Major Mick Wagner and his two companions, John Maides and Bill Bulmer, were captured in the Western Desert around the end of 1941. Shortly after, they were taken to Campo P.G. No. 19 at Bologna, where they remained until their escape in early September 1943. Mick and his fellow officers spent nine months attempting to evade capture behind the German lines. They were helped in this task by Italians from a wide range of social backgrounds, including the Italian peasantry, and a Contessa. After reaching San Cataldo, the three spent some time hiding in the mountains with members of the Italian Resistance, as well as some fellow South African and Yugoslavian soldiers, before deciding to make their final escape by sea in May 1944.
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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[handwritten text] Wagner
A Long, Long Way To Go Home
An account by John Maides, Bill Bulmer and Mick Wagner of their capture in the Western Desert around the end of 1941, their imprisonment in Italy, their escape in early September 1943 from Bologna and of the nine months they spent behind the German lines in the mountains of central Italy before their final escape by sea in May 1944.
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[handwritten text] Their escape onwards only.
April 1990 – copied with permission of Major Mick Wagner M.B.E.
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Chapter Three – Escape from Bologna and through Emilia-Romagna to San Marino.
In Campo P.G. No. 19 at Bologna, we had, as usual, been getting news through various reliable sources and we were waiting expectantly for the final collapse in Italy. Everyone was fairly unsettled and on edge and we were all wondering what would be the fate of our camp – would we be able to hold on until our own troops arrived, which we thought at the time could be within a few days, or would the Germans try to take us all to Germany. The Senior British Officer (SBO) of the camp had plans cut and dried for immediate action and dispersal in the event of foreknowledge of any German take-over attempt (this notwithstanding the general ‘stand-fast’ order that had been secretly conveyed to SBO’s of prison camps in Italy). We had all anticipated difficulties at Bologna as we knew the area was full of German troops.
We were playing baseball on the evening of 8th September when three Italian officers came into the camp and asked to see the SBO. Ten minutes later he announced that there had been an armistice. The camp took it very calmly, except for a certain amount of cheering. There was a conference of senior officers and it was decided that a Red Cross food parcel would be issued per man and that we should pack a few necessities to be ready to move out of the camp at dawn the next morning. Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned and the reason, as we were to learn a little later, was duplicity on the part of certain Italian officers.
At about 1.30 a.m. we were woken by the alarm – everyone had been sleeping in their clothes – and we lost no time in grabbing our kit and getting outside as quickly as possible, though we did not really know what was going on. We were in dormitories of about twenty and ours was the end one in the block furthest from the main gate. By the time we emerged, people were getting out of the camp in three places. Most of us had barely reached the wire before the shooting started all round the camp and bullets were flying up the four roads which surrounded it. A few of us, including Mick, had crossed the road before the firing started and some had got through the hedges beyond. However, Germans appeared all round the camp and almost everyone was herded back inside and put between the outer and inner barbed wire perimeter fences. There, the Germans guarded us with machine guns and tommy guns.
Before being round up from under a hedge some way from the camp, Mick had made brief contact with an Italian who had emerged just before the firing started and had managed to ask where assistance might be found. He was told of a big villa nearby occupied by people called Medici who were known to be sympathetic and anti-German.
While we waited between the wire, the entire Italian guard and all the office staff of the camp were locked in their barrack blocks by the Germans and their arms were taken away. We stayed between the fire for the rest of the night, all very fed up, but rather impressed by the efficient way the Germans had taken over the camp. We wondered what they would do with us the next day. Rather to our surprise, at about 6.30 a.m., we were allowed back into our barrack blocks and camp life carried on almost as usual. There was no morning roll call as all the records had been destroyed. Fortunately, the SBO had seen to this as soon as he had been told of the armistice. Instead of the usual slovenly looking Italians, we now had rather efficient German guards around the wire and manning the sentry towers.
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During the morning, those who had managed to get across the road were brought in by the Germans; all except for three or four were retaken. At lunchtime, details of what had happened were taking shape. The Germans had evidently been told by certain Italian officers that a mass break from our camp was expected and so the Germans had surrounded the camp with troops, armoured cars and guns. When they discovered that we were not armed, orders were given to shoot high, but this order came only after one officer had been killed and several wounded. The Germans apologised for this the next morning and also said they had had the camp surrounded since the previous afternoon. So, if this was true, our camp had not had much chance in the escape line.
During the rest of the day, the three of us, together with Peter Laidler and Alistair Capes talked things over. Of one thing we were certain; we had no desire to spend any longer as prisoners than we could help and, if we did not get away in the next few days, we would find ourselves in Germany. Then there would be even less chance of escape than there had been before the armistice in Italy, for we were pretty certain that the camp would be moved in the next few days. We had no time to waste.
That evening, we discovered a small trap door leading up into the roof space over the wash places. There seemed quite a good chance that the Germans would miss this in any normal search as they were not familiar with the buildings, so we decided that the five of us would hide in there shortly before the camp was to be moved. We kept the whole business as secret as possible for so many attempted escapes had failed during our prison life because too many people were in the know.
At about 11 o’clock the next morning, the camp was given the instructions to pack one piece of hand luggage per man and to be ready to move at 1 p.m. The time had come. We had a quick brew of tea said ‘goodbye and good luck’ to those around us and climbed up into the roof and shut the trap door. We found we could see quite well with the help of the small beams of light coming through the air vents in the roof. We had all put on rubber-soled shoes so that we could move silently and we soon discovered that the roof space was divided into partitions which continued right round the U-shaped building. We settled ourselves into the first of these next to the trapdoor above the wash house. It was not very comfortable as we had to sit on the concrete beams, there being no floor to sit on.
We collected all our kit and food around us so that we would not have to move about later. The three of us were against one wall, with Peter Laidler and Alistair Capes opposite against another. We then had a meal of biscuits, cheese and bully. There was still plenty of noise going on down below from the officers in our room who were waiting to be taken away. At about 2 p.m., we heard the noise of motor trucks and German voices and after that there was another half hour of shouting and feet tramping through the building. Our friends were being loaded into trucks which soon started up and moved out of the camp; then there was silence. We waited, rather tensely, wondering what would happen next.
About ten minutes later, we heard two Germans enter our block and walk slowly through the rooms until they were right under us. We could hear them talking quietly. They then went into the wash room and we hardly dared breathe, wondering if they would notice the trap door in the corner. Finally, we heard their footsteps growing fainter and fainter and they left the building; we all relaxed and laughed with relief. Things seemed to be going pretty well
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and if this was the search we had all feared, we thought we had nothing much to worry about. For the next hour, everything was quiet in our building, but we could hear shouting from other parts of the camp. We knew that there were several other officers in hiding around the camp and we learned later that all but two of the hideouts were discovered. Those unfortunate enough to be found had a very nasty time. One chap had himself buried just below ground and breathed through a tube – he was discovered by dogs; three or four others, who had found a hiding place below the cookhouse floor, went undiscovered and got away, we met up with them later not far from Bologna.
For us in the roof space, time was passing incredibly slowly. The attic was like an oven and sweat was pouring down our faces and bodies though we had stripped to the waist. We were very thirsty, but we had no idea how long we might have to stay up there so we had to ration our water very strictly. In the middle of the afternoon, we heard some trucks drive into the camp again. This time it was a group of Germans who seemed to be the worse for wine. They were shouting, singing and shooting off their guns. They were the first of a continuous stream of looters that kept coming for the rest of the evening. The noise below was terrific – smashing glass, stamping feet and splitting wood as they broke open our cupboards and boxes. Mick had got his precious clarinet with him in the loft so was not worrying on that score, but there was music from gramophones, trumpets and accordions, with the occasional burst of automatic fire echoing through the buildings.
We could imagine the scene below far too vividly. All the possessions we had managed to collect during our prison life, which meant almost as much to us as life itself, were being wantonly destroyed, while in our loft we sat stiff and cramped – unable to speak or move – and half expecting at any moment that a stream of bullets would come whistling through the thin plaster ceiling. We lay there for seven hours with one short interval of about five minutes when the camp was quiet. About midnight, the last loot-laden and drunken party left our building. We waited for a while and then decided that one of us must go down through the trap door to see what was happening in the camp and whether it would be possible for us to get out through the wire that night. We drew lots and Bill was chosen. We quietly opened the trap and let him down. The noise we made sounded terrific but he got to the ground safely and quietly vanished from our limited view. Time dragged by slowly, we were all tense and worried, but at last we saw him standing below us grinning from ear to ear! We hauled him up into the roof again and he told us what he had seen. He had crept from room to room through our building to the main entrance, and then into the main square. All the perimeter lights were on and one building, at the far side of the camp, was also lit up. He had seen the German sentries in the main entrance through the wire and there was also some motor transport standing outside what had been the Commandant’s office.
Bill had also heard German voice in the building next to ours. This was rather a blow to us and we decided against trying to get out that night; we would stay and get as much rest as we could. In spite of having only a nine inch wide concrete beam as a bed, we were so tired that we all managed to get a little sleep. By 5 a.m., we were all wide awake again. With all appearing to be still in the camp, we decided to go down with the bucket and our bottles to replenish our water supply as it was getting very low. It was quite light outside. All went well. We had some food and stretched our legs and were back in the roof before we heard any sounds in the camp.
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That day seemed endless and the intense heat of the loft was almost unbearable. We agreed that, at all costs, we would get out that evening when things were quiet. We decided, if possible, to leave at dusk so that we could get out before the perimeter and other lights came on at 8 p.m. We got ourselves ready, repacked our haversacks – mainly with food, washing things and a change of underclothes and spare socks. A lot had to be left behind, including Mick’s clarinet (which he tried to recover on going to Bologna in June 1945, but sadly he found the camp was a heap of rubble). At 7.30, John went down for a quick reconnaissance; it was almost dusk and the camp seemed quiet. The two sentries were still on the main gate but we decided we must go now or never.
As we climbed down through the trap door, one of the pair of boots that we were carrying round our shoulders slipped and fell to the ground with a frightful clatter which seemed to echo all through the building. We froze and were all conscious of our pounding heartbeats. The seconds passed but all was still and we sighed with relief. Then we crept in single file through the rooms which, only forty eight hours before, had been so familiar to us. Now they were silent and strange – strewn with broken furniture, torn clothing and papers and booked in heaps where the Germans had thrown them. In spite of the intense excitement of the moment, we all had a feeling of loss, hatred and anger at this wanton destruction. Though seemingly of little value, all those things that we had accumulated over those long months and managed to hold on to had become very important to us.
But time now was too short to waste on such thoughts and we climbed quietly through a window and crossed over to the next building. We climbed in and went down a passage that led to an outside door, where we would have to cross a strip of grass about twenty feet wide to get to the first wire fence. Just as we opened the door, up went the light around the camp – nobody spoke a word but we all realised that now our chances of covering those last few yards would depend purely and simply on what luck was left.
Mick went first and was watched with baited breath as, half crouching and clearly visible in the lights, he ran to the wire. John was next, and as he crossed from that door to where Mick was waiting, he felt as if all the German army must see him and expected to hear the rattle of automatics at any moment. John reached Mick and together they forced themselves under the wire and slipped into the shadow of an old guard house. The others followed one by one, with no mishaps, incredibly enough. Our next task was to force the gate through the brick wall. We did this with an iron rod which we had brought along for the job: it made quite a noise but our luck still held. Now there remained only the outer wire fence and this proved more difficult; only after several minutes of work, which seemed like hours, did we manage to force a way under it. We were out of the camp at last. It was the most wonderful feeling after so long and the very air smelt somehow clean and fresh.
We ran across the road and quickly made our way through a convenient opening in the hedge. We dropped to the ground and lay still on the other side when we heard the tramp of feet, not daring to move a muscle. John, who had been caught half kneeling and half crouching, was fearful of losing his balance, but once again the danger passed as the two German sentries continued up the road. We realised then that there were roving sentries who were now passing the place where we had got through the wire only a few seconds before. It was pure good fortune that we had struck the right moment to get through
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when the sentries had been round the corner and the wall had obscured their view.
By now, it was quite dark, but it was a clear night and we could see without difficulty. We had decided to contact the Medici family whom Mick had heard about during his short time outside the camp three days before. Their estate abutted the camp and we were confident that we would get some help. Other than that, our plans were very vague. We decided to split up and meet again close to the large house that we had seen from the camp which was partially hidden in pine trees. We crossed the field and scrambled through a hedge. In the wood, it was dark and full of noises – rustling branches and falling pine cones. It sounded as if the wood was full of searching troops creeping stealthily after us. Mick and Alistair were close to the house, standing under a tree when John joined them after quite a search. Bill and Peter arrived soon after. We could see the house quite clearly in the moonlight. It was a beautiful old building set in a lawn.
Alistair, who spoke fairly good Italian, went up to the house and vanished round the back. An old servant had opened the door to him and had become very frightened when he saw his uniform. It was with difficult that Alistair persuaded him to go and ask his master to come and see him. When the servant came back it was with a message say he should return in an hour’s time. Alistair rejoined the rest of us to report progress. When he returned, he was asked into the house and led into a large comfortable drawing room where he was greeted by a man of about sixty, his wife and their two daughters. They all spoke very good English. Some wine was produced and Alistair was asked to sit down. He told them that he was one of five British officers who had escaped from the camp and asked if they could help in any way.
They told him how very dangerous it was for them to have him in their house; only this morning, the Germans had been searching and had warned them that they would be shot if they were found helping any escaping British prisoners. But they suggested we should hide in one of their maize fields where they would feed us while they tried to sort out some civilian clothes and a work out a route for us to follow. The two girls said, empathetically, that Alistair must shave off his beard and they took him to a bathroom. After much laughing and noise, the beard that he had been so proud of was no more. He returned to the rest of us about three quarters of an hour later, clean shaven and with a flagon of excellent red wine which we were certainly very glad to drink.
Some ten minutes later, one of the sisters who was tall, slim and very fair came out and led us down a path, through a wood, and over a railway line to the maize field. The maize was some eight feet high and was quite a good place to hide – so long as there was not a really thorough search. The girl said goodnight with a smile and told us we must be quiet as there was a German patrol which came regularly along the railway line. After she had left, we crawled into the centre of the maize and found it provided perfect cover and that we could even stand with no fear of being seen.
We made ourselves comfortable and decided it was time for some food. It was some hours since we had last eaten. Each of us had roughly enough food to last some ten to fourteen days – mostly bully beef, biscuits and chocolate. We found we were all hungry and it went down very well. Afterwards, we talked and smoked for a while until we decided it was high time to get some sleep. For that, it wasn’t the best of places. There were too many mosqui-
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toes and there would be a heavy morning dew, but we were tired out. We were well concealed and, above all, we were free. The mosquitoes were in fact the very devil, but we covered ourselves as best we could and finally slept.
John was the first to wake, just before dawn. He was soaked with dew, very cold and covered with lumps from mosquito bites. He tried to doze off, but without success, and he longed for the sun to rise and to get warm. The rest of us were soon awake. We warmed up as the sun rose and the day dragged by getting hotter and hotter. There was nothing to do but wait and hope that we would not be discovered. Peasants were working in the part of the field that was not covered by maize, so we kept as quiet as possible, not knowing at the time that they knew we were there and were keeping strangers as far away from us as possible.
At about midday, we heard a soft voice calling from the edge of the maize, ‘inglesi, inglesi.’ We wondered what was wrong and whistled softly back. Then we saw the maize moving and a smiling peasant woman appeared carrying a basket. She put this down and told us that the two signorinas would be coming at 5 in the afternoon; she wished us good fortune and went the way she had come. The basket, much to our delight, contained two flagons of wine, bread, cheese and some grapes. We made short work of it, especially the wine, as we had not had anything to drink since the night before and our thirst was almost unbearable. We were counting the minutes to five o’clock and to pass the time we sorted out our kit again as we still had more than we could carry comfortably. We cut down to the essentials of which we though food the most important, including some coffee, chocolate, tobacco and cigarettes. Spare socks and a few other items of clothing, along with our shaving gear, were included. John also put in his sewing kit which turned out to be most useful. By the time we had finished, we all had roughly the same.
At last, the two girls arrived half an hour late as they had to dodge a German patrol on the way. They had brought some old clothes which we divided up amongst us. Alistair already had the suit that had been to him at the house the previous night. John was probably the smartest, in a light blue shirt and drill slacks. Bill was the only one still in anything resembling uniform, as none of the clothes would fit him. But that was soon remedied; the girls called one of the peasants over. He was a biggish man and he swapped his old jacket and trousers for Bill’s battle dress. We all looked very odd, but after a lot of laughter, the girls said we would do!
They told us they had made enquiries and they thought our best plan would be to make for the Republic of San Marino and, if possible, to stay there until our troops arrived. At that time, and for the following weeks, we believed that the Germans would retire north, following on the Italian armistice, and that in the general confusion our troops would occupy Italy very rapidly. How wrong we were was to become clear as the weeks passed. The girls gave us a list of the name of villages and small towns on our route that they thought would be non-fascist and where, so far as they knew, no Germans were stationed. Our main danger, they thought, would be from German patrols and the fascist element. The ordinary people of the fields and farms were our safest bet; and village priests, all of whom, of course, were Catholics. Travelling by train down to the south of Italy was also suggested as worth trying, but it could be very dangerous. They told us the name of the station we might use which was on our route and about seven miles away. We made a small mental note of it.
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It was high time that we got started, so we gave the girls some coffee, tea and cigarettes, with which they were overjoyed, and also gave all the clothes and oddments that we could not carry. After a few very inadequate words of thanks, we said goodbye. We had decided to split up and Alistair and Peter left first. Five minutes later, the three of us wandered out at the other end of the maize and set off across the field. The road was about a hundred yards to our left and as Peter and Alistair had gone to the other side, we decided to keep to the road where a track was running through the fields and the railway line was well out of sight on our right. It was about half past six and the sun was still up. This was our first breath of real freedom and it was wonderful, even though we felt a little conspicuous. The country here was rather flat, but also very attractive, with its green and brown fields broken up by orchards and occasional vines of white and black grapes with which we quenched our thirst as we walked on.
After about an hour, during which time the only people we saw were peasants still working the fields, we came to a small river. To cross it, we had to go back to the road and over the bridge. It was all very simple and the only people we saw called out ‘Buona sera ragazzi’ – good evening youngsters. We soon found ourselves in a small village, which was really just a few small farms and one or two cottages, with a church at the far end. To one side of a small cottage, was a pig, a few chickens and Pete and Alistair drinking wine with a very aged priest! They were surrounded by several old men and women and numerous incredibly dirty children. They called us over and gave us some wine.
By this time, we had decided that we all needed some form of hat; firstly, to complete our rather dubious disguise and secondly to keep the sun off our heads. After much gesticulating and pointing, three very ancient and dirty looking hats appeared. We traded them in return for two bars of soap. We put them on. John reckoned we now looked like natives and our confidence rose. This had been the first village on our route and after having extracted all the information we could from these people, we all set out together. Pete and Alistair led the way by about a hundred yards. We had all decided to make for a small railway station which, according to the priest, would be safe and would take us to the south. He had told us it was an hour or so away and gave us our route, telling us what to ask for. The railways, he said, were still being run by Italians and, with luck, we wouldn’t run into any Germans.
We walked pretty fast, keeping to the lanes, but it grew dark before we reached the first village on our route and we lost ourselves. Alistair had to ask the way several times. He was the only one of us who could really understand Italian at that time and he was also the most elegant of us, which was not saying much. At last, as we came down a lane, we could make out a little ahead of us a level crossing and the country station with a platform. At one end was the small house where, presumably, the station master and his family lived. We found the platform crowded with what were obviously
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remnants of the disintegrating Italian army, all trying to get away to their homes before the Germans caught up with them. As we looked rather similar, there was nothing much to fear. In any case, nobody seemed interested in us except for a few who greeted us with ‘buona sera’.
After waiting until after eleven with no sign of a train, Alistair decided to risk asking whether there was going to be one. He came back and told us that there had not been a train through since the day before, but there might be another in a day or two. With this news, we abandoned the idea of a train and, after a drink of water from the pump, went on for a mile or so across country until we found a suitable clump of bushes where we could lie up for the night. We put on all the clothing we could but did not get much sleep as it was very cold and wet.
We woke the next morning feeling very stiff. Bill had been the first awake and was stamping his feet and slapping his arms round his body when John joined him. They filled their pipes and wandered round the fringe of the night’s camp to see what the surrounding countryside was like. It was very flat, the only cover being the hedges around the large fields, most of which had been newly ploughed. There was a small stream to the east and there were several farms in sight. The nearest was about a quarter of a mile away and we could see the smoke starting to curl up from the large red chimney. The others were awake by this time and after a hurried breakfast of condensed milk, biscuits and bully, we all packed our things ready to start.
We had decided that it would be foolish to travel together as we attracted too much attention, so we split up again into the same two groups. Pete and Alistair said they were going a little north and then east, and would meet us in San Marino. The three of us watched them as they crossed the field to our left and slowly vanished out of sight. Though we did not know it then, that was to be the last time we saw them in Italy. We laughed at their comic figures – Pete in his very old battered panama hat, black naval trousers, blue sweater and white and, very worn, tennis shoes (he had lost his boots from around his neck when he was crawling through the wire) and Alistair who looked out of place beside him, in his smart Italian style suit and attaché case. We felt rather sad when they had gone. We had all been together so long and our life in the prison camp had only been made bearable by the friends we passed our time with.
We waited for a few minutes and then the three of us set off. We would walk for two hours and then rest for ten minutes, and after that, do one hour stretches with five minutes rest in between. We followed the hedge to the stream and crossed it by a wooden plank. After about three hours, we left the area of large cultivated fields and found ourselves travelling through vineyards. These gave good cover, but instead of going in a straight line, we had to follow the paths around the rows of vines or zigzag amongst them. This made the going very slow. It seemed that we had to walk two or more miles to make one mile forward!
All three of us were in great spirits, full of the joy of our freedom. The air was sweet and the sun was warm on our bodies. When it was time for a short rest, we lay in the soft grass, with vines for shade, and were able to reach up above our heads to pluck bunches of sweet green or black grapes to quench our thirst. We passed a number of peasants during the morning. They mostly waved to us and some called out ‘buongiorno, buona fortuna’.
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During our third halt, an old man, who was working among the vines, came over with his flask of wine and told us to drink. He obviously did not quite know what to make of us, having presumably thought when he first came to see us that we were some of the many Italian soldiers who had deserted and were on their way home. He asked, ‘Dove andante?’ – Where are you going? We answered south but that we came from Boizano in the north and that was why we did not speak the same Italian as he did. He believed us, much to our surprise, and we found later that the average peasant knew little to nothing of the Italy that lay more than a few miles from their homes. Before we parted, he gave us a small cheese and some bread.
This encounter helped to raise our confidence and we gave up our former practice of purposely avoiding the locals as this seemed far more likely to cause comment. We also made up our minds to try one of the farms for a meal at midday, if we could find one that seemed lonely enough that is. We eventually saw what we thought was a suitable one. It was partially hidden by trees, but from where we could see it, it was fairly large with two conical ricks of straw or hay nearby. By comparison with most farms we had passed, it was fairly isolated, so if we got a hostile reception and they wanted to call for aid then we would have time to make a getaway.
We approached the farm fairly boldly and went into the yard where a scraggy black mongrel dog, which was chained to a post, started barking furiously. Soon after, a short, fat peasant woman came out and screamed something at the dog. She turned, looked up at us, and said, ‘Buongiorno raggazzi’ – What do you want? Mick replied in his best Italian, asking if we could have some water and if we could buy some bread and cheese. She laughed and beckoned us through the door. We dropped the things we were carrying on the flagstones and followed her into her large kitchen where there was a rough stone hearth with an enormous iron pot hanging from a chain over a small fire. The room was very hot and full of files. Evidently, we had arrived just as the family were about to have the big meal of the day – perfectly timed!
There were three women and two men – one in his fifties and one about twenty – and two very dirty children. It was a small family compared with many we came across later. They invited us to sit down at the table with them and they pushed glasses and a jug of wine over to us. The old man told us the wine was ‘vine crudo’ – just made and not very good. It was only partially fermented; a cross between grape juice and wine, but it was very refreshing nonetheless. Then they asked numerous questions – Where were we going? Where had we come from? How long would the war last? Had we escaped from the Germans? Were we English? When we admitted we were they got very excited and patted our backs and shook our hands, much to our embarrassment. They told us we were safe with them and that there were very few Germans in the area.
While we were talking, and the conversation was not nearly as fluent as this makes it sound, the women lifted the huge pot from the fire and put it down by the table. With a ladle, they filled their bowls to the brim with a soup made with a kind of macaroni, with dried beans and vegetables, and flavoured with meat. They told us it was minestra. To us, it seemed a most wonderful meal, and for the first time in nearly two years, we ate
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as much food as we could manage. When we failed halfway through our second or third plateful, they were all most concerned. They thought we were being polite or that we did not like the food. Mick, whose Italian we had largely come to rely on, had quite a time trying to explain that after two years of starvation, our appetites were now very small. So they took away the plates and heaped bunches of black grapes on the table and told us we must eat them as they were from their special vine. They were delicious – very large, with a wonderful flavour, and we were able to eat enough to satisfy them.
After the meal, we shared some of our precious English cigarettes with the men. They were delighted and told us that tobacco was very scarce, and very bad, and that our cigarettes were the best they had ever smoked! Looking back, we all wonder how we managed to understand them. Our Italian was poor – but with simple words, we managed amazingly well. Later, we found that the average peasant’s vocabulary was pretty small and that a single word accompanied by various movements went quite a long way. When we were ready to depart on our way once more, they gave us a cheese made of goats’ milk and a loaf of home baked bread. Then the whole family came out to wave goodbye to us and stood in a group by the door until we were out of sight.
We were in great spirits as we walked on through the vineyards, partly due, perhaps, to being almost drunk with food, but mainly because we now realised that could hope for help from the country people. We had put about three miles between us and the farm when the effect of the sun and our meal become just too much for us and so, having chosen a fairly hidden spot, we lay in the shade of the vines and slept. It was late afternoon when we awoke and started walking again. We decided we must go on for another three hours – until dusk – when we would look for a barn to sleep in as the nights were very cold and wet. Just as we started to look for a suitable place, we found ourselves on the outskirts of a small town. It was just getting dark, which left us with the choice of either retracing our footsteps to one of the farms we had passed earlier or chance getting to the other side of this town before it was really dark.
We went on, but we had only moved a few hundred yards when we found our way barred by a wire fence. We climbed over it, only to find another! There were several houses around us and a road over to our right. We thought the road would be a good thing to make for as we could probably reach the open country again by going along it. We had almost reached the road when we saw two cyclists approaching along it. Instinctively, we dropped flat in the grass and watched as two Carabinieri [Italian Military Police], with rifles slung over their shoulders, road past us. It was a close shave, but they had not seen us, and all was well.
We got onto the road and walked away as quickly as we could. We soon came into a fork, and by a majority of two to one, the vote went in favour of taking the left hand branch. Before we could proceed, a cyclist came by. He looked at us and then stopped a few yards further on. He then turned and came back and proceeded to ask us questions that we could not understand. We stalled and were ready to try and bluff him when, suddenly, in fairly good English, he said, ‘You are English prisoners, yes? Do not worry, I am a friend.’ We admitted that he was right – we were English POWs. He said we must go with him as there had
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been several German cars and a number of German soldiers in the village that day and that it was not a safe village for us to be in. He told us that he was a doctor and that we could sleep in the barn behind the house where he lived. At that time, we were not altogether sure about him, but if he was speaking the truth about the Germans, we had better not risk wandering around by ourselves in the area.
We arrived at his home and he took us into a quite pleasant room. He asked us to sit down to a cold meal accompanied by some very good wine. The conversation was general – about England Italy. He told us he was Jewish and hated the Germans and was very frightened for himself and his house but, most important for us, he said that if we could hide during the following morning then he would get a map and compass for us together. He also said he would get as much information as he could from the hospital where he worked. Then, all of a sudden, he began showing signs of worry about us being in his house and he took us out to the barn. We climbed a ladder into a hay loft and he followed to see that we were well hidden. He left and said he would be back early the next morning.
The hay was soft, fragrant and warm, and after two cold nights in the open, we all slept very soundly. We did not wake the next morning until the doctor arrived at the top of the ladder and the sun was well up. He gave us some bread and fruit and sat with us while we ate. He then told us that we must leave the barn as it would not be safe during the day. However, he would take us to a place where we could spend the morning until he returned from the hospital. It was about five minutes away, in a hollow beside a river, and we had to force our way through thick bushes to get to it. He left us then and we had a very peaceful morning. First, we swarm in the shallow water washing the sweat and dirt from our bodies and then we lay naked in the warmth of the sun; it did us a power of good.
It seemed to us then a waste of valuable travelling time, but the much needed map and compass would be well worth waiting for and, in any case, a few more hours rest would help our very sore and blistered feet. While we waited, we took the opportunity to further reduce the weight of our bundles, eating as much of the tinned food as we could and keeping just one tin each for emergency rations, together with a small supply of chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar. We also had a pound of tobacco with us and several hundred cigarettes. We put some of this together with the remainder of the coffee and chocolate etc. we put in a separate bundle to be used for giving to people who helped us later.
It was well on into the afternoon, and we were beginning to feel restless, when we heard a soft call from the other side of the bushes and then the doctor appeared. He looked agitated but he had kept his word; from his coat pocket, he produced an old touring map of Italy and also a small cheap, compass. He told us there were a number of Germans on the roads and seemed anxious that we should be on our way. We were no less impatient to get started as we wanted to cover as much ground as possible in the three or four hours of daylight still left. After we had thanked him and had given him some coffee, we prepared to leave, but he would not let us go until he had embraced us each in turn and wished us, in Italian, very good fortune.
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We crossed the river and continued due east. Imola, the little town on the outskirts of which we had spent the night, was now behind us. We found the countryside unchanging in aspect – green vineyard after vineyard, with farms dotted fairly thickly around. With about half an hour of daylight left, we came to a fairly secluded farm and decided to try it for the night. The reception the occupants gave us was, at first, one of distrust and there were a few very awkward moments, but once they were satisfied we were English, it was all smiles and friendliness. Wine, bread and cheese were produced for us; it was a beautiful evening and we sat outside with the family talking and drinking wine with them.
That night, we again slept in a hay barn. We were woken very early the next morning – the sun was not yet up and it was still quite dark out. Evidently, the family had been about for some time. We washed ourselves in the cold water that an old man had brought us from a well in the yard. Then the daughter gave us hot milk with slices of bread and honey. While we ate, they gathered around us, talking and laughing amongst themselves. After we had eaten, it was time for our departure, and amidst pats, handshakes and smiles, we walked across their vineyards and then into their neighbour’s with cries of ‘bon viaggio’ ringing in our ears.
With our compass and map, we could now plan our route which, for the present, would continue on a line a little to the south of east, and to the north of the main Bologna-Rimini road. We would continue across country, avoiding villages and roads, as much as possible. We gained a new found confidence from our friendly reception from the country; as long as we were careful in the selection of people from whom we asked for help, and with some luck, we should be able to keep out of danger. We walked and walked and walked, crossing small streams, lanes, fields and vineyards. Sometimes, we followed footpaths, sometimes not, but all the time keeping as close as we could to a route running a little to the south of east. We agreed to halt every two hours for five minutes rest but found that we could not keep this up; our feet were sore and in the dusty heat, we found progress slow.
After two days, we were at last getting close to Rimini and would soon have to cross the railway and then the main road to the south of us in order to complete the remaining miles to San Marino. We slept that night under an old cart, close to the road, but well hidden from it by a bank and some bushes. We awoke very early, cold and stiff. After having eaten some bread and chocolate, we made our way to the edge of the road – but kept out of sight of anyone on it. It was barely daylight but the passage of German and Italian transport was almost continuous. At last, the road in each direction was empty and up and over we ran, hurling ourselves up the opposite bank and through into the tall grass on the other side. We then headed more or less due south into hilly farmland until about midday when, right on top of a high hill, we saw a medieval town – it was San Marino at last, silhouetted against the blue sky. We picked our way carefully up the very steep hillside until we came to a stone wall, over which we climbed onto the narrow road, twisting up and up towards the archway leading through the wall encircling the town of San Marino itself.
We decided to walk boldly in and see what happened. We went through the picturesque gateway and up through the narrow street. People looked at us curiously but did not speak. We eventually arrived at the very top by the beautiful church where we stopped and gazed over the old stone
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wall at the magnificent view that stretched for miles below us. After a few minutes of being watched by a group of San Marino people, they approached us cautiously to find out who we were. We heard later that they thought we might be Germans and were as apprehensive as we were ourselves. As soon as they were convinced that we were English, their reception was quite overwhelming. We were taken into a house and a bottle of sparkling Italian wine appeared. Everyone tried to pat us on the back, shake our hands and kiss us; they were all happy and laughing.
We were then served a magnificent meal accompanied by great quantities of wine. All the time, others kept arriving and wanted to shake our hands and drink our health. It was a very crowded and convivial occasion. The three of us were beginning to feel a bit worse for wear, but only much later were we shown to a room where we were allowed to sleep it off – and on real beds too! While we slept, the worthy burghers would consider what best to do with us. San Marino was still, at that time, a nominally independent republic and had not, so far, been taken over by the Germans or the recently formed fascist puppet government.
When we were awoken, we were told that arrangements had been made for us to stay on a farm not far away. We were then led through the narrow streets, past what seemed to us like the whole populace, to the city wall. There was cheering and handshakes the whole way, and then we were taken along a track for about a mile or so into the country below, eventually coming to a farm on the side of a hill that was still within the confines of the Republic.
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Chapter Four – San Marino and through the Marche to San Cataldo
We stayed with that hospitable family for the next twelve days. The farmer and his wife were comparatively young and they had a lot of children ranging from babies to teenagers. There were grandparents and other relatives living with them. With such a large number – and with most of them contributing in one way or another to the running of the farm – the three of us did not impose too much of a burden, and we were fed and looked after very well. There were even two beds in the little room they gave over to us; we took it in turns to be the one who slept on the floor. Beds were a novel comfort. Until then, it had usually been in the open, in a hayloft, or in straw amongst cattle. We helped as much as we could on the farm, collecting bundles of bean foliage and chopping it up together with straw in a special hand-turned machine. We fed the mixture to the draught oxen and the couple or so of breeding cows. Mick even helped once at the birth of a calf, pulling desperately at its front legs as it emerged, glistening and slippery, from its mother.
It was here that we used to watch the performance of the domestic chores and we learned quite a lot about the local way of life. The bread was baked in beehive ovens, pre-heated with bundles of brushwood (frasci); the hard cheese, used for grating like parmigiano, was made by laboriously squeezing the whey from clotted cheese made from sheep’s milk. After the bread was baked (oh the delicious smell!) into the still hot oven would go tray after tray of those plum-shaped tomatoes which, when desiccated, would be rubbed through a wire sleeve to produce the ‘conserva’ (puree) that was a vital ingredient of their cooking. The tagliatelle for the upmarket ‘pasta asciutta’ was made by rolling out vast sheets of dough and leaving them to dry for a while over the backs of chairs etc. The sheets would then be rolled up and cut like a swiss roll to produce the long strips. Richard Dimbleby couldn’t have fooled us with his stories of spaghetti growing on trees! [Reference to the ‘Spaghetti-tree hoax’, a three minute hoax report broadcast on April Fools’ Day 1957 by BBC Panorama, purportedly showing a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from the family ‘spaghetti tree’. Richard Dimbleby, a respected broadcaster, provided the voice-over for this report, giving it an air of authenticity] When we got pasta asciutta it was a real treat; generally, we had to be content with polenta (maize meal porridge) or watery minestra – a sort of watered down minestrone with bits of pasta floating in it.
There was always plenty of wine. We had it first thing in the morning with a few hunks of bread; at midday with bread and cheese or salami and at night with the main meal of the day. We particularly remember one such evening meal; we were having polenta and, as usual, this was cooked in a big cauldron above the open fire, the maize meal being added a bit at a time until a thick porridge had been formed. When ready, the whole lot was unceremoniously, but skilfully, thrown onto the bare wooden kitchen table (after various flies etc. had been whisked off) and allowed to spread over the table and congeal into a thick, leathery layer. Odd bits of chicken innards were then dotted about on the surface and, as was customary, the spread was then eaten from all sides by the dozen or so of us sitting at the table. There was wine to wash it down, of course, but glasses were in short supply so one glass was being handed around the table, together with a flagon of wine. The procedure was to pour oneself a glass of wine, drink it and then swill out the glass in a little more wine, toss the dregs over one’s shoulder and pass the flagon and glass to your neighbour. One of the young women at the table had her small grubby two-year old standing on a chair next to her. Nobody stood on ceremony and the child was naked but for a smock or vest of sorts that came about halfway down his tummy, showing his rather grubby little willie! Before the circulating glass could be passed on by his
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mother, he picked it up with both hands and urinated into it. Nobody batted an eyelid. His mother calmly poured in a little more wine, gave it a very perfunctory swill around, and passed the glass on to her next door neighbour who happened to be John. To do him justice, he acted as if nothing untoward has happened, but Bill and Mick found it difficult to keep straight faces.
But, very pleasant interlude all came to a sudden and abrupt end. Late one afternoon, a boy ran breathlessly up the path from the direction of the town of San Marino with the news that the ‘tedeschi’ (Germans) had taken the town over with motorised troops. We would no longer be secure in the Republic and must leave the farm at once and make for a lonelier spot where we would be safe for a while and where we would meet well-wishers who would help us on our journey south. We left our friends at the farm amidst tears and best wishes and set off for the meeting place.
We had recognised for some time that San Marino was unlikely to provide long term security. The Germans were no respecters of neutrality when it didn’t suit them and it was, in fact, inconceivable that they should allow the little Republic, which was really only independent in name, to become a sanctuary for people like us. Nonetheless, we felt affronted at being flushed out and, as we watched the German trucks winding their way up and up along the steep hill leading to the town, we felt sad for the people who had treated us so kindly. Less than two weeks had passed since we had walked up the same road to that little anachronistic Republic. Now it too was well and truly in the war.
Now that we were having to leave San Marino, it become our prime purpose once more to make it as fast as we could to the south and to cross the fighting line before the onset of winter. After all, it was still only early October and we knew that the Allied troops had reached a line running from approximately a little north of Naples in the west to south of the Sangro river on the Adriatic coast. As the crow flies, that was not much more than two hundred miles. It would be difficult terrain and there would be the high mountains of the Gran Sasso range to navigate if we were to keep clear of all German activity along the coastal strip, and there would be the Pescara River to cross too. Perhaps, the advance would be resumed. None of it should present insurmountable problems. We were a lot more confident now; we spoke better Italian and were in much better nick physically than when left Bolgona. Our time with that pleasant family had done us a lot of good and we had put on weight, plus there would still be un-harvested grapes on the vines to eat as we went.
Before setting off for the south, we would see what was being proposed by the friends we were to meet by the river. The actual venue turned out to be under an old railway viaduct which carried the railway over the river. This added a sense of occasion. The meeting, which was very cloak and dagger in style, turned out to be with elements of the emerging Italian Resistance (later the Committee of National Liberation or CLN) – the first we had heard of such an organisation. We were offered the company of a major from the Italian army who had been driven into hiding and out of German occupied Italy for the heroic deeds that had made him a wanted man. He was to join us later that night and would conduct us to other bands of ‘patrioti’ further south who would organise the next part of our journey. Our guide would see that we avoided any unforeseen hazards on the path. It all sounded too good to be true.
In a way, it was. We waited all night and nobody appeared. Eventually,
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we found somewhere to sleep nearby and the next day, when we had more or less given him up, our ‘guide’ at last appeared. He turned out to be a somewhat elderly man named ‘Carlo’ who was indecisive and seemed unlikely to be of much use. He was reluctant to set off for the south and for the first two or three days we did little more than wander from farm to farm in the area just to the south of San Marino. We soon realised that he had battened on to us only for the importance we gave him in the eyes of the peasantry and for the doors we would open for free hospitality. We eventually got on our way, but only by virtually dragging him with us for we still felt he might have his uses.
But he developed a new and time-consuming activity; he became an obsessive egg collector. He insisted that we stop near every farm in sight while he nipped in to cadge what eggs he could – using us as his excuse. From the time he took for some of these forays, and from the torpor he developed as the day wore on, it was clear .that he was after liquid refreshment as well as eggs. Mick still had an old tapestry bag, a relic of his schooldays, and we used this to carry the eggs in. There were dozens and dozens of them at times and we were always getting some of them cooked to augment the meals we were given by sympathetic contadini. Once, when we were too burdened with booty, we stopped at a farmhouse and got the kindly Signora to cook us a vast omelette with fifty or more eggs in it – smallish ones admittedly, but it took a lot of vino to wash that lot down and we were all too sated to make much further progress in the afternoon.
A day or so more of this egg kleptomania and of lack of worthwhile progress and we had finally had enough of poor old Carlo. We told him firmly that we would proceed on our own and he watched us disconsolately as we set off towards the sun, which we couldn’t see as it was pouring with rain. Nearly twenty years later, Carlo briefly entered our lives again. Bill must have given him his address and, one day in 1962, he appeared on the portals of the British Embassy in Rome brandishing the address and claiming that he had been shabbily treated after all the help he had given us. Letters passed between Rome, England and Central Africa (where Mick was) and the upshot was that the three of us contributed to a small monetary gift for Carlo which was duly passed on by our Military Attaché in Rome, who was careful not to reveal to Carlo the whereabouts of any of us.
We set off southwards at a good pace and in high spirits. We had picked up some useful wrinkles since our first tentative approaches for food and lodging after getting away from Bologna – first take stock of the chosen farmhouse from a safe distance. Only one conical corn rick could mean poverty, little food to spare for us, too much apparent affluence, and there could be danger. For one thing, there might be visits from foraging Germans. For another, there would always be the possibility of searches by Fascist officials for what they regarded as deserters from the Italian forces. What we liked best were the more inaccessible homesteads that looked not too impoverished. A bit empirical, but it seemed to work.
By now, we had used up the small supply of coffee and chocolate that we had taken with us from Bologna and had nothing to offer by way of payment or thanks. Not that the former was ever expected of us. The Italian contadini were generous to a fault. As soon as we revealed our identity, and they accepted our story, they were kindness itself. The only problem we had in the countryside was when we were mistaken for Germans. Whatever
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the contadini had they shared unstintingly with us. Some had sons, fathers and lovers in prison camps in England and Canada and, perhaps, in helping us they felt that in some way they would be helping their absent menfolk.
But if so, this was unconscious and incidental; they looked after us because we were on the run from the Fascists whom they hated and the Germans whom they feared. They were not only kind but courageous. If they were caught aiding us – which wasn’t really very likely early on, though the risk increased substantially later on – the retribution would be catastrophic. Their hearts had never been in the war and they longed for it to be over. Whenever we talked about such things they lambasted the Fascist opportunists who had grown fat at their expense and as for the Germans – ‘I tedeschi hanno portato via tutta la roba, ma tutta, tutta. Non ci resta niente’ – The Germans have taken absolutely everything, there’s nothing left.
The social structure of the Italian countryside as we found it was still entirely feudal. There were the padroni who owned the land – many individual holdings perhaps – and who exacted their dues from their contadini in the form of a share of the crops and livestock produced. Both sides had duties and responsibilities but the dice seemed to be loaded fairly heavily in favour of the padroni. Some padroni were good we heard, and some were bad. The same went for the contadini, no doubt. The affluent padroni would employ local fattore (factors) to look after their interests for them and as they (the padroni) generally lived in, or near, the towns, they were a breed we seldom met and would have tended to avoid in any event. For in the towns there was all the paraphernalia of an establishment which was still officially Fascist and therefore hostile – urban tongues might wag and we would be at risk.
It was soon after leaving Carlo that we decided to make up a bit of time by risking another attempt at a railway ride. We calmly bought tickets for Sassoferato at a place called Cagli where we boarded the train. We hoped we looked like Italian deserters making their way home, though it is doubtful whether the chap who gave us the tickets was really fooled. With hindsight, it was a risky venture. Once on the train, we were trapped. A phone call to the next stop could have meant an unfriendly reception party. But all went well at Sassoferato and we walked off equally calmly and resumed our plodding progress southwards.
We were soon approaching Fabriano, the biggest town on our route so far. Not that we intended to go anywhere near the centre where there were almost bound to be Germans. We had, however, been given the address of someone who might help us. We duly found our way to a pleasant villa on the outskirts of the town and we knocked apprehensively on the door. Apart from the Medicis back in Bologna, and the honest and trustworthy burghers of San Marino, this was the first time we had move markedly up the social scale. A servant opened the door and when we explained our purpose she disappeared for a consultation. When she returned we were told to go round the back, out of sight of the road, and there we met the mistress of the house who turned out to be an American of German origin and a Countess to boot. She told us that her husband, the Count, worked in the Vatican and was away in Rome. She, like her husband, was anti-Fascist and sympathetic to us.
We remember the next couple of days well. We were lodged in a delightful little guest wing tucked away at the back somewhere. The Countess was nervous, and understandably so, as her villa was on the main road leading
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to Metelica which was being used by the Germans. She asked us to remain inside and to keep out of sight as much as possible when anyone was around. The set-up made us feel a little uneasy and we decided not stay around for long. While we were there, our delicately served meals were brought to us in our rooms and we particularly remember the polenta. As we have mentioned, with the contadini this was unceremoniously poured straight onto the table. Here at the Contessa’s, it was individually served on small silver salvers. What elegance! The rest of the food was in keeping. Small, tastefully served dishes but not really enough bulk for our still expanding stomachs – so we went to town on the bread and, of course, the customary vino. There was another luxury besides the beds and the food – we had baths in a proper bathroom for what must have been the first time since Egypt some two years before.
We did not stay long with the Contessa. She provided us with some money and food, gave us odd bits of clothing and the names of a few local contacts on the route south. There was a local business man, Edigio Cristalli, and we met him and a couple of other rather prosperous-looking chaps, though we were a bit dubious about one of them. Cristalli gave us other contacts further on, notably in the village of Collamato, where we were recommended to the local butcher who was also a fattore. A little further on, but before Collamato, we fell in by chance with some other itinerant Englishmen. There were two British army majors, who seemed somewhat ineffectual to us at the time, and four British other ranks. We dallied a while, exchanging experiences and plans, and some local Italian took a photograph of us all. We were never sure in view of what happened later, whether we had been wise to be photographed on that occasion that is, but that is for later in this account.
Here, a word or two about our clothing. As mentioned in Chapter 3, we had been provided with our initial civilian outfits by the two Medici girls in that field of uncut maize on the outskirts of Bologna where we had hidden initially after getting through the wire. We had looked pretty odd in the assorted clothing they had given us. Little of it fitted and most of it was really fit only for jumble, but how grateful we had been nonetheless. Presumably, the intrepid sisters had got most of it from their contadini (generally a smaller breed than we) and though this should have been good for disguise, which we sorely needed to make us look as much like locals as possible, it didn’t really help a lot. Bill and John were tall and fair and most would have picked them out as ‘signori inglesi’ a mile off. Mick was darker, though his blue eyes remained a bit of a give-away, and he looked perhaps the most comic of the three. We found all along that one of our problems with the contadini was persuading them that we were ‘inglesi’ and not ‘tedeschi’. John’s and Bill’s blond, Aryan good looks didn’t help.
However, since leaving Bologna, we had picked up odd bits of clothing and by now were reasonably presentable – though we had still looked very much out of place in the Contessa’s elegant villa. Footwear was always a problem. We would have liked to have kept our British army boots that we were wearing when we escaped, but these were far too conspicuous so we had swapped them early on for the best we could get – which wasn’t much. Those we swapped them with recognised that they were getting by far the best of the deal. A little later on, we were to get much better clothing and footwear. Bill even acquired a fur-lined leather coat for a time like a prosperous bookmaker. However, we never managed to look really like Italians, though I imagine we were better at it than we had been at the start.
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Another small digression would be appropriate here, this time on Italian mannerisms. The contadini, like most Italians, were masters of meaningful gestures. At that time, a great many of the able-bodied males were on the run for one reason or another – mostly because they had promptly deserted at the time of the Badoglio armistice and were afraid of being caught and put back into uniform. Such people were generally described as having ‘scappata via’ i.e. run off. These words, which we heard over and over again, were almost invariably accompanied by a violent gesture in which the bent elbow of the left arm was smartly hit by the cupped right hand. There was also an expressive way of demonstrating a well filled belly; this was done by waving down-turned palm horizontally against the stomach. Another mannerism was used to indicate enjoyment of a gourmet meal. The index finger of the right hand was rotated to and fro in a drilling action against the right cheek. John, who was the slowest of the three to develop his Italian, was, perforce, particularly good at these gestures and we can still see him today drilling his finger into his face in appreciation of some particularly delectable meal. We may not have looked like Italians, but at least we tried to behave like them.
It was as we were making our way to Collamato that a minor disaster struck. Suddenly, we were all laid low with the same virulent infection. We were really pretty ill and there was nothing for it but to lie up until we had recovered. We shall never know for certain what afflicted us but, as we later became jaundiced and turned yellow, it could well have been infective hepatitis. It was not considered safe for us to remain where we were at the time, so when we became ill we were taken by Italian sympathisers to an isolated barn up in the hills and there, in the hayloft above, our illness ran its course. We cannot remember just how long we were there but it was certainly all of two weeks and probably three. We were visited fairly regularly by a local doctor and food was sent up each day from the valley below. At first we wanted nothing. We remember very well that small tins of condensed milk featured in our diet when we started to eat and there was bread and an occasional tin of meat – we had come across virtually no tinned food till then – and, of course, the ubiquitous wine, not that we fell much like it.
Bill remembers that John and Mick were very poorly indeed with jaundice, much more than he was and at a later stage Bill had to make a journey down the valley to see the doctor in order to collect some medicine. He remembers the doctor very well indeed, who was very kind, and particularly his daughter, who was a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair, but one of the most beautiful and serene girls he has ever seen, with the most glorious eyes. She could speak a little English also. That particular doctor ran a very great risk of being shot for his services to prisoners of war and he will be long remembered. Unfortunately, none of us could recall his name and we were never able to contact him after the war.
It was while we were lying in that hayloft that there was the earwig incident. It was all Mick’s fault and it may have been because he was mildly delirious. There were indeed a lot of earwigs around but there was really no reason why he should have become convinced that one of them had entered one of his ears and was steadily burrowing its way through his brain. It sounds so silly now but at the time he was in a real panic. Bill and John tried to reassure him. They peered into his ear – we must have had a torch or maybe they used matches – but of course they saw nothing. In the end, Mick was persuaded that all was well and we all dozed off fitfully again. Even after
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forty years, the memories of that hayloft, and of the doctor and his beautiful daughter, are fairly vivid. The barn was built into the side of a hill and the loft we occupied was entered by a ramp and not by an external ladder. In retrospect, it seems we were there for a long time – more than the two or three weeks it probably was.
When we were sufficiently recovered, we decided to set off once more, but we had lost valuable time and were beginning to have doubts about our prospects. It must have been well into October, or even early November by then, and we knew that the winter and snow came early to the high mountains of the Gran Sasso, which was still more than a hundred miles to the south. There were rumours of intense German patrol activity with fierce Alsatian dogs, of booby-trapped paths and other hazards close to the fighting line. There were other gloomy prognostications about our chances of getting through and across the Pescara River. It was suggested to us that we would do better to lie up somewhere and wait to be overrun. But with winter approaching, it seemed unlikely to us that there would be any chance of this until the Spring at the earliest and maybe it would be best to wait until then.
We were conscious that the Italians we spoke to were getting a little depressed. At one time, it had seemed as if it would all be over fairly quickly, but now doubts were creeping in and the fascisti were in evidence again. Immediately after the Badoglio armistice, they had been cowed and uncertain. Now that the Germans seemed to be holding on, they were getting more confident again and ‘O mamma mia’ they and the Tedeschi would ‘porta via’ even more of the ‘roba’ from the downtrodden populace. It wasn’t that the Italians we met doubted the eventual outcome, Mussolini’s downfall and the successful Allied invasion had convinced them of that, it was just that it would take a lot longer them they had hoped. It was against this somewhat conflicting scenario that we made the decision, or should we say drifted into the decision, that we were soon to make.
When we finally reached Collamato we stayed for a few days in the village and were well and truly wined and dined by the butcher in his house above his shop. It was while we were in Collamato that we were told about the group of partigianni (partizans) in a mountain stronghold above a nearby village. In fact, our hosts arranged for us to meet one of the group’s leaders. This turned out to be a dark, friendly Reggio Calabrian called Gigi Cardona who had been a lieutenant in the Italian Army. He told us that with him on the mountain were a fair number of Yugoslavs, a few other Italians and even one South African. They were well armed and supplied and we decided to investigate on our way through.
First though, we stopped for a day or so with a comparatively affluent contadino named Giambattista and it was here that we helped to make the wine. It was still being done as it had been for centuries. The grapes were gathered in huge wicker baskets and pitched into large shallow stone troughs and trampled by foot. We were reminded of Macaulay’s lines:-
And in the vats of Luna,
This year the must shall foam
Round the white feet of laughing girls
Whose sires had marched to Rome.
[Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘Horatius’, Lays of Ancient Rome – the first in a collection of poems recounting heroic episodes from early Roman history. This particular verse alludes to the young men who have gone off to war, leaving their partners behind in wait; a situation that was also experienced widely by many couples during the First World War]
There were laughing girls all right, but their feet were not particularly white; and Luna must have been somewhere in Tuscany which wasn’t all that far away – just somewhere over those rugged mountains in fact. As for the sires,
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they hadn’t all marched to Rome; one of them we were told was missing somewhere near Stalingrad and another was a prisoner of war in Canada. Anyway, it was enjoyable work helping the girls and there was plenty of wine (the new wine if we preferred it) to slake our thirsts, for down in the valley, even in late Autumn, it was still very warm in the sun.
When we left we made our way to Esanatoglia, the village below the mountain hideout we had been told about in Collamato, and it was there that we met Carlo Bernardini for the first Lime. He ran a cafe and he gave us some wine and food. We told him that we wanted to make contact with Gigi Cardona at San Cataldo above the village. Carlo said he would organise it while we were refreshing ourselves. It was not long before Gigi appeared, he must have been in the village when we arrived. After more vino all around, we left with Gigi leading us through the village to the foot of a hill and then up to the rocky road that petered out into an even rockier path. This path led up the mountain to the shrine of San Cataldo perched on a crag high above the village. The climb took the best part of an hour and the last fifty yards or so of the path were lined – six a side – with statues of Apostles. The shrine itself, when we reached it, was in an ideal position. It commanded a view right across the valley to Matelica and beyond. From San Cataldo itself, the path up was visible for much of its way and behind was just steep and virtually impassable mountainside – impassable to a stranger that is. There were escape routes once you knew them. It was a splendid sanctuary and would be difficult to take by surprise.
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Chapter Five – San Cataldo
We do not remember much discussion amongst us, but we had all come around to the idea of abandoning any attempt to reach the Allied lines – which were still more than a hundred miles further south – before the onset of winter. We just seemed to drift into the decision. Perhaps our recent illnesses had sapped our resolve more than we realised. But, if we were to lie up during the winter, this was certainly an ideal place for the purpose and we had already made a number of useful contacts in the area.
Up there on the mountainside was the shrine itself, which was really just a minute church with an effigy of the saint, a few pots containing faded flowers, a pew or two and, no doubt, an effigy or picture of the Virgin Mary. The door was normally kept locked. However, when anyone wanted to look inside or intercede with the saint, the caretaker, an ancient crone called Sestilia, would produce the key. Her solid but ramshackle two-roomed house was adjacent to the shrine, and a few yards away, there was an equally solid but very dilapidated building. This had served in the past as a shelter for pilgrims and a place where they could obtain or prepare refreshment. This was fairly large, as it had to be, in order to cater for the not inconsiderable number of pilgrims who used La visit the shrine in normal times -particularly on feast days. There were several small interconnecting rooms and one pretty large one with a vast open fireplace. It was in this little complex of rooms that the group who variously described themselves as partigiani, ribelli or patrioti had established themselves.
There were not many of them around when we first arrived at the top, but we got a warm welcome from the few who were there, particularly from the middle-aged Montenegrin named Dimetri who turned out to be the cook to the group, and whom we nick-named ‘Pop’. Gradually, others appeared. They had been off in groups down in the valley somewhere. There was Milo, who we learned was the accepted leader of the Yugoslavs, all of whom had been in civilian internee camps until the time of the Badoglio armistice. The few Italians were a somewhat mixed bunch. One or two were mere boys. Their leader, Gigi Cardona, who had escorted us up, was clearly a very competent fellow and of much higher calibre than the others. He was generally known as the ‘Tenent.’ And, of course, we met Bob Turner, the South African sergeant, who was to prove a very good friend and a valuable asset in the months ahead.
As for Gigi Cardona, eventually, after we left Esanatoglia and Fabriano and the British came through, Gigi joined the famous Popski’s private army that used to work very successfully behind the enemy lines harassing the Germans and Fascist troops. He became Commandant of the Gruppo ‘Tigre’ of Commando Brigata Garibaldi. Bill had a number of letters from Gigi and eventually was recommended an Italian Silver Medal for valour which was handed out by the Italian partizans. Unfortunately, the British government did not allow a British officer to accept it!
Though we were based on San Cataldo for the next five months or so, from November 1943 until about the end of March 1944, we cannot remember a great deal about our day to day lives. As we said in the introduction to this account, we would endeavour to paint only a general picture of our experiences and to recall only those events which particularly stand out in our memories and would not attempt a detailed chronological account.
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So far as we can now recall, we did not, in fact, spend much of the days, or evenings for that matter, at San Cataldo itself – except when the weather kept us there or when it was our turn for a spell of guard duty or domestic chores.
The group was reasonably well armed (pistols, revolvers, rifles and hand grenades etc) when we first arrived and, as a result of occasional raids of one sort or another, we gradually improved our stock of weapons. When we stayed up at the top, we spent some of our time felling nearby trees to feed the massive fire that was kept going in the large communal room that served as both the kitchen and mess. Cooking was done in large cast iron pots suspended above the hearth. The food we ate at San Cataldo – which was provided, in large part, by well-wishers in the valley below – was fairly simple. There was bread, pasta and a reasonable amount of meat –quite often, whole sheep or lambs were roasted on a spit above the open fire. This was one of our Montenegrin cook’s specialities. It was a lengthy operation and would start quite early in the morning. The whole process would go on for about twelve hours, with the cook using quite a lot of herbs. Bill remembers with great relish the spit-roasting of sheep. We used to take it in turns to baste the sheep with salt water until it was deliciously pink inside and brown and crisp outside. Eaten with fresh oven bread and a young red wine, it was out of this world! Everything we needed, apart from wood for burning, had to be carried up from Esanatoglia, and we were usually fairly heavily laden on our way up the mountainside. Occasionally, someone in the village would provide a donkey to carry the heavier items like large demijohns of wine.
However, much of our time (usually just the four of us together, including Bob Turner) was spent down in the valley where we made a lot of friends amongst the local population; not only in the village of Esanatoglia, but also in other villages and in the surrounding countryside. We were fairly frequent visitors at Collamato where the fattore and his coterie of friends gave us a lot of hospitality. Sometimes, we would be invited as far afield as Fabriano, but this involved road transport of some sort and had its risks. These various friends not only extended to us what hospitality they could but also kept us supplied with news of the activities of local fascist functionaries and of the risks from any German troops. The nearest of these were usually not closer than Fabriano or Matelica and, in our early days at San Cataldo, they seemed to have neither the resources nor the will to try to do anything about us or the Yugoslavs. At that time, we were not particularly worried about German activity – though things were to hot up a lot later on.
With the local Carabinieri, we had a rather comic and ambivalent relationship. Officially, the whole parliamentary force was part of the subsisting establishment – a puppet regime being bolstered up by the German army of occupation. However, a lot of them, individually and unofficially, were longing to be over-run by the Allied forces and were privately sympathetic towards us. Our local Carabiniero was a likeable chap called Alessandro Coltinari. His daughter, Everica, just happened to be Bob Turner’s girlfriend, and his wife was the daughter of Sestilia, the caretaker at San Cataldo. As the Carabiniero, Alessandro just pretended that he did not realise we were around, and we reciprocated this. We remember one particular time in the barbers shop; we were waiting while one another was having a haircut when Alessandro came in with the same thing in mind – upon seeing us, he left hurriedly, blushing with confusion. Our rations were less delicate when he wasn’t dressed up in uniform and carrying the carbine [short rifle] that is part of the Carabiniero’s normal equipment.
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There was nothing equivocal about our relationship with another more senior member of the police establishment who lived some way from Esanatoglia and who was responsible for a large area around Fabriano and Matelica. He was a notorious fascist, and one night, we raided his house and relieved him of his weapons and his motor car. The car was one of those little Fiats known as a ‘Topolino’ – a little mouse in English. There was another more luxurious car, probably an Alfa Romeo, which we acquired in a similar way. We drove around, rather apprehensively, in both cars for a short while, but it was really a foolhardy thing to do. Private cars were almost non-existent among the general population and being in a car made one very conspicuous. Anyway, petrol was virtually impossible to get unless you were on the wrong side, so we soon divested ourselves of both cars.
The police chief was the sort of Italian we did not like. However, there were a lot of people in Esanaloglia that we did like, and we made some very good friends. There was the barber, whose name we forget. Carlo Bernardini, the cafe proprietor has already been mentioned. He was one of our staunchest supporters and, apart from being a friend, was always good for a litre of wine when we called at his cafe. He had a daughter, Marisda, who was just a little girl at the time and whom we have seen on two subsequent visits to Esanaloglia. She is well into middle-age now with teenage children and is married to the village postmaster. There was Dialuci Zeno who ran the tobacconist shop. He, too, is long dead but his widow, though over eighty, was still active in 1981 and was the cook at a monastery near Fabriano. Lucia Griffoni and her husband ran the local bakery and served in the shop. We used to buy our bread from them and when one of we three called, she usually insisted on giving us one or more of the slightly sugared rolls, which were the nearest thing to cake on sale at that time and which were regarded as luxuries.
Myra was a bit of a mystery. She was a Russian but had been there a long time and had made a living giving piano lessons to local children. As a white Russian emigre she had no particular love for our Marxist Yugoslavs or, for that matter, the handful of Croats who were living down in the village. They had also been interned in Italy but were sympathetic to Mihailovic and the Yugoslav Royalist emigre government in London. There was a shoemaker, a young man severely crippled with polio, that used to repair our shoes – and a whole lot more individuals who helped us in one way or another.
Before we leave these worthy people, a further word about Lucia, the baker’s wife – sometime, during the winter, Mick picked up a virulent bug and was very ill for a week or two with a high temperature and other unpleasant symptoms. At considerable risk, Lucia promptly took him into her house where he was given the little room that was really her son’s. He was away – a prisoner of war in Canada – and Lucia looked after Mick as she would have done her own son. Even today, Mick gets quite emotional when he remembers her generosity, kindness and courage. By village standards she was a woman of some means for she owned a couple of other little houses in the village. These were minute stone buildings cheek by jowl, with others in little alleyways that were wide enough for pedestrians only. Their roofs merged with those of adjacent buildings in the picturesque confusion typical of Italian hillside villages.
[Handwritten text in margin] Also p.53
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When Mick was better she took him to see them. One was for her absent son; the other she was quite insistent, should be Mick’s. But times were not propitious for making legal dispositions, particularly to someone who was technically an enemy alien, so nothing ever came of it, though she was perfectly serious at the time. Another of us, this time John, was in serious troubled with a poisoned hand. It was really very bad indeed. In pre-penicillin days, the prognosis was not good at all. Over a period of weeks, he went regularly to a little convent in the village where he was treated devotedly by nuns and other villagers. Particularly solicitous was a charming young girl named Aglaeta. She fell quite seriously in love with John and wrote some touching letters to him in England later on. It was certainly the efforts of these people that saved his hand and probably his arm a well. Had it got to the stage of his having to be taken to a hospital for surgery beyond the capacity of the countryside, his prospects for remaining free would have been very slim.
Bill found a family called Pecci, Babbo and Mamma, in Esanatoglia who were particularly kind to him. The father, a communist, was an engine driver on the Italian railways with a charming wife. Both of them were very kind to Bill, they had two very young daughters – Leda and Anna Maria – and when Betty and Bill returned to Esanatoglia they had the opportunity of seeing them again.
Another Esanatoglia memory is of the little theatre in one of the alleyways (close in fact to Lucia’s two houses) where there were occasional performances of one sort or another. We went a few times to watch the equivalent of amateur dramatics, an old film or two, and musical concerts with singing and the playing of musical instruments. These performances were attended by all sorts including the more intellectual members of the community. Myra was one of these and she generally provided the musical accompaniment on an elderly piano. She also played before the show began and during the intervals. We do not remember much of the content of the performances but we do recall the honour and the dignity with which we were received. We used to be seated in a Joge, a plush-lined, box-like enclosure partially divided off from the rest of the stalls. The first time we went shortly before Christmas, we were given what today would be called a standing ovation by the rest of the audience and can remember feeling rather embarrassed by the gesture.
Now there will have to be a small political and ideological digression, and perhaps a bit of heart-searching too. As this account is meant to be fairly light-hearted we shall keep it as short as we can. We were pragmatists and so far as we were concerned, the main aim was to reach our own lines and eventually get home. We were not trained, equipped or indeed in the frame of mind to become heavily involved in terrorist-type activities behind the German lines. We had, at that time, absolutely no communication whatsoever with our own lot – no wireless sets, no couriers, no nothing. Just in escaping, perhaps in giving some vague moral support to the Italian peasantry, and by eventually getting back to rejoin the Allied war effort, we were going to, and perhaps marginally beyond, the call of duty. Furthermore, we believed, and were later to be proved right, that indiscriminate offensive action against the Germans would be bound to lead to reprisals against the local population who were befriending us. The best time for action we felt (if we were still around) would be when our own troops were close at hand. In the meantime, if the mere presence of us and others like us ended up contributing to the enemy’s need to divert troops to meet any possible threat from behind his lines, then
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so much the better.
We tried to steer a middle course. We certainly didn’t object to a bit of sabotage – cutting certain telephone and electricity lines and disrupting German transport as much as we could. •We went along, for example, with the ambush – quite a long way from Esanatoglia – of a small German supply convoy and captured a lorry load of meat which was later bartered for other food and supplies. There was, in fact, a grisly end to this particular incident – one of the slick-up party, an Italian, who had got into the back of the hijacked lorry was suffocated to death when he was buried under a cascade of animal carcases caused possibly by reckless driving in the getaway. The four of us attended his funeral in Esanatoglia and carried his coffin to his grave. This sort of thing was about as far as we felt like going. We absolutely not prepared to just engage in bloodthirsty reprisal against the occupying Germans.
The Yugoslavs, or at least most of them were. They saw it all quite differently. Many of them, so they told us, had suffered enormously before being shipped to what they described as, and what no doubt were, unpleasant forced labour camps in Italy. Their villages in Yugoslavia had been razed and many of their friends and relations murdered out of hand. They were thoroughly embittered, and for them, revenge was a preoccupation per se – that and victory for Marxism, for they were Marxist communists to a man. The gentle Montenegrin cook was perhaps the least fanatical of them all and with him we used occasionally to discuss more general political topics. We were more circumspect with Milo. We were in a small minority, remember, and in the circumstances, discretion was generally the better part of valour. They were friendly to us in a personal way and, of course, they supported the Allied effort against the common enemy, if only because its success would hasten the dawning of the Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist utopia that they all looked forward to building – at least in Yugoslavia. Back home, they would have given those other Yugoslav patriots, followers of Mihailovic, very short shrift indeed.
And so there was a guarded and slightly uneasy relationship between us; it was to remain until near the end of our time together when, as we shall relate, relations became strained almost to breaking point, or, to put it more bluntly, almost to killing point. The Italians with us at San Cataldo mostly professed communism, but it is doubtful whether Tenente, Gigi Cardona, would have gone along with any of it. Essentially, he was just anti-fascist and pro-royalist. The Italians’ hearts were not in bloodthirsty revenge any more than ours. In the meantime, we all lustily sang ‘Bandiera Rossa’ [‘Red Flag’, well known song of the Italian labour movement] together and tried to forget the ideological barriers that separated us.
The Italian versions of the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘lnternalionale’ were not the only songs we sang together in unison. There are three songs in particular that we remember and have never really got out of our heads. As in the case of Mick and his Schubert songs on that back staircase at Padula, whenever we recall these tunes we are back again at San Catalado or somewhere down in Esanatoglia. One was a popular love song of the time which started – ‘Vieni, cc un’strada nel Bosco’ (Come there’s a way through the woods). Another song began with the words ‘Rosabella di mi, si, si, si’ and had a tune with a forceful beat that was well suited to community singing. The third was, in all probability, an Italian university drinking song which had been taken over by the Yugoslavs rather in the way the British had taken over ‘Lili Marlene’ from the Germans. It had a very evocative tune and the words ran something
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Addio bei giorni passati mia piccol’amica ti devo lasciar’
I giorni son’gia termianti abbiamo finite cosi di suonar’
‘La gioventu non torna piu, quanti recordi d’amor’
A Cataldo ho lasciato mio cuor’
Roughly translated into English, the nostalgic lyrics would run – ‘Farewell happy days, the time has come to leave you my little (female) friend. The days are over and we have finished to play as we did. Youth will not return; how many memories of love, at Cataldo I have left my heart.’ There were not any little female friends up at San Cataldo, but there must have been quite a few down in Esanatoglia.
So, the time passed and the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. Writing about it now makes it sound as if we had a lot of time on our hands and gives the impression of a rather boring existence, but somehow it wasn’t really like that at all. In fact, the days seemed to pass very quickly. We day-dreamed a bit about getting home but we were not particularly impatient about that on our own accounts. This life was not bad really and it was certainly preferable to the one we would be leading if we had meekly allowed ourselves to be carted off from Bologna to Germany. One day we were bound to be overrun by our own troops, and if this was too long happening, then we might have a go at crossing the fighting line in the Spring. From the odd accounts we got from Italians who had come north from places like Rome and Pescara, which were both still some way north of the opposing armies, it sounded like fairly risky business and we might well end up dead.
What did worry us, whenever we thought about it, was wondering how our parents at home were taking it all. As far as the British army was concerned, we were temporarily missing and not necessarily to be presumed to be dead. It was certainly not a case of no news being good news for our families as we could have come to all sorts of sticky ends since getting away from Bologna and nobody would have been any the wiser. More than once, we did what we could to get messages back. We gave details of ourselves to various priests we met at different times and hoped they would be able to have passed to the Vatican in Rome and that our families would eventually hear. Whatever we did, there was no possible way by which we could learn whether anything ever did get through – so we just did this sort of thing whenever an opportunity presented itself and lived with the nagging worry. It was the second time our parents had been in the dark. When we were first captured in the desert, this had been inevitable; the second time, after getting away from Bologna, was really of our own making, for we didn’t have to climb into that loft. When we eventually got home we found that, through the Vatican, our families indeed had heard about us.
It was an exceptionally cold winter that year in the central Appenines and there was thick snow on the ground at San Cataldo for at least a couple of months. Though we occasionally slept down in the valley, most of our nights were spent in the greater security of our mountain fortress. We had got hold of paliasses [shroud like sack] as soon as we arrived (the Yugoslavs had obtained a stock of them) and we filled them with straw we got in the village. With these and the blankets we were given, or had ‘liberated’ in one or another from our raids, we were warm enough at night. The fuel supply, which was supplied by the young pine trees that we felled and carried, seemed inexhaustible. It would have been bitterly cold at Padula – even the previous mild winter had been bad enough. How all our companions from Bologna were faring, wherever they might be in Germany, we could only wonder.
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We were certainly very glad we were not with them.
There were just a few other escaped British prisoners whom we got to hear of who were in hiding in and around the valley running southwnrds from Fabriano through Matelica and Camerino. We maintained very sporadic contact with them. We also became aware of large groups of partizans and ‘patrioti’ who were active on the other side of the high mountains to the west of us in Umbria and Tuscany. The country between us and them was very rugged indeed, and in winter, when there was a lot of snow around, communication was very difficult, except along the few main roads over the passes and these were much in use by the Germans. It was during the winter that we first received, from one contact or another, what seemed fairly reliable news concerning the emergence of a clandestine British organisation that was getting into the business of helping people like ourselves to get down to the south. It was all shrouded in a great deal of secrecy and at that time – in the early months of 1944 – we merely noted the stories and thought we might try to make closer contact sometime in the future.
In the meantime, there were other excitements similar to the hijack and other incidents already mentioned. There were quite a number of raids on prominent fascists, particularly on those said to be actively collaborating with the Germans. These were rather Robin Hood-like affairs. We took their ill-gotten gains and distributed them amongst the deserving poor who were actively helping us, or were sympathetic to our cause. In the process, we generally got a few things for ourselves – better weapons, money, clothing and supplies etc – Bill’s bookmaker coat was a product of one such raid. These forays sometimes left us feeling a little uneasy. It wasn’t possible to be sure we were being fed the right information and that we were not just tools for settling some private vendetta. However, we can remember no occasion when any serious harm was done and we (the four of us, including Bob Turner) were certainly not involved in the taking of any life. We were always a bit worried though about the Yugoslavs. Their main venom was directed against the Germans, but it would not take• much to make them run amok. As far as we knew, they never did on occasions such as these – at least not when the four of us were around. On one occasion, we were all peripherally involved in a bank raid in Camerino some way to the south. The actual stick-up was done by another group like ours as it was in their area of operations. We were around to give back-up support if needed and benefited from a share of the loot, which was not very much.
We have just mentioned money which, oddly enough, had never been much of a problem. We never had, or needed, much of it. We usually found we had a sufficient amount to buy the odd things we wanted that had not been provided by all the generous people who had helped us since we got away. The prison camp authorities had paid us when we were in the camps (amounts that were being docked at a highly artificial and punitive rate of exchange from the pay that was being credited to our bank accounts in England) but they had been careful to pay us only in token ‘camp lire’, which were useless when we got out. None of the camp escape committee’s limited supply of smuggled currency had ever found its way to unlikely prospects like us. So, when we left Campo 19, we were penniless – or rather lireless.
Our first supply of real lire had been given to us by the Medici girls in the maize field. The terrified Jewish doctor on the outskirts of Imola, who
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had good cause to be afraid, had given us a bit. Others that we came across en route also gave us some lire, including the Contessa in Fabriano, who had helped us when we were short. We had given notes to a whole variety of people who had aided us with food, accommodation and money etc at various times. We usually wrote out little chits for them addressed to the Allied forces and beginning with some preamble like ‘to whom it may concern’ saying what help we had been given and putting on it what sort of price we could. In many cases, the help just wasn’t measurable in money terms. You couldn’t put a price on things like risk, kindness and humanity but we did the best we could to see they were rewarded in some way – not that most of them seemed to expect any quid pro quo.
No doubt, some of these notes were eventually presented and we like to think they were all honoured. Most probably were, for the Allied forces finally arrived, and the Military Government that took over, they went to great pains to see that genuinely deserving people were compensated. In fact, the books remained open for a number of years. Poor old Carlo – not that he was particularly deserving of it – put in his final plea long after the whole compensation operation had been finally wound up. So, in his case, some twenty years later, we made a gesture ourselves. Once, when money was short Mick wrote a ‘cheque’ on a scruffy piece of paper in exchange for lire to the equivalent of some five to ten pounds. It is very doubtful whether the Italian who entered into this precarious transaction every really expected to get paid. Long, long after, Mick had a letter from Cox’s and King’s branch of Lloyds in Pall Mall saying that this strange document had reached them and asking what he wanted to do about it. The bank pointed out that they had no authority to pay as the ‘cheque’ had been presented long after the normal six month validity period. Mick was very happy to ask the bank to honour the cheque. No doubt, Cox’s and King’s (in the Army one was more or less ordered to open an account there) were not unaccustomed at that time to oddities of this sort.
That episode had a happy outcome; the next one was quite different. Around the end of March, there was another of those ‘excitements’ that were a regular feature of our life at Esanatoglia. However, this time neither the incident itself nor the outcome were in any way as felicitous as we would have liked; in fact, the whole episode was, to the four of us, very distasteful. It began with a warning from some source that a party of German troops – number unspecified – was en route to Esanatoglia on what we understood to be some sort of offensive or reconnaissance mission. There had, for the last month or so, been a lot of talk amongst the locals of a major German ‘rastrellamento’ (round-up) of partizan bands operating in the mountains of Umbria and Tuscany to the west of us. We had been half expecting something similar in our area. It was rumoured that a whole German division was tied down in the central Appenines with the task of containing any serious threat to lines of communication that all these partizan bands, ours included, might pose.
The unusual German sortie to Esanatoglia could therefore be part of such an exercise. If so, it came as no great surprise and it was something we had been apprehensive about for some time. We were not particularly worried on our own accounts for we could easily melt away into the mountains along those convenient escape routes beyond San Cataldo that we had noted and reconnoitred when we first arrived. We remained conscious, though, of the risk of German reprisal against our helpers and friends in and around Esanatoglia. We were very reluctant to see any excuses for such action being
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given right on our own doorstep. It was one thing engaging in activities well away from villages, or in areas where we were unknown, and thus not implicating locals – but it was quite another to provoke the Germans into retaliatory action against Esanatoglia.
From what we learned later, it seems unlikely that the Germans who came to Esanatoglia that day, with their party consisting of just two men on motorcycles, were bent on anything more than acquisitiveness. There was a small leather factory at the far end of the village, close to the mountainside, and they were probably going there to obtain leather goods. They were in the factory building by the time the four of us arrived on the scene. The Yugoslavs were already there in strength. I don’t think we ever knew who started the shooting, but there was quite a lot of it, and when it ended, one of the Germans was dead and the other was captured. This was bad enough in the heart of Esanatoglia, but what was to follow made things a great deal worse. The captured German was taken by the Yugoslavs to a spot someway up the mountain and there told to dig his own grave.
It was there that our remonstrance began. We argued as forcibly as we could against such barbaric behaviour. It was, admittedly, a difficult situation. Clearly, we couldn’t have prisoners around. On the other hand, the whole episode was public knowledge by then and the subsequent killing of the second German could never be concealed. We pointed to the risk of reprisal against the village and threatened exposure to the Allied authorities in due course. With our own troops bogged down some hundred and fifty miles away this cut no ice whatsoever. There was really little more we could do. We were heavily outnumbered and would not have lasted long had we made any attempt to intervene physically. After a lot of hard words, we left the scene with some vague reassurance from the less fanatical of the Yugoslavs that the idea was merely to frighten the prisoner. None of us, including Bob Turner was very reassured by that. We returned to San Cataldo, where we were to learn later that night, when the Yugoslavs party returned, that the German had been killed, somewhat unpleasantly. For us, this was a major turning point. We had no stomach for that kind of thing and the four of us were of the same opinion: we would, at a suitable opportunity, break company with the Yugoslavs and resume our attempt to rejoin our own forces. But before we were to embark on that enterprise, there was a serious complication. We had made absolutely no bones about our disapproval of, and aversion to, the treatment meted out to that German soldier. The fact that we had listened over the months to the stories the Yugoslavs had told us of atrocities perpetrated against their people helped, perhaps in our eyes, to mitigate, but did not excuse this further act of barbarity.
For their part, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the Yugoslavs had no finer feelings whatsoever. Indeed, they regarded our attitude as a form of treachery to their cause and, as a result, the four of us went through a very, very difficult period. For some days, we were ourselves held prisoner and threatened with execution and, for some of this time, we were kept incommunicado. Just what got us off the hook, we do not really know. Perhaps, it was due in part to the friendship, albeit uneasy at times, that had developed over the time we had been together; perhaps, it was for fear of what might eventually transpire if we were liquidated, for in no way would our Italian friends in Esanatoglia have kept quiet if they had become aware of any violence against us. Although the Yugoslavs had been on generally good terms with the locals, their relationship was not as close as ours and a new fear of German reprisal would put a further strain on it. There was also the influence of Gigi Cardona. He too was disturbed by what had happened.
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We had survived the aftermath of this unhappy incident, but it was clearly time for some hard thinking. For the last three or four months, we had felt secure enough at San Cataldo, and our relations with the Yugoslavs had been friendly, if a little bit guarded. Even down in the valley, we did not normally feel apprehensive and acted at times with a bravado that bordered on recklessness. Up in our mountain stronghold, we had been, as a group, sufficiently well armed to feel safe from anything other than a really determined attempt, mounted with considerable strength, to capture or dislodge us. In any event, the contacts we had in the valley below ensured adequate warning of danger and there were always the mountains behind us – inaccessible except on foot – into which we could retreat.
Now, however, a lot had changed. We fell isolated from the Yugoslavs and uncertain as to how they might react to us in the future. There was increasing talk of a determined ‘rastrellamento’ by the Germans which would make things much more difficult for us and our helpers all over that part of central Italy. There seemed also to us the distinct possibility, in view of the recent incident, that Esanatoglia might be singled out for particular attention. Had we been captured during our early days at San Cataldo, our position would have been difficult but not necessarily desperate. Admittedly, we had been armed and were involved with Yugoslav partisans but we had not hitherto been identified in German eyes with activities that would make us liable to be summarily executed. We ought to have been able to maintain that we were still just escaping, even though we were wearing no vestige of British uniform and were, on that account alone, technically outside the terms of any Geneva Convention dealing with the behaviour and treatment of escaping prisoners of war. Now, however, we were most unlikely to be given any quarter. We would be summarily dealt with and the Germans would not have been impressed by any stories about disassociating ourselves from some of the activities of the Yugoslavs.
So, we resolved not only to leave San Cataldo, but to do so as soon as possible – even if we were unable to get right away and out of German occupied Italy. We were now determined at all costs not to fall into German hands. We indicated to our closer Italian friends that we might not be staying much longer in the area but gave nobody any inkling of where we might go. It was during this brief period, between our decision and its execution, that there was another very unnerving episode. A notice was posted up, naming the three of us and offering substantial rewards for our capture. There were photographs, which could only have come from copies of the ones taken the previous Autumn. This really worried us and added urgency to our determination to make a clean break with San Cataldo, and soon, we three, together with Bob Turner, were to slip unobtrusively away.
Our departure, when it came, was sudden and unannounced. It was our intention to pursue the vague contacts we had made during the winter and through them to get in touch with any organisation that could get us out of German occupied Italy. At that time, we had little idea how that might be achieved – by land, sea or air. All we were really determined about by then was to get away as far and as fast as we could. Our quickest way to the coast would have been due east across the valley, which we had got to know well, then across the Fabriano/Matelica road, and then over the lower mountains, through the foothills and beyond, finally to the Adriatic coastal plain. Although some of the contacts we wished to pursue were in this direction,
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our departure by that route would be unlikely to go unobserved. Furthermore, the wide, populated valley in which we had previously felt relatively safe now seemed uninviting and smelt of danger.
So, we headed first in the opposite direction; due west into the rugged mountains of the central Appenines along one of those paths we had first learned about back in the Autumn. And then, when we fell sure we had shaken off any possible pursuit and had sufficiently disguised our intentions, we turned north in the direction of Fabriano.
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Chapter Six – To the Coast and Escape by Sea.
We left San Cataldo in what must have been early April 1944, with mixed emotions. It had been an interesting, at times most exciting, and in all ways, a memorable four months. Had made a lot of friends locally and were sorry to be leaving the villagers who had helped us so generously. We were concerned, too, for their safety in the future. In a way, we were also sorry to be breaking company with the group with which we had shared so many experiences. This was certainly so in the case of Tenent Cardona, the Reggio Calabrian. Even amongst the Yugoslavs there were particular individuals, notably Dimetri (Pop) the cook, with whom we had struck up real friendship. Milo, their leader, in spite of all his single-minded Marxist fanaticism, had been likeable and reasonable enough for much of the time, though his dislike of the capitalist system we represented was never far from the surface.
Now we were leaving all that behind and embarking, somewhat apprehensively, on a new venture and would be breaking new ground. In a way, we felt, at that time, much as we had done in the early days following our escape from Bologna, but now there was an even greater sense of urgency. We would be moving through unfamiliar country and, in view of all that had happened recently, would need to be much more circumspect in everything we did, particularly in our approaches for information, food and shelter. We now had one over-riding aim – to get finally away and to do so as quickly as we possibly could. So, we travelled much faster and with greater determination than we had in the Autumn.
One of the contacts we had made during the winter at San Cataldo was with another escaping British officer named David Williams who was in hiding fairly close to Fabriano. It was John who met him originally and it had been from David that we had first heard the rumours of the emergence of a clandestine escape organisation, so we headed in the first instance towards Fabriano with the idea of finding him and getting any further information we could. David Williams was not, however, at the farmstead at which we had expected to find him, though we were told by the contadino he had been living with that he was only temporarily away and was expected back at any time. We left the address at which we could be found in a note to David Williams and very soon after, the following message arrived addressed to John:
April 9 1944
The chap who is bringing this note, or at least who will be responsible for sending it, seems to be trustworthy so I’m taking a chance and telling you the dope. Your photographs amused me a lot.* Those two majors were with me at Fontanellato** – I hope they got through. The above mentioned bloke sends his compliments if he does not actually deliver the message.
Best of luck to the three of you.
The ‘dope’ referred to in this note no longer exists. So far as we recall, it was just an address in a village a long way away in an area inland and to the south of Antona. We should go there as soon as possible for further instructions.
* John’s copy of the one taken of us in the Autumn which he left to identify us.
** Another PW Camp
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We set off straight away. We crossed the valley south of Fabriano and began the ascent of the mountain on the opposite side. It was a very steep and rugged climb but when we got up we found that, beyond the ridge, it was fairly flat. In this vicinity, we had hoped to meet a band of partisans, which we knew was run by an Englishman said to have red hair. It was in this particular area that the RAF, on a number of occasions at night, had been dropping arms and supplies. However, we learned from an Italian who had been a member of the group, that the Germans had attacked the area and had dispersed the partisans. This gave the three of us an even greater sense of urgency as we continued our way eastwards.
Partly because we wanted to travel light and were trying to look as much like itinerant Italians as we could, and partly because we had no intention of becoming involved again in offensive activities, we got rid of the weapons that we had wanted to keep until we felt we were clear of possible apprehension in the immediate Fabriano area. We also got rid of the evidence we had of identity and any association with the Esanatoglia area – the names and addresses for example, of village people and Mick’s copy of that incriminating photograph.
Things we hoped to see again, we left with the Contadini at a place called Pertigano. Mick’s were eventually returned to him in England in August 1945 – some 15 months later. John’s skeleton diary must have reached him in the same way and it was its receipt, no doubt, that prompted him to rough out the account of our actual escape from Bologna which forms Chapter Three of this account. These various bits of paper must have been handed over to our troops when the area was overrun in the late Summer of 1944 and had eventually filtered back to us.
Two or three days later, we had made the contact south-west of Ancona. There we were given some most intriguing instructions. We were, or rather one of us was, to call at a certain butcher’s shop in the main street of a village a little further south. We were to ask for the butcher by name and to him, and to him alone, we were to address a request for some particular and unusual sort of meat or sausage. This was to identify us to him. Only if we got a reply to the effect of there being an unusual substitute available would we, in turn, know that we were dealing with the right person. It seemed a singularly long village street and Mick remembers particularly how conspicuous he felt walking along it. However, it all went according to plan and led the three of us to an even more bizarre encounter.
For this, we were conducted with great caution and as unobtrusively as possible, to an isolated house not very far away and taken into a small room past a fully armed guard who, to our amazement, was a soldier in British battle dress, bristling with weapons of every description. Lying on a bed in his pyjamas was the man we were to see. His battle dress tunic was over a nearby chair and his Sten gun [sub-machine gun] and pistol etc. were well within in reach. The whole set-up was hardly what we had expected to find so far behind the German lines. It gave us an odd, but very reassuring feeling. The rank badges on the tunic were those of a major and though we never knew his name at the time, it seems without doubt that he was Jock McKee and working with N section of the organisation known as 159.[handwritten text] x
He was in radio contact with the south, seemed well supplied and exuded confidence. Nonetheless, his must have been a risky business. We had heard ourselves of German agents posing as escaping British prisoners and then promptly arresting those who offered help. The Germans were also offering bribes to the contadini to induce them to betray escaping prisoners and evaders. It must have been difficult to prevent the infiltration of his organisation, particularly as he had to rely heavily on a lot of local support. People like ourselves could have
[Handwritten text, refers to x above] of S.A.S. [Special Air Service]
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been double-dealing and we could well appreciate the need for the recognition procedure that preceded our meeting.
Our instructions were to make our way to the vicinity of the small town of Grottazzolina, which is close to the Tenna River and lies south-west of Fermo, a larger town close to the Adriatic coast. We were told where to go for secure accommodation, and if that went well and the weather was suitable, we would be evacuated by sea with a lot of others around the end of the month. This was the best news we had heard for a very long while and our spirits soared. We were to travel in small groups and remain as inconspicuous as possible when we reached the initial assembly area. When we set off, the three of us were separated for the first time. Bill went with Bob, Mick with an American pilot named Hogan, and John went with someone whose name we can no longer remember. We arrived in the Grottazzolina area within a day or so of each other. It was then around the middle of April and we waited a few days in that area for instructions. However, we eventually heard that the operation had been called off and that it would be necessary to wait until approximately the end of May for suitable tide and moon etc. for another go at taking us off. It was of course a bitter disappointment to all of us.
We were then billeted for a month or so in small groups of two. Mick was living in an old water mill and had to keep well out of sight on occasions when Germans came to the adjacent farm foraging for eggs, wine and other farm produce. Bill and John were billeted in a farm house and the three of us used to meet regularly and while away the time as best we could. We remember talking sometimes about what we might do if the next rescue attempt came to nothing. We would not go back to the Fabriano area and our current location was no place to stay indefinitely. Bob decided to leave us and try his luck moving south through the German lines. He made it safely for Bill received a letter from him after the war.
John’s and Bill’s farmhouse billet was with a delightful family who had two very young daughters. Bill and John were there for quite a considerable time and it was their last billet before finally getting away by sea. The farmer and his wife insisted they used their bed whilst they slept on the kitchen floor. Eventually, Bill and John insisted that they made their bed on the cobbles in front of the big hearth whilst during the day they went up the hill and hid in the cornfield to avoid any problems with visitors coming to the farmhouse. Mick used to join them. Like all the contadini, they lived in very primitive conditions and there was no WC; in fact, the whole family used to disappear up into the cornfields in order to go about their private business.
John and Bill fell that they should at least try and do something for them and so they built them a private WC behind the house. They dug a very deep pit and created a double WC, rather in the army style. This was surrounded by a high fence made of rushes and was extremely private and discreet. Bill and John drew lots as to who was going to be the first to christen it as the family had insisted, one Sunday morning, on showing their WC to the local community, which was rather a dangerous thing to do. John lost the draw and disappeared into the WC and then there were howls of amusement, for they discovered that the WC was overlooked by a tiny bedroom window and the two young daughters were looking down in complete fascination on John, who was quite oblivious of the situation, as he sat there proudly on the throne that Bill and he had made with such care!
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In spite of occasional diversions, it was a long, nail-biting wait, with little to relieve the tedium. We lapped up the news from the south – and there was no shortage of radio reports – but it was not particularly encouraging. Perhaps, with the advent of Spring, there would be a resumption of the Allied offensive and a rapid advance, and we would be overrun after all. But there was no sign of anything like that in April or early May. At that time, our forces were across the Sangro River on the Adriatic side but still some way south of Pescara; to the west the battle for Cassino was still unresolved. It was, in fact, towards the end of that lengthy vigil near Grottazzolina, on about the 11th of May, that the offensive resumed, but from news reports it was soon clear that it was to remain a slow, slogging affair. A boat from the south still offered, by far, the best prospects.
It must have been around the 22nd May that we heard that the operation we had been praying for was really on again. Once more, our spirits soared and a day or so later, we prepared for the difficult overnight journey to the coast. There was starlight which helped a lot. Never before had we been so concerned about the weather, for unless it was reasonably calm and fine, there would be no boat. Thankfully, the good weather held. During our weeks of anxious waiting, other escapers and evaders had been assembled in the Grottazzolina area and it was a significantly larger party that we now helped to marshal for the final march to the coast.
When it was dark, we set off in groups. For much of the way, we followed the boulder-strewn course of the Tenna River. We remember our anxiety lest anything like a broken ankle should thwart any of us at the eleventh hour. Happily, there were no mishaps. We arrived at the final assembly area in the early hours of the morning where we hid amongst the vines and olive groves. At that time of year, there was little cover to be found amongst growing crops and we had to be very careful. The coastal strip was well populated and we were close to the main north-south highway on which there was German traffic in abundance.
We lay hidden during the whole of the following day, and then, when it was quite dark, we moved even closer to the shoreline. By then, we were so close to the main road, it being only yards from the sea, that we could hear not only the sometimes almost deafening roar of German transport, but also the occasional sound of German voices. It was all very tense. We knew that an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) had left Termoli in the south and was expected around midnight. The minutes and the hours passed. By two or three o’clock in the morning, we were becoming apprehensive again. It was then well past the anticipated time of arrival and it begun to look as if we were to be disappointed again. Something must have gone wrong, and for us the prospect was almost too disheartening to think about. But still we waited.
It must have been shortly before daybreak that we at last knew that the LCI was in fact arriving. Very soon, there was the muffled clatter of books on the rocky shoreline as a party of fully armed commandos rushed ashore and fanned out to cover our embarkation. Dawn was breaking as the various groups were called forward and we picked our way down to the seashore and up the ramp. Surely, some unfriendly person on shore must realise that something was afoot; we listened half expectantly for the shooting to begin, but nothing happened – just urgent whispering voices, the re-embarkation of the commandos, and the gentle lapping of little waves on the shore. It seemed unbelievable.
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Chapter Seven – Adriatic Cruise, Naples, Salerno and England.
It was, indeed, a motley collection of people that had clambered up the ramp of that long-awaited and most welcome LCI in the early morning of 25th May 1944. For the three of us, it was a momentous occasion, the culmination of over two years of mixed emotions and varying physical fortunes. There had been the despondency after capture, the moral-sapping journey to Italy and the hunger, cold and frustration of prison camp life. The last eight months on the run had been interesting and, on the whole, great fun – though it was getting a bit too precarious towards the end. The last month of waiting near the coast had, in a way, been the most nerve-racking of it all. So near yet still so far, and with the ball no longer in our court, we were relying almost entirely on others. How well in the end Jock McKee and his helpers had managed it all. Now, at last, it was all coming to a happy conclusion or nearly so, for there was one final last-minute hitch. The LCI was well and truly grounded on the beach and to us it looked as if we might not get off. We were all ordered to the seaward end and had to bounce up and down together for a while until the engines, at full power and making an unbelievable noise, were able to drive us off into deeper water. So began the day-long cruise to Termoli.
We were to learn many, many years later, when the full stories began to be told, that the operation to lift us off that coast (code-named ‘Darlington 11’) was claimed to have been the most successful pick-up conducted anywhere on the Italian peninsula; but it had succeeded against all the odds. The LCI had gone to what it believed to be the agreed spot for the pick-up (the mouth of the Tenna river) only to find nobody there and none of the expected light signals from the shore. The boat was returning disconsolately southwards when, almost by pure chance, the correct signals were spotted some miles down the coast. The LCI responded with its own recognition signals and from then on all went according to plan, except for the fact that vital time had been lost and with it the cover of darkness for the embarkation and the start of the voyage south. It was just as well we did not know how close the whole operation was to failure as we waited throughout that long and memorable night. Once on board, we felt pure relief that all the waiting was over as well as gratitude to the crew of the LCI who had come so far and at such risk to pick us all up.
Once on board, we had our first opportunity to lake a critical look at a full gathering of our fellow passengers. They were certainly a mixed bunch. There were a fair number of escaping prisoners like ourselves – mostly British but including a few Americans. For the rest, they were mostly evaders of one sort or another and important among these were the British and American aircrew that had had to bail out over enemy-occupied territory, had gone into hiding and who were urgently wanted back to fly again. The other evaders were a very polyglot lot. There were Italian servicemen and civilians who were wanted down south for their expertise or the information they could give, or who were being actively sought by the Germans or their fascist puppets. Finally, there was a sprinkling of all sorts –Jewish refugees, German deserters, a few Yugoslavs and one or two Russians – and no doubt others besides. Many of them would not have survived had they been apprehended. There were nearly 130 all told, including a few women. Jock McKee of what we knew as ‘A Force’ at the time, and his local assistants, who prepared the ‘passenger list’ must have done a good job in excluding any black sheep dressed up as innocent lamb – otherwise the whole operation could so easily have been blown.
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So, after jumping up and down on the deck for a while, we finally headed out into the Adriatic. By then it was broad daylight. Our destination was Termoli some hundred miles to the south and some way behind the fighting line, then around Pescara which was nearly seventy miles away. At around ten knots, it would be over six hours before we were sailing off a non-hostile coastline.
What a splendid target we must have offered to anyone on shore as we began our journey. The main road to the south ran right along the shoreline on this part of the coast and, as we had seen and heard during the night, German military traffic along it had been virtually nose to tail. It would let up a bit with the coming of daylight but it remained the main supply route to the fighting around Pescara. Any tank or medium-sized gun had only to pull up at the roadside and could have blown us clean out of the water. Perhaps it was the sheer audacity of it all that bemused any watchers from the shore; for who could possibly have expected to see a British LCl calmly heading out to sea some seventy miles behind the fighting line? LCI’s were not just insignificant little boats – they were fairly massive shallow-draft craft capable of carrying several hundred troops with all their equipment. We must have stuck out like a sore thumb silhouetted as we were against the sun that had recently risen above the eastern horizon.
However, nothing happened, absolutely nothing. We could hardly believe our luck. We could not see just then because after our jumping up and down act we had all been herded below decks in case we came under fire from the shore. Not only was there no hostile reaction from the land we had just left, but there was also no reaction of any sort from the air. For almost anything that could fly, we were a sitting target and were to remain so for much of the journey. For the first two or three hours, we were beyond the operational range of available Allied fighter planes, but once we got closer to the battle area there were a lot of British fighters around and that gave us a nice reassuring feeling.
After all the excitement and nervous tension of the previous night, we were pretty exhausted both physically and mentally, and we dozed fitfully below decks for the early part of the voyage. Later in the day, we lay about in the sun watching the aeroplanes and generally taking an interest in things. We were well out into the Adriatic for the first part of the journey and out of sight of land. Once past the mouth of the Sangro we closed again with the Italian shoreline. In the afternoon – around 3 p.m. – we arrived at Termoli. It had been just a peaceful summer cruise and we had finally made it. No longer would we need to listen apprehensively for the sound of footsteps in the night. Very soon now, our parents would know that we were alive and well. Perhaps soon, we could eat one of the sort of meals we used to fantasise about in the prison camps. It all seemed too good to be true but this time it really was.
On shore, we were received with little ceremony. There was an initial sort out into various groups -by nationality and rank etc. At that stage, the reception party had only our word to go on about identity etc. and we were a pretty odd-looking bunch to say the least. Later, we were to be subjected to a much more detailed interrogation, but at Termoli, we were just briefly questioned, fed and then issued with basic items of army uniform. Finally, we were loaded into trucks for the long and bumpy journey over the mountains to Naples on the western coast of Italy. In some ways, it was not unlike some
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of our earlier journeys en route for Padula. The countryside was much the same and we noted with some amusement that there were armed guards on the trucks.
On arrival, late that night, we were taken to No 2 PW Repatriation Unit which was located in a large run-down terraced palazzo on the southern outskirts of Naples, some three miles or so from the city centre. There we were fed once more and given beds after arrangements had been made for news of our safe return to be signalled home. We didn’t do much for the next two or three days. There were medical examinations and a lot of questioning aimed at establishing our bona fides -details of the units we claimed to have belonged to, the names of other officers in them, our army numbers and a lot else to establish beyond doubt that we were who we said we were. It was clear that our interrogators and, indeed, all the staff at No 2 PW Repatriation Unit regarded us as marginally round the bend and perhaps in a way we were. They must have had quite a bit of experience in dealing with people like us and they seemed prepared to make allowances. For our part, we did not take very kindly in those early days to too much strict military discipline. We had been paddling our own canoe for so long that we probably felt mild resentment at too much telling what to do – not that anyone did so in any overbearing way.
Looking back on it, everyone was really very considerate, and once the essentials had been got out of the way, we were left very much to do what we liked. We went into the centre of Naples once or twice just for the joy of wandering around and going to the Officers’ Club and generally trying to amuse ourselves. Not that Naples had much to offer at that time. It was not long since it had fallen to the Allies. There was a lot of war damage and the evidence of hunger, disease, homelessness and poverty was all-pervading. It was on a morning that John and Bill decided to pay another visit to Naples that Mick was subjected to his longest and most detailed de-briefing. This covered just about everything – the prison camps, our actual escape from Bologna and the names of places and people along our route. He was asked about any military installations we had noticed, defensive positions, the morale of the locals and a lot besides. It went on for several hours.
Then, after three or four days, we were told that we were to be moved to a rest camp just south of Salerno which was itself about thirty miles south of Naples. It turned out to be a tented camp right on the sea shore and on the very beaches over which our assault troops had fought such a bloody battle to establish a beachhead the previous Autumn. There was still a lot of desolation but the beach itself had been tidied up and we were comfortably quartered in what were known as ‘E.P.I.P.’ tents – oblong ones with fly-sheets – these had camp beds and the usual canvas camp furniture. The facilities were primarily intended for battle-worn officers and those recuperating from illness and wounds. We didn’t really need such gentle handling and felt we were being spoiled. It was pleasant enough lying on the beach in the sun and reading any books and newspapers we could lay our hands on. It was on that beach that John whiled away some of the time exercising his not inconsiderable artistic talent by making pencil sketches of camp scenes. In general though, it was an irksome time as we were longing to be on our way back to England where we we’re to be sent when shipping space was available.
We looked around a bit and spent one day visiting Pompeii and climbing up Vesuvius, which had recently erupted, so we had to avoid enormous streams of hot, coagulating lava which was still smoking. At the top, we could not
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get close to the ominous looking crater which was still belching smoke. We were not particularly adventurous though and spent most of the time just lazing. It was in that camp on that Salerno beach on the morning of 6th .June 1944 that we listened to the first radio reports of the Allied landings in Normandy. It was all very sobering. We hoped there would not be as much carnage in Normandy as there had been some eight months previously on the very beaches on which we were camping. Not long after that, we got our marching orders for embarkation.
We sailed from Naples out of that famous bay at the start of an uneventful passage for home. We were impatient to be on our way and longing to be in England again, but as we saw the coastline recede we felt some sort of nostalgia for what we were leaving behind. That all seemed another world now, but a bit of Italy had got into our blood and has remained there ever since. We had embarked on the ‘Georgic’, a forty-thousand-ton Cunarder. Junior officers like us were quartered in three-tiered bunks in crowded dormitories. It was very spartan and uncomfortable compared with the opulent first-class luxury of John’s and Mick’s voyages round the Cape to Suez some three to four years earlier and of Bill’s even smoother passage through the Mediterranean at the outbreak of war. John and Mick had been in heavily protected convoys that had zig-zagged across the Atlantic before heading south and then back east to the coast of Africa, but as officers, albeit very young and inexperienced, all three of us had done it in style.
Now, we were sailing westwards through the Mediterranean, virtually unescorted. How the fortunes of war had changed, and so too, had the travelling style. No multi-course meals served with all the panache of pre-war first class ocean travel. Instead, we queued up, cafeteria-style, for the usual army ration food. There were no alarums and excursions, no dive-bombings and no submarine scares. We stood on deck two or three days later and gazed at the Rock as we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. In another few days, we were sailing up the Firth of Clyde where Mick’s and John’s convoys had assembled back in 1941, heading for Greenock from where all three of us had sailed for Egypt, and where we were now to disembark. We noted with surprise that the dockside railway staff members, carrying out maintenance work in overalls, were all women.
There was no formality on arrival and we were taken straight to a dreary officers’ transit camp somewhere in Greenock or on the outskirts of Glasgow. By then, we just wanted to get home – and to get there fast. It seemed as first as if we were going to be kept there for a while and at least for a night. We felt pretty stroppy about this. Then someone relented and we were hurriedly issued with leave passes and rail requisitions. Whoever was in charge probably decided that if we weren’t allowed to go on our way then we might just push off on our own – then there would be the messy business of sorting out our disobedience. So, the three of us set out on the last part of our journeys; Bill on a train for Bradford and John and Mick on toward London, going to Croydon and East Grinstead respectively.
It had been a long, long way to go home.
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None of us ever got Italy really out of our blood. Over the years, we have all been back to see familiar places and seek out old friends. We had been right to fear for the lives of helpers in Esanatoglia. In 1953, Bill and Betty and Mick and Nan – there by chance within days of each other -were shown the plaque and the fresh flowers on the wall below Lucia Griffoni’s bakery where a random selection of men from the village were shot in reprisal sometime after we had left. There were still flowers in a vase below the plaque when Mick and Nan were there again in 1981.
In the days of our earlier visits, most of our friends were still alive. But Carlo, Zeno, Lucia and many others are now long since dead. Assessandro Coltinari, the Carabinero, was over eighty but quite chirpy in 1981. So, too, was Zeno’s widow who was then pretty old but still working as a cook at the Monastery of San Silvestro, not far from Fabriano. Quite a few who were children or teenagers in those war years are still around and remember us and welcome us with affection when we go back.
The village itself is still much as it was in spite of a fair amount of development on the periphery. The insides of the little old stone houses, all cheek by jowl with one another, are vastly different. Forty years ago some of them had electricity but there were practically no other ‘mod cons’. Today there are colour televisions, Zanussi washing machines and all the paraphernalia of modern living, as well as motor cars – principally Fiats – everywhere. A few miles to the east, the road south through Fabriano, Matelica and Camerino is now a busy autostrada. Close to Esanatoglia, on the road to Collamato, is a famous ‘Motocross’ circuit that attracts motor cyclists from all over the world. Thankfully, they seem to have only occasional meetings. Much has changed, but happily much more remains the same. It will take more than a major war radically to change the contadini of the central Appenines, and nothing will expunge all the memories from our minds.
Barely a month after our return to England, Bill and Betty were married and John and Mick were ushers at the wedding. It was a nice way of rounding off the whole episode.
[Black and white photograph of Bill and Betty’s wedding day, with John and Mick as ushers. All men in this photograph wear British officer dress]
[Handwritten text] Bulmer, Maides, Wagner