaman or a policeman rode past me on a bicycle but took no notice: I was well enough disguised in Lucia’s blue civilian cap and coat. I had a picnic lunch at 12.15 pm by the roadside – salami and hard-boiled eggs.
I had my next roadside halt at about 3.15 pm, when I was a short way from Cortemaggiore. I then had yet another incredible bit of luck: two men in mackintoshes passed me, both riding bicycles. They slowed up, turned round and came up to speak to me. One a dark chap with a blue, wool scarf and an intelligent face soon guessed I was a British escaper. He was an escaped Yugoslav officer from the camp at Cortemaggiore. He had found very good Italians to put him up and was in the process of arranging to get some of his Yugoslav friends, who were still hiding in the hills, over the frontier into Switzerland. He himself would be glad to help me to do so and so would his companion. The latter was a middle-aged radio engineer from Milan, owning a small cottage near our meeting place and living there presently. If I waited till dusk, he and the Yugoslav officer would return and take me there.
We were halted close to a farm, where the farmer was busy clipping his hedges. My new friends arranged for me to stay with the farmer until six o’clock. The farmer was a small red-faced man with his face bound up in a red,
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handkerchief, as he had got a bad toothache. Neither he, nor his thin, grey-haired wife exactly killed the fatted calf for me. At first they left me sitting in the yard. As the sun went down, the wife observed that I would be warmer in the cow-stalls. I accepted her suggestion and found the cowman, a huge, big fellow in a skull-cap with a wooden stool tied to his seat. I watched him with interest milk, feed and water the animals, clean their stalls and lay down fresh straw for them. There were ten of them, all good beasts, whose milk was sold to local dairies. His day’s work done, the cowman went home and I was left alone with the cows. After a long time the farmer appeared and asked me into the kitchen for supper. It was a rather meagre one, although my host was much better off than my friends in the hills. However, it may have been his wife’s stomach disorders and his toothache rather than any lack of generosity, which were responsible. But they were not a couple I took to at all. He particularly angered me, when he produced the usual Axis propaganda line that the English fought to the last Indian and so forth.
I was therefore glad when at about seven o’clock the Yugoslav captain returned and we left together. He was a regular soldier and a staff officer and had been a prisoner since April at Cortemaggiore. All the officers had got away. A few days ago he had come down from the hills for money. In the process he had been lucky enough to find his present Italian companion, the radio engineer from Milan. The latter’s brother had proved an even better find: he was the podesta (mayor) of Caurso! He had already helped more than 50 Yugoslav officers to get into Switzerland. The radio engineer’s cottage was a typical, snug, little bachelor’s home. He did his own cooking and produced that evening some excellent minestra with tomato puree, roast meat and fresh apples.
The engineer’s brother, who lived nearby, was a big man with black horn-rimmed spectacles. He at once asked if I had an identity card. When I said no, he dived into a drawer and produced scores of blank ones. Between the three of us we agreed on my particulars and the Yugoslav wrote them down on the selected card. I have kept it carefully ever since, and reproduce it on page 63.
After I had signed it, the radio engineer added an illegible scrawl as the signature of his elder brother, the podesta. The only slight problem was how to conceal “Cortemaggiore” on the official, rubber stamp in blue ink. The Yugoslav had by then become an expert at false identity cards and smudged the tell-tale word over. So far so good. The two brothers would be going by car to Milan the next morning, leaving at six am. They would give me a lift and drop me short of the city. This was a heaven-sent offer, especially as my socks were almost worn out. It would solve my problem of crossing the river Po and save me many miles of walking. I would no longer have to hunt for friendly boatmen to row me over.
The Yugoslav captain said he had recently been in the Bardi area with
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a mixed group of Yugoslav and British officers. He had particularly taken to Hugh Hope of the 60th Rifles (another Old Etonian) and produced the address Hugh had given him. The group’s village had been raided on one occasion and four of the Yugoslavs had been recaptured. I was given a mattress on the sofa of the radio engineer’s living room with advice to say I was a Serb or Yugoslav. There was no reward for the recapture of one of them in contrast to the one for a British escaper.
Image: identity card
Wednesday, 10th November
Reveille was at 5.30 am with a white frost on the ground. It was bitterly cold and Pina Agretti’s scarf was a godsend. We all had a liqueur before walking round to the podesta’s house. He was about to get his car out. He would take no risks. I was to walk ahead on my own; they would overtake me on an open stretch of road and pick me up. I had walked for about ten minutes, when the lights of a car showed up behind me. Itwas a 10 hp dark blue Fiat saloon, jam-packed with sacks of vegetables in wooden crates and a coop of hens. I was shown into the back of the car on top of the farm produce. The podesta drove with his brother, the wireless engineer, perched on top of more farm stuff. They would be driving into Milan to visit relatives, crossing the Po over the little pontoon bridge at San Nazzaro. I asked why the former schoolteacher, who had recommended me to cross there by boat had not mentioned any bridge. The podesta explained it had only been put up very recently and was unlikely to be guarded.
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We stopped at a village short of San Nazzaro, asked if the bridge was guarded and were told it was not. Nearer still to it we were warned that it was guarded but only by carabinieri (policemen). So I got out, took my attache case and prepared to walk over the bridge on my own, well after the car, and trust to my new identity card. When I was close to the toll-gate halfway across the bridge, the brothers called me up with the very welcome news that there were no policemen on the far bank – only a civilian watchman. So I climbed back on top of the vegetables and we set off. It was a great relief, when we were over the bridge and on the road north again. The podesta did not take any vie statali (main roads). He kept to the secondary ones through Lodi. We saw only one German soldier on a bicycle and one German staff car. Now we were in Lombardy the countryside was quite different from the Po valley – woods and fields of pasture more like those in England than anything I had yet seen in Italy.
The podesta and his brother dropped me off with many “auguri” (best of luck) by a side turning on the outskirts of Milan. My plan was to walk NE towards the town of Monza to begin with, as I wanted to give the city of Milan a wide berth. I would then change direction NW to get back on the Milan-Como road. My problem was I had no local maps. When I left Monastero I had had the routes south in mind rather than those to Switzerland. So I had left the northern sheets behind. All I had was a small scale map of the whole of Italy, given to me by the podesta. It was all he had.
I had not gone far, when I came to a main road and found myself right on the edge of a German airfield with a sentry only 50 yards away. So I quickly retraced my steps to find a less dangerous route. In fact I spent all morning in a wide detour across country. The land was flat and covered with a network of little streams between beech trees, silver birches and mulberries. There were herds of grazing cattle. Although I was well away from any main road, I ran into a parked Luftwaffe lorry in one little village and had to take a swift turn down a side road. By the end of the morning, my feet were pretty sore in my old Army socks with Pina’s late husband’s stockings over them. The latter were too small – and full of holes! At a convenient ditch I threw them away together with my second towel. I could then just get my converted battle-dress jacket in its paper parcel into my little attache case.
In the next village the houses were in a row in a close group. I asked for the priest’s house. He was a small, birdlike man in his twenties and not helpful. He did not seem to know, or be interested in anything. All he could say was “Siamo stufi, tanto stufi della guerra” (“we are weary, very weary of the war”). While we were talking, there was an alarm “tedeschi”! and I had to beat it quickly through the back door. After that scare I eventually found at about one o’clock a provincial road, which, I was told, would take me to Monza. I decided to see if it did.
The road took me first through Cemusco and Brughiero, both fair-
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sized places north-east of Milan. In the latter there were a number of German tanks with SS guards in blue-black uniform. The Monza road was signed up and I did not have to stop any Italian to ask the way. By mid-afternoon I was nearing Monza. So I left the road and asked the help of an old labourer in a nearby cow pasture. I needed somewhere to sleep the night. Did he know anywhere suitable? He assured me all the locals were friendly, but was very vague about any specific place. So I asked him if there was a local priest to whom I could appeal for an overnight stay. Yes, his own parish priest lived only a half a mile away on the left near a church. This I found was already in Monza. It was a large one with a well-to-do presbytery. The house with a large walled garden and a general air of prosperity evidently housed an equally well-to-do priest. I retired behind the garden wall, well away from the road and waited till dusk.
I had been sitting there for about half an hour, when two women from a nearby house walked up. One was a middle-aged, working man’s wife, the other a tall girl with raven black hair and fine gold earrings – obviously from a very different social background from her older companion. The girl asked me who I was. As I had been advised to reply, I said I was a fugitive Serb officer on my way to Switzerland. She replied that she had already helped some other Serbs after the Armistice. She bade me come straight indoors out of the cold, autumn night. As we walked across to her house, we dropped behind her companion and I whispered to her that I was in fact a British officer.
One of the nearby houses had several families in it. The girl, Agnese Mongucci, and her mother shared just one ground floor room for all purposes. Her mother was an old lady and partially paralysed. From family photographs I could see they were people of some social standing. Agnese explained that until her father’s death they had had a large house in Monza and that her brother had been an officer in the Savoy Grenadiers. Her father had died after a financial collapse and she and her mother had been reduced to living in penury in their present single room. The whole family was passionately anti-Fascist. Her brother was therefore having great difficulty in finding a job with the return of Northern Italy to Fascist control. She added that there were German troops in Monza and that there was a temporary POW camp only a quarter of a mile away.
For the first time since getting out of Fontanellato I realised how very short of food the city people were. Pina Agretti at Temossi and her family had been on ration cards, but they were better off than most non-farmers. She could buy local supplements on the black market. Here Agnese and her old mother had nothing but their ration cards – and for the last month many of the rationed items themselves had not been available: no sugar, no coffee and only one cupful of milk for the two of them per day. They had to depend on the miserable, official rations of brown bread, rice and pasta and what Agnese
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could afford on the black market. We just had rice broth for supper. Even then I felt very badly when they were so desperately short of food. Later that evening her brother called for a few minutes to see them. Agnese then gave me her plan. She would take me to the 7.30 am workers train to Como. That would be much the best course. My dirty clothes and muddy, black shoes would look suspicious. I was to leave them out for cleaning and all would be well in the morning. I was put to bed very early on a sofa bed in one corner not quite realising I would be in their bedroom! But I was! She and her mother shared a double divan in the other corner as their double bed. It was a bit embarrassing for me at first. But they did not seem to mind in the least.
Thursday, 11th November
I woke at 5.45 am to the sound of Agnese getting up. Her mother still lay hidden under a large, red quilt. Agnese called me at 6.15 am. On the table lay my trousers cleaned and pressed and below them my shoes, equally clean. Knowing their food shortage I hoped Agnese would not give me any of their paltry rations. However, she was adamant: she gave me her complete daily bread ration 150 grammes (the same brown roll as POWs received in camp), cut in two and liberally spread with butter and jam. And then she handed me a cherry brandy for good measure, declining any breakfast for herself. She gave me a coloured handkerchief in place of my khaki one and packed a second roll in newspaper for my lunch. What self-sacrificial generosity! I was quite overcome. All I could offer her in return was to write her a chit to present to the Allied authorities in due course. I must, if I could, return to Monza after the war to repay Agnese’s outstanding goodness and kindness. I would fill her larder and give her a slap-up dinner in a city restaurant.
Just before 7.00 am, Agnese and I walked to Monza railway station. I waited while she bought my ticket to Como and two daily newspapers to bury myself in, as we sat first in the subway and then on the platform. At least I had been able to pay for the ticket and papers with the money from Carlo. I felt very conspicuous indeed sitting on a platform bench in my obviously British shoes and the less well dyed patches on my black battledress trousers. I tucked my feet well under the seat and spread the papers over my knees. There were German military police patrolling the platform. Fortunately it was crowded and they appeared disinterested in anyone. The first train to arrive was a workers’ one to Milan; cattle trucks packed to capacity with men hanging on outside.
The Como train was a few minutes late: it was 7.40 am when it pulled in. It too was of cattle trucks for third-class passengers. I pressed Agnese’s hand and clambered in. In the front half of my truck were three or four rows of people sitting on their luggage; the back half was almost empty. I was relieved to see that no official was in the truck too. Then at the last moment,
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just as the train was moving, an NCO in Fascist militia uniform jumped in. Seeing the back half was almost empty and the front one packed, he chose a place close to me, both of us standing facing the engine. I buried myself behind my newspapers and prayed he would not start talking to me. I longed for a chance to get to the other end of the truck behind the other passengers without appearing to be acting suspiciously. My chance came on leaving an intermediate station: a draught of air through the still open sliding door caught my papers and blew them to the other end. I walked across, picked them up and found myself standing room in shadow at the far, front end of the truck. Thank heavens for that draught! And so to Como. I wondered as we all got out whether there would be any identification control at the barrier. Fortunately there was none and I walked out of the station with 90 per cent of my journey safely accomplished.
My task now was to find Gerardo Mazza’s shop at 7, Via Milano. In the town centre I asked a woman at a newspaper kiosk for directions. Ten minutes later I asked a second woman for more. Her’s led me into a large square with German soldiers and vehicles. A small boy told me that the Via Milano ran out of the other side of the square. I began down the left hand side of the street past a row of shops under a colonnade. Luckily they were the low, odd numbers. Then I saw the number ‘7’ with a large signboard SEMENTI (seeds) and a shop window full of packets of seeds. Found! There was no customer in the shop. Behind the counter was a man in his mid-thirties in a trilby, waistcoat and shirt sleeves. I told him I had come from his friend, Virgilio in S- M-, that I was an escaped British officer and that I wanted to get into Switzerland. My news did not seem to please him. Just then a stream of women came in and I had to discontinue the conversation.
The last customer was an elderly, well-dressed man, who was clearly friendly: he was ready to help but could do nothing right away. I must girare (wander about) for a day or two and come back and see him again. Where did he suggest I should “wander about”? On second thoughts he could give me straightaway the address of a restaurant in the San Martino district. There were no Germans there; it was very quiet and the restauranteur was a friend of his and entirely reliable. I could stay there. He gave me directions, adding that I should just ask for Filippo’s restaurant and anyone would show it to me.
I found it after a quarter of an hour, well tucked away. The saloon bar was empty except for a woman cooking lunch behind the bar. I asked if it was Filippo’s restaurant and she said it was. I explained that Gerardo Mazza, the seed merchant, had directed me there as a place where I might find a billet for a few days. She replied she could not promise anything but her husband was due back any moment. Not long afterwards he arrived: a small, lively man in a black “Anthony Eden” style hat and wheeling a bicycle. Yes, he wanted to help me, but his restaurant was rather public. I had better go to his mother-in-law in a nearby private house. His wife took me there, through a small,
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courtyard and up an outside staircase, and showed me into her mother’s living room. Her mother, a thin but kindly woman in her mid-sixties, was seated by the stove, knitting. Yes, she was quite willing to put me up.
I stayed talking to her till lunch-time. Her husband was out working all day, her younger daughter, the secretary to an architect, was also out all day. Both her older sons had been soldiers. One was in the military hospital in Como and the other had escaped into Switzerland. Filippo’s wife was her eldest daughter. Her first concern was for her 18 year-old son. He had been in the postal service but was in the 1924-1925 “class” called up by the German army. She did not want him to report but it would be risky to fail to do so. As a public servant he would be easy to find. I found her dialect hard to follow. She interspersed it with frequent expressions of “E gia” (but of course) and other terms I had not heard in the Parmegiano dialect of the hill villagers.
The over-riding problem for her was finding food and firewood. She had a little plot with a few green vegetables and one cow and the tessera (ration card) for bread, etc. She was not so concerned for herself but for her 21 year-old daughter, the architect’s secretary. She was always hungry – “sempre fame! sempre fame!” The old lady cooked over an open fire – the first I had seen as an escaper. It used less wood than a stove. She only lit that in the evening. It warmed the room but used up extra wood.
At about 12.30 her eldest daughter came in with a bowl of minestra from the ristorante. We were joined by a chirpy, little man in a brown, fur cap and a long, double-breasted coat in the local style. A younger daughter, dark, well-dressed and made up was also at lunch. I had the brown bread roll Agnese had given me but I did not accept a helping of minestra.
After lunch two girls from next-door came in – both office workers in Como – one of them dark, the other fair and more Anglo-Saxon than Italian in looks. They made a great fuss over me and exclaimed “Que! e bello” (that’s a good-looker!). In fact I felt quite the reverse – untidy and unshaven. I had a fiancee, of course? When I said “no”, the girls could not believe me. It was unheard of. Every young man in Italy had his usual fidanzata. I tried to explain the English attitude to getting engaged i.e. an engagement of up to say three months, with a ring, before marriage. They agreed the Italian practice was different. Engagements were for two or three years, sometimes longer, with no ring. There might be more than one fidanzata at the same time! Before the three girls went back to their office work, they told me they were sure their respective boyfriends would like to meet me. They would return with them after supper.
The mother of the girls called during the afternoon. She was, she said, glad to shake the hand of a real, live Englishman. Before the war there had been many English people in Como. They had all been so “gentile”. They had played a lot of tennis. On one occasion, she had retrieved a ball from outside a court and one of the men had given her ten lire! Just for that! She had
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particularly liked a certain Colonel Stevens – a very nice man indeed.
There was quite a family gathering after supper. The two girls, the fiance of the dark one, the father of the fair one, and an evacuee from Sicily. The fiance was a nice-looking, fair young man, an ex-Carabinieri from Salerno. He had been posted to Croatia before the Armistice, and had walked back to Italy. His accent was different again. The father was very talkative, violently anti-Fascist and a convinced and proud socialist. The usual topics were “povera Italia!” (poor Italy!). When would the English arrive? They would all be emigrating to England after the war. That caused laughter at the prospect of an Italy with no Italians! I retired to a “branda” (camp bed) in the luggage room. The night was cold and largely sleepless, despite my collection of every imaginable bit of covering.
Friday, 12th November
It snowed during the night. I had not reached Como any too soon. I spent all day in the little kitchen. There were occasional bits of excitement. First an aircraft flew very low over Como dropping leaflets. We had wild hopes that they were British. No such luck! They were from Mussolini’s puppet government at Salo. One side featured King Victor Emmanuel and Marshal Badoglio with blood-red crosses over their pictures and the word “Traditore” (Traitor) underneath. On the back was a picture of a burial service for both German and Italian soldiers on a Western Desert battlefield.
The second excitement was a letter at lunch-time from the parents of the fair girl’s fiance, last heard of in Croatia. They had heard from him and had written to pass on the news to her. It sounded to me that he was a prisoner of the Germans, but I kept my view to myself. She, on the other hand, took the news to be good. She was obviously so affected that I had not the heart to disagree. She then produced his photograph, pointing out our likeness. I failed to see any, his nose was aquiline and he had a moustache. I had already shaved mine off, though it was on a photograph in my false identity card, which I did not reveal. For her the great comfort was that his letter said he was always thinking of her. Poor girl! She was so proud of him and goodness knows how long she would have to wait for his safe return.
I was told that Filippo would call for me at dusk and escort me back to Gerardo Mazza’s shop. Plans had already been made. I stayed in the kitchen the whole day, talking to the old lady and nursing a kitten. Before supper I set off with Filippo. He wore a black, fur cap and a three-quarter length double-breasted coat of the type widely worn in Piedmont. We went down a dark side alley to Gerardo’s kitchen at the back of his shop. Half his rooms were full to their ceilings with sacks of seeds. The kitchen range looked a modern one and the whole place had an air of money about it. His wife was rather a timid creature from Bedonia. It was evident that she had ceased to attract, or interest, Gerardo. Their small daughter, Anna Maria, was hardly
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more attractive; dark, pasty-faced and petulant. And she had adenoids, poor child! I did not much take to Gerardo himself. A businessman through and through, bringing his ruthless efficiency into his house too. Nevertheless he was ready to help me.
Filippo, the restauranteur, was the man I warmed to: excellent company and always in good form “in gamba”. That night he was in especially high spirits: he had bought a piece of first-class meat on the black market. While his wife was busy with the polenta, he was enjoying preparing a savoury meat course. That evening, as usual, one fed well at No. 7 Via Milano. Gerardo Mazza had the money and knew where to find food on the black market. We had lots of bread, both Piacenza and Parmesan cheese and excellent red wine from Piedmont. And after supper there was real coffee! The first I had had in wartime Italy. This was one household at least where nobody starved. “Si mangia” (we eat), as Gerardo put it with pride. We also had salami but not quite as succulent as at Bernardo Gianelli’s at Tosca.
At supper Gerardo told me the plan. A good friend of his, a maresciallo (warrant officer) in the Regia Guardia di Finanze (the Royal Customs and Excise) was in touch with guides to the frontier. It was just a matter of concerting their respective times and places en route to the frontier wire. There was a knock at the door and the said maresciallo appeared – a tall man in his middle fifties, in full uniform under a large military-style cloak to complete the dramatic effect. For all that he was taking no risks: he carefully locked the door behind him and pulled his bicycle through the wide, sliding doors used for bringing in the sacks of seed. From then on in that kitchen we might have been hatching the Gunpowder Plot with the maresciallo as Guy Fawkes. We all spoke in whispers with ears and eyes open to any suspicion of being overheard. I did not mind the cloak of secrecy at first, but it became very trying. It made me even more conscious of the fear under which the people had to live under a ruthless, dictator like Mussolini. The maresciallo, who was in rather a hurry, said he was in touch with suitable men and hoped I would be able to get over the frontier the next evening. I would need money: 500 lire (about £7.00) should be enough. I noticed he was wearing the ribbon of the Allied Victory Medal for the Great War 1914-1918. Yes, he had served with the British and French forces on the Italian front.
Gerardo showed me to a simple bed in the family bedroom upstairs. He and his wife and Anna Maria shared the double bed in the room. After my night in Monza with the two Monguzzi ladies I was not embarrassed.
Saturday, 13th November
This time tomorrow I might be over the wire! Gerardo’s wife was extremely nervous and was not prepared to have me in the kitchen. So I had caffe latte in bed, where I stayed until midday. I occupied my time rehearsing my schoolboy German and French. I would need both in Switzerland. Ten
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weeks of speaking and thinking in Italian had made me forget the other two.
I was on tenterhooks all afternoon. I had my kit packed and ready for departure. The maresciallo arrived at 6.30 p.m. as arranged, but to my disappointment he brought me “bitter news to hear”. His expected contacts had failed and he could not promise anything until Monday at the earliest, when he would call again. Did I have any more money? I said “yes”- 2,000 lire (£28.00). He advised me to be prepared to give it all: many Jews were crossing the frontier and were prepared to pay a lot of money. They were spoiling the market. Evidently his original figure of 500 lire was no longer anything like enough.
Sunday, 14th November
I spent all day closeted in the Mazza’s family bedroom with no visits to the kitchen. Even a quick one to the lavatory on the first floor was considered most risky by Gerardo’s wife. If I ever ventured downstairs into the kitchen, she unlocked the outside door beforehand and looked out to make sure the coast was clear. Only then was I allowed to make a dash for the kitchen. As an added precaution, she hid my suspiciously heavy British army shoes and lent me a pair of Gerardo’s thin-soled, black ones.
Monday, 15th November
I got up for breakfast, utterly sick of that awful upstairs bedroom. Gerardo left by an early train on business in Milan. He was not going to kiss his wife goodbye until she reminded him sharply and he gave her a dismissive peck on one cheek. She too then left the shop to take Anna Maria to school.
On her return I spent the rest of the morning a deux with Signora Mazza. She told me such a tale of woe. Gerardo was constantly away, leaving her on her own, both to look after the shop and do the housework and cooking. It really was too much. Her troubles and her nervous state made her a poor companion. Her nerves got even worse when her next-door neighbour on the pretext of lending her some firewood – four logs to be precise! – managed to effect an entry into the kitchen. Signora Gerardo was sure it was just curiosity; her neighbour wanted to have a look at the stranger in the house. Signora Gerardo Mazza was quite beside herself. The woman was not to be trusted, she talked far too much and was thoroughly meddlesome. “Una donna proprio curiosa!” Lending her logs indeed! Rubbish!
I spent the afternoon trying to induce the wilful Anna Maria to get on with her home-work “fare il compito” – of copying “3s” and “Cs” into a squared exercise book. The process almost drove her mother to distraction. Anna Maria would pick her nose, or sniff, or hold the book askew. The results were certainly not very good. Anna was a real “Fidgety Phil”. “Fermo!” (keep still). It had no effect. All Anna was interested in was her particular toy – a little shiny leather box with a zip – and doing wild drawings on sheets of thick, brown paper.
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Gerardo returned for supper. Soon the maresciallo reappeared to say that all was set for the next evening, the 16th November. Could I ride a bicycle? Yes. Good. Then we would leave at 6.00 pm on the morrow. My guides would require all my 2,000 lire (£28.00). He himself, the maresciallo, declined any payment. I gave him the standard chit for the Allied authorities, when they took over Como. He hid it very carefully in the lining of his uniform cap. I also gave one to Gerardo. My only slight misgiving was that the maresciallo struck me as rather an old woman. I was therefore wondering whether his plans would work out in practice.
Tuesday, 16th November
Gerardo was in good form at lunch. He told me his native village was Santa Maria where my host there, old Virgilio, had given me his name and address. He had worked first in Monza, moving to Como in 1938. As a non-Fascist it had not been easy for him to get contracts. He considered it was riskier for a stranger to be billeted in a small place like Monastero, where any newcomer was quickly perceived, than in a large town like Como, where he could pass unnoticed. His wife was never able to share that view; she was perpetually fearful. Gerardo did not think the frontier itself would pose a problem, although the German patrols now had dogs. It had been child’s play immediately after the Armistice, when a large party of British ORs from the camp at Bergamo, only 40 kilometres away, had marched right through the middle of Como in uniform!
I was just heartily sick of all the waiting, so it was a great relief, when the maresciallo arrived during supper. This time he was not in uniform but in overalls and an old check cap. There was no time to waste, he said, and we went out into the dark alleyway at the side of the shop and picked up bicycles. I asked him not to go too fast, lest I lose him in the traffic. It was cold bicycling and I was glad of the scarf from Pina Agretti and my thick coat. My bicycle was too small for me and its dynamo lamp was in poor condition. Even so, I was able to follow the maresciallo all through Como and up the hill above. We halted there and he asked me not to mention his identity to anyone. Then with his torch he took me up a steep, narrow path – a short cut to the main road to Chiasso. It took us ten minutes to wheel our bikes up the path. The main road was clear and we were able to go on.
We came to a pair of large wrought-iron gates and a drive – like the entrance to an English country house. I wondered whom we were going to meet and what was going to happen. The maresciallo volunteered no information. We went past the large villa to a smaller house behind. We leant our bikes against its wall and the maresciallo walked cautiously on for a personal recce. All was well and I was called into the house. In the kitchen was a middle-aged man and his old mother. I thanked the maresciallo and we said goodbye. He went back into the night after receiving an assurance from
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my new host that I would be sure to get through to Switzerland the next night. He could promise that.
I did not much take to my first guide’s appearance and manner. He looked very much a cloak and dagger type in his heavy black doak. We had to leave at once for a little restaurant near the frontier, where I would stay the night. It was very dark and the descent through the woods very steep. There was no path and I had no torch. On my guide’s advice I put one hand on his shoulder all the way down – almost vertically so it seemed. Then we halted: there might be German troops on the road in front. I was to wait till he whistled me to cross it. Fortunately the coast was clear. We were then on a metalled road at the edge of a village. He told me to wait in the porch of the church, while he went on to the restaurant to fix matters up. He seemed to be away for ages! During his absence the parish priest came along and asked if he could help me. I politely declined, explaining I was waiting for a friend like a girl at a bus-stop, I thought to myself.
My first guide returned to tell me that the restaurant owner could not put me up. However, there was a private house close by, where I might be given an overnight billet. We resumed our walk for another few minutes and arrived at another pair of gates and a front drive. I waited among some large water tubs, while my first guide did another recce. I waited for what seemed another age, wondering if I would ever get anywhere. At last my guide returned with another man and I went up to the houses above with them. We entered a pitch-dark passage up some wooden stairs and into a kitchen. I was to stay there all next day and not go out at all. He would fetch me in the evening for the final round.
My new host was the general handyman at the big house next door. He and his wife were in their fifties and poor. The kitchen had a large, open hearth and the furniture was in disrepair. It was already late at night by peasant standards and I was shown into one of the adjoining bedrooms. There were three bedrooms in all – one for the couple themselves, an empty one in the middle and mine on the outside next to the window.
Wednesday, 17th November
I had learned the previous night that the family depended on ration cards. To avoid any embarrassment at breakfast, I stayed in bed out of their way until late in the morning. When I did eventually get up, I found my hostess and a small grandson in the kitchen. Valentine, Tino for short, was aged two or three, the son of their married daughter in Como. He was a very fair-haired little chap, very grubby and easily moved to tears. Nor was he house-trained! There were frequent “accidents” and on the hob were several pairs of his trousers spread to dry. Each accident enraged his grandmother and her scolding led to yet more tears. He was also very hungry, poor child. Her feeding methods were pretty rough and ready but she meant kindly. Tino
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wore, and needed, a bib. He was a very messy feeder and a violent one too. Despite repeated warnings, “adagio, adagio” (slowly, slowly) he rushed at his rice like a madman and spilt a good deal of it on the floor.
This was another household where food was very scarce, and I felt bad about eating anything. All I could do, would be to give the housewife the two kilos of rice, which Gerardo Mazza had given me. The daughter of the house, a fair girl of about sixteen with pigtails bound over her head, like Maria Resteghini in Monastero, came in for lunch. She wore a blue knee-length dress and a pair of short stockings. She worked in Como in a former umbrella factory now converted into producing parachutes for the Germans.
Before supper, when I was all keyed up for departure, my host came in with the disappointing news of yet another hitch in the plan: there was no chance of my leaving that night. In truth it was uncertain when I would be able to leave.
After supper a well-dressed, young man arrived. He wore a green pork-pie hat, plus-fours and a mackintosh. Initially I could not quite establish who he was, or why he had arrived. I thought he might be the daughter’s fidanzato, but he wasn’t, he was just the occupant of the empty centre bedroom.
Thursday, 18th November
I learned that the young visitor came from Varese. He too was waiting for an opportunity to cross into Switzerland. Our present location was San Fermo, a convenient jumping-off place. He belonged to the 1924 Class, re-called by the Germans, but was evading any further military service. We arranged to meet at four o’clock, go for a walk and then have supper together in a restaurant he knew of.
I went out for lunch, fed up with sitting in the kitchen all day and anxious not to burden my hostess with an extra mouth to feed. The roads were clear despite a good deal of snow. I decided to eat in the little restaurant where my first guide had unsuccessfully tried to find me a billet. There were half a dozen local men there, eating polenta and drinking wine. I ordered the same for myself with a little of the meat and vegetable stew which was on offer. Although the cheese that followed was not worth the name of cheese at 13 lire, I enjoyed that lunch not so much for the food but for the sense of independence and freedom I had from it. I was a normal, human being and not a caged bird.
I then had a walk with the young Italian deserter. He was the son of quite wealthy parents. His mother came to see him once a fortnight with more money: it was expensive always eating in restaurants. The one we were going to for supper was excellent value and cheap. He had already served as an AA gunner in Sicily. Like the other Italian ORs I had met he had not one good word to say for their officers. Not only had they taken their men’s rations and pay but, when the Allied air attacks began, they had broken down completely. They were elegante and useless.
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He reckoned we would be quite safe going out to supper. I had been definitely given to understand, before we left, that there would be no move for me that night. His chosen restaurant was ten minutes walk lower down but well off the beaten track. There was a pleasant grey-haired woman there, her bright twelve-year old son was busy with elementary French homework. He was very proud both of his socialist father and of his new set of pencils in their black American cloth case. There was also the boy’s married sister. Her great concern was for her missing husband. Before the Armistice he had been in the Bari area and she had had no news of him since then. Was he in Allied or German hands?
My companion and I chose risotto for supper in the little restaurant. Half way through our second helping my first guide arrived and in a very dark way said I must leave in five or ten minutes. That was a surprise and a relief. At long last! I just had time to finish the risotto and pay the bill. On the way back to our billet I dashed in to collect my attache case and to give my hosts the two bags of rice from Gerardo as a thankful offering and rejoined the guide.
We first had to go to another bar. There were half a dozen men in it. One of them, a tall, disagreeable-looking chap – like a greyhound race track tout- joined us outside. It was briefly explained to me that this, my second guide, and I, were to leave on bicycles at once. I still had no idea who my final guide was to be right up to the frontier wire. I had decided I had better split my remaining 2,000 lire between my first guide and this second one.
We bicycled along a main road for some 15 minutes. We then halted, while my second guide went forward on his own for a recce. From there we walked our bicycles along a side path to his house. I had suspected he was after money as soon as I saw him in that last bar. I was not wrong! “Dovrete pagarmi due mille lire” (£28.00).
I explained that I had already given my first guide 1,000 lire and that I had only 1,000 left for him. He became rather ugly and I thought he was going to dump me. The arrangement had been 2000 lire for himself. Nobody had told me who was to be paid what and 1000 lire was all I had for him. Finally he realised it was no good haggling further and we went on.
He told me that we would have to wait till midnight. It would be unwise for me to wait in his house and he showed me into the cowstall, which I shared with a cow and her calf. It was then about 9.00 pm. He meanwhile would go off and square the guards. I would probably be able to cross the wire after midnight. I had a long and uncomfortable wait lying on a pile of leaves and chestnuts until his return about 11.00 pm, still grumbling about the money: he had had to pay the guards and 1000 lire was not much for such a tricky job, as I had given him. He was an ugly and sinister customer – in my view at any rate a likely smuggler.
At about 1150 he pulled out his large pocket watch for the ‘nth’ time (like the White Rabbit in “Alice”) and said it was time to go. So we walked on
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up the hillside in the snow. After some 15 minutes he told me that we were “adesso nelle confine” (now on the frontier). Suddenly we were up to the wire. It was just striking midnight. The heavy chain-link frontier wire was over 10 feet high, with strong wooden poles every 20 feet or so along it. The snow was quite deep and the wire very strong. We scrabbled for a hole in the ground under the wire with the alarm bells ringing each time we touched the wire. At one point I thought we were not going to be able to make any hole. I was about to throw my attache case over the top of the wire and then scale over it myself, when my guide found a place through which I might crawl under the wire. We both scooped away the frozen ground and then I crawled under flat on my stomach to the Swiss side. I waved my guide goodbye and set off through the snow as fast as I could to get well clear of the wire and any chance patrols. When I was sufficiently far from it and out of sight, I stopped to breathe a sigh of relief and to say a thankful prayer. Freedom! And fittingly enough it was Freitag.
I walked on through the ghostly night air towards the lights of houses below. Suddenly a voice called out in Italian “Dove andate?” (where are you going?). For an awful moment I thought my guide had double-crossed me and led me into a trap of some kind. Then a Swiss frontier patrol appeared. I was of course in the Ticino and the local Swiss spoke Italian! So all was well after all. They were friendly and took me down to their guard-room amongst the well-lit houses in the valley below.
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It was not until the Spring of 1949 that I was free to return to Northern Italy for a brief visit to look up and thank my allies of Autumn 1943. I combined it with one to the British Military War Cemetery in Pavia to see and salute the grave of my closest war-time friend, Arnold Guy Vivian, a subaltern in the 6th Bn. Grenadiers. He was shot and killed by German guards after jumping from a train near Bolzano on 15th September 1943 after PG 47 at Modena was taken over by German troops within an hour or so of the Armistice on 8th September 1943. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Italian authorities to transfer Arnold to Fontanellato. But it was not to be, he died and I lived.
I made the trip to Italy with my twin brother, Richard, a former Company Commander in the 9th/13th Frontier Force Rifles in the 14th Army in Burma. We travelled in his grey, open Sunbeam Talbot tourer, loaded with various “goodies” for my former friends. To my great relief all had survived – none had been given away to the Fascist/German authorities. I chiefly recall a very happy light-hearted party with the Agrettis in Temossi: Cesare and Bertino revelled in a ride in the back of the Sunbeam. I did not go to Camogli to see Carlo: Aunt Evie had died in 1946 and Villa Monte Cristo was sold a year later by her Executors. The “Country Life” of 31st October 1947, advertised its sale. My great regret was that I was unable to find the house in Monza, where Agnese Mongucci had sheltered me so bravely. I could only hope that she too, her brother and her mother, had managed to survive till VE Day.
Image: Advertisement of property sale of Villa Monte Cristo, indicating Carlo’s cottage and Villa Monte Cristo
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Monte San Martino Trust Regd. Charity No. 328352
In 1990 an influential group of former escapers, including some from Fontanellato, formed this Trust. As a small, but tangible, expression of deep gratitude its funds provide Bursaries for the grandchildren of the fugitives’ wartime helpers to come to Britain to improve their English and to meet English people.
By 1995, the 52nd Anniversary of the Italian Armistice, the Trust had granted 40 such Bursaries. More are planned for 1996.
I am depositing two copies of this story in the Trust’s Library. It is hoped that the Imperial War Museum will be its eventual depository. The Secretary of the Trust is Keith Killby (ex SAS) of 18, Lambolle Road, London NW3 4HP.
T Vickers April 1996
Wood End, Worplesdon, Surrey GU3 3RJ Tel: 0143-233468
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I have compiled two maps of my travels. First: a small scale one (1:3,000,000) of Northern Italy, highlighting its international frontiers in pink and showing in dark blue Italy’s longest river, the Po, rising near Mt. Viso in the Cottian Alps near the frontier with France and flowing for 355 miles through Piedmont and the plain of Lombardy to its mouth in the Adriatic. (The river Thames, by comparison, is 210 miles long.) The second, seven and a half times larger (scale 1:400,000), is confined to my journeys on foot south of the Po. The principal towns and villages named in my story are ringed in red. For lack of space, I have regretfully had to omit the many hamlets (paesettis), eg. Monastero di Gravago, Pieve di Cusignano and Temossi, whose names receive an honourable mention in my account.
There were eight distinct stages in my travels. As the crow flies, their respective distances in miles were:
|1). Fontanellato to Monastero di Gravago (MG), on foot||28|
|2). Gravago (MG) to Temossi, on foot||35|
|3). Temossi to Gravago (MG), on foot||35|
|4). Gravago (MG) to Caurso, on foot||32|
|5). Caurso to Milan, by car||56|
|6). Milan to Monza, on foot||12|
|7). Monza to Como, by train||17|
|8). Como to the frontier, by bicycle and on foot||5|
Total distance -220 miles
Of that total I covered, as the crow flies, some 145 miles on foot. Given the roundabout, zig-zag, uphill and downdale nature of the hill-walking I estimate I actually covered some 200 miles on my feet. For that I blessed the rugged, black, British army-issue boots, which my family included in one of their clothes parcels sent to me via the Red Cross early in 1943. They were in very good condition, when my travels began in September 1943 and when they ended ten weeks later. My 1942 pair of soft-soled desert boots would not have survived nearly so well, if at all.
Tom Vickers, 28th September 1995
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Map: showing Fontanellato and escape routes in northern Italy
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Larger scale map
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Books by Escapers from Fontanellato:
1964 Stuart Hood, M.B.E., “Pebbles From My Skull”. Hutchinson.
1971 Eric Newby, M.C., “Love and War in the Appennines”, Hodder & Stoughton.
1973 Tony Davies, “When The Moon Rises”. Leo Cooper
1983 Philip Kindersley, “For You The War Is Over”. Midas.
1994 lan English, M.C.**, “Assisted Passage”. Privately.
The essential, overall study of escape and survival in Italy 1943-45 is Roger Absalom’s “A Strange Alliance”, 1990, published in Florence in 1991.
Of the five authors from PG 49 and the eight members of Ronnie Orr-Ewing’s section, six, i.e. Stuart, Ian, Jack, Tony Kinsman, Desmond and Carol, reached or were reached by the advancing Allied Forces between October 1943 and August 1944; four, i.e. Ronnie, Philip, Eric and Tony Davies, were recaptured before the end of 1943 and spent the rest of the war in German POW camps; the remaining two, i.e. Richard Brooke and myself, crossed the Italian frontier into neutral Switzerland in late 1943.