Peter Watson, a British Officer with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was captured on 5th June 1942 and taken to a Prisoner of War camp in Fontanellato. After the Armistice was declared, he escaped from the camp, along with a number of other prisoners. Shortly after escaping, Watson joined up with Peter Strericker, who was to remain with him over the next six months. The two slowly made their way South, aiming to get as close as possible to the Allies as the 8th Army advanced into Italy. They met a number of ‘fellow travellers’ on their journey, as well as great many Italian locals, whose generosity allowed them to survive on the road. Peter later met up with another two escaped POWs and they spent a good amount of time in Castelli, evading the Milizia and Germans with the help of the local people who provided food and shelter. After two months at Castelli, the four moved on, intending to find a boat so they could sail and rejoin their forces. Unfortunately, after reaching the coast and locating a suitable vessel, the four were captured by SS guards. They were taken by train through a number of war damaged towns in Italy before finally arriving in Germany, six months after their initial escape.
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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On the run with Peter Streicker
One of the best written and presented accounts
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Summary of ‘ ‘Mountain Highway’ by Peter Watson – By Keith Killby, November 1994
Fortunately, when PW [Peter Watson] was captured again near the front line in Italy, the SS Hauptman who interrogated him gave him back his heavily ciphered diary. Without that, this account could not be so rich in detail of life on the edge of two different villages and the endless trouble and dangers suffered by the contadini [Italian Peasants/Farmers] on their behalf, nor the huge variety of ‘fellow travellers’ which they met, including British Generals, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Jews, South Africans, New Zealanders, an RAF Squadron leader helping along a non English speaking Indian Sepoy, Italian refugees and Officers. Watson and co. also encountered Carabinieri [Italian Military Police Force] and Milizia – who were much to be feared, as well as partisans – who were mostly pseudo and contadini, and almost all courageous and generous to the extreme.
Captured 5th June 1942 with Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and taken to Fontanellato. Watson provides a good description of the POW Camp, organisation and exit. At that time, Watson thought of the Italians as scruffy, demoralised and sadistically neglectful of others’ needs – as most POWs did until they were ‘on the run’. He later joined up with Peter Stericker, who was previously working in India as a Boxwallah [small-scale travelling merchant peddler], but had managed to get himself into a regular Army Unit [DCLI] – although he remained most irregular. Ronnie Noble, a POW photographer, took photos of their exit from the camp and as the German trucks came looking for the escaped POWs, who were scattered in cover over a small area, they all decided to disperse. Upon approaching their first farm where they were seeking water, they heard their first ‘Venite’. The usual rumours and counter-rumours were going around, expecting the Allies to arrive in a week or two. Watson’s sometimes ironic self deprecating humour must have helped him and his companions get through. After two weeks, they decided to move on after some encouragement by two soldiers who had already escaped once from recapture. Watson then met two SAS on the way south after having completed a job. One of his companions then got jaundice. Before departing, Watson and his companions were given money from the contadini. They then stumbled across a large isolated Villa, but were challenged by armed men from the balcony. They were taken inside and interrogated by one of the three men. The identity of the men was unknown to Watson, though it was clear they were not German. After being interrogated, one of the men stepped forward and shook his hand: ‘I am General O’Conner and this General Neame’. After much map reading and deliberation among the Generals, they agreed to get on with it and continue, but were they were often hindered by illness.
At Massa, west of Ancona, above a road to Foligno, they holed up for a time with much coming and going of other POWs, but especially a mixed bag of young Italians. These young Italians called themselves partisans but were mostly attempting to evade being drafted by the Germans. As the Germans were commandeering livestock, hundreds appeared around the village and meat ‘became’ available by various means. Later, and less useful, 26 trucks appeared in the village and were hidden from the Germans.
Early in December, they moved on again and came to Gualdo (near MSM). The distance from Fontanellato was considered to be around two hundred miles but the journey felt like double this. [Keith Killby – agreed, exactly 300 kilometres but would think four times that amount given their rather wandering journey from West to East]. At this point, their thoughts then turned to getting a boat and getting away somewhere near Roseto d’Abruzzi. They then came to the village of Paranesi, where a group of Italian soldiers were wiped out after trying to attack the Germans when the Armistice was declared. As they left through the woods, they met a young woman with a trunk on her head. When asked why she was carrying this trunk, she replied, ‘I am the new school teacher at Paranesi, how else do you think I should get there?’
Shortly before Christmas, they arrived at Castelli. Here, on the northern slopes of the Gran Sasso, the four halted. The ladies of the village, an ‘Americano-Italian’ and the contadini all helped the mixed groups of refugees coming and going. The Carabinieri, for the most part, did their best to keep order, favouring all on the allied side. The new born fascist Milizia were hunting all, especially POWs. Their activities were curtailed, however, by the fall of the snow – three, four or more feet deep. During this time, the 4 joined in the Pig Killing with the usual festivities. Other times, they had to go round begging for food in the area, which the nearest contadini cooked for them. The Battle of Ortona [20 -28th December 1943, Moro River Campaign] was 60 kilometres away – ‘we could hear the war, we could see the war, but we had little idea of what was really happening’. Later, one of their helpers, Philomena, returned from Penne after it was badly bombed and witnessed a man shooting a woman with a revolver. ‘In addition to Germans looking for AA [Anti-Aircraft] sites, Fascists looking for workers, Milizia looking for us and Carabinieri looking for a murderer’.
After 2 months at Castelli, they decided to move – although all advised against this. The four were determined to look for a boat and were surprised at how much easier and richer it was in the countryside, though significantly more dangerous. In a German occupied costal village, a Yorkshire woman gave them all scones, butter and jam. They stayed a day and a night and were again advised against danger. Between two German Gun sites, they proceeded to the coast where they saw two boats. Two of the four went vaguely across the road and railway to the beach to examine them. The boats turned out to be in good condition and they decided to find the owner, being warned about coming across a brother as they did so. The owner of the boats told them he was forced to lock away the equipment they would need in an isolated barn, but if they broke into it they could take the boat. The two decided to return to the others to debate what to do. Upon returning, they heard screams in German, ‘Mani in Alto’ [hands up]. Given away? They were then taken by train through many war damaged towns in Italy, arriving in Germany six months after their escape.
(Castelli account is full of rich detail).
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|Prisoner of War||1|
|Escape and Evasion||8|
|The Plan Evolves||22|
|Across the Taro||30|
|Germans, Generals, and Other Travellers||40|
|The Massa Gang||51|
|South to the Sasso||64|
|A Home of Our Own||74|
|The Big Snow||81|
|The Murderer and the Maresciallo||90|
|Down to the Sea!||99|
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The story that follows is true, being based on a full diary I kept at the time. I was very much aware however that, should my diary fall into enemy hands, the lives of many Italians would be in peril. I did not record the names of places therefore and noted the names of those I met merely by an initial or nickname. After the war, I was able to trace my route down the Mountain Highway on large scale maps and, although the cartographers and the local inhabitants may disagree about some of the place names I have used, for even the inhabitants themselves were not always in agreement, they are reasonably accurate. As for the people, some of their names I have remembered correctly, some may be at fault and others I never knew, but under whatever name, they all lived and played their part.
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Prisoner of War
At dawn on 5th June 1942, the First Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry arrived at Bir Harmat, the centre of the Gazala Line, some 20 miles South West of Toburk. As the battalion struggled to dig into the stony ground, their patrols watched, with growing concern, the leading elements of 15 Panzer Division pouring through the undefended minefield to the South. Then, early that afternoon, the panzers swung North and, preceded by dive bombers and a barrage of mortar and tank fire, launched a fierce attack on the flank and rear of the Bir Harmat position. By nightfall, the DCLI, with no communications and without armoured, artillery or air support, virtually ceased to exist. By morning, with the survivors of the battalion, I was a prisoner of war.
‘Tell your men’, said the German General, ‘that it was a good fight and but for your bad war luck you might have won’.
But to be captured in battle is a traumatic experience, which no kind words of the enemy can temper. The fierce clash of arms, the life of purpose and endeavour, of responsibility and order, is changed dramatically and suddenly to a meaningless existence of squalor and starvation. We had gone into battle with high morale, expecting to attack, confident of victory, and the sudden shock of defeat was overwhelming.
The column of prisoners wound through the minefields, harassed by the mistaken fire of their own tanks and artillery, towards the West and captivity, while the Afrika Korps [German Africa Corps], sweeping through the disintegrating formations of the 8th Army, were not to be halted until they had reached el Alamein, the gateway to Alexandria and to Egypt itself.
In the prisoner camp at Barce, where we were handed over to the Italians, we met with both squalor and starvation. Many died under the [handwritten text] appalling conditions. Conditions coming from the breakdown of the Italian [typed text resumes] organisation, quite unable to cope with the growing flood of prisoners as the 8th Army retreated, and from the callous indifference of our guards, arrogant with the victory of their German allies. Conditions in Italy were little better, when we reached a camp near Caserta, within sight of the smoking peak of Mount Vesuvius, after a terrifying flight from Benghazi, nor in the cold and cheerless castle of Rezanello, where we spent the bitter winter of 1942.
On 8 September 1943 I had been a prisoner for 15 months and, once again, I was faced with a sudden and dramatic change. I was now in Campo di Concentramente per Prigionieri Guerra N.49, at Fontenellato, a little village some 17 kilometres North West of Parma. Fontenellato was a ‘good’ camp, if any prison can be considered good, in a newly built orphanage on the edge of the village.
By that autumn the tide of war had changed. At the second battle of El Alamein [23rd October-11th November, Western Desert Campaign], the reinvigorated 8th Army had, in their turn, smashed through the Afrika Korps, captured Tunis, invaded Sicily and were poised to land on the mainland of Italy itself. In the East, a whole German Army had been destroyed before Stalingrad and the Russians were sweeping towards the West. As the Allies advanced, so our conditions improved.
The Italians are normally a kind, friendly and cheerful people, although they can change with frightening rapidity into an uncontrollable mob, swayed by fear or anger, or the bombastic oratory of a Mussolini. At first our guards, blustering and arrogant, had treated us with almost sadistic neglect, but by now they had begun to realise that the war
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was lost and were turning their hatred against the Germans, whom they held responsible for their plight. The abandonment of the Italian infantry in the desert, after El Alamein, and the destruction of their Army North of Stalingrad, would never be forgotten – or forgiven. Our guards, mostly men unfit for active service, had developed an ambivalent attitude towards us. They would occasionally speak out against the Germans, as though the Italians and British were allies, but could become almost hysterical in their anger, if we tried to escape or baited them too far.
Some of our guards, who had been wounded or were ill, were liable to be recalled to the front, while others, with the lowering of medical standards, were in danger of being called up for active service. One young officer of our guard came to us in tears one day, because he had been ordered to the Russian front. He threatened to shoot himself rather than to go. The fear of’ being sent to Russia was very real and was the ultimate sanction of discipline. Any soldier failing to do his duty, would be threatened with Russia, which to him meant certain death. At that time in the war, all that our guards wanted was peace and to go home. As they saw it, it was only the Germans, with their fanatical insistence on fighting to the bitter end that prevented them from doing so. Meanwhile, they had a cushy billet which they did not intend to lose, and if they lost any of us, they might be sent to the front. So, scruffy and demoralised as they were, they still did their duty.
The camp Commandant was a kindly man, with a French wife, and spoke French with a fluency which greatly helped in our discussions with him. He too realised that Italy had lost the war and that the continued fighting was achieving nothing but the destruction of his country. He saw that it was in his interests to treat us well, but I believe that he genuinely wanted to make life as comfortable for us as he could.
British officers, en masse, are a bolshy [deliberately combative/ uncooperative] lot and we were always somewhat of a trial to our captors, but, being British, we were also an organised lot, because organisation and routine are essential to a tolerable prison life, or indeed to a civilised life outside. I don’t know if this natural desire for organisation is a British trait, but the Americans certainly seemed to lack it. Once we moved into a camp where we lived in a wooden hut adjoining one occupied by American officers. In our hut we were organised; we divided ourselves into sections with section leaders; we developed a daily routine of washing, distributing rations and cleaning up; we started classes; put on plays; collected information; planned escapes. In the other hut, the Americans remained unorganised. Pleasant as individuals, irritating and quarrelsome as a group, fiercely independent, they spent their days gambling for their food -a heinous offence in our eyes -and lived in disorganised squalor. It may be good to assert one’s individuality, but the difference in morale, between the two huts, was very marked.
Prisoners cannot begin to educate their guards in how they wish to be treated until they can offer a firm and united front and at Fontenellato we were well organised. We were helped in this by Colonel de Burgh, our Senior British Officer, a strict disciplinarian. I cannot say that we liked him, a stocky unsmiling man with a harsh voice and a bad limp from a recent wound, but he pulled us together and did much to sustain our morale. He insisted that we kept to a proper routine; that we shaved and turned ourselves out smartly for the roll calls, to show our superiority over our scruffy guards. He divided us into four officer companies and one orderly company, each of about 100 strong. As officers we were not permitted to work and the Italians drafted in OR [Other Rank] prisoners to form the orderly company, which did the cooking and work both inside and outside the camp. The remaining DCLI officers formed a section under Stafford Floyer-Acland, the former Adjutant of the battalion.
We normally had two Italian roll calls a day. Colonel de Burgh
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turned these into SBOs [Senior British Officer] parades, when we went through the drill of coming to attention and reporting, before he allowed the Italians to count us. This procedure overcame a little problem we had encountered in all our previous camps. When the camp Commandant arrived at the roll call he expected the prisoners to be called to attention, but we were never prepared to show such respect to an Italian officer and this resulted in one or two slightly disagreeable incidents. We were, of course, quite prepared to come to attention for one of our own officers, so it was arranged that we would come to attention when Colonel de Burgh arrived on parade and that he would report us present to the Camp Commandant, before standing us at ease. Thus was honour satisfied. A petty matter perhaps, but then camp life was made up of petty matters.
The orphanage was a large brick building, which stood up above the flat plain, a land mark for many miles around. It had probably been designed for some 250 orphans and with 600, rather larger, officers and men it was definitely over crowded. Nevertheless we managed to find space for the many classes and activities we started to while away the time and we seemed to have an expert in almost every conceivable subject. We had classes in philosophy, languages, literature, the sciences and the arts; we had an orchestra, so called, a bridge club and a drama group; we even had an angling club, without water, and a motoring club, without cars – it is remarkable what a little improvisation can achieve.
I found learning in prison very difficult however and I have the greatest admiration for those who were able to settle down to learn to be accountants or lawyers, or acquire a subject which would be of value to them after the war. Perhaps I am not a very determined character, but living in a vacuum as we were, I found it extraordinarily hard to concentrate on a subject I might never be able to use. I wrote several essays and tried to write a book; I joined a class on advanced motor mechanics and one on French, but made little headway.
We had our wall newspaper, edited by a former war correspondent, who had got a little too close to the war, who could turn the prosaic words of the daily military communiqué in the Corriere della Sera into dramatic Daily Mirror prose. We also had our own source of information, but we had to be careful about how it was fed into the paper, in case our guards, who took a great interest in it, noticed that it had got a little ahead of the official communiqués.
In any prison camp the question of escape is in everyone’s mind, and that usually means tunnelling. At Fontenellato, however, tunnelling was not a very practical proposition. There was a car park in front of the building and then the road leading to the village. The car park was outside the barbed wire and was used by the Italians as their parade ground, with their guard huts in one corner of it. A lane ran down one side of the building, with houses on the far side and, at the back, was our own parade ground. This really only left one side for tunnelling, facing the village across a field, but to discourage our activities, the Italians had dug an anti-tunnelling ditch. We tunnelled hopefully nevertheless.
The biggest problem about tunnels is how to dispose of the debris; it is remarkable how much earth even the smallest tunnel will produce. There were no spare corners in the cellars, which were taken up by kitchens and store rooms, so we had to carry the soil laboriously up to the attic, in Red Cross boxes. The orphanage had not been well built and, before the tunnel got very far, our engineer officers warned that one more box load would bring down the ceiling, so we had to turn to more ingenious methods of escape.
Behind the building, which was wired in with watch towers at the corners, equipped with machine guns and searchlights, was a large field, also surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. On fine days, if we had not antagonised our guards too much, we would be allowed into the field
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for an hour or two, for exercise, and the watch towers would be manned. After we had been called in and counted, the gates to the field would be closed and the guards on the outer watch towers withdrawn. It occurred to us that if anyone could stay in the field, after we had gone back inside, he would be able to escape, after dark, through the unguarded outer fence.
We spent most of our exercise period walking round and round the field, always, for some reason we debated long and earnestly, in an anti-clockwise direction, but one day we started an elaborate game in the middle of the field. The game involved a great many people, although the rules were uncertain and the sides, if there were any, extremely fluid. The only certain thing about the game was that it involved a ball and a great deal of pushing and shoving. In the middle of the scrimmage, two shallow trenches were scraped, just big enough to take a man lying down. When they had been covered with boards and turf they were quite invisible from the perimeter, where the guards watched our frenzied activities with tolerant amusement.
Civilian clothes were created from old battle dress, special rations were collected, passes and papers prepared by our expert forgers, and one evening we were two short for roll call. This did not present much of a problem. When we put our minds to it we could so confuse the counting officer that we could get him to come up with almost any number we wanted – and the next night two more got away.
The Italians would probably never have discovered their departure if one of them had not been caught trying to get on a train. He was accused of being a spy and threatened with execution and was eventually forced to admit that he had escaped from Fontenellato. When the Commandant was rung up he hotly denied that he had lost any of his prisoners, but after numerous counts and recounts, keeping us standing on parade all day, he finally had to admit that he was not just one but four prisoners short. The poor man was most upset.
‘But why?’ he kept asking, ‘Why do you want to escape, isn’t this a good camp?’
We all felt quite sorry for him.
After that we got no more exercise for a long time. One form of exercise I most regretted losing was the exercise march outside the camp. The building got very hot and stuffy that summer and it was with a great feeling of relief that we would be allowed out for one of our marches round the lanes. These were rare events at the best of times, because our guards did not appreciate having to march around in the sun in their thick, ill fitting, uniforms, but we enjoyed them and constantly pressed the Commandant for more. We never went far, and always avoided the village, but we would pass the odd farm or house and the girls would come out and wave to us. They would have thrown us food if the guards had not threatened them with being shot if they did. There was one girl in particular who was very attractive, she would lean out of her window and wave to us as we passed. We named her house Tit Villa.
We had to give our parole not to escape while on these marches and the SBO reinforced it with the threat of court martial if we tried. About fifty of us would be allowed out at a time, guarded by our ragged army, which was in constant fear that we would not all be there on their return. We had no intention of breaking parole, but would put the fear of God into our guards by straggling down the lanes, stopping to pick flowers or admire the view, or suddenly speeding up on the grounds that we must have more exercise. The Italians would trot up and down the column, screaming at us and threatening us with their bayonets when we lagged behind. We got a lot of pleasure out of our walks.
Apart from the communiqués, the war seemed far away and the plain of Lombardy, drowsing in the hot sun, might have been in another world. The
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days passed with a monotonous sameness, we began to feel that we had been forgotten in some timeless space. Sometimes, at night, we would be woken by the roar of bombers passing overhead, or the rattle of windows, as bombs fell on Parma or Piacenza, but as each day of boredom dawned, it would seem but the memory of a dream. Only two events broke the monotony of our days.
A Flying Fortress [Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, US Heavy Bomber] came low over the building, losing height. We counted aloud as the parachutes billowed out. ‘One -two -three -come on, jump!’ we cried in agony, but the plane crashed in a pillar of smoke about a mile away, carrying the rest of the crew with it. The other event was a company of Germans. They marched past the camp, very young, but smart, singing Nazi songs to impress us. We had to admit to being slightly impressed and watched them in silence. About three hours later they returned, hot, tired, dusty and out of step. Their officer ordered them to sing as they past the camp, but they were ragged and out of tune. We cheered and cat called to the fury of the Germans and the secret amusement of our guards, who would normally have put a few shots through the windows, to shut us up.
Looking out of the windows was one of our few pleasures. From my dormitory, at the top of the building, I could see across the plain, with its yellowing corn nearly ready for the harvest, to the hazy line of the Apennines, some 30 or 40 miles away. I never tired of gazing at those mountains, which became for me a symbol of freedom. From a side window, we could look down on the houses bordering the lane, where lived a young girl we had named Christina. She would wave to us as we leaned out of the window and we would call down offers of marriage. ‘Too young, too young!’ her father would shout back, grinning with delight.
In front of the building beyond the Italian parade ground ran the road to the village. There was very little traffic, but anything was worth looking at and Sunday was the highlight of the week. On Sunday, the girls would come bicycling in from the neighbouring farms to go to church in the village. They would stop at a hut opposite the camp, to leave their bicycles and to put on their stockings, kept just for this weekly occasion. This always attracted a large audience and the girls seemed to enjoy the event as much as we did.
Looking out of the windows was, however, strictly forbidden and now and again one of the Italian officers would take it into his head to enforce the order. One officer worked himself up into such a fury, when we ignored his screeched orders, that he emptied his revolver at us. He was too worked up to score a hit, but after that we were a little more cautious.
We were a mixed bunch. Most, particularly the younger prisoners, were wartime officers, with Emergency Commissions, but there were a number, like myself, who had been commissioned into the Regular Army before the war. I had a conventional upbringing, public school and Sandhurst [The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst], and had joined my regiment in India in the spring of 1939, at the age of 20. I was an only child and rather small, and despite having commanded a company in action, still felt rather diffident among men who had had a greater experience of the world than my own. It is difficult to judge oneself and how one changes, but walking round that exercise field I learned a lot about the world, beyond my own limited military experience, and expanded my ideas to encompass those of men who had had a very different upbringing and education in the world. Prison affected us all in various ways and I think that, in my case, it helped me to grow up.
Being rather quiet and a little shy, was perhaps an advantage and I weathered prison life better than some, although I was subject to fits of deep depression as I thought of the world that I was missing. Those who suffered most were perhaps the extroverts, those who had been used to a full and active social life, who hunted or played games with skill and enthusiasm. Some indeed went, in prison jargon, ’round the bend’, becoming highly eccentric to combat the placidity and monotony of a prisoner’s existence. One or two perhaps did this deliberately, because those so wounded in body or mind as to be of no further use to their own forces, might, with luck,
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be exchanged through the Red Cross. It was one way of escape, but a dangerous one, for I do not think that anyone who escaped in this way was ever quite sane again.
On whatever topic our discussion would start, it always seemed to revert to that all absorbing subject – food! We would describe the restaurants we had known and the meals we had eaten; we composed menus and copied out exotic recipes in careful detail; even our dreams were full of images of food – sex didn’t get a look in! Not that the food at Fontenellato was all that bad, so far as prison food went, it was just that it did not go far enough. We never got enough to eat; a wise precaution perhaps, because underfed prisoners are more apathetic and amenable. Besides, the enemy were short of food themselves and much of the food produced in Italy went to feed the Germans.
The dull round of tasteless rice and pasta was relieved, however, by Red Cross parcels. We were each supposed to receive one parcel a week, but this never happened and there would be long gaps between issues. When parcels did arrive – a red letter day indeed! The tins of meat would be kept by the cook house for the general benefit; unlike previous camps, where the Italians did the cooking and we would have been rash indeed to entrust them with such rare delicacies.
The parcels were made up either in Canada or Britain. The Canadian parcels were all identical and, apart from the tins of meat, contained a whole tin of real butter; KLIM, a form of dried milk which made a delectable cream when mixed with sugar and a little water; and a peculiar substance we had never come across before, called peanut butter. The British parcels were all a little different and reflected the state of rationing at home. The meat seemed mainly composed of bread and we got a small tin of margarine, instead of butter. The most sought after parcels came from Scotland.
There were times in our prison life when the Red Cross parcels were a welcome luxury, but there were also times when they were a necessity and, without them, many would have become ill and some might have died. We had much to thank the Red Cross for. Apart from the food parcels, they provided medicines and clothing, and even some books to read. Above all else, they did much by inspecting the camps to force an improvement of the dreadful conditions under which we had at first suffered.
At Fontenellato we also had a canteen. As officers, we were paid on the same basic rate as our Italian counterparts, about a third of our normal pay. We did not get the pay in cash, but had a credit at the canteen, where we could buy such things as razor blades, writing paper and, if the Italians were in a good mood, some vino – but very little else. One thing that Peter Stericker and I had been able to buy, when we were at Rezzanello, was a gramophone and one record – Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Admirable though his music may be, even Tchaikovsky can pall after daily repetition. One of the few things we could buy at Fontenallato was gramophone records. So we added to our musical library and Peter gave weekly recitals in the cellar.
Peter Stericker and I had been friends ever since he had joined the Battalion in India, on the outbreak of war. He had been a ‘boxwallah’ in Calcutta and a member of the local territorial unit. When he got his Emergency Commission he should have been posted to an Indian Army Unit, but being Cornish he was determined to join the DCLI and pulled every string that he could lay his hands on. Against all precedent, he was posted to the British Army and joined us in Lahore.
1 DCLI had been in India for over 20 years and in 1941 was selected, as the most efficient British battalion in India, to join 10th Indian Division in Iraq, then commanded by General (later Field Marshal, Lord) Slim. The standard of turn out and discipline in the British Army in India had changed 1ittle over the past century and was far stricter than the standards of today, but then the education and background of the average soldier was far lower. Peter was one of the first ECO’s to join us after the outbreak of
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war, and for a civilian joining a regular army battalion, with pre-war standards, it must have been a traumatic experience. For our part, we found his unorthodox and irreverent ideas about soldiering a refreshing novelty.
Peter was far from being a natural soldier and, despite the best of efforts of his bearer, would turn up on the most ceremonial of parades looking as though he had just returned from a route march in the jungle. The adjutant did his best, but finally had to admit defeat and Peter was given the Signal Platoon, where he could play with the heliographs and field telephones, in those pre-wireless days, well out of sight of the Commanding Officer. The mules of the Signal Platoon also provided him with transport for those additional items he considered essential to a civilised life, for he was fond of his home comforts and did not take kindly to the rigours of the field.
Peter and I made unlikely friends, perhaps, but he looked to me to induct him into the mysterious activities of a regular battalion, while I looked to him for knowledge of the worlds of music and literature, in which I was just becoming interested and which my instructors had considered unnecessary to a military career.
As I have described it, life at Fontenellato may sound a reasonably comfortable, or at least a prudent, way of spending a war, but we were not content and became increasingly frustrated with our monotonous and restricted existence as the Allies advanced slowly towards us.
It is easier perhaps for a civilian prisoner, for he knows the date of his release and can tick off the days. We had no term set to our imprisonment. It had been four and a half years since I had sailed from England on the long voyage to India, and nearly one and a half of those years I had spent as a prisoner of war. I longed for home with a fierce longing; I felt that I was missing out on life, that my youth was passing me by, and the more I spoke to those who had been more recently at home, or had had a wider experience than I, the more frustrated I became.
On August 16th we learned, with restless excitement, that Messina had fallen and that all Sicily was now in Allied hands. Then, on 3rd September, we learned the most momentous of news – the 8th Army had actually landed on the mainland of Italy. Somewhere at the other end of that white, dusty, road outside the camp were British troops coming to rescue us!
But at the back of our minds lay a nagging worry; it could not be as simple as that – the Allies arriving and us going home. The 8th Army was still over six hundred miles away and surely the Germans would not just leave us to fall into their hands. One day we might wake to find German soldiers on the watch towers and transport ready to take us over the Alps, out of reach of any rescue. A dark cloud of uncertainty obscured the future.
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Escape and Evasion
The 8th September was no different from the long dull days that had preceded it. Supper had been as tasteless and uninteresting as usual, and I had fallen into one of my periodic fits of depression as I slowly climbed the stairs to my dormitory. I sat on my bed and surveyed the long room with its two lines of blue painted beds like the ward of a hospital. It was hot and breathless and all the windows down the side of the room were open, letting in the day’s stored heat of the dusty road and the sun-baked fields beyond. At the nearest window sat Ernie Brett.
Ernie was a gentle bear of a man. He had commanded the Assault Pioneer Platoon on that fatal day at Bir Harmat [Battle of Bir-el Harmat, part of the Western Desert Campaign which saw the DCLI overwhelmed as they attempted to stop 15th Panzer Division advancing], laying mines under fire, in a vain attempt to stop the German armour. Now he sat at the window and gazed out over his limited world. Every evening after supper he would sit at that window for half an hour, before going downstairs again to play Bridge, sitting well back so that the sentries would not be tempted to relieve the tedium of their duties by taking pot shots at his head. It was Ernie’s half hour at the window and as he gazed out, I sat looking despondently at the row of beds, wondering whether it were worth while doing anything else.
‘Peter! Come and look at this!’ Ernie called from the window. I got up slowly from my bed and wandered across. It was probably only Christina and her young brother Joe, or the girl from across the road, the one in the striped dress. I stopped to look at the distant hills I loved. From where I stood, the barbed wire, the sentries and all the reminders of our captivity, were invisible; just those distant hills, gleaming gold in the evening sun, royal in their freedom.
‘Peter, come quickly,’ Ernie’s voice was urgent, ‘what are they doing?’ I went to the window and looked down. Certainly strange things were afoot. Rifles lay abandoned on the ground outside the guard hut, and the guard were leaping up and down as though dancing. Tin hats were being thrown carelessly into the air and now they were singing and shouting and running aimlessly about. The road, which until then had been empty, suddenly filled with madly pedalling cyclists.
‘Where are they going?’ we asked each other in wonder. But some were going up the road and some were going down and all were cycling with such a disregard for the rules of the road that must inevitably result in collision. It happened. A girl went sprawling across the road. No one stopped, no one helped, and in a moment she was on her bicycle again, pedalling madly away after the others. But they were shouting something, something indistinct and breathless, one word repeated again and again. ‘What are they shouting?’ It sounded like – but it couldn’t be! Then a boy stopped for a moment, ‘Pace!’ he shouted, ‘Pace! Pace!’
What endless aeons of time had we been prisoners, each day like the one before, stretching back without change and forward into infinity. This was the way life was; we might dream of change but nothing really changed. ‘Peace’ ‘Home’, these we talked about endlessly, but they were not real things, they could not actually happen. There had been so many rumours, so many disappointments; we were not going to be caught now. We gathered at the end of the passage overlooking the Italian parade ground. There was a feeling of excitement in the air, but no one was going to admit to it.
‘What’s going on?’ demanded new arrivals.
‘Guard’s gone mad’
‘Someone’s started a rumour about an Armistice, but someone’s always starting silly rumours’
‘Perhaps Musso’s dead’
‘Someone said a sentry said there was an armistice’
‘Let’s go down, there might be something on the newsboard’ –
A general drift had started towards the stairs. Each floor poured out its inmates until the passage to the assembly hall was packed with a mass of officers. By
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this time it had been silently understood that the Armistice was an accepted fact and could be talked about, but there was a little speculation. It might not be true. ‘I’m not going to believe it until I see it in writing’, someone declared and we all agreed.
We squeezed into the assembly hall and waited. Why we waited and for what, we did not know, but that something was going to happen we were now certain. Then the Adjutant banged on a table. There was instant silence. Colonel De Burgh climbed on to a table at the end of the hall and glared down at us and we recognised a leader.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘There has been a cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Italy. I don’t want you to think that because there has been an Armistice, there is now peace. There may be a breakdown in the negotiations, and hostilities may re-open at any moment. Gentlemen, you are still prisoners of war and will remain in this camp. I will have no rowdy behaviour and no drunkenness. The lights will be put out at the usual time and you will conduct yourselves like officers. On our behaviour depends the attitude of the Italians and they are still responsible for keeping us here. The Commandant has asked that you refrain from looking out of the windows, to avoid incidents. If any further news comes I will give it to you. I will have no noise after lights out. You may go!’
It had happened – an Armistice! We walked around aimlessly. ‘Well?’ we asked each other, and grinned like Cheshire cats.
What would happen now? We had, of course, discussed interminably what would happen if Mussolini died; if there were a coup; if the Italian army refused to fight. There were many different opinions, but I think that the majority of us would have agreed that, if the Italians declared a separate peace, then the chaos would be so great as to prohibit the use by the Germans of their long lines of communication, which the Italians maintained; the vulnerable coast line would be at the mercy of the Allies and the Germans would have to withdraw North of any likely landing points, to avoid the loss of troops they could ill afford, leaving perhaps a rearguard to delay the Allied advance; the first line with secure flanks would be the river Po, a few miles to the North of us, although some argued for the Ancona-Livorno line to our South; the Germans might try to remove prisoners from the North of Italy, but lack of transport and time might prevent them, and if we were not moved in the first 24 hours, we never would be; and finally, that the Italians would never hand us over to the Germans, because we must be part of any Armistice terms.
The sentries still stood on the watch towers. The lights went out at the usual time; despite the feeling of excitement and the laughing happy people on the road outside everything was outwardly normal. Inside, there was little noise, little celebration; we went to bed rather earlier than usual, wondering rather apprehensively what the morning would bring.
The morning came at last and we discussed the previous night. Despite its outward normality there had been strange events. From the direction of Parma, some 17 kilometres to the South, had come an irregular banging and all night long we had heard the roar of traffic on the Via Emelia to the West of us and the rattle of trains on the main line to Piacenza, which ran beside it. The Germans blowing up their dumps and rushing to get North of the Po? That is what we had predicted. We were off the beaten track and the Germans were getting out, perhaps we would be left behind. The newsboard announced that Pisa had been occupied by the Allies. ‘to turn the Livorno line’ we added sagely. Our confidence rose. We could still hear the roar of heavy traffic, but the banging had stopped, the fields were quiet and peaceful, the hills still dozed in the sun.
There was no roll call that morning, but it was at about that time that we noticed that something was wrong. The sentries still stood on the corner towers, but the machine guns had gone. One had been stripped and the men were sitting round cleaning and reassembling it, but the other had been placed at the corner of the anti-tunnelling ditch, covering the road from
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Parma, while some men, under the direction of an officer, were erecting a feeble parapet in front of it. The remainder of the camp guard were formed up in full war equipment and were being issued with ammunition and hand grenades. On the nearby church tower, two sentries were watching the roads leading into the village. Gone was the jubilation and laughter of yesterday evening; the men looked solemn and rather frightened, as if war was near.
‘Roll call! Outside for roll call!’ The cry came reverberating down the long passages. There had been no trumpet call, so this must be an SBO’s parade. Excitement rose and the day took on a strange unreal air. We formed up at the back of the building in our companies. I fell in at my place in the DCLI section. Stafford reported us present to Major Nott, the platoon commander, who gave the platoon state to the Adjutant. The Adjutant called the parade to attention and reported to the SBO. Colonel De Burgh slowly climbed the steps to the door of the North wing and, leaning on the parapet, stared grimly down at us. He spoke slowly and emphatically in his rasping voice.
‘The Commandant has just been to see me. He has received a warning from Parma that the Germans may attack the camp. He has informed me that he intends to defend this camp with all the means at his disposal and he assures me that he will not permit the prisoners of war in his charge to fall into German hands. If necessary, he will evacuate the camp until the Germans leave the area. If this does become necessary, the British alarm will be blown on the bugle and you will at once fall in by companies in the field. When you are dismissed, you will dress yourselves in battle dress and draw haversack rations from the cook house, by companies. In the event of our going out, you will carry with you only such articles as you can put in your pockets.’
‘In the event of our going out’ our minds reeled at the almost inconceivable thought! What could we do if we were suddenly pushed out into the great world beyond the wire? We, who had never had to think for ourselves since time began; who had never ventured out, except under the watchful eyes of sentries; whose lives for so long bad been directed by others. I felt for a moment as a monk must feel when, after long years in his cheerless cell, he is suddenly ordered out to stand the trials and temptations of an unknown world.
I filled the pockets of my greatcoat with everything I thought I might need, and then took them all out again, to make room for the haversack ration – a tin of spam, a tin of bully beef and a tin of biscuits. Then I took my pillowcase and put everything into that; it seemed a very daring thing to do, and the pillow case tore on the sharp edge of a tin. The decision was too great. I left everything on my bed and went to the wash room window to see what was happening outside.
The machine guns were now mounted to cover the road and sentries lounged at the gates. The rest of the guard had stood down and were sitting silently outside their huts. The rations arrived and everything seemed to be carrying on as usual. Then Colonel Mainwaring, the SBO’s second in command, appeared carrying a map and, accompanied by Tenente Prevedini, disappeared, walking away across the fields. The Commandant’s wife came and talked to him anxiously for a long time. They were joined by Ronnie Noble, our press photographer, and the Commandant gave him a small camera and a roll of film. That seemed more than anything to emphasise the strangeness of the day. There was an expectant pause and we all seemed to be waiting for something to happen, although we were not at all sure what. The arrangements for defending the camp were complete, but they were futile in the extreme. Two machine guns and 50 men might, under the right circumstances, hold up an army, but the miserable rabble that comprised our gallant Commandant’s force could not have stopped a troop of determined Boy Scouts.
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The effects of the SBO’s startling speech had begun to wear off, it seemed again impossible that anything could really upset the existing order of things. Besides, it was twelve thirty and nearly time for lunch. Then, like a stone thrown through a window pane, our returning confidence was rudely shattered. We were leaning out of the window, staring idly towards the far off cloud covered Alps, when our eyes became focussed on a distant black dot. It was coming towards us – an aeroplane flying low. The significance of the fact did not at first strike us, but when it did, we stared at it in fascination – for there could be no Italian planes flying today, it must be German. It was a two engine bomber, flying so that it would just clear the building, the most obvious landmark for miles around. Would it bomb us? We had talked about what the Germans might do to prevent us escaping. They were getting out and, technically, we might be considered free Allied soldiers; they might justify bombing us. The plane flew on towards us, it was going to miss us, but then it jinked and flew straight for the centre of the building. We felt very vulnerable and exposed. ‘She won’t fire now, she’s over’ someone murmured as, with a shattering roar, the machine passed low over our heads. There was a sigh as everyone released their pent up breath. Then we ran to the other side to watch the plane fly away.
Below us was panic, stark panic! The jubilation of yesterday had gone. The road was deserted, doors stood open, woman and children fled screaming across the fields. An officer stood below us shouting, weapons and equipment lay abandoned on the ground, five soldiers ran away across a wheat field. An officer was hauling sheepish men from their places of refuge; from the cookhouse, from under the washbasins, from out of the pigsties. A man rode up, breathless, on a bicycle: ‘The Germans! Seven kilometres off, coming this way!’ More panic, screams of frightened women, shouting and cursing. Then, cutting across this scene of confusion – the bugle, the alarm!
We formed up in the field. The building rose huge and overpowering behind us. A gap had been torn in the wire. We marched out by companies, the sick riding on mules. Ronnie Noble knelt by the gap, taking photographs. Our hearts lightened, our courage returned, as we drew away from that monstrous building, that landmark attracting the enemy. In front of us, the perspiring Sergeant Maggiore led the way. It was hot, but the grass and the vines and the water in the irrigation ditches smelt good. Tin hats and equipment lay on the grass, thrown down in terror by our late guards. We looked at each other and laughed. This was alright, this was good, we were going Home!
We crossed a road and branched off across open fields. Smiling boys and girls came out to wave to us. We were free, how good it was. We struck a lane and turned into it. It was very hot and my greatcoat felt irksome and heavy, but this was not a time to complain. Left turn down another lane, we had come in a wide half circle to avoid Fontenellato. We walked parallel to the road, through the vines, until we came to Paroletta. Left by the church, down a dusty white lane. A halt at last. Girls brought us water:
‘Where are your rifles?’ they asked.
‘We’ve been prisoners, we haven’t got guns yet.’
‘Oh – when are the English coming?’
‘Soon, perhaps tomorrow’
On again down a long straight track bordered by vines.
We flung ourselves under the vines, lying very still. A plane roared low down the track and was gone. We picked ourselves up and moved further into the vineyard. This was the battalion area and we lay down to rest.
We were tired from the unwonted exercise. We lay on our backs, ate
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grapes and thought of the long march back to the camp. Major Nott arrived from Company HQ and told us that we might be returning to the camp that night, but, if the Germans were not clear of the area by evening, we would stay out overnight and return in the morning. The Commandant had promised that, if we did have to stay out overnight, he would send out a cart from Fontenellato in the morning with some food. Our lunch lay neglected on the dining room tables, but we had our haversack rations. Stafford and I split a tin of Spam and then we dozed, on that first afternoon of freedom, and dreamed of home; of how many days to Palermo, of weeks to London. Provided that the Germans did not find us before nightfall we had only to stay put and the Allied armies would arrive and we would be safe.
Stafford went off to Platoon HQ and returned with another brick to shatter our complacency. It appeared that, less than two hours after leaving the camp, the Germans had arrived with two tanks and some trucks. After looting the camp, they had left a small party in Fontenellato and returned to Parma for reinforcements. They intended to search the countryside for us that night. The defending garrison had fled as soon as they heard that the Germans were coming and we learned, to our real regret, that the Commandant some of his officers had been taken prisoner. We looked at each other in dismay. This was no indication of a hasty German withdrawal! Now we would never be able to return to the camp; our link with a secure and organised world had been broken. Where could we go? Where were we to get food? We were hardly out of our chrysalis and the world loomed suddenly large and frightening.
That night, like some huge nocturnal serpent, the battalion moved on to find a better area to hide, moving along the foot of the winding drain embankments. We passed a house and a dog barked, but apart from that, we moved silent and unseen. We did not move far, but halted on the edge of a grass ride, between a small wood and a high embankment. We lay on the ground and tried to sleep, but although the September days were hot, almost uncomfortably so, the hours before dawn were very cold and sleep was impossible. We were closer to the Via Emelia now and there was a constant roar of traffic on the road and railway that ceased only with the dawn; and all night long the sky was filled with a red glow and the air reverberated with the crash of explosions.
As soon as it was light, we moved to hide ourselves more securely. A little further on the wood gave place to a deep bush grown drain and between the drain and the embankment a narrow strip of maize gave cover for the DCLI section, and there we remained all day. It was an unpleasant day and we worried about the future. We shaved with water from the drain and ate a little more of our haversack ration, but now we husbanded it with care. We could see nothing from our small patch of maize, but all day we heard the motor cycle patrols which were searching for us. If we had dispersed on leaving the camp a great many would have been captured; as it was we were all concentrated in one small area. If the Germans found one they would find the lot, but only chance of a spy would show them where to look.
It was a day of rumour. We had started in the firm belief that the Allies had landed on the coast near Livorno and had occupied Pisa. We expected other landings in the North, at Geneva, Venezia, Ancona – and rumour supported our expectations. It said that the British Navy had sailed up the Adriatic and that Fiume had been occupied. Then came the most cheering rumour of all. It was stated, denied, and finally confirmed – the British were in Milan! It was not impossible we argued, the British were presumably somewhere on the coast near Geneva, and Milan was the most important rail centre in North Italy. The country was in chaos, a small parachute force could had Milan against anything the Germans could do; for the Germans, with their army in the South, their lines of communication in disarray, the enemy all around them, could hardly concentrate a large force at any one point. Our morale soared.
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In the evening, the young and beautiful occupant of Tit Villa came down the ride with another girl and a man. They had brought bread for us and milk and tins of Red Cross food they had found in the camp after the Germans left. To them it was a great adventure and they laughed and joked at the idea of hoodwinking the Germans and feeding us on the sly. Other girls followed with more food and some clothes. The amount they brought was quite inadequate to feed us all, but we now knew that we would not starve.
It was from these people that we had an explanation of the noise we had heard from the direction of Parma on the first night and the heavy traffic since then on the Via Emelia and railway line. Parma, which lies astride the Via Emelia and the railway, normally contained a large Italian garrison. On the night of the Armistice it also contained a German Kommando. In obedience to the orders of General Badoglio, who had taken over from Mussolini as Head of Government, the Italians had occupied the railway station and stopped all German traffic. The Germans had to clear the station, the Italians resisted, and a seven hour battle had ensued before they were finally driven out. If it had not been for that battle, the Germans would have arrived in Fontenellato seven hours earlier and caught us in bed. Now they were rushing a panzer division North, to surround Milan, which was in the hands of the Italians, not the Allies, and to compel its surrender. There did not appear to be any Allied forces nearer than Pisa. Our morale went down. As I learned later, the Germans had moved fast to take over the prisoner of war camps and by now most of the prisoners were on their way to Germany. If nothing else, the gallant Italians in Parma had gained us time.
It had now become obvious to Colonel De Burgh that the arrival of British troops was not a question of hours, or even days, and that the Germans were in no hurry to evacuate Parma. Now that the locals knew where we were, our position could not be kept secret from the Germans much longer. We would have to move. With the help of Capitano Camino and Tenente Prevedini, who had accompanied us from the camp, billets were found in nearby farms for those unable to walk far (Colonel de Burgh himself could not walk without a stick). Two officer companies, of which ours was one, and the orderly company, were to leave that night. We were to cross the Via Emelia and then break up into small parties, scattering into the hills, to await the British. The remaining companies were to leave the next night. This was action, and we were glad, but apprehensive. The road and railway appeared, to our minds, as a defended wall that we would have to cross to gain our freedom. For two nights now we had heard the roar of traffic on this vital line of communication. It seemed obvious that it would be well guarded.
Stafford divided the section into small groups of three or four officers. Peter Stericker and I, together with two of our ECOs [Emergency Commissioned Officer], Gilbert Pearce and Douglas Tournage, formed one group. A map came round from Company HQ and Peter made a quick copy of it for our group, before passing it on. Our Paymaster appeared with our pay sheets and a few lire. Even in such circumstances bureaucracy must be served, but in fact the Lire were welcome, and my pay sheet later proved to be a vital means of proving my identity. We made a final meal of bread and a little tinned meat and sat down to wait.
It was unpleasant waiting, for we had only our imaginations to suggest what we were about to face. We had about seven miles to go before reaching the railway, with the Via Emelia on the far side; after that the hills and safety. We imagined long troop trains and convoys, with patrolling guards ready to shoot on sight. A way for one or two perhaps – but a whole Company? We waited while the sun sank behind the distant hills where we longed to be. A runner came down the ride and pushed into the thick maize;
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‘Take cover and keep quiet! The Germans are coming!’
We slid into the bushes at the side of the drain with a frighteningly loud snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves. Silence descended on the countryside and six hundred men lay hidden. Then we could hear them; two trucks in low gear, whining over the uneven ground. The noise came steadily closer; they were coming up the ride; they must be near the rear company. At any moment the company would be seen and we would all be caught; rate in a ditch! The trucks came closer and the dusk deepened; it became a race as to which would reach us first. The Germans stopped and we could hear the engines ticking over as they waited, and we waited, holding our breath and trying to still the loud beat of our hearts. The engines roared up, the trucks moved, backed, turned, and the noise of them died away into the distance, until all was silent again.
The moon was nearly full and it lit, with a frightening distinctness, the winding column of our company, as we followed the tracks and hedges I beside the fields. Major Nett led and we did not envy him in his task. He had to hit off a particular point on the railway seven miles away and, because of the vines, every field had to be skirted. Away to our left and right, similar columns groped their way towards the railway. It was hot and the sweat poured down our faces. We had had no water for twenty-four hours, but we pulled bunches of grapes from the vines as we passed.
It was an unreal world through which we stumbled, with its deep shadows, silver shining fields and the quiet rustle of the slow moving column. Sometimes, we would stop and the column would sink to the ground, already tired by the unaccustomed exercise. We passed a farm and young girls came out to offer us rest; ‘Uno stare qui, sta notte’ [stay here the night] they suggested, but the temptation was refused. Another farm; we entered by a gate, walked all round the house, and out on to a road. The inhabitants looked down upon us nervously, wondering perhaps whether we were Fascisti, Tedeschi [German] or the advance guard of the Allies. We followed the lane for a long way and then left it for some more fields. We were becoming very tired and were grateful for a long halt. A large town stood on a hill to our right; apart from isolated farms, it was the first sign of life we had seen. Then we went on again, to a bridge over the drain we had been following. We thought it was the railway and looked uneasily for sentries, but it carried only a minor road and we were back in the endless fields. All this time there had been no sound from the road or the railway. It was uncanny, as though the traffic had been suspended, while hundreds of Germans lay in wait for our arrival. We almost wished to hear the sound of a train, or a convoy of trucks, anything to break the menacing silence, but at the same time we feared to hear the sudden roar as the traffic started up again.
A line of wires cut across the dark sky in front of us. It was the railway at last, silent and empty. We lay down, while scouts moved up to examine it. It appeared to be unguarded, so we split up into platoon columns and moved down under the shadow of a hedge. We crossed a ditch, up and over the embankment, under the signal wires, clanging loudly as someone brushed against them, over the rails and down the far side, in a mad haste not to be caught standing on the tracks. Then we were through some bushes and in a broad field rising gently towards the Via Emelia, as deserted as the railway. We crossed the field in a scattered mob, to be stopped by a high wire mesh fence bordering the road. We searched frantically for some way out. We found a gate and poured through, across the wide road, a fence on the far side collapsed under our weight.
We were over! Major Nott called to us to split up. I found Peter and searched wildly for the others. We found Gilbert and then Douglas, and set off to put as much distance between us and the road as the remainder of the night would allow.
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We were over the Via Emelia and walking fast. We crossed a ploughed field, over a small road, and plunged into a vineyard. Shadowy groups loomed up and disappeared on either side of us. We were all trying to keep as far away from each other as possible. I led. It had been so long since we had had to use our initiative that no one else wanted to take the responsibility. I led, not because I wanted to, but being technically the senior, the others followed me.
I am not sure that we had really discussed where we should go, we had little knowledge of the country we were entering, but we were instinctively agreed that we must reach the hills before dawn. It seemed impossible that so large a body of men could have travelled so far, and crossed the main road, without the Germans knowing where we were. At dawn they must surely come to look for us and, besides, the hills had stood so long in our minds as the symbol of freedom that we felt that only by reaching them could we be safe. I aimed for the right of the moon. It was sinking now and must be West of South and the hills lay due West.
We slackened our pace when we found ourselves alone and were elated to be moving up low hills; we had not expected to reach them so soon. We were very thirsty and looked in every irrigation ditch we passed, but they were all dry. At last we halted by a small conical hill and lay down in the shadow of some trees; it was one o’clock in the morning. We had been on the move since dusk and, after the strain of the last few hours, we felt utterly exhausted. We were alone in an empty world, but spoke in whispers as though the enemy were listening. Gilbert had a little water, but it only served to make us thirstier and we had to find somewhere to hide, near a farm, where we could get water in the morning. Water was beginning to dominate our thoughts.
It was a long weary march that night and, all told, we must have covered well over twenty miles. We found ourselves plodding across every ploughed field that lay anywhere near our course, we could hardly lift our feet, but we kept pushing on further and further into the hills. From one hill top we thought we could see the mountains looming up to the West, but the light was vague and uncertain. The valleys were becoming deeper now and we climbed up a hill overlooking a valley through which ran the white ribbon of a road. It was four o’clock and we would have to stop, but we decided to make just one more hill. That last hill nearly defeated me. We arrived at its foot, panting and exhausted. It rose up a steep tangle of briars and small trees. We clawed our way up that hill, cursing as the brambles tore at our hands and the soft earth slid from under our labouring feet. We reached the top and I flung myself down on the soft grass, digging my fingers into the ground in a desperate effort to breath. We could go no further. We looked down into the valley and, by the light of the waning moon, we could just make out the dark shapes of several farms. We crawled into a patch of bushes beside a track, which ran along the top of the hill, and lay down to sleep. I wrapped myself in my greatcoat but, despite my utter exhaustion, the cold morning breeze kept me awake.
Before dawn, Peter and I climbed down the hill to the nearest farm; Gilbert and Douglas following at a safe distance in the rear. This was our first real contact with the Italians and we were nervous about our reception. Around Fontenellato they had been friendly enough, but then they had known who we were and, anyway, we had not been dependent upon their charity. Here, with the Germans at our heels, we represented a considerable danger. They might report our presence, or just turn us away, and without their help we would starve. It was with some
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trepidation that, in the grey light of early dawn, we knocked on that first Italian door. The sudden noise echoed eerily through the building and we drew back into the shadows. There was no answer. The house lay blank and silent, ignoring us. We knocked again more loudly, and thought we heard footsteps inside the house, a light wavered at an upper window, but still no one answered us. We knocked again and again without result. The other two joined us and we walked cautiously round to a yard at the back, enclosed on three sides by the house and barns and on the fourth by the hill. A man came out of one of the barns carrying a bucket of milk.
‘Buon giorno’ said Peter. He was the only one of us with a pretence to the language and we had arranged that he should first ask for water and then, if the inhabitants seemed friendly, for some bread. The man stopped and stared at us, startled by the four shadowy figures in uniform.
‘Non avete paura,’ said Peter soothingly, ‘Siamo inglese, prigionieri di guerra.’
The man put down his bucket and stared at us afresh in the light of this new knowledge.
‘Che vola?’ he demanded at last.
‘Prego pani per bevere.’ said Peter
‘That’s Urdu.’ I pointed out, ‘I think water in Italian is “aqua”’
‘Prego aqua’ Peter corrected.
The man picked up his bucket and shuffled off into the house, mumbling to himself, leaving us standing uncomfortably in the yard. We waited anxiously in the growing daylight. A door opened and a plump middle aged woman looked out at us.
‘Buon giorno,’ said Peter, losing no time. ‘Siamo inglesi – prego un po’d aqua.’
‘Si, si, momento!’ and she disappeared again.
A little later the man returned and dumped down a bucket of water. We drank greedily, until we could drink no more and then filled our bottles. Once this was done, we washed in the remainder of the water and felt much better.
The woman looked out of the door again;
‘Venite!’ she said.
I could write a treatise on that one ward alone – ’Come!’ the most beautiful word in the Italian language. I can still recall an instance when, after spending long hours lost on a wild mountain side, in fog and rain, we came to a lone farmstead. A woman heard us coming and stood in the lighted doorway. She did not know who we were, she could not even see us, but without hesitation she called out ‘Venite!’ The hospitality we now received may not have been as good as some that we received later, but that first ‘Venite!’ welcomed us into the mountains and made us members of that great mountain highway which stretched from France and Yugoslavia right down into the Abruzzi, as far as the battle front.
We entered a small dark room with a low ceiling. A chest of drawers, a table and some rickety chairs occupied most of the uneven brick floor. In a corner, behind the door, stood a large tub and a heap of fresh blue grapes, ready to be trodden into wine. The farmer’s wife returned from another room carrying a big loaf of the white biscuity bread of Lombardy. She broke it into four and gave us a piece each. We ate greedily and drank more water with a ladle from a big copper pot. Two girls came into the room and watched us in smiling silence. We were a novelty in those days. The woman plied us with questions, but they were difficult to understand and harder to answer. Peter managed to suggest that we might be allowed to sleep that day in the barn, but the farmer was frightened. There were Germans in the next village and Fascists everywhere, already we had stayed too long. It was dangerous for us, and for him, we must go away
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quickly! We protested that we could not move by day and that all we wanted was a barn or hayloft to sleep in. No one would see us.
‘No, no, e molto pericolo – pericolissimo!’ We must go at once. The farmer’s wife gave us another loaf of bread and, as an afterthought, four great bunches of grapes. We thanked them profusely, for ‘Grazie’ was the only word of Italian we all knew, and were hurried away by the little man.
The sun was beginning to warm the valley as we climbed the path that the farmer had pointed out. The upper slopes of the hill, on this side, were covered with brambles and straggling bushes and we were able to find a patch of grass screened from the track. We lay down and slept immediately. We were woken at midday by the sun beating down on our unprotected heads and had to crawl into the bushes to escape the heat. We ate some of our bread and grapes and had a sip of water, and then we lay on our backs and reviewed the situation.
‘Well,’ said Gilbert, ‘I suppose we’ll just have to wander about like this for the next three weeks. We can’t leave the hills with the Germans around, because there is bound to be fighting on the plains, and we won’t know where.’
‘God!’ exclaimed Peter, who did not appreciate discomfort, ‘three weeks of this! Still, if we are free after three weeks anything’s worth it – after fifteen months. And the British are sure to be here in three weeks at the most. The Boche can’t possibly hold the peninsular of Italy for long; the Allies have almost complete control of the sea and the air and can land just about anywhere they like.’ This was a well worn theme to which we all subscribed.
‘I think,’ I remarked, staring up at the pattern of leaves against the glaring sky, ‘I think that we may hold off a bit, to commit as many Jerry as possible in the South before nipping them off. Jerry can’t afford to lose any more men and it would be better to cut off and destroy a couple of divisions than defeat three or four in battle, if the remnants could get back to Germany.’
‘The German’s are too clever to be caught like that again,’ said Gilbert. ‘They lost too many at Tunis. They’ll get back to the Po mighty quick if you ask me. Three weeks ought to see us out of this alright.’
There was a cracking of branches as Douglas tried to escape from the fierce sun, ‘If we’re going to wander for three weeks around this blasted countryside,’ he complained, ‘where the hell are we going to go?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘we ought to be able to find a farm somewhere where we can stay for a week or two. We’re only on the edge of the mountains here; we must go on until we are right in the heart of them. Jerry will never go up there, not in force anyway, and we’ll be able to sit around until the British come.’
‘We’ll find a farm easily enough’, agreed Peter. And so our policy was decided.
Our programme settled. We turned to examine our few belongings. I had a leather covered thermos flask and Gilbert had a water bottle; we had a tin of bully and one of biscuits, also a tin of Spam, which we ate for supper that evening, a few lire and some oddments such as razors and soap, which we had stuffed into our pockets. We had never visualised three weeks of this sort of life – neither Peter nor I had brought a tooth brush, or a spare pair of socks, and my boots, provided by the Red Cross, were too big. I had brought a paperback, an English translation of Herodotus, Douglas had a thriller by Georgette Heyer [A popular English Historical Romance and Detective Fiction Novelist] and Peter a pocket Italian dictionary – our library was as limited as our equipment. Our battledress was in quite good order however, because the Red Cross had replaced items as they wore out. They still had the large red
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diamonds sewn on the back, to denote our prisoner status, and these we pulled off; not without some discussion. If we were recaptured, we would need to prove our identity, otherwise we might be shot as spies, or paratroopers, which to the Germans were much the same thing, but we had our pay accounts from the camp and decided that they would provide, should disaster strike, sufficient proof that we were ex-prisoners and not subversive agents.
We lazed the hot day away, dozing and talking. It was very peaceful, far from the enemy or sounds of war and our peace was disturbed only by three huge Me 323s [Messerschmitt Me 323, German Military Transport Aircraft], flying low over the hills towards the South East. We speculated on their mission. They were flying low, so they must be afraid of fighters – that argued a landing with a fighter field in North Italy; and they were flying towards the front – to rescue tanks we decided. The Germans were obviously getting out in a hurry!
In the dusk, we returned down the hill to the farm. The farmer was surprised and displeased to see us. ‘I thought you said you were going’, he grumbled, but invited us into the dark kitchen. One of the girls, her dress tucked us round her waist, was treading out the grapes in the big tub, her legs stained a deep purple by the juice and the air sweet with the heavy smell of new wine. We were led through into the next room, a small chamber with a big table set for supper occupying the best part of the space. Round the room was a row of chairs, so we sat down and asked for water, and hoped that we might be offered more. A big wireless set stood on a small table in the corner of the room, but seeing our gaze turned in that direction, the farmer hastened to assure us that it was not working. Peter asked if they had a newspaper. They said no, but the old man next door might have one. Since the troubles, the farmer said, newspapers had been difficult to get, but, as we discovered later, the mountain people were strangely indifferent to the great struggle being fought out in their country. However, the farmer took Peter to see ‘il vecchio’, while we sat under the giggling gaze of the two young women, wine treading being suspended, and tried to entertain two small infants who were showing off for our benefit. Eventually Peter returned, but with no news. ‘Il vecchio’ was ‘molto vecchio’, he had been in America in his youth and so knew a little English, but he had no newspaper and no news.
Before we went we asked for a little bread and the farmer’s wife gave us a loaf from their table, her husband muttering fiercely the while. We again thanked them over profusely and shook hands all round. Then we left and took to the hills once more, speeded on our way by the ‘buona fortunas!’ of the two girls, as they stood and waved us farewell from the doorway.
The valley, whose sides we were once again climbing, was long and ran towards the West and, in the light of the nearly full moon, we followed the track along the top of the hill, passed the place where we had spent the day. We had not been walking long before there came a great crashing of branches on our right. We drew into the shadows and waited anxiously to see the cause. A moment later, amid a crescendo of grunts, crashing and curses, figures struggled through the bushes into the moonlight. It was Captain Haig’s party. They had crossed the Via Emelia the same night as ourselves, had no news and nothing to report. They thought, as we did, that we were pretty well in the advance guard and that the majority had not gone far over the road on the first night. That pleased us, because it seemed to offer greater freedom in choosing a farm where we could stay, and we parted with many good wishes for a speedy deliverance.
Our track became a lane and passed through several farms and small villages, perched on top of the ridge. After we had been walking for
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nearly two hours, however, the lane plunged down into the valley and joined a road. We remained on the ridge, struggling across fields and through hedges, but soon found that we were swinging round towards the North, which might take us back to the plain. We would have to climb down the hill and up the far side of the valley. Before we had set out, however, we had been warned not to go too far South in case we came into the Taro valley, which carried the main road connecting Parma with the West coast. This road was a main lateral line of communication for the Germans and was thought to be carrying heavy military traffic from La Spezia and Genova.
We now found ourselves walking across the grain of the country, down a steep hill side, across a valley and then the hard struggle up the far side, through scrub or thick trees, occasionally coming to cliffs that could not be climbed, which meant a long detour. We took our direction from the moon and the stars, aiming a little South of West, but the terrain became increasingly difficult and, in a straight line, we were probably making little progress. We followed every track which seemed to be going in the right direction, but it usually petered out in a briar patch, or suddenly turned away towards the plains. One track, however, took us through a village and on the far side we found ourselves looking down at the junction of four large valleys, and around them the hills rose high and steep. We seemed to have come into the very heart of the mountains.
We thought that we had probably come too far North, so we followed a ridge above a valley leading towards the South East. We were becoming very tired now and, when Peter noticed a group of buildings on the slope below us with a little wood above where we could lie up, we decided t o call it a night. The moon had set and it had become very dark and cold. I blessed my greatcoat, which I had been cursing all night, and lay down under the trees to sleep.
In the morning we walked down to the nearest farm. Our entry was a repetition of the previous day. We found an aging man and a woman milking their cows and asked for water. This was quickly brought and we drank deeply. After refilling our two water bottles we washed, while the old man watched us suspiciously. These people in the mountains could hardly have realised the significance of the Armistice and they had no idea of what was happening on the plains below them. They had expected peace, but instead they found wandering British soldiers, whom they could not properly understand, and nor could they grasp why we were in the mountains at all.
We were very tired and cold, and behind us, under a roof, was a huge pile of straw. We asked if we might sleep there during the day. ‘It is dangerous!’ replied the farmer.
‘We have not slept all night,’ we said, ‘All we want to do is to sleep. If you let us stay here we will hide in the straw and not leave until it is dark again.’
Our Italian was not quite as fluent as I have written it. Peter had a pocket Italian dictionary and this, with the aid of waving arms, got our message across. A young and lovely girl, with flowing black hair and bare feet, came and regarded us gravely. Those beautiful Italian girls! I suppose that after spending over a year in various prison camps and many months in deserts, stretching from Iraq to Egypt, any female under forty would have seemed beautiful to me, but looking back from more plentiful times, they seem just as beautiful as they did then. There were very few young men about, for most of them had been called up, or were in hiding, but every farm seemed to have its quota of lovely women. I felt like a small boy with his nose pressed to the sweet shop window; I could look, but I must not touch! The girls were well guarded and our future comfort and security depended upon their guardians.
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The old man stood looking at us, while we, our case stated, pretended indifference and leaned wearily against the wall of the barn, as the dawning day began to pick out the details of the farm. The barn with the straw stack lay opposite a square block of building, on our side of which were cow stalls and store rooms, while on the other lay the living quarters. Close to the building lay another of equal size, which appeared to be a farm, independent of the first, but sharing the same yard.
‘Ebbene!’ said the old man at last ‘you may sleep here, but you must leave at dawn’.
‘Grazie!’ we cried gratefully, ‘Siamo fame. Prego un po’di pa, piu tardi’.
We climbed up the ladder and crawled on to the top of the straw, piled almost to the roof, and fell asleep, as the Angelus rang out from some distant church to call the people to Mass that Sunday the 12th of September.
About midday we were woken from our luxurious bed by a young man who had climbed the ladder and was grinning at us, just his head above the straw. We blinked at him, while he grinned in silence. Then without speaking he produced a bottle and a glass, which he handed to us. The bottle contained an amber fluid – this year’s wine, only a fortnight old and very potent. After he had gone, we discussed the possibilities of food. Douglas inclined to the ‘loaf of bread and some grapes’ theory, while Peter thought that we might be invited to share the Sunday lunch. Peter was right and soon afterwards two young women appeared and invited us into the house.
We climbed stiffly down the ladder and followed them into a low ceilinged room. It was a bare room, with a stone floor occupied by a large table, covered with a dirty white cloth. A big fireplace took up one wall and a dozen or so rush seated chairs were arranged round the others. An old man was seated by the fire and rose as we entered, telling us to sit down. His hair was white and his kindly face a mass of little wrinkles. He was tall and stooping, worn by long years of toil in the fields. This was Signor Scaffardi and I look back on him as the first real friend in Italy. Afterwards we were to have many good friends and to meet many a welcoming family, but the first friend always remains more vivid in our memories and Scaffardi, coming as he did after days of hunger and trouble, remains a more vivid example of Italian hospitality then all the rest.
We were soon sitting round the table eating our first real minestrone, as much as we could get on our plates, followed by a small piece of ham washed down by the new red wine. The two girls were there, Bianca aged eighteen, with fair wild hair, and Maria, a dark and slender sixteen; the son of the house, dressed in his Sunday best, who had a hurried meal before going out a-courting; and the Signora, large, bustling and kindly, a typical farmers wife who fed us until we were full and then insisted that we had not eaten enough. They were all very interested in us – where we I lived, how rich we were, how many cows and fields we owned – they were impressed by our rank, but more so by our boots, such boots had not been seen in Italy since before the war.
We spent the afternoon on our straw stack and were called to supper by the young man who had first brought us the wine. He appeared to be very fond of wine and, while in his company, we imbibed vast quantities of the potent stuff, although it was probably more potent for us than for him, for we were unaccustomed to more than the very rare glass. Our host was head of the junior of the three families who lived in the two farms, all being related under the rule of the first man we had met. He took us to his part of the farm, where we had another minestrone, followed by a tit-bit of hare, in a tiny room. His wife was a fluttering little thing, born in America but having forgotten all the English she ever knew, except ‘God
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damn son of a bitch!’ which is the first and most important phrase that every foreigner must learn on arrival in America. A foreigner can live in England for years, knowing only the word ‘please’, but America is more robust. This peculiar phrase was a passport among all those who had lived in America and one that we were to find very useful. Many were the times while trying to persuade a suspicious farmer that we were indeed English and not Germans in disguise, we had the inspiration to mutter, as though to ourselves, ‘God damn son of a bitch!’ – to receive an immediate welcome!
We were hungry for news now, and at last we got it. Our host had a newspaper, a most historic newspaper, for it was the last ‘free’ news sheet to leave Milan. As we already knew, the Italian Garrison had been besieged by the Germans, but, after three days, had to surrender, under threat of a general bombardment of the city, crammed with civilians. This paper, ‘La Corriera della Sera’, which we used to see in our prison camps, had been published after the surrender of Milan, but before the German entry. We were astonished to see our familiar Fascist newspaper with items headed ‘Radio Londra’ and ‘Radio Algerie’, and to see how completely it had swung over from Axis to Allied propaganda.
The great question we wanted answered was ‘where are the British?’ but we searched the paper in vain. It talked of a landing at Taranto, but that was down in the heel of Italy and no use to us; in fact I was rather surprised that the Allies should have bothered to have landed so far South, when they could have landed anywhere they wanted. There were no other place names we knew, except ‘Piso’.
‘We’ve landed at Pisa,’ said Peter, reading the paper, “but it spells it Piso, it must be a misprint.’
We knew of no town on the coast called Piso – it must mean Pisa, nothing else would be logical, but I felt a cold chill of doubt. ‘Piso’ was mentioned in connection with Taranto; what if it were true that the Allies were no further North? Our host had a rumour that the Allies were at Grosseto and that a landing at Genoa had been repulsed, but even Crosseto was not in Northern Italy.
‘Three weeks’ we had said and the time had seemed interminable. Now it might be even longer. But still, in three weeks the Allies must arrive – one must have faith!
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The Plan Evolves
We spent the next day, with the blessing of our new friends, in the little wood above the farm. We left our warm and comfortable straw at chill daybreak and found a place at the mouth of the copse. It was hardly a wood, where we could overlook the farm and the valley. It was a beautiful spot, as the sun rose and warmed this valley in the green hills of Italy. To our right we could see the lone farm house on the road we had crossed when we had arrived. There were few farms in this quiet place, but enough to give life to the open fields and the tree dotted swell of the hills. It was peaceful and quiet; no harsh crags or discordant colours; no noisy motor roads or sounds of war; just a sunlit study of white farms in green fields, of yellow maize beside brown plough. A day for rest and sunshine. We lay and dozed through the day, eating our bread and drinking the wine that one of the girls brought up to us at midday; wasting time, because that was our policy.
Signor Scaffardi spent the day in the local village of San Pellegrino obeying a summons from the Carabinieri to register his workers and hand in his shot gun. When we returned to the farm in the evening we found everyone agitated by the dreadful news he had brought back. They told us in whispers looking nervously over their shoulders, ‘Mussolini e a Berlino’.
We tried to calm them down, we laughed at their fears. How could Mussolini in Berlin hurt them? They did not know, but they were afraid. They knew nothing of politics, they knew little of geography – Berlin might be quite close. All they knew was that Mussolini had gone and now he had returned, and they were very afraid. This more than anything that the Carabinieri might have said, made them afraid to keep us. We could stay the night, but the next night we must go.
That evening they gave us one of the best meals that I ever had in Italy; fresh milk in big bowls, with sugar and bread hot from the oven. We broke the bread into the milk, so that it remained crisp and fresh, the only way to eat bread and milk. They work hard at harvest time on those little Italian farms. They had been up at six and had worked until seven in the evening. Now they had had their supper and it was eight o’clock; time to go off and reap the maize until two in the morning. Bianca, Maria and their brother picked up their knives and lamps, though the moon would soon provide light enough. We offered to go with them to work also. At first they laughed at the idea of officers working, but then they refused ‘because the Carabinieri know how many workers we have and might see you’. We argued, but in vain, so we returned to our straw for another night.
The next day we lay up in the copse as before and argued a new proposition that Douglas put before us. Five English had passed through in the night and we had seen others in the distance. The area, maintained Douglas, was becoming too crowded, as it must necessarily do with everyone coming to the same place. The Taro valley formed a natural boundary to the South, once over that we would pass into a prisoner free area and would more easily be able to find a suitable farm where we could stay until the arrival of the Allied forces. I was against it. I could not yet believe that the Allied occupation of North Italy was not imminent and needlessly to descend into the Taro valley, one of the main lines of German communication, containing a road, railway and a large river, all probably guarded, seemed an unnecessary risk. The other two remained neutral, so we compromised and agreed to move South towards, but not across the Taro valley.
After an evening meal, and far too much vino, we set off towards the Taro. We started at a rapid and somewhat erratic pace; breathing fire and slaughter against all Germans – but our enthusiastic pace soon slackened, and by the time we had climbed the hill on the far side of the valley, our pace
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had dropped to a crawl. We were in a land made wild and mysterious by the moon, with deep shadow cloaked valleys and misty unreal mountains. Valleys opened up in all directions, preventing us from grasping the topography of the land. After a long walk we came to a road running along the top of a ridge. On the far side the ground dropped so steeply that we could see no way of continuing on our course, so we walked down a road until we came to a village. Before reaching it, we turned off over difficult and extremely steep plough and down into the valley; over the next hill and into another valley; across that and up the far side. By now the dawn was not far away and we decided to look for a place to stay. We saw what looked to be an enormous farm and settled down to shiver in a wood until it got light. By daylight the farm did not look so large and, as we now saw another building away to our left, Douglas and Gilbert went on to this, while Peter and I went down to the farm we had first seen.
We found the usual old man and woman milking the cows and, after a brief parlay, we were led into a tiny, dark and filthy room, where we were given mugs of fresh milk and buns of unleavened bread. These good people quickly accepted us and did not appear at all suspicious and, when we asked to spend the day in their hayloft, they at once led us to a shed at the back, where we found two ragged tramps asleep in the hay.
The two tramps proved to be Winchester and Day, from Fontenellato. They had traded in their uniforms for the disreputable clothes they were now wearing, and urged us to do likewise. They pointed out that they were now able to roam the countryside at will, and that no German would recognise them as British officers. While heartily agreeing with this latter point, we were loath to take such a drastic step, for we still clung to the idea of a rapid Allied occupation of Italy and were doubtful about the German attitude towards officers caught in civilian clothes. However, when Winchester and Day departed on their way to Bardi, where they had heard that the inhabitants were particularly friendly, we talked about it. But we could not make up our minds.
At midday we were woken by the old man, who brought us some bread, and in the evening a young girl came to invite us to supper. We were led to a much better part of the farm and, after a wash under the pump, we went up the outside stairs to a room which, by farm standards, was well furnished. Here we found a young man, Orestes, who turned out to be the padrone of the farm, which contained two other families. He was with his mother and his two sisters, Maria, aged twelve, and Ave, a pretty, well dressed girl of about eighteen. We were given an excellent meal, but were pressed the whole time by Orestes to change our uniforms for civilian clothes, which he said that he would gladly produce. We soon discovered however that he was more interested in acquiring good British material than he was in parting with his civilian clothes.
Despite our comparative comfort, it was a depressing day. From the two officers we had met, and from Orestes, it was becoming clear that the Allies were still well South of Naples and were showing no particular hurry about rescuing us. If one has been a tramp and a fugitive for some time, it may appear to be the only kind of existence, but to us, on the threshold of trampdom, the weeks stretched drearily ahead and thoughts of comfortable beds and regular meals, would keep intruding themselves. Orestes added to our despondency by informing us that, during the day, the Germans had searched San Pellegrino, the village we had skirted during the night.
Orestes gave permission for the four of us to sleep in the shed, so after supper Peter and I set off in the dark to find the other two. They were not in the farm we expected, but, after inquiries, a young man with a squint said that they were in a house lower down the hill, quite close, and volunteered to show us the way. We followed him for a long time, along winding paths, until we began to be alarmed and wild fears of treachery and Germans began to form in our minds. To our anxious inquiries
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our guide would merely mutter, ‘Subito, subito!’ which did not greatly reassure us. Eventually, however, we arrived at a small house where we found Douglas and Gilbert eating bread and cheese with a little old lady who spoke very good English. Unfortunately, her knowledge of the war situation was even more limited than ours and she was obviously frightened at harbouring such dangerous guests.
We spent the next two days lying up in the wood, playing interminable games of ‘Battleships’, ‘Animal Vegetable and Mineral’ and, even in desperation, ‘I spy!’ We also discussed our parlous state. The Germans, we discovered, were fortifying the hills above La Spezia, so accounting for the dull thuds we had noticed in the past few days. We became convinced that we would have to make a move to the South East. The Taro appeared to be some valleys away, but with the increasing activity in our area, we would soon have to make the attempt to cross it. At midday, Maria and Irma, the daughter of the third family at the farm, would bring us bread, grapes and wine, and in the evening Orestes would give us supper. We slept at another farm down the road, where they showed us great hospitality. On the second afternoon, we were cheered by seeing a British bomber, circling low over the hills, although we could not see what it was doing.
On 17 September, we set out again. The moon had not risen and the way was difficult, but the vino we had consumed carried us rapidly and rather hilariously, over a wild and desolate valley and half way up the farther hill. By the time we had reached the top, we decided that we had done about enough for one night and the sight of the silver gleam of a large river in the next valley, decided us to find a farm before crossing what might prove to be the Taro. The valley was further than we had thought and it took us more than an hour to reach a track running through a scattered village, near the foot of the hill. We looked at several houses, but felt that a more isolated situation would be better and eventually found a lone farmhouse where a man, still awake, gave us permission to sleep in his barn.
By daylight the ground did not appear to be as flat as we had thought and the river was out of sight below the fall in the ground. We could see the tops of houses and found that there was still a road and a village between us and the river, which in any case, we learned, was not the Taro.
Several people came to the door of the barn during the day and stared at us. They were all dressed in their best clothes, because it was a festa day. They had no news, but told us, rather pointedly I thought, stories of Fascisti activity in the neighbourhood, and gave us a very grudging permission to spend the day in their barn. They had, in fact, little option, because it began to rain and we would have stayed anyway. They brought us bread and grapes however and watched us closely as we ate, as though we were a new experiment in animal feeding. In return, we offered to do some work. This caused some surprise, but eventually a man brought in a sack of oak twigs and we set about stripping the leaves for winter feed.
About midday two men came into shelter from the rain, which we suddenly recognised as another pair of ex-prisoners, Dickenson and Young. They were very cheery and full of optimism and it did us good to talk to them. They told us that the British Government had broadcast an appeal to the Italians to look after us, which we felt might do some good when it got around, but not many mountain farmers possessed wireless sets. When the sky cleared, Dickenson and Young left to cross the river and we envied them the freedom allowed by their civilian clothes. Not long after we saw six ex-prisoners pass in the distance, wearing uniform. This seemed to us to be very rash and it was becoming more and more obvious that we would
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have to get civilian clothes and move South.
After our good work with the oak leaves, not so easy as it looked, we confidently expected an invitation to supper, and the most delicious smells began to wander round the corner. But night arrived without a meal, while the man of the farm, after leaning for some time against the door post of the barn regarding us in silence, asked when we were going to go. We were pretty good at taking hints, so we moved on. We hurried across the main street of the village below, hoping that we could not be seen in the darkness, and down a lane which led to the shingle of a wide river bed. We crossed the river over a plank bridge and turned up stream, looking for a path up the steep bank. Our path, when we found it, led us up through small terraced fields and delivered us to the back door of a silent farmhouse, black in the gloom of encircling trees.
We tossed and decided that Douglas and Gilbert should try this farm and ask where another was nearby, for Peter and myself. We had agreed that two per farm was really enough. All four of us were a bit overwhelming and a strain on our nervous hosts. Peter quickly got tired of waiting, however, and, despite my protests, followed them in. We found ourselves in a small room with two young women, and three men, who turned out to be deserters from the Italian Army trying to find their way home. They were a very cheerful crowd and full of fun and despite my further protests that we only wanted to know the whereabouts of another farm, I was firmly over ruled by Peter, and we sat down to a welcome supper of bread, a little cold bacon and wine. It was an amusing evening; Gilbert constantly starting off on some remark in Italian, becoming hopelessly involved, and subsiding amid roars of laughter from his audience. The Italians always took to Gilbert and he seemed able to get as much over in an almost incomprehensible mixture of English, Italian and wildly waving hands, as Peter could in his more orthodox language. My weakening protests being over ruled, we all slept together in a cold and draughty barn; but before dawn, Peter and I set off to find another farm he had heard of, higher up the hill.
It took us a long time to find the farm and we became rather worried, because we could see no signs of habitation. When we did discover it, we were nervous of entering, because it seemed more of a village than a single farm and even had a post office. It became light while we thought about it, however, so we went up to a house at one end of a group and hung about the courtyard until someone should wake up and notice us. We had to wait for some time before a tall, middle aged, man came out in his best clothes, and we suddenly realised that it was Sunday again. Peter bade him ‘Buon giorno’ and then went on to explain our, by now stereotyped, requirements; water, breakfast and somewhere to spend the day. We were clearly a novelty and the farmer did not know quite what to make of us, so we did our terribly-tired-been-walking-all-night act, sitting on a stone bench against the wall and looking suitably exhausted. This seemed to do the trick and, calling to his daughter to keep an eye on us from an upstairs window, he told us to stay put and went off to milk his cows.
We had chosen a prosperous looking house, two atoms and a paved yard. Next door and adjoining, was an even better looking house with green shutters. Through an archway, between the house and the cow sheds opposite, we could see the main alleyway of a little village. An old man came hobbling through the archway; ‘Say boys’ he remarked genially, ’howdy! Live America!’ he explained comprehensively. That, unfortunately, was about the extent of his vocabulary, for America had not seen him for about twenty five years. Nevertheless, his testimony to our genuineness persuaded his brother, our prospective host, to give us shelter.
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The village quickly gathered to watch this free Sunday show, until shooed away by our host. Then Dickenson and Young walked in through the archway. They soon made themselves at home, for Young spoke excellent Italian, and we were all invited into the house for a breakfast of bread and milk and ersatz coffee. With Young’s help we broached the question of civilian clothes. After a lot of discussion, our host and his brother produced a couple of shirts and some much worn and patched trousers. In return I gave them my greatcoat. I was very sorry to lose it for, apart from its warmth at night, it had been in my possession since my Sandhurst days, and had grown fond of it. But while we could carry some of our uniform in a sack, the greatcoat was too bulky and conspicuous. While I was about it, I shaved off my moustache for Peter had declared that, as I was so obviously a British officer in disguise, he would accompany me no further unless it went. It was the same age as my greatcoat and it nearly broke my heart to lose them both on the same day.
Free of the incriminating uniform, we followed our host to look at his fields and, while he proudly pointed out his boundary marks, we enjoyed the sunny morning. We were looking down on the valley we had crossed and could see the road winding up to a scattered village on a high swelling hill. This was Bardi of hospitable reputation, containing a number of families who had lived in America and which had attracted many ex-prisoners. Too many – for as we watched, we saw four German trucks, full of soldiers, crawling slowly up the road towards the village.
Hardly had we finished breakfast when half the village arrived to see us. Girls! The room was full of them; girls round the walls, girls in the doorway, even girls on the stairs waiting to push their way in. Beautiful girls; all dressed in their Sunday best, with that wonderful taste for colour and design, which seems to be born in every Italian woman. Girls from Milan, from Piacenza and Parma, refugees to this remote corner of the mountains. We, who had not seen so many girls so close for two years or more were struck dumb. Only Young remained cool, with Air Force poise. He discussed film stars and dance music with a lovely young thing from Milan and found common interests in Mickey Mouse and Ginger Rogers. The noise was terrific, everyone talked at once, squealed with laughter, giggled, screamed and sang. When the noise at last died away and the pressure relaxed, I was left limp and exhausted in my chair.
That afternoon, two Scottish lads from Busetto Work Camp passed through. They had crossed the Po at Piacenza, been captured by the Germans, escaped, and were making their way South to join the Allied forces. This was action, and we were impressed, the more so because our own thoughts were turning more and more towards the long trek to the South. Also we were beginning to realise that the spy fever in the area would prevent us from staying for long in any one place, as we had originally intended. As our host said:
‘I will put you up for one night, because if anyone informs on me you will be clear of my farm before anything can be done. But to stay on a farm for more than one night is foolish and dangerous. You just want to walk around from house to house, staying one night in each, until your army comes.’
Advice which others repeated to us many times. But to spend weeks, perhaps, moving aimlessly from farm to farm would be more than we could endure. We must have an objective, but what? North to Switzerland and internment? Down to the coast to find a boat? or South through the mountains, towards the Allies?
In the evening our host offered to take two of us to a Dopo Lavoro, a pub in a nearby village, to hear the wireless news. Peter and
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Dickenson went, while Young and I stayed behind to prepare sleeping quarters in the hayloft. The news they brought back was not very cheerful. There had been a battle at a place called Salerno, towards Naples – but a long way from Lombardy. In Russia, Kiev and Novorissisk had been liberated. There was fighting in Fiume, but only with Yugoslav rebels. It was quite clear that all the stories of Allied troops being in Pisa or other places in Northern Italy had merely been false rumours or wishful thinking.
Just as we were sitting down to supper, Douglas and Gilbert walked in. They had, suddenly and without explanation, been turned out of their farm. Perhaps some new spy scare. They had decided to cross the Taro that night, now only two valleys away. They had supper with us and then bade us goodbye, and we wished them luck in crossing the river. After the darkness swallowed them up, we did not see them again in Italy.
Supper was a repetition of our earlier meal. The beautiful girls poured in while we were eating, giving me immediate indigestion! As before the noise was incredible and utter pandemonium reigned in the small room, while we struggled to finish our meal. Suddenly, with a chorus of ‘buona seras’ they all left the room and silence descended. A moment later, the discordant voices had harmonised into song and the sweet strains of the Ave Maria came through the night, from a little lighted shrine glowing in the darkness outside. How typical of Italy, with its squalor and beauty, its gentleness and cruelty, inextricably mixed!
When they had gone Peter and I debated our future. While we were quite sure that the Allies must land sometime in North Italy, at present they were still South of Naples, some 500 miles away, in a straight line. There was no point in staying in the North, we too must go South as quickly as possible, to get South of any possible Allied landing. The question was how? A mountain chain runs down the centre of Italy, the Apennines, rising in places to over 9000 feet. On each side there is a comparatively narrow plain, intersected by numerous rivers, each in its deep valley, each having to be crossed. The easiest way would be to make use of the roads or railways, and their bridges, running down the coastal plains, but these were the German lines of communication. There would be guards on the bridges, patrols and check points and we had no papers, or means of getting any. The mountains would be safe, at least until we got near the front, but they were bleak and bare with few, if any, houses to provide a night’s lodging and some food. We would have to take the middle way; high enough to avoid the Germans, but low enough to find tracks to walk on and farms to feed us. On the other hand, this was the area of the feared Fascist Milizia.
The Milizia were mostly composed of dedicated fascists, who had thrown in their lot with the Germans and now had nothing to lose. They had a fearsome reputation; taking the young men off for forced labour, burning the houses thought to have harboured deserters, or such as us, and shooting even women without compunction. But the middle way it would have to be – still, the Allies would be bound to land soon, our trek could not last long and if the worst came to the worst, we would lie up behind the front and let the battle roll over us. Our plans were made, and we now had an objective, and we were eager to get started.
It was a cold night and the Tramontagna howled round the barn, forcing its way gustily through the cracks, We pushed our way further into the straw and thanked our good fortune that we were not walking on such a night. It made us realise, however, that before we set out on our great trek, we would have to get some more clothes. A shirt and ragged trousers would not keep out the cold. We carried our battledress and an army shirt each in a sack and we had a small haversack for our
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pooled shaving kit and oddments. What we needed was coats and also bats, because the sight of a bareheaded man would be bound to attract attention. We could not get anything more where we were so we decided to stop at the first village we came to.
After a good breakfast of bread and milk, we gave Dickenson and Young an hour start and then set off for the Taro. It seemed strange to be walking freely again and we found ourselves instinctively avoiding anyone we saw in the fields. We felt very obvious walking along and, of course, we were. Any Italian could tell from half a mile away that we were not Italian, our pit alone betrayed us, but to the Germans we would just appear to be two Italian farmers – or so we hoped.
We crossed over the hill, meeting the full force of the wind, and looked down into a shallow valley, with a village standing astride a stream at the bottom. We might find coats there, so we decided to lie up for the day and move down at dusk. There was really no point in waiting for the dark, but we were still nervous about appearing in a village in broad daylight. It was a wild day, with some rain, so we were thankful when the evening came and we felt able to walk down to the village. As we drew near, we saw that it was grouped round a small grey castle, surrounded by a high wall. Mingled fears of a fascist landlord and hopes of a comfortable bed made us consider the wisdom of entering the village, but a quick glance round the bare and darkening mountainside soon overcame our fears.
There was no one about, for the men had not yet returned from the fields, so we had a long drink at the fontana and peered through the wrought iron gates of the castle. The castle seemed deserted, so we went to find some women at the other end of the village street, and Peter asked them if there was somewhere we could spend the night. They were friendly but off hand. One of them said that she supposed that we could sleep in the barn, but no one invited us in. We asked about coats. No, no one had any coats to spare, but had we been to the castle? Conte Zanchi was away, but his Maggiordomo would give us coats – they were quite confident.
We went back to the castle and pulled an old bell chain by the massive front door and a distant clanking reverberated through the building. An old woman came shuffling to the door, opened it and looked out at us. We started to explain who we were, but she cut us short: ‘Oh Poveri! Poveri genti!’ she exclaimed, “Entrate, entrate!’ We followed her down a stone passage and entered (oh shades of heaven!) a real old country kitchen, with a big fire and a cat curled up beside it. She sat us down and asked if we were hungry. We were. She brought us vino, bread, cheese and cold meat roll. Before we had finished, her husband came in, a jovial fellow, full of laughter. He was the gamekeeper, and his wife, it seemed, was the cook housekeeper to the Conte. He sat down and told us what he had done in the last war, what he would do to the Germans in this, if he could catch them, and that the Maggiordomo would be back soon and would be sure to give us some coats.
Eventually the Maggiordomo returned, in a flurry of spaniels and carrying a gun. When I looked at him I had some misgivings as to the sort of coats we could expect, for he was as broad as he was short. However, he sent the housekeeper to fetch his old clothes and Peter chose a brown, and much patched, sports jacket and a brown hat, while I got a blue jacket in reasonable repair, although none of the hats would stay above my ears. The coats were large, but fitted passably well and we were very grateful. We left our battledress blouses behind for payment.
We returned to the other end of the village to find the barn we had been promised and to have a wash and shave at the fontana on the way. While we were washing, a group of Italian soldiers came in, dirty, limping and weary. They had deserted from their unit in France and were making their way to their homes in Bologna. They were full of bombast when the girls
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gathered round, but we though them sorry specimens.
We spent a comfortable night in the barn and were offered breakfast in the morning, which we refused because we had been promised breakfast at the castle. When we arrived at the Castle, however, everyone was asleep. After we had made a great noise on the door, a head appeared at a window, wished us goodbye, and went to sleep again. So we started our day’s march without breakfast and rather cross.
A short distance outside the village we stopped at a farm where we thought that we might be able to get some bread, and found Dickenson and Young again. They were working on the farm for a few days before crossing the Taro. There were also six British soldiers and an Italian asleep on the straw stack. We were given some bread and walked on up the hill. When we got to the top we found ourselves looking across a deep valley, with high hills rising on the far aide. At our feet was a sheer cliff, at the bottom of which ran a main road. Beyond the road was a railway line with a small station and, beyond that, was a river – the Taro!
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Across the Taro
21 September 1943
Today we crossed the Taro! As with the Via Emelia, the Taro proved to be more of a psychological than a physical barrier, and now that we are across I feel that our great trek South has really began. The country seems different – we are closer to the high peaks on our right and the lower slopes are mostly covered in dense forest.
We had to walk a long way above the valley before we could find a way down the steep cliffs, and Peter dropped the sack containing my thermos, which broke. I really was annoyed. I had carried that thermos all the way from India, it had survived battle and prison camps, and now Peter had busted it! I suppose it is really a very little thing, but when one has so few possessions the loss of even the smallest becomes a major tragedy and I still feel a sense of grievance.
At last we found a small valley down to the river and we sat, under cover of some bushes, to watch the road and railway. The railway was deserted and there was practically no civilian traffic on the road, but a number of German army convoys passed us. We could hear them grinding up the hill from our left, or coming down in low gear. We waited for a gap, slipped over the road, and walked through a cattle tunnel under the railway and so out on to the broad expanse of river shingle. We felt very exposed plodding across the shingle, particularly when a railway engine came coasting down the line with an armed guard on the footplate. The river, though wide, was quite shallow and we paddled across without much difficulty, except that Peter dropped his boots in the water – which makes up a little for the Thermos!
From the top of the hill, on the far side, we could see back almost all the way we had come, as far as the white dot of the church above San Pellegrino. While we were resting in the sun a man stopped to talk and volunteered the information that we might find a night’s lodgings at the house of a ‘professor’, who lived nearby. The ‘professor’, when we got there, turned out to be a student – Guido Venanci, studying medicine at the University of Parma. His father is down on the plains, where they have a house, but the two sons, both of military age, and his wife are living up here for safety.
Guido speaks a little English and I spent an entertaining evening talking to him and a very disreputable looking old farm labourer who has lived in America. The old man’s conversation consists of reeling off a list of common American products, all of which, to his enormous pleasure, I said that I knew intimately.
One of our difficulties is going to be finding our way for we have no maps or compass. I suppose we cannot go too far wrong with the peaks high on our right and the plains on our left, but the country in between is very confusing. Guido has his old school atlas and I have made a rough copy, mainly a series of parallel lines representing the many rivers we will have to cross. Not a lot of help, but at least we will be able to tick them off as we go South.
Signora Venanci has been most kind. Apart from supper, she has given us a small, and much needed, mirror and has mended our sack. We are now comfortably installed in the barn, while outside the wind is getting up again and it has begun to rain.
This has been our most unpleasant day so far! It started off alright; we had a good breakfast, the rain had stopped and we set off cheerfully to cross a deep, dry valley. As we started up the far side, however, it came on to rain and then we came to a Strada Provinciale,
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with quite a few German trucks and motor-cycles. Over that, our path deteriorated. The hills here are covered in dense stunted woods and criss-crossed with tracks, that either lead us in complete circles, or disappear into the thorniest bushes in sight. Viewed from the top of a hill, the whole country seems quite impenetrable, a mass of green undergrowth, dripping in the rain, and not a sign of human habitation.
At the bottom of the next valley we crossed the river Baganza and another, but empty, Strada Provinciale; and then it came on to rain really hard. We tried sheltering under the bushes, but the rain merely trickled down the backs of our necks and it seemed less miserable to go on walking. The far side of the Baganza is very steep and high and it must have taken us several hours to get to the top. Here we unexpectedly came out into upland meadows, no doubt a very beautiful sight in the sun, but, as it was, they were very muddy and slippery. We then came back into the maddening tangle of bushes and misleading tracks and, almost at once, the clouds rolled up and we were enveloped in a dense white mist.
We were completely lost! This is my first experience of being lost on a mountain and I sincerely hope that it will be the last! It is all very well to say that one should keep going on down hill, but we came to cliffs, to rivers and to impenetrable banks of brambles. No path took us down for more than a few yards. We became rather desperate, not knowing which way to turn. Suddenly two armed, blackshirted, men loomed out of the mist; one in front of us and one behind. Milizia Forestale! They stood looking at us in silence, and we too stood still, there was no way of escaping. Peter broke the long tense silence by asking politely how to get off the mountain. One of the men pointed to a track, the other told us to stick to it, and they silently disappeared into the mist again.
I do not know how long it took us to reach this village, if village it is, but I have never undertaken so miserable a walk. We constantly lost the track, it rained incessantly, it grew dark, our feet were sore, we were tired, cold, wet and very hungry – but we made it!
We stopped at the first house we came to – the worst slum I have ever seen. Even after living in India, I never realised that people could live in such degradation. The flies and the dirt are disgusting, the squalor quite appalling. I have never seen such utter and abject poverty – but then I have never met such generosity, such unstinting hospitality. For these people to feed us, to give us a bit of wool to mend a sock, is equal to my giving a sum I would refuse to even the most needy tramp. It makes me uncomfortable to accept such liberal hospitality, it makes me ashamed. Begging from such people is a hateful thing – but what else can we do?
We began the day by crossing another river, the Parma, which gives the impression of making good progress. The Parma fills me with foreboding however, because it is coming down in spate after yesterday’s rain and, if every river is going to be like the Parma, we are not going to make much progress. Peter and I took off our boots and tried to wade across, it looked easy enough, but the current was very deceptive and we nearly got carried away. We tried again at several places, wandering further and further upstream, until we came upon a group of men mending a drain. An oldish man, wearing waders, offered to take us across. With his rubber boots he could get some purchase on the shifting stones. He did a reconnaissance of the route, testing the depth and strength of the current and then took me across on his back. It was a frightening ride, for he constantly slipped in the fierce stream and, if he had fallen, we would have been swept a long way down before we could have stopped ourselves – if we could. After that he decided that it would be better to lead Peter across by the hand, which was safer for both of them, although Peter
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nearly got swept away and was quite soaked before joining me on the far bank.
We then set out to walk round Monte Caio, a mountain rising to about 5000 feet, but such are the magical qualities of this land that, after walking nearly all day, we found ourselves in the upland meadows, just below the summit. We were rewarded for this useless exercise, however, by the magnificence of the view. Monte Caio rises abruptly on all sides. On the North it is open, with lush sheep pastures and little glades of trees, while on the South it is wild and rocky with great boulders and coarse thorny bushes. From the top we looked back over a plain of cloud, lying like a white surf over Lombardy; to our front the sky was clear and all the mountains of Tuscany rose up to intimidate us. Range after range of sheer, black faced, cliffs broken by narrow gorges. It was a terrifying sight and we looked at each other in some dismay. At our feet, cutting us off from this wild and desolate world, was a deep valley with a road linking many villages. On our side of the road was an isolated cluster of houses, to which we now descended.
On the way down, we stopped at a cattle trough for a wash and shave and were found by a crowd of small boys, who watched us with interest. They were so interested that they invited us to their homes and promised to lead us there. An ideal way of getting a footing in a village, not over eager perhaps for our company.
The village we have come to is Trevignano and the inhabitants are different to any we have met before. They are a collection of families, all of whom have sons who are officers in the Italian army. The houses are bigger and much better kept, than we have been used to – and the food is wonderful. In fact we have had two meals since we arrived this evening. After our first meal we repaired to the village school, with half the children, to listen to the wireless news, but the set would only produce buzzes and odd remarks in German. I am sure, however, that if there had been any spectacular news the people would have known, for they are all well educated and, with sons at the various fronts, they are desperate for news themselves. I wrote patriotic messages on the black board, causing general astonishment among the children that the English used the same method of writing as themselves.
Tonight we are to sleep on the kitchen floor, on a pile of eiderdowns, which are now arriving from neighbouring houses. This is much more my idea of how to trek in the mountains!
Peter rather wanted to stay for a day in Trevigano. I think he is beginning to feel the effects of being constantly soaked and cold, and he got an extra drenching when we crossed the Parma. I wanted to get on, but in fact the decision was made for us – our hosts asked us to leave. They explained that there were several fascisti in the neighbourhood and, being all officer families in the village, they are under some suspicion anyway. Also, the Germans have offered a reward of 5000 lire to be paid in Marks of Sterling, plus two extra bread and tobacco rations, for information leading to the capture of any one formerly a prisoner in Italian hands. We are honoured – we have a price on our heads! Our hosts, however, are afraid lest anyone be tempted to inform upon them and the results would be
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serious, indeed fatal. We must always remember that these good people in the mountains are literally risking their lives to help us, and if they ask us to leave then we must. Although they would not let us stay, they generously gave us a shirt apiece, some soap and a comb. In addition I got a hat – a straw trilby, so I feel a little less conspicuous, although perhaps the hat will not be quite the right thing to wear in the rain. They also provided a boy to guide us across the valley roads.
We walked all morning and rested during the afternoon in a deserted valley. The upper reaches of the Enza flow through the valley and we were able to wash ourselves and our clothes. This is the first proper wash that we have had since leaving Fontenellato and it did our morale a lot of good, not to mention our aroma! In the evening we tried a farm for a bed and supper, but were rebuffed by a surly fellow, who was clearly afraid of us. We tried the nearby village of Castagnetto and optimistically went up to a big house, where a well dressed man was tending his garden. He looked at us disdainfully and suggested that we try the next village. We were becoming a little worried by the refusals, when a young gypsy looking woman passed, told the gentleman in no uncertain terms exactly what she thought of him and his hospitality, and took us to her home across the road.
We were given chairs in the courtyard and left; everyone just disappeared. We were beginning to resign ourselves to sitting on chairs in the courtyard for the rest of the night when the village doctor appeared. A short tubby little man, most unsuitably dressed for the country in narrow patent leather shoes and a gents natty pin stripe. He talked to us for some time, to prove our identity no doubt, and then explained that his wife’s brother was a colonel and a prisoner in Russia. Could we, on our return to England, find out if he was still alive and, after the English arrived, let him know? We said that we would do our best. He told us to come round to his father-in-law’s house in the morning (his father-in-law was the gentleman we had first seen) to get the details off his wife. We said that this would have to be done this evening as we proposed to make an early start and, just then, we were called in to supper.
During supper, a massive minestrone, two young Italian officers came in to give us the once over. They are crossing the mountain early tomorrow and have invited us to accompany them, an invitation we gladly accepted. After supper the doctor returned and invited us to his house, where we were given a good welcome by his father-in-law. This puzzled us, after his earlier attitude, until he asked; ‘Why didn’t you tell me at first that you were officers?’ An amazing contrast to the welcome we received at the poor house two days ago, but if people want to know our ranks, and no one else has been concerned, we will not be slow to introduce ourselves; “Noi siamo Capitani!’ Anna, the doctor’s little daughter, pressed a 50 lire note on us and gave Peter a charm to wear round his neck. It is horrible to accept money but these people can afford it!
The two officers led us over the mountain and down the far side, which we reached before 8 o’clock. There they left us to go on to their homes further down the valley, while we turned up a Strada Communale to the little village of Ramiseto. The village was sitting on its doorstep eating its breakfast of bread and
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milk, so we joined in which a will; I find that crossing a mountain before breakfast gives me a good appetite. After breakfast we met a woman and her two children who were taking a bullock sledge up to the mountain pastures. We dumped our kit on to the sledge and gave it a free ride. It was wonderful to walk over the meadows without the encumbrance of our sacks, the bullocks moving slowly in the sunshine, white against the vivid green of the grass, the rolling shoulders of the mountain standing out boldly from the great wash of deep blue sky, the fresh air, the singing birds -these are glorious moments to remember, moments that turn our dismal trek into high adventure.
In a field on the edge of the upland pasture we found the woman’s father hoeing potatoes. When he had finished he sat down under a tree and pulled out an old flint and tinder box and proceeded to light his pipe. I could imagine his father and his grandfather before him, sitting under that same tree making a light with flint and tinder. Sometimes I find it difficult to remember which century I am in, let alone which country. One moment, our hearts, in our mouths, we try to dodge the German army as we slip across road, the next we are transported into a timeless land, where nothing has changed. It is really all very confusing for a simple soldier!
When we had rested the old man took us down the far side of the mountain to the next village, where he was going to get his weekly ration of vino. He took us to the Dopa Lavoro where we met a deserter from the Ariete Division [132a Armoured Division Ariete, an armoured division of the Italian Army. The division fought in the North African Campaign until being wiped out during the Second Battle of El Alamein], who had served in the Western Desert. There is a bond between those who served in that peculiar desert war, no matter to which army they belonged. It is almost as though we all fought on the same side and, whether British, Italian or German, we can all sing Lili Marlene together. Our Ariete friend at once sent his wife to prepare a hot minestrone, which she brought to the pub, while the old man plied us with vino.
Of course a day which started like that could not possibly last and, as we said goodbye to the soldier, the old man and half the village, it began to rain. Not far from the village we had to cross a Strada Nationale. Peter said that we should wait a bit and watch it, before attempting to cross, but I said that he was being overcautious and that the road was obviously deserted. Just as I stepped on to the road a German staff car came fast round the bend and I had to leap for the ditch. ‘You bloody idiot,’ said Peter fiercely, ‘You nearly got us both caught!’ Perhaps I am becoming a little over confident.
We crossed the Secchia, which fortunately was not too deep, and as it was growing dark we stopped at the only house we could see on the bare rain swept hillside. It is now pouring with rain and I am rather depressed after the exhilaration of the morning, although the cheese may have something to do with it! We are in a small, dark, smoky room, lit only by an old oil lamp and I can hardly see to write my diary. The farmer offered us a supper of bread and cheese. I have never tasted such a ripe cheese, it nearly knocked the back of my head off, but I was hungry and attacked it with vigour. Then it counter attacked! I was just reaching out to cut myself another slice, when a large chunk obligingly detached itself and crawled towards me. I dropped my knife at once and started to apologise, perhaps like Alice I should have gracefully declined when the farmer first introduced us. Peter however continues to eat it with obvious relish – it makes me sick to watch him!
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26 September – Sunday
Crossing the mountain this morning, against a high wind, we came to a small village where we stopped for a second breakfast. We had not intended to stop, but were almost forcibly arrested by a woman, who took us to her neat little cottage tucked away under the hill. We inquired about a shave, for we were looking very rough for a Sunday. Although the men never shave during the week, they always shave on Saturday nights for Mass in the morning, and the sight of anyone unshaven on Sunday morning is a matter for comment. The good lady at once sent for the barber who shaved us and cut our ragged hair, refusing all payment. The woman’s son, a mute child of thirteen, then guided us for the next stage of our journey, over a wooded hill and on to a bare slope, overlooking the town of Ligenchio. We have been warned against going too near the town because of the Fascisti.
When we left the boy we fell in with two very odd characters who became our guides. To show friendship we exchanged baggage, and I now carried a gigantic umbrella and two hats. The younger of our companions was a ship worker who had fled from Geneva, to avoid being forcibly sent to the German ship yards. He was a shrewd, alert young man with no faith in anyone, from the Pope downwards. ‘The Pope helped Mussolini to power, so if Mussolini goes, the Pope must go.’ Like many shipyard workers, he had Communist leanings and told us, with relish, what would happen to the capitalists when the war ended. I am not surprised he had to leave Genova! Our other companion was an old farm labourer who had apparently been enlisted to carry the young man’s bag as far as his home in the next village, Ospetoletto. They were an amusing pair and kept up a constant flow of backchat.
When we got near the village we stopped so that the young man could change into a smart blue suit. From then on our progress was a triumph. The whole village turned out to welcome him and we almost felt that we were returning home ourselves. After greeting everyone in the village we were taken to the young man’s house, where his wife promptly produced a huge Pasta Asciutta, to which we could scarcely do justice. Then, after being kissed on both cheeks and wept over by the old man, we took to the road again.
Our path ended in a narrow valley and we followed the stream up to its source, climbing up beyond it to a pass over the mountains. I had not realised until then that we were going to cross the main ridge, that is the trouble about having no map, and we are now on the Western side of the Apennines, with the peaks rising high on our left. It was pleasant crossing the pass, the wind in our faces, the springy turf under foot and, behind us, a black jumble of mountains. We now came down over streams running to the West, over the upland pastures, passed the huts of the charcoal burners, until reaching this dismal little village, another Ospitaletto, where we sleep tonight. Peter has been grumbling a lot about the discomforts of our existence and has been lagging behind. I hope that he is not falling ill. I am not sure what we could do if one of us became really sick.
We have made very little progress these last two days. When we left Ospitaletto we were directed over a high hill, its top covered in swirling mist. Of course we lost our way and it rained. When it rains we get soaked, because neither of us have anything to keep out the wet. It also goes straight through my hat and drips down my face, leaving brown streaks. We struggled through dripping woods, entangled with briar,
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until we were exhausted. All around us was a white clammy mist, with no signs of a track. Then close machine guns started to fire, the shots rattling eerily through the forest. It seemed too much, we almost felt like giving up.
It was late afternoon before we struck a village and then we got such an unfriendly welcome that we hurried on to the next, Salerno, a cluster of grey houses, huddled damply beside a river, roaring down a narrow ravine. By now Peter was clearly very ill and could hardly keep on his feet. Whatever our reception we would be able to go no further. But our luck had changed. The good villagers took us in, dried us and fed us and passed us on to our friend Giaco Bruschi, who lives in a hovel in the centre of the village.
For two days it has rained, both inside and out, for it requires skilful manoeuvring to avoid the many streams that flow from the ceiling. Peter has been in bed and Giaco and his wife have done all they can to help him. They cannot do enough for him, but I fear that their best is very crude and unpalatable to Peter. He cannot face food and the little they have is very coarse and greasy. I think that he has probably got jaundice. I hope that he will get over it soon, because there are Germans in the neighbourhood.
I called in at the Mill to see another escaped prisoner, de Winton, who is ill in bed, after spending a wet night on the mountains being chased by the Germans. I then went on to the pub to listen to Radio Londra, but the Allies do not seem to have advanced beyond the Bari-Naples line. Apart from us, there are also two Carabinieri in the village, who have been sent to look for us! Giaco is feeding them and we seem to have an agreement – if we don’t see them they won’t see us! It’s an odd world.
Peter seemed better this morning and got up for the first time, although he is a bit weak at the knees and is still off his flood. He was just getting dressed when Giaco rushed in: ‘Germans! In the village – quick!’ We were out of the back door and up the hill in record time and I saw someone run off to warn de Winton.
We spent a cold, damp, day in a leaky hut on the mountain side, which cannot have done Peter much good. Giaco brought us up some food and said that the Germans had passed on, but we thought it best to stay away until the evening. I went out and picked a sack of blackberries to give to Signora Bruschi. Giaco has agreed to our sleeping in a hayloft near the house tonight, which, after the scare, is really very courageous of him. We will move on tomorrow.
First thing this morning I went down to the Mill to see if de Winton was alright. He seems to be better, but said that he would stay on a little longer – Germans permitting.
Signora Bruschi mended my trousers, which are getting in rather a desperate state, and greased my boots, and then she loaded us up with food to take with us. They have been so good to us, and to Peter in particular, and all for no reward other than the satisfaction of giving a helping hand to others in greater need than themselves. It really seems that the poorer people are the kinder they are. It is those with many possessions whom we fear, for they may sacrifice their humanity to protect them.
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We intended to make a very short march, just to get out of the area, but took a wrong turning and ended up in a blind valley. We had to climb all the way back up a hill before coming to a small group of houses – and a British patrol! We got rather a shock – because we thought at first that they were Germans – camouflage uniform and sub-machine guns – but they turned out to be Lieutenant Wedderburn and a Corporal of the SAS. They had been dropped just before the Armistice to blow up the railway in the Tare valley, they had then moved South and are now trying to think what to do next. They have some ORs [Other Ranks] from our camp with them and some Italian students from Lucca, with whom they have been raiding Italian Army Arms Depots. They have amassed quite an interesting collection of arms and explosives and we toyed with the idea of joining them; but Peter is far too ill to be more than just another mouth to feed and neither of us is an explosives expert, which is really what Wedderburn needs. He gave us a tiny button compass, a map of the Florence area [handwritten text above this line] on a silk handkerchief, which will be very helpful when we get there, and showed us the way to the house of a lady where we might get somewhere for the night.
A most talkative little old lady! She has been very generous and says that we can sleep in a barn nearby. She has shown us some Allied pamphlets. I am not sure that the propaganda appeals to her, but she is most impressed with the high quality of the paper on which it is printed. She feels that if the Allies are so rich as to be able to print leaflets on such paper and then just throw them away, they are bound to win the war!
There were strong rumours that German patrols were out looking for the SAS so we had to move on, although Peter is still very weak and unable to eat properly. He has gone yellow so it must be jaundice. It was a long and difficult march, across the grain of the country, so that we had constantly to climb up steep hills and down into narrow rocky valleys. We made heartbreakingly little progress. We could not stop because there was not a house to be seen, except the occasional empty barn or ruined farm. At midday we crossed a Strada Nationale and we longed to walk on its smooth level surface, but were discouraged by a stream of German traffic. In the afternoon we saw a village perched on a hill, far in front of us and spent the rest of the weary day creeping slowly towards it.
The village turned out to be San Pellegrino, a pilgrim centre at the end of a tarmac road, with a very old church and – three hotels! The village seemed empty, no Germans or Milizia, as far as we could see, and a hotel was just what we wanted. We had some money and could stay there while Peter recovered. The first two hotels were closed for the duration, but the third was open and we hurried eagerly towards it. We had hardly got inside the door, however, before the manager rushed up and tried to bustle us out. We tried to explain that we had money and could pay for a room, but the fat greasy little man would give us nothing (may his house be destroyed!) and edged us away. I suppose that, in retrospect, we were hardly up to hotel standards; we were in urgent need of a wash and shave, our clothes, particularly my trousers, were not perhaps particularly elegant, and the sacks over our shoulders were not the sort of luggage that usually arrived at that door – but still, I hope his roof falls in!
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We went on down the hill to a little cottage where lived an officer’s wife and her sister. She had last heard from her husband from Bari, just before the Armistice, and was very worried about him. She had very little money, because her husband’s allowance had stopped, but gave us some bread and gravy and sent us down to a pub, where she said we could get a shave and a bed. I wonder about those two women. They are clearly used to a better way of life and their cottage had the look of rather desperate poverty; their few possessions are tastefully arranged; the sparse furniture carefully polished; a white table cloth and proper cutlery were brought out for our meal of bread and gravy, which was all they could offer. What will happen to them when their money runs out? Will the villagers look after them as they are looking after us? I worry for them for they are people like myself and I can share their feelings and their fear.
We found the pub in a cloud burst, which was helpful because it ensured us a welcome, although I expect that we would have got one anyway. The publican and his wife are dears. They fed us and shaved us, very painfully, and put us in a little room with a real double bed, which in normal times they let out to pilgrims to the shrine. This is real luxury and should do Peter a bit of good, he still cannot eat properly and is badly in need of a rest.
In the evening, some farm labourers came in and we had an amusing talk. I find that I can get on reasonably well in Italian now, although learning the language in the mountains is not easy. Every valley seems to have a different dialect, even common words like ‘cow’ or ‘barn’ can be quite different only two or three miles away. It would help me a lot if only the Italians could learn to speak proper Italian!
One of the labourers said that Naples has fallen at long last, but at this rate of progress we will still be in the mountains when the winter comes.
Sunday – We have spent the last two days in San Pellegrino, while Peter recovers his strength. He is still rather weak, but I think that we should be able to continue our march tomorrow. He is getting very restless and frustrated. The weather has been good and I feel that we are wasting valuable time when we should be getting South before winter closes the passes over the mountains. We need to eat to cope with this rough and energetic life, however, and Peter has not really been able to eat properly for the last week or so.
Our lodgings are too public to stay in by day, so we have been going down each morning to a farm recommended by our host, coming back here in the evening. It is a wonderful place, occupied by a huge family, mostly women, who are always working, always laughing, and who keep their house spotlessly clean. It is all rather like Alice in Wonderland. There is young Natalina the Cheshire cat to life, who follows us everywhere with a broad grin on her face; the Door mouse, always falling asleep; and the Mad Hatter, who I think really is mad, but very cheerful with it. We have not actually got a Duchess, but we did have a visit from a Princess, who lives near here and came to try to buy some eggs. She was beautifully dressed, but in a way totally unsuited to the country and seems to be living in some peacetime dream world of her own.
The farmers are very proud of some bits of American bomber they have picked up. The plane crashed into the hill a few days
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ago, killing all the crew. When the Germans arrived, they were surprised to discover that American airmen apparently fly without boots! Our own boots provide a never ending topic of conversation for the men, who now mostly wear clogs, or boots with wooden soles, while the women cannot get over our SAS map. To use real silk just for maps – we must be rich!
Food looms large in our lives and, until I became a prisoner, I never really appreciated the phrase about bread being ‘the staff of life’. Bread and cheese provides everyone with at least one main meal each day. Manufactured foods, such as macaroni and spaghetti are almost unobtainable and are kept for very special occasions, so they make their own pasta instead. This, however, requires white flour and an egg, so is usually reserved for Sundays and festas. Now that the potato crop is coming in we sometimes get gnocchi, which is pasta made from potato flour. Minestrone is the most common hot meal, but what it consists of depends upon what the cook can find to put in the pot, and those with nothing make polenta instead. This is a new dish to me, a sort of maize porridge which is poured over the table to form a yellow table cloth. A little bit of pig fat, or bacon, is melted in a frying pan and poured over the top, while we sit round expectantly, forks at the ready. On the word ‘go’ we cut out and eat segments of the polenta, aiming to be the first to reach the middle of the table, because then we can expand our wedge at the expense of our neighbours. If I am sitting between two hungry farm hands I can never win at this game, so I always try to sit next to Peter, to give me a fair chance. In some places we have passed through we have had polenta made from chestnut flour, which I find very sickly. Somehow the sweet taste of chestnuts does not mix very well with bacon grease.
In poor farms the main meal of the day is sometimes just boiled potatoes. These are dumped on the table, boiling hot, and I cannot hold them without throwing them around the room. The horny handed labourers find my potato juggling act quite hilarious. I am always pleased to amuse them, but it makes for thin eating!
Coffee, of course, is non-existent, but they make a tolerable substitute from roasted wheat. Talking of substitutes, I have discovered that beech leaves smoke quite well in my pipe. They must, however, be exactly right; too green and they will not light, too dry and they just flare up. There is some locally grown tobacco, but it is so strong that it makes me sick. Oh, for Mr. Player’s Medium Cut! [[John Player & Sons, British tobacco manufacturer]
The good ladies have mended our sack and my trousers. They have also mended my socks, after the necessary precaution of washing them first, so now we are all ready for the road again. I hope that Peter will feel strong enough to face the road once more. We must get on.
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Germans, Generals and Other Travellers
This morning, Peter was well enough for us to resume our march and I was very relieved to get on the move again. The dear lady of the house thrust a 50 lire note into my hand and her husband guided us as far as the Strada Nationale. We are now making for Sestola, which gives us a place to ask for, which everyone should know.
We waited for a German army convoy to pass and then, as the road seemed little used, we walked along it for nearly two miles. I wish we could always walk on the roads, it is so much easier and we make such good progress. After a time, however, we met a German convoy coming round a bend, rather too suddenly for our peace of mind, and we had to take to the hills again. We were lucky because we found a track which took us all the way to Montecreto, through beautiful, gentle, valleys. Beyond Montecreto, we lost our way before finding Piare Tarino, quite a large town in a valley through which flows a broad river. This is the junction of two main roads, and a farmer told us to follow one of them to a bridge over the river. We followed the wrong one, met a Milizia patrol, and had to scramble down a steep cliff to get on to the road leading to the bridge.
Peter had walked quite far enough for his first day out after his illness, so, after crossing the bridge, we looked for a suitable farm for the night. There was not much choice and we found ourselves knocking on the door of a very dark and sinister looking building, with a most weird collection of inhabitants. The whole place is quite filthy and appears poverty stricken, but we got a meal of bread and cheese and the promise of somewhere to sleep. There are two very tall, over dressed and over made up, women; a small rather pretty girl; a bumptious youth who looks like, and probably thinks he is, Douglas Fairbanks Junior; and an old man who has been in America and answers ‘Yes, sir!’ to everything we say; and a host of shadowy figures in the background. I feel uneasy here, as though there were something nasty in the woodshed, and I am very glad that we are not sleeping in it! Instead, we have a bed in the straw stack, which we are sharing with a multitude of mice and some lesser but more voracious, creatures.
We were routed out at 3.a.m. this morning, I think they wanted to get rid of us before daylight – but they did give us some bread and milk. It has been a fine day and we have made good progress, climbing up the side of a mountain. About midday, some 80 American bombers flew over in the direction of Modena and fierce AA [Anti-Aircraft] fire opened up from the valley below us. It was an awe inspiring sight as the bombers, glinting in the sun, sailed imperturbably through the black puffs of the exploding shells. They came back about an hour later, their formation a little ragged, but seemingly intact.
Coming down the far side of the mountain, we were able to bypass Sestola and make for Fanano, passing through a little village, which turned out en masse to stare at us. This side of the mountain is much more fertile and we are back in vine country again, so we are able to beg a few grapes as we go. As we neared Fanano, we were overtaken by two well dressed young men, Sergeants Churchill and Gay of the Welsh Regiment, who escaped a few days ago while in transit to Modena. They
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were full of enthusiasm for their roving life, which our greater experience failed to dispel. They gave us some much needed razor blades and some news. It appears that the British have landed on the coast North of Foggia, although the Americans are still held up to the North of Naples. The Sergeants went on into Fanano, while we stopped off at a small farm and had raw cabbage in vinegar, scones and cheese for supper.
We had a very good march today, covering nearly 30kms, mostly over easy tracks. We are now on the silk map, which makes route finding much easier. In the afternoon we came down to the Reno valley, about 3kms from Poretta, which is the German HQ for the area. A main road runs beside the river and it was crowded with German traffic, mostly supply and personnel trucks going North in almost continuous convoys. It is encouraging to see so many vehicles going North and it raises wild hopes that the Germans are pulling out, but somehow I rather doubt it. We watched the road for a long time, but the traffic never slackened and it was quite impossible to get across without being seen. We had to wait until it grew dark, when we slipped over the road, across a railway line and over the river itself. Fortunately the water was low and we were able to wade across without much difficulty. Another river to tick off and a major landmark on our long trek South.
On the far side we climbed up the hill to this delightful little farm. In peacetime they take in paying guests and they have given us a lovely room with a big double bed. We had a good supper of ham, scones and wine and afterwards watched the men treading out the grapes.
My diary is, perhaps, rather over concerned with the question of food, but I must record that before we left the farm yesterday we had sausage and mushrooms for breakfast!
It seems that every good day has to be followed by at least one bad day, or, in this case, two. When we left the farm yesterday it was pouring with rain and we were faced with a very difficult march. We were coming round the Western side of the mountains which overlook Florence, about 12 to 15 miles away. The headwaters of the Arno rise here and across our path lay a small lake with a dam, a hydro-electric station at its foot. Five days ago, some SAS were dropped to blow up the dam and the Captain leading the party was killed in the attack, which was unsuccessful. The Germans have now reinforced the guard on the dam and there is a large group of Milizia and four Germans on the dam itself and at least one guard post in the hills above it. So we approached the area with some care.
The hills are covered by dense forest, dripping in the rain and when we came up to the lake it seemed quite impossible to pass above it, so we tried to cross below the dam. We got over a stream out of sight of the guards, but then came to the main channel, which was far too full to cross and, despite the rain, was in view of the guards above. There was nothing for it – we would have to try to cross above the lake after all. Our main worry was that no one had been able to tell us exactly where the German posts were.
There were no tracks and we had to scramble up through the damp forest, now obscured by mist. We were soaked through and cold, expecting any moment to stumble across a German post. Our button compass saved us from becoming completely lost, but
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as darkness fell end we could not find any form of track, we began to realise that we were not going to make it round the lake that night. Then, by sheer chance, we came out into a clearing with a tumble down farm, inhabited by a rabbit warren of families. They told us that we had passed quite close to the Germans, but they seemed too poor and disinterested to be much concerned with the presence of the enemy. They let us dry out a bit before the fire, gave us some polenta and let us stay in their cow shed for the night.
We set off before dawn and breakfast, on a track the farmer had shown us, and eventually got round the head of the lake. We stopped at another farm where we got some bread and cheese and a guide to the next one. We were beginning to feel the lack of a good hot meal and I felt very tired and cold as we squelched along the tracks, which had become raging torrents. It was with a great feeling of relief that we came at last to the end of the forest, above Monte Piano, and found a Strada Provinciale.
By this time we had had quite enough of dripping forests and muddy tracks and took the risk of walking down the road, which was not really very intelligent. We did not hear the motor tricycle come coasting down the road behind us, nor did we see it, until it was alongside. It was being driven by a Sergent dei Carabinieri and there were three men in the back. They turned to stare at us as they passed, there was nowhere for us to escape so we just kept walking, whistling tunelessly to keep our spirits up. They did not stop. We were lucky, for I heard this evening that two British were taken yesterday near Monte Piana.
After that little scare we left the road and followed a track through a pretty little valley. The rain stopped and from the top of a hill we could see all the way to Florence. We came to a farm where we got potatoes for supper and a night in the straw.
We had a wash and shave before starting this morning, because tomorrow is Sunday. There was bread and milk for breakfast and I got my socks mended. It was good to be dry, fed and clean again. The day started out fine and we made good progress along the forest tracks until we came face to face with two Milizia Forestale. Fortunately they proved to be friendly as most of them seem to be, but there are Fascists among them and it is best to avoid them if we can. They move about the forest so silently, however, that they always see us long before we see them. They misdirected us and it took us a long time to find the right track again and then it had come on to rain.
Coming out of the forest, we were faced with another Strada Nationale, full of German traffic, again mostly going North. There were open fields either side of the road and it took us some time to find a possible crossing place. We were very wet and cold and decided to risk a crossing, on the ground that a convoy is hardly likely to stop just because they see two Italians crossing the road. It is not so much the convoys themselves however that worries us, but the staff cars and patrols mixed in amongst them, which might well stop and challenge unauthorised people on their road. It was all a bit nerve racking and we were very relieved when we were across and out of sight.
We now had to cross the many streams running down to the Arno. We could not tell which were the streams and which was the track we were supposed to be walking on, and, as we could not have got any wetter, we just plodded on. We came at last to a village, where we met a very pleasant family, with a
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beautiful daughter, who squints, poor girl, and were given our first real hot meal for several days. After supper, half the village came in to see us and we had a very noisy and quite hilarious evening. The local padrone came in and buttonholed me, demanding to know why the British were so slow and why they had not landed further North. I tried to explain that I am not in Monty’s confidence just at the moment, but I think that the padrone still holds me personally responsible for the conduct of the war!
10 October – Sunday
The people at the farm were very friendly, gave us some wonderful meals and, as it was Sunday, invited us to stay another night. We gladly accepted because we could do with a rest, but in the afternoon there was a sudden scare that a Milizia patrol was headed in our direction, so we had to get out. We collected a good crop of rumours, however, before we left. The most exciting is that the 8th Army is said to have landed just North of Ancona and the 5th Army near Rome, which has been evacuated. There is also a story that there are now Austrian deserters on the Mountain Highway to add to the general confusion!
After leaving the farm we crossed a Strada Provinciale, also full of German traffic. Something must be going on somewhere, and I wish I knew what it was! As night fell a thick mist came down and we got very lost before finding this farm. The girl here, who looks exactly like Bette Davis, has kindly mended my socks.
I suppose that the day before yesterday counts as a good day, because the last two days have not been so hot, in every sense of that term. We started out on Monday at 3.a.m., because we wanted to cross two main roads and a railway before it got too light. The two roads, when we found them, were both quite empty, not a German in sight, which surprised us after the last few days. We never did find the railway. We wasted a lot of time looking for it, because it was clearly marked on our map. I think that we must have crossed it over a tunnel.
Coming along a ridge of the mountain we came across two rather despondent young Italian deserters making their way South. A thick mist had come down and they were quite lost. We of course had our little compass and thought we knew where we were going, so the two Italians came too. They had a wild rumour that British paras [Paratroopers] had dropped on Florence and that there had been a major advance from Ancona – neither, as I later discovered, had any truth in them. People snatch at any story to bolster their spirits and it is difficult to sort out the obviously false from the possibly true, but Peter and I have a tacit agreement to ignore all rumours for the moment, because even if some of them were true, it would not affect our present purpose of getting as far South as possible before the winter comes.
Our map did not tell us that the ridge ended in steep cliffs, in fact it did not show the ridge at all, and we had a very unpleasant climb down into a sparsely populated valley. We and the Italians split up to look for somewhere to stay to avoid frightening the inhabitants, but we found that they were frightened enough already. I could not find out what had caused their fear, but we were turned away from every farm we
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tried. We had to go on, therefore, and climb up the far side of the valley, where we met the Italians again, who had been equally unsuccessful. For the farmers to be as frightened of their own people as of us they must have had a recent visit from the Milizia. We were now very much in need of shelter, so we all went to the only farm we could see on the hillside. They gave us a loaf of bread, but would not let us stay, despite the heavy rain, so we had to go on up the hill, where we found an empty charcoal burner’s hut. We got a fire going and dried off a bit, but the sleeping arrangements were rather primitive, a plank bed covered in ferns. The trouble was that it had clearly been designed for only two occupants and, as I had the outside berth, I kept falling off. I tried sleeping on the floor, but it was too cold and wet and I had a sleepless night.
We woke to another thick white mist and a fine drizzle, blotting out the countryside, and my trousers split again. We wandered rather miserably round the forest most of the morning until we came out below the clouds and could see where we were. We found a farm where we got some bread and a stitch in my trousers. The Italians went on and we did not see them again.
In the afternoon, the sun came out and things began to look up. We set out towards San Godenzo, on the main Fiore Florence road, which may give us a little trouble. We walked up a long narrow valley to a high pass and an equally long walk down the other side, which brought us to the village of Villori, where we were given a good welcome. We had an excellent meal of pasta, funghi and cheese and the promise of a dry night in the straw. After supper the young man of the house took us down to the Dopo Lavoro where we drank Marsala and listened to the wireless news. The story about Ancona is definitely false and neither army seems to have moved an inch. We met a very jolly French speaking Swiss in the e pub – you get all sorts on the Mountain Highway – I gathered that he had been captured fighting for the British and had escaped from a prisoner of war camp further South. He is now making his way North to get across the Swiss frontier, although I imagine that it must be tightly closed by now.
We crossed the Strada Nationale, just below San Godenzo, this morning. There was very little traffic to worry us, but we had a hard time getting down the cliffs to the road. It was all very exposed and we could not have done it if there had been more traffic. There was a lot of aerial activity today, mostly German, flying very low, but one British plane came over, which was said to be dropping supplies to the resistance. I wish they would drop something for us, preferably trousers!
Over the road, we had a long hard march to the village of Castagno, where Peter and I split up to eat at different farms, before meeting for the night in the cow shed.
It is nice and warm, sleeping with cows, but all our cows had asthma and I slept very badly. After two bad nights I am becoming very tired and I fear that I may be going to get a cold.
We set off at 6.a.m. after a good breakfast. We were given a new sack and a man, staying on the farm, gave us 100 lire and put us on the right road. We had an easy climb up the mountain, but at the top we ran into mist and lost our way and
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ended up having to slide down an almost sheer slope covered in damp rotting vegetation. This brought us out into the wrong valley; we had wasted the whole morning and had to walk back several miles to get on to our right road again. We are now in a very lonely part of the country, with few farms, and all those we tried turned us away. We were eventually taken in by a young couple trying to run a poverty stricken mountain farm. Their house consists of one room, where they eat and sleep and I have never seen people work so hard. They are out all day and fall into bed utterly exhausted after their thin evening meal. They looked drawn and tired and hardly spoke to us, but they shared their minestrone and let us sleep on a pile of hay. They were back in the fields before we were awake, so we left without breakfast.
That sounds rather callous. These people are desperately poor and we are indeed deeply thankful that they should have shared their meal with us and given us shelter, but we too must eat. Perhaps we should have stayed and offered our inexpert help but then they would have had to feed us. We are grateful and pass on.
There is one thing about this kind of life, it’s never dull! We set off each morning intending to cross a road, or reach the next village, very modest ambitions, but something always turns up to frustrate us, or to present us with some new and extraordinary experience. Today has been no exception.
We set off early and by 9.a.m. were walking up open meadowlands towards the village of Seccotina, and for once it was not raining, although it had turned rather cold. Outside the village we came to a smart villa standing on the ridge, commanding views down the valley up which we had come and the valley on the far side. As we approached the villa an Italian, in city clothes, came out to meet us. He kept his hand in his pocket, which obviously concealed a revolver, and began to question us, first in Italian and then in quite good English. I thought that he was probably an Italian officer, but the big question was – on whose side? He asked us a lot of questions, clearly trying to establish our identity and it seemed best to answer truthfully, particularly as a second man now stepped out on to the veranda, a gun in his hand. We had obviously stumbled upon a place of some importance, perhaps a headquarters of some kind. The second man kept us covered while our interrogator, ordering us to wait, returned to the villa. We waited apprehensively for some minutes, then he re-appeared at the veranda door and waved us inside.
We entered a long room with windows down one side giving a magnificent view over the next valley. In the centre of the room, taking up most of the space, was a long table and, standing round it, three men. They did not look Italian and I began to have a nasty feeling that they were German. One of them started barking questions at us in English. What were our Regiments? Where had we been captured? Where had we escaped from? Where were we going? We answered them carefully, giving little away, although after 15 months of captivity there was little of value that we could have told. The other two men had been watching us intently while this interrogation went on, then one of them stepped forward. ‘I am General O’Conner,’ he said, ‘and this is General Neame and Colonel –‘ (I did not catch the last name’
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Two British Generals on the Mountain Highway! It appears that the Generals had been captured in the Western Desert, before our time, and held in a camp near Rome. When the Armistice came the Italians had moved them into the mountains to prevent the Germans taking them and they were now about to try to smuggle them out of Italy by submarine. I hoped for a moment that they might offer to take us with them, but no such luck!
They gave us a good breakfast and then, having two Generals at our disposal, we asked their advice about what we should do next and where we should go. Large scale maps were immediately brought out and laid on the table and the Generals started, or perhaps resumed, an intense argument, during which we were completely ignored, about what Monty [Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert Campaign from August 1942] was up to, why he had not landed further North, and where he would land when he did. It soon became apparent that neither of the Generals, nor the Colonel, agreed upon Monty’s intentions, or strategy, let alone his ability. There was a consensus of opinion, however, that he would have to land somewhere North of the present frontline before winter inhibited movement, although total disagreement as to where. When we hesitantly repeated our request for advice, the Generals broke off their argument to tell us to get further South towards the Gran Sasso, where we would be bound to be cut off by any landing. This is really what we have had in mind all along and we got nothing new from our high powered advisors. It was, however, very reassuring to be told that we were doing the right thing, so, leaving them still arguing over their maps, we continued our march, with much improved morale.
After a long, but fairly easy march, we came to this pleasant house near Corezzo, where we have had minestrone for supper. They have a very powerful wireless set and tuned it into London for us. We listened nostalgically to Tommy Handley’s Half Hour, Carol Gibbons and his orchestra and Navy Cut. The news said that the British have landed behind the Volturno, wherever that is, and that Campo Basso has been taken.
A large crowd came in after supper, including a man with an accordion, which he played very well. We have now retired to the straw loft, which we are sharing with two Yugoslavs. It is nice and warm in here, but outside has come the first frost of the winter. We must get on quickly, but I calculate that we have done quite well this week and have covered about 45 miles in a straight line.
Coming round a hill this morning, near Pieve San Stephano, I we met an Italian officer and his wife and a professor, his wife and daughter out for a stroll. They are in hiding from the Germans and the Fascisti, and have a little cottage in the village. We had a most amusing conversation all about the misdeeds of Anthony Eden and Chamberlain. None of them speak English, which led to some confusion, particularly when the professor dubbed Eden as ‘grandmotherly’ a word which defeated our dictionary. Chamberlain as ‘the appeaser’ was a little easier to grasp. It became rather like a game of 20 questions, but it was refreshing to meet and talk with educated people again. In the afternoon, as it began to rain again, we stopped at this very welcoming farm, where we have been extremely well fed and given a wonderful double bed for the night. They are quite a
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young couple with a son of about eight, a poor relation with a daughter of the same age, and the husband’s sister, a remarkably beautiful young woman. She is as kind as she is beautiful, for she has taken all our clothes to wash and mend, lending us sacks to wear in the meantime. I do hope we are not raided tonight. It would be most undignified to be arrested wearing only sacks!
It poured with rain all yesterday, so we stayed another night. We did try to leave, but we were pressed to stay and, anyway, we did not want to get our nicely washed and pressed clothes all wet again. Our determination to press on was somewhat undermined by the food. A Sunday lunch of gnocchi and egg plant, followed by bread and jam. Not the ordinary common or garden sort of jam, but blackberry and fig! It will long be remembered. And then supper – minestrone with a big dish of beans. What more can a man ask than food such as this and a beautiful girl to wash and mend his clothes into the bargain. I wonder if she would have married me if I had asked!
We might have stayed forever, but a German patrol arrived in the village early this morning and we decided that it was about time for us to move on. Our host provided a farmhand to guide us round the village and across the main road. Not far beyond the road we crossed the Tiber. That sounds as though we are well South, but unfortunately the river flows a long way down from the North before reaching Rome. We made slow progress because the tracks are almost impassable with raging torrents crossing them every few yards, and there were several cloudbursts so that we became completely soaked. After this miserable walk, we came above Badia Tedalda and found shelter for the night in a farm on the outskirts. When we entered the kitchen we dripped huge puddles on the floor and the farmer’s wife found us some dry clothes to wear while ours dried before the fire. It cleared up in the evening and I went down to the wine shop to hear the wireless news, but the set was not working – too little electricity. If it does not rain the local generators do not produce enough electricity to run the wireless sets, if it does rain the generators get flooded and give up altogether. It is no wonder that the land is full of rumours!
The weather has improved and the sun actually came out for a short time, so we have made much better progress than yesterday. We had to skirt round Badia Tedalda, because the Carabinieri there are reputed to be very hostile, and then climbed up on to a long mountain ridge. We have run off the silk map now and it is much more difficult to find our way. We no longer know which towns or villages to ask for.
Near the end of the ridge we stopped for some bread and cheese at a hospitable house. We had just got our feet under the table when the doctor arrived, an ardent Fascist, and we were bundled unceremoniously into the cellar, where we sat drinking wine while the doctor attended his patient upstairs.
When he had gone we continued our march, coming to the small and beautiful town of Sestino. We were then faced with a problem, because the only bridge over the river is in the middle of the town and we had been told that there are a number of Fascisti in Sestino and that the temper of the Carabinieri is uncertain. There appeared to be no alternative to entering
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the town, however, and we had to walk right through the middle. We were in some fear that one of the Carabinieri or a Fascist would stop and ask to see our papers, of which we had none. It was an odd experience walking on pavements again, past the windows of shops and I would have liked to have stopped and bought a few things, but that would have been tempting fate. We strolled along as though we always called in Sestino on Tuesdays and no one challenged us. Then over the bridge and up a lane, with a sigh of relief.
Beyond the town we met a young man who was pressing in his invitation to spend the night at his house. It was a very poor house which could offer only baked polenta for supper, but the reason for the young man’s enthusiasm for our company soon became apparent. He had picked up a German leaflet offering a reward of 1800 Lire for any information about escaped prisoners, and wanted to know how much that was in pounds sterling! I am not sure if our value has gone down or not; a few weeks ago the Germans were offering 5000 lire, but that was for information leading to our arrest, while the 1800 lire seems to be for information only. I suppose that one day someone will be tempted, I only hope that it won’t be tonight!
We have made very good progress these last two days, getting round Monte Nerone and coming back on to the Eastern side of the mountains. The weather has much improved and seems set fair with a steady South West wind. We are now in fertile and well populated valleys with large prosperous looking farms. Plenty of good hot minestrone, which is the stuff to march on.
Each night we ask our host for a route for the next day’s march, the names of villages we can ask for, which will take us South without straying too far down into the plains, and a note of places to avoid because of Fascisti, Milizia or other creepy crawlies. The farmers are usually a bit vague about villages more than a few miles away, so we aim to call in somewhere about midday to check up and, hopefully, get a bite to eat. They are usually quite helpful, but yesterday, after getting round Pecchio, which we had been advised to avoid, we called at a farm inhabited by a really silly bunch of women. They did not know which way was South let alone the name of the next village but one. They were very interested in what we were doing, but we left them quite bewildered as to why we wanted to know the name of a village five miles away, which we did not want to go to anyway. We did rather better this morning when we stopped at a little church on a hill. The young priest gave us some minestrone for lunch and a helpful route which should take us as far as the Via Flaminia – the main Ancona-Rome road.
We heard some very heavy bombing this morning coming from the other side of the mountains and this evening we were told that Perugia had been hard hit. We heard the tail end of the news on the priest’s wireless; both armies are reported to be making steady progress, but very slow I fear.
We had a rather restless night in a shed with some young bullocks and this morning set out, after a good breakfast of bread and cheese and wine full of earwigs. We crossed the Strada Nationale from Fano, on the coast, to Fossato, where
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it joins the Via Flaminia, and came into a wide valley, bounded on the left by a range of high bare hills. At midday we stopped at a large farm to check our route and were invited in for a lunch of bread and ham. Crowds of people then poured in to see us and the vino flowed freely – very freely!
It may have been the after effects of the wine, but that afternoon Peter and I had our first real disagreement. It is perhaps remarkable that two such dissimilar people should have got on so well together, for so long. Peter does get rather grumpy at times, complaining about the discomforts, and sometimes wants to stop for the night when I have been anxious to get on, but then he has been very ill and it takes a long time to recover from jaundice, particularly if one convalesces by climbing mountains in the rain. I am sure that I have been equally irritating at times.
Anyway, in the afternoon we came to a large valley running across our path, one of the main lateral valleys, containing the Via Flamina. I wanted to turn left towards Ancona. Peter argued that this would bring us down into the plains and would take us much too far North – he wanted to turn right. I pointed out that that would take us back over the main ridge of the mountains and we would lose the good marching and eating territory we had enjoyed in the last few days. We both argued that the compass supported our point of view. We got quite worked up about it and reached deadlock.
It was all rather silly and, in the end, I gave way, with rather a bad grace, and we turned right. After a time, however, we came above the road junction at Fossato and it became clear that we would have to cross the Via Flaminia anyway. By this time it was too late to cross the valley and we stopped at a large farm overlooking the road, where we have been given a straw bed in an annexe to the cow house.
My boots are now beginning to wear out, to add to my constant worry about my trousers.
It was a lovely sunny day today, and, after a breakfast of bread and grapes we went down the hill to cross the Via Flaminia. There was little traffic on the road, which presented no difficulties, and on the far side we found a Strada Provinciale running up to a pass over the mountains. We met some German transport coming down and had to take to the fields. The transport was all horse drawn and it seemed odd to see the army carts in field grey. It was like a scene from the last war, although I believe that quite a number of German Infantry Divisions still use horses for their second line transport. I suppose it saves petrol. The road crossed the railway, the last main line before Pescara, which rumour again says has been taken by the allies. We could not use the road bridge because of the Germans, so decided to cross over a tunnel. This proved to be harder than it looked and we had a very difficult time climbing up through the bushes.
From the pass we had a magnificent view over the range of mountains to the North before coming down into a narrow valley flanked by very high hills. A Strada Communale runs through the valley, linking a number of small villages, but there are very few isolated farms, which are safer. We stopped at the first one we came to, but they were too afraid to keep us. The Milizia Forestale captured two British here yesterday, although I gathered that one has managed to escape. Although they were
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too afraid to let us stay, they did give us potatoes, which were so hot that I did not get my fair share!
Further on we found a farm willing to have us and, as it is Sunday tomorrow, we had a wash and a shave.
24 October – Sunday
I washed and mended my shirt before starting out this morning. The weather is still good and walking is quite pleasant, but all the valleys run down to the SSW so we are continually having to cross them to keep on our route. At midday we stopped at the house of a friendly old priest, who gave us pasta and let us listen his wireless. As usual, the news was disappointing. The 8th Army have advanced only some 20 kms, since last week, we are going much faster, and the Americans seem to be held up in difficult terrains.
We had some difficulty in finding anywhere to sleep tonight. A lot of other wanderers, Yugoslav as well as British, have been through here and the people are getting frightened. After being turned away from several farms we eventually landed up here, where we were given so much to eat that I feel quite ill! There is a delightful young woman here and we had a long talk about life in England and in Italy before the war and what we would do when it is over. It really does seem quite stupid that we should have been enemies all this time.
We made an early start, having been routed out at 3.a.m. to accompany a man who was going up the mountain. He led us to a pass and pointed out our way, which we followed across a deep valley and up to the upland meadows, beautiful in the sun. Across the meadows in front of us, we saw two figures, obviously English, and when we caught up with them we found that they were RAF officers, ‘Hooch’ Houchin and Peter Hunt (another Peter!). They had been shot down over Sicily towing gliders in the invasion, and held in a prisoner of war camp at Bologna, from which they had escaped. They intend to lie up fairly soon because, they say, Monty has announced that he will take all Italy by Christmas.
Peter and I have just about exhausted things to talk about, except day to day matters, and it is a pleasant change to be able to talk to others like ourselves with new experiences to relate. So we joined forces and arrived together in the village of Massa, where we are staying the night. We stopped at a house on the village outskirts where we had a surprisingly good reception. We were given a glass of wine and then a man led us up the hill to a tumble down house where, he said, we could spend the night.
We entered a smoky room with a long table down the middle, around which were seated some 10 or 12 young Italians and 2 South African soldiers. They invited us to share their supper of potatoes, boiling in a big black pot over the fire, and seemed pleased to see us. Hardly had we finished supper than a man poked his head round the door and shouted ‘Milizia!’ and disappeared. At once we and the South Africans were bundled into an inner room and the Italians, sailing rifles and hand grenades, charged out into the night. I think we have met the Resistance!
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The Massa Gang
While we waited in the small dark room for sounds of battle, I asked the South Africans what on earth we had stumbled into now. Was it really the Resistance?
‘Dunno about that,’ said the smaller of the two, ‘We’ve been here three days now and they don’t do much except eat and make a row. They’re mostly students from the towns around here, escaping the call up. There’s one or two older ones, but they don’t seem to have much control. They’re an undisciplined mob and they’d run for the hills if there was any real danger.’
‘But we eat, man!’ said the other. ‘Some guy comes up with the rations from the town. They’ve asked us to stay and, so long as the food holds out that’s OK by me.’
‘Yes’ said the first, ‘There’s some sort of organisation down in the town, but they won’t talk about it.’
‘But there must be someone in charge here’ said Peter.
‘There’s a Tenente called Torpino’ he said, ‘but he doesn’t do much, just stays here, and a couple of older men, probably deserters from somewhere, Bruno and Pietro – always squabbling about who gives the orders. They’re a prettys cruff lot!’
About half an hour later, with no sounds of battle, the gang returned bursting in shouting and laughing, as though they had won a great victory. We asked about the Milizia, but could get no coherent replies and I began to suspect that the whole episode had been laid on for our benefit – to impress us with their military prowess.
‘You join us and we we’ll smash the Tedeschi!’ they shouted, clapping us on the back and grinning.
‘We’ll shoot up the Milizia – bang bang – they won’t dare come up here!’ and they threw out their chests and strutted round the room, waving their carbines and hand grenades. I was reminded of an old Italian I had met, who had fought in the first war under British officers. We were talking about the failure of the Italian armies in the Desert and he turned to me, quite seriously, and said, ‘Italian soldiers very brave. Italian officer’s no good. If you’d given us English officers in this war we’d have beaten you!’ But looking at that undisciplined mob, fresh from their ‘victory’, I had my doubts.
A bale of straw was lugged up the stairs and added to a heap in a small room lit by a dim bulb hanging precariously from the ceiling. We followed the straw and lay down in a row, shoulder to shoulder in the confined space. There were six of us; Peter S and myself; the two RAF officers and the two South African soldiers. Tenente Torpino had gone out again, but when he returned he took his place on the landing outside our doorless room.
We were a mixed bunch, but we were now to stay together for the next phase of our journey. Flight Lieutenant ‘Hooch’ Houchin, a tall, slim, regular officer, who had captained the ill fated glider tug over Sicily, cool and pragmatic, he fitted easily into our group; Flying Officer Peter Hunt, a wartime officer and Hooch’s co-pilot, stocky in build, rather young and bumptious, whose tactlessness was to give rise to trouble with the gang, for he was not enamoured with the Italians and took small pains to disguise it; Corporal Fred Snell who, like his compatriot, was a tough Johannesburg miner, quiet and
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thoughtful and a pleasant companion; and Private ‘ Mac’ McDowell, a giant of a man, whose rather fierce exterior hid a kind and generous heart, although the Italians went in some awe of him. We lay on our straw and talked far into the night, about what we should do, whether we should stay or go on and, if so, where we should aim for next.
Our pooled information suggested that the British were still on the Sangro, South of Pescara, and that the Americans had not yet taken Rome. Mud and rain had held up the advance and the Allies were making, so far as we were concerned, painfully slow progress. We were all agreed that, once the Pescara-Rome line was broken, the Germans would be bound to fall back to the next defencible line, which might well be Ancona-Perugia, just to the North of us. Peter and I told the others about our meeting with the Generals and their advice that we should lie up on the Gran Sasso, until Monty staged another landing.
The Gran Sasso d’Italia is a mountain massif about 30 miles long, bounded to the South by the main Pescara-Rome road. It rises to bare and craggy peaks of nearly 10,000 feet, impassable to vehicles and, when the snows come, to men as well. We thought, therefore, that when the line broke the Allied armies would be forced to flow round it, like the tide round a rock. If we sat on that rock we would be able, when the tide receded, to walk down into the Allied lines dry shod. On the other hand, rumour said that the Gran Sasso was sparsely populated, that many others were trying the same route and that food and shelter were becoming hard to find. Also, being just behind the German front line, the Milizia were very active.
Fred and Mac felt that they had found a good billet and saw no need to move so long as the food held out, Peter felt that we should have more information about the situation before venturing any further South and that Massa seemed well placed, some 30 miles from the coast and 40-50 from the Sasso, so that if we waited for a landing or the fall of Pescara, we would be free to move in the right direction. Peter H was all for going on, largely I think because he had taken an instant dislike to the gang. Hooch, summing up, thought that we would be wise to stay for a bit. The gang might be pretty useless, but we might, through them, be able to contact people who could help us, so we agreed to stay and see what happened.
The morning was fine, although the clouds banking up over the mountains heralded a change in the weather, and I went out to get my bearings. The house we were in had clearly been derelict for some years and the land around it was overgrown with weeds and brambles. It stood beside a track winding up into the hills and I could see the peaks of the main range soaring up beyond. Below the house, the village, quite a large one, cascaded down the hill in a jumble of little white houses in no particular pattern, as if a child had dropped his box of bricks, which had rolled here and there down the hill.
The village was divided by a small square, with its inevitable fontana round which the village women were already gathering to wash their clothes. In the upper half were a few shops, a butchers which rarely opened, a cobblers which had no leather, and a little general store run by old Anna. She had little to sell, but was to be very good to us and did her best to get us what we wanted. On the lower edge of the square stood a large house owned by a man I always thought of as ‘the Mayor’
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He owned part of the village and surrounding land, and was the largest padrone in the area. Then came the church and presbytery, with its rather sporting young priest, and a further scattering of houses. A Strada Communale wound down to the village of Muccia and the main road, and, just below the last house, there was a lookout point, which commanded a view of the whole length of the road to the village.
Massa stood on a sort of promontory. On its left side, to the North, ran the main road from Foligno, a large town on the West side of the mountains, to Ancona and Civitanova on the coast. Below the village this road was joined by another coming round the South side of the promontory, from Spoleto. On the Spoleto road, just before the junction, stood Pieve Torina, about three miles away and our nearest town. The Spoleto road ran round the South side of Monte Fema, which, rising to 4,500 feet, blocked the view of the higher peaks of the Gran Sasso beyond. From the point of view of security, Massa seemed a very good place to be. Anyone approaching the village could be seen coming up the Strada Communale long before he reached the first houses and, from above our house, there was an easy escape route up into the mountains.
The house itself was on its last legs. Two nights after we had arrived, when we were sleeping peacefully on our straw, wedged in like sardines, there came a great crash, followed by a rumble and all the gang yelling at the tops of their voices. I thought we must be under attack. It was pitch dark and it took us some time to get disentangled. We were packed in so tightly that no one could move without disturbing all the others and, when we all tried to get up at once, the chaos was complete. When we did manage to get ourselves disentangled however we discovered that the noise had merely been due to part of the house collapsing. The gang thought this very funny and rolled about the floor howling with laughter. The collapse was at their end of the house and we finished the night with ten of them trying to squeeze into our small room and I could not help wondering about the state of the floor. Morning revealed that the damage was not as great as we had thought, it was mainly a room at the back of the house that had given way, and there was sufficient amount of the building still standing to allow life to continue as before, although the crash did something to the roof, for it leaked vigorously whenever it rained, which it seemed to do most nights.
The ground floor of the house was mostly taken up by one large room, into which the front door opened, furnished with a long table and some benches. There was a fire place at one end, fed from a stack of wood at the back of the house. We would go up into the hills every few days with some of the gang to chop down a tree and drag it back for firewood. Selecting the tree required expert advice. We could cut down the ‘fascist’ trees, because with the gang around, none of the fascist landowners dared object, but if we cut down a village tree by mistake then we were in for trouble. The ‘fascist’ trees we could cut and the ‘anti-fascist’ trees forbidden to us, all seemed to me to be jumbled up and I never discovered how to distinguish the one from the other. Above the main room were a number of bare rooms where everyone slept on the floor, softened to some extent by straw. After a few nights, however, the straw turned to powder and its softening effect became negligible. I do not know where the straw came from, but whatever the source it seemed to have dried up because we were never able to get any more.
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We had the benefit of electric light, such as it was. There were three bulbs strung rather dangerously from the rafter, two downstairs and one up. The electricity supply, however, was, intermittent, coming from a small generator worked by a stream which supplied the village. If it rained too hard the generator would get wet and give up, if it did not rain the stream gave up. Either way the supply of electricity was extremely problematical. This did not matter too much in the house, because the gang rarely got up before 10a.m. unless out hunting sheep, and we went to bed when it got dark, but it did mean that neither the padre’s wireless nor the one in the wine shop could be relied upon to provide the news we thirsted after.
There was a water tap behind the house, connected to a stream, but the area around it had become very muddy and when it came to washing clothes we had to go down to the fontana. There was some advantage in this because I found that whenever I tried, rather laboriously, to wash out a shirt or a pair of socks, one of the good ladies would start muttering with impatience and eventually seize my piece of washing and do it herself! Also, behind the house, was a latrine. This had been dug, quite expertly, under Torpino’s direction, but in course of time it filled up, as latrines will, and the gang absolutely refused to dig another, preferring the surrounding countryside. They really were the most idle bunch of youngsters I have come across, without the most elementary ideas of discipline. When the smell got too bad we decided that we would have to dig a latrine ourselves so we borrowed a spade, which in Mac’s expert hands soon produced a most impressive hole. The gang may not have thought much of digging their own hole, but they appreciated the work of others and came flocking to make use of it. This really infuriated Peter H who argued fiercely that as they had not dug it they should not use it and several fights were only narrowly averted as he swore at intruders.
A few days after our arrival we were invited, together with the whole gang, to a sort of musical cocktail party at the big house. I think that it was intended as a sort of Dane Gelt. The general breakdown of law and order had given many villagers the golden opportunity to pay off old scores and cancel outstanding debts. There had been several cases of padrones being run out of town or even murdered. Our Padrone was quite well liked, but still he was the padrone and he did have a large gang of lawless youngsters in his village, so he went out of his way to be nice to us, just in case. It was a very rowdy party and quite disorganised. Giovanni, one of the gang, brought his accordion to provide the music, and the vino flowed like water. At the end of the party, when the wine ran out, we all left together, charging through the village singing the Fascist song Avanti Populi and waving aloft the carbines and hand grenades, to the considerable alarm of the villagers.
I really believe that the gang were all manic-depressives. They were either full of bombast, waving their carbines, telling us with enormous enthusiasm what they were going to do to all Fascisti and planning dark and dreadful deeds for the general discomfiture of the Germans, or else they would be full of gloom and despondency, predicting the imminent defeat of the Allies and the return of Mussolini and his Blackshirts with
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everyone being lined up and shot in the village square – swinging from one mood to the other, depending upon the latest rumour.
They were mostly middle class youths who tended to look upon the whole thing as a bit of a lark and much better than studying at college. They did practically no work, except for getting in firewood from time to time and hunting sheep. They squabbled incessantly, mostly about food, and made a riotous din whenever I wanted to sleep. Living with the gang was certainly a little trying on the nerves and it was always a relief when the weekends came round and most of them went home, I although a few would always come running back because there were Fascisti or Milizia in their town.
There was plenty to squabble about; the plates for example. When we first arrived there were plates for everyone, but our stock dwindled from day to day, until late arrivals would find their minestrone spoiling over the fire, while others dawdled over their meal, hogging all the plates. Food supplies were a bit erratic and, from time to time, there would be a scarcity or only bread and cheese, then those with friends in the village would walk out in a huff and go and eat elsewhere, to the fury of those with nowhere else to go. Most of the cooking was done by Reno, a pleasant little man who took his duties quite seriously, but when he was away there was a marked lack of enthusiasm to take his place. One morning, when no one else would prepare a meal, Mac boiled up some calf’s blood for us. When the gang staggered downstairs looking for breakfast he refused to give them any because they had not helped. Like the little problem of the latrine it took some smoothing over, although none of the Italians dared challenge Mac too openly, because they were all a bit afraid of him.
Peter H did not help the happy atmosphere by occasionally losing his temper and swearing at somebody. Although he swore in English, one of the gang claimed that he had been mortally insulted and more smoothing had to be done. As the weeks passed, we all got on each other’s nerves and it was a wonder that no one got a grenade in his minestrone, or a knife in his back! But these petty squabbles soon became overshadowed by the growing rivalry between Pietro and Bruno, who both aspired to the leadership of the gang. Each had a following and, after a time, the gang split into two antagonistic factions and, without strong outside intervention, there might well have been an outbreak of civil war.
Our immediate concern, however, was food, and, with 20 or more mouths to feed, this presented a constant problem. Rations would come up once a week or so in a small van driven by a very pleasant middle aged man. Where he came from and what his name was, were kept close secrets, but he probably came from Poligno and I always thought of him as the ‘Liaison Officer’. He was most helpful and procured new clothes for us to replace the tattered remnants of our original outfits, and, after much searching, got some studs for my boots, the soles of which were rapidly wearing away. He was the link between the gang and the Committee, a shadowy organisation which seemed to be in charge of us all.
The Committee did us very well, but there were interruptions because of a Milizia sweep or the roads becoming too dangerous to use, and we had lean as well as plentiful days. Neither Pietro
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nor Bruno seemed to have any idea of rationing supplies and we would eat whatever was available. They did however try to supplement the rations by a little sheep hunting. A party would go off before dawn to find a flock up in the hills. After firing off their guns to show how desperate and determined they were, they would hold up the poor shepherd, telling him that they were Germans, which no one could possibly have believed. Then, loudly proclaiming their great courage and audacity, they would drive two or three sheep back to the house. The main room would become a slaughter house, as the sheep were killed and roughly hacked up. One sheep lasted one day, what we could not eat being graciously given to the village, but there would not be much left over. At my first meal after a sheep hunt I had a whole leg of mutton to myself! This operation was successfully repeated two or three times, but then the shepherds got the message and all the sheep for miles around disappeared into secret valleys in the mountains.
After a few meatless days, however, the Germans came to the rescue. They began commandeering cattle from the farms down towards the coast with the result that the village suddenly became knee deep in cows. There were cows in the fields, cows tethered behind every house, cows in the square – it was quite impossible to find food for so many bovine mouths. The Committee sent orders. The butchers shop was opened and the calves were slaughtered and sold to t he villagers, after first providing our rations. We did not get much, but it came more regularly than the proceeds of the sheep hunts. A little later the Germans rashly announced that they were about to take over all load carrying vehicles and we woke up one morning to find 26 lorries parked in every available space around the houses.
Meat was something I had hankered after for fifteen long months as a prisoner of war. I dreamed of roast legs of lamb, of juicy steaks and thick slices of beef in rich brown gravy. Now we had meat in abundance, meat to excess, I have never eaten so much meat before or since, and we dreamed now of treacle pudding, iced cakes and boxes of chocolates. Our rather eccentric diet did not do us much good and we all became rather ill. Peter H hurt his hand quite badly and it was very slow to heal; Hooch acquired some very unpleasant boils on his neck which would not go away, Peter S showed signs of getting jaundice again; and I had constant diarrhoea and attacks of neuralgia. Our health was not assisted by the weather, because it rained nearly every day, turning to snow on the mountains, so that the nights became very cold and we always felt damp.
After ten days of this life we were all at rather a low ebb and started to talk about moving on again, but we were advised that it was impossible to get through the German lines, that there was no food on the Sass, and, day after day, the wireless reported that the Allies were still stuck in the mud. I had to get away from the gang however, the noise and the squabbles and the general filth would become unbearable. On fine days, I would walk alone, or with Peter S. up into the hills, to visit a neighbouring village or to watch the German traffic on the roads. Those walks were the best part of our stay in Massa. It was Autumn now and there was a sharp nip in the air, and the trees were turning myriad shades of red and gold, while the mountains soared up to snow covered peaks, glistening white
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against the blue sky. Those few crisp Autumn afternoons were a joy and did much to restore my spirits, but I would become homesick too, thinking of such afternoons in England and the return to a roaring fire, hot tea and scones with strawberry jam.
My other escape was to the Presbytery. I made friends with the village priest, who had quite a library of books, mostly theological tomes in Latin or Italian, which were quite beyond me, and I suspect a little beyond him too. But he also had a collection of light romances which I was able to read tolerably well, although I rather doubt if I gathered quite the same impression of their plots as their authors intended! He would let me read in his study, a haven of peace after the general riot up the hill. Every day the priest would walk round the village, calling at each house once a week. He would be given an egg, or some flour, or even, on special occasions, a chicken. I rather envied him this institutionalised form of begging, which removed doubts about tomorrow’s dinner. My contribution was to treat him to a Marsala whenever I met him in the pub.
Apart from priest and pub, I made several friends in the village. I would wander down to chat to old Anna at the shop, or to the women doing their washing at the fontana. Peter S and I would help the farmers when we could, picking crab apples, herding cattle or stacking straw, for which we might be rewarded with a vino, or even a meal, although at that time of year there was not very much work that we could do. We all made our particular friends, which led to some ill feeling, because some of us would get invited out to meals more often than others. Fred and Mac seemed to do particularly well, being perhaps more gregarious and open hearted than us more aloof Northerners, and my own innate shyness made it difficult for me to mix easily. But there was Rosena. Dark haired, attractive, she would give me little presents from time to time and once, when I was ill, she brought me a jug of hot sweet coffee; may she be forever blessed!
On 30th November the village celebrated the feast day of St. Andrea, the patron Saint of Massa. We knew that it was going to be a special day because the evening before all the men shaved, even the gang, and when the great day dawned they all put on their best clothes. People came up from Pieve Torino and the neighbouring villages and the priest held a special Mass. Even the ‘fascist’ padrones came to the Mass, perhaps they felt that there was safety in numbers, and I stood beside one of the most notorious. The little church was packed, the women as usual sitting in the front, while the men stood at the back, chatting and cracking jokes until the tinkle of the bell, heralding the elevation of the Host, instilled a temporary hush.
After Mass, Rosena had invited me to her home for dinner, a wonderful meal culminating in real jam tarts! In the evening the gang paraded round and round the village getting more and more drunk every time they passed the two pubs, singing Fascist songs, for they knew no other, and making as much noise as they could, which was considerable. The vino really flowed that night and, reflecting on my activities in the cold light of dawn, I had a strong suspicion that I had sworn life-long allegiance to the Communist Party!
We had our own resident Communist, attached to the gang. After twenty years of Fascist rule most of the young men had no political ideas, except that they did not want to see the
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Blackshirts again and that, after the war, they hoped that everything would be different. This presented the Communists with a golden opportunity, for they were the only party, to have maintained an effective organisation during the years of Fascist rule and now they had a complete generation to work on.
The ‘Young Communist’ was a delightful young man, slim, good looking, well educated, with a sense of humour and speaking clear Italian that I could understand. We had many talks together, although my Italian was not good enough for me to argue about his Marxist philosophy. He stayed with us for a time, but he was not well and later removed to the greater comfort of one of the village houses. He would come up to the house every day and spend hours patiently trying to instil a political awareness in the thick heads of the gang. He never talked directly about Communism, or urged them to join the Party. He would play on their hatred of the Fascists and their hopes for a better life after the war.
‘Why,’ he would ask, ‘should you work all your lives, merely to allow a few rich landlords and factory owners to live in luxury? Aren’t you all Italians, isn’t this your country? Why shouldn’t you all share in Italy’s prosperity, in the product of your own work, instead of giving it away to a small elite who already own 95% of the country? This is your opportunity, the Fascisti are on the run, the Milizia is their last doomed attempt to cling to power. If you want a better and more equitable society you must fight for it. Only you can prevent the Fascisti creeping back after the war, reverting to their old ways under a different name.’
He taught them a little elementary economics, he tried to make them see the error of their fathers’ ways, he sought to arouse their patriotism, to make them laugh, he played on their volatile emotions, he was very skilful; although it was hard going with these politically illiterate youngsters.
Not all were won over. Many of the young men’s fathers were padrones and, if ownership of land were abolished, what would be left for them to inherit? All this added fuel to the fire between Pietro and Bruno, for Pietro rather thought that he might become a Communist while Bruno was quite sure that he, Bruno, would not. So the Bruno faction started to question the presence of the Young Communist – who had invited him here anyway? Why should he give advice and throw his weight around! Out with him! Throw him out of town!
Bruno and Pietro called a general meeting. The whole gang crowded into the main room. The question of the Young Communist’s presence must be settled once and for all. There were cat-calls and counter calls. Everyone spoke at once, shouted and waved their arms. The atmosphere was tense; at any moment violence might break out. Then the Young Communist stood up.
‘I am here,’ he said, ‘because I was ill and the Milizia tried to arrest me. You took me in and I am grateful. I did not come to give orders; I have no wish to become your leader, because you have two excellent leaders in Bruno and Pietro. I am just a guest and I will go when I am well again, but, like you, I want to see the end of Fascism and the coming of a better and more just Italy —‘. He talked quietly and modestly and they began to listen. He spoke of their common fears and their hopes for the future and, bit by bit, he won them over. When he ended they all applauded and swore that he was one of them. It was a brilliant performance.
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The Committee decided that something had to be done about the Massa gang, before it broke up and Bruno’s faction was lost to their influence. They sent up a Commissar, a bulky, grey haired middle aged man, who gathered the whole gang together and told them how brave they were. He told them that they were going to help to defeat Fascism forever and build a better Italy. He let them into a great secret. There was going to be a Regional Meeting of the Party, the first since Mussolini, and their voice, the voice of courageous young men willing to fight for freedom, would be heard at that meeting, through him. He had come specially to get their views. Meanwhile, all must work together and (in a judgment worthy of Solomon) he appointed Pietro to be the operational leader of the gang and Bruno to be the administrative leader.
All this left the gang in a high state of euphoria and brotherly love, but the new arrangements had to be clinched. Over the next few days there was much secret coming and going, discussions in corners and briefing meetings, from which we were excluded. The gang became unnaturally solemn, as though they had weighty matters on their minds, and the squabbling ceased. Then one night, leaving sentries on the house, the gang disappeared. The next evening they all came back, looking very smug and pleased with themselves, although they refused to say what they had been up to. The only outward sign of their nocturnal activity being many yards of electric flex and a great many light bulbs, which were strung up all over the house. Also the food improved, because Bruno took his new duties seriously, although the fact that he had just become engaged to be married may have had something to do with it.
We used to refer to the ‘Young Communist’ because there was also an ‘Old Communist’. He turned up late one stormy night, on the run from somewhere. He was a remarkable character, of indeterminate age, grizzled and battle scarred, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and spent a lifetime organising resistance to the Fascists. There was a big price on his head and he was constantly on the run, turning up and staying a day or two and disappearing as suddenly. He was very taciturn and I could rarely get him to talk. He had no time for the middle class riff raff which composed our gang, or the effete capitalist drones which we represented. When with us he would spend much time watching the traffic on the roads, or practicing quick draws with his pistol. Once he nearly gave me a heart attack, suddenly jumping out at me from behind a tree, his pistol levelled at my head. His finger must have itched to press the trigger and rid the world of another member of the oppressor class, but he merely gave a faint smile and clapped me on the shoulder.
A week after our arrival the bombardment started. The noise of the guns reverberated round the mountains, hour after hour, for three days and nights, without cease. The village was very impressed and our hopes rose as we realised that, at long last, the 8th Army had launched its offensive across the Sangro. At the same time, a very heavy air raid went on in Ancona, to the North East, to block the coast road which carried German supplies to the front. Rumour said that 15,000 had been killed in Ancona and that the 8th Army had landed at Pescara, but rumour as we well knew was a lady of doubtful veracity – although we later learned that there had
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been a Commando raid on Pescara. Peter H now wanted to get on quickly, so that we could get on to the Gran Sasso before the line broke, but the rest of us were more cautious, wanting proof that the line had actually been breached before we moved. And rumour spoke of starvation on the Sasso and of many who had been waiting there having to return.
Then the bombardment stopped. Radio Sari, the new Allied transmitter, said that the Sangro had been crossed but that rain had stopped play. It became clear that the great offensive had had only limited success and that the German lines were still intact. In the air, however, the Allied offensive was stepped up and the village was shaken by constant air attacks at all points of the compass. The ground shook under the exploding bombs and a factory, just below us, was destroyed. Mustangs [North American P-51 Mustang, American long-range fighter and fighter-bomber] flew up and down the roads, shooting up anything that moved, and the crack of AA [Anti-Aircraft] shells, the rattle of machine guns and the bang of the cannons, added to the general din. War was all around us as the guns roared and the planes screamed across the sky. It was a weird experience. War is so real, so immediate, yet we seemed to be mere spectators, living in a charmed but fragile world, watching events which had no direct meaning for us.
An Italian officer arrived in the village and told us that he had access to a wireless transmitter which was in contact with the Allies. He said that the Sangro had been crossed in two or three places only, but the ground was very difficult and with the deep mud any further advance was bound to be slow. He was quite certain, however, that, once Pescara fell, the Germans would fall back at least 200kms and that our best course was to remain where we were in Massa He promised to pass our names across the lines and ask for advice as to what we should do; a fantastic thought for no one had had news of us for many months – but the message never got through and we did not see our Italian officer again.
Some Yugoslavs also came to the village, claiming that they had met a British paratrooper who had given them a message that no one should try to get through the lines or go within 25 miles of the coast. They claimed to have reached Aquila but had found it impossible to go any further. We believed neither story. The Yugoslavs were the bane of our lives. There was a large group of them a few miles from Massa and they would keep coming into the village to cadge a meal or a night’s lodging and we did not trust them. They were Chetniks, the remnants of General Mihailovic’s army and Peter and I had met Chetniks before.
We had arrived at a prison camp near Caserta and found six Chetnik officers already in residence. One of them, an old Captain, spoke good English and was very helpful, telling us about the routine of the camp and how it was guarded. We were in a wooden hut, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, inside a larger compound. We could see only a part of the outer fence, but it did not look too difficult and the inner fence was rather inefficiently guarded, particularly at the change of the sentries. An escape plan was drawn up. Six officers were to try to escape in pairs and, one night, while we distracted the attention of the sentries, the first pair got through the wire apparently unseen. But then searchlights sprang to life and they were surrounded by guards, who had obviously been waiting for them. The guards shot them down in cold blood.
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We were all lined up and kept standing for the rest of the night. It was not until the morning, when we were allowed to move, that we realised that the Yugoslavs had gone. The inference was clear and we never trusted Yugoslavs again. It was said that the Germans used them as spies and we were worried that the constant Yugoslav visits could be the prelude to a raid by the Milizia.
A number of strangers came to the village and sometimes we would be shut in the house while the gang checked them out, or until a known Fascist had left. One odd pair was Squadron Leader Paine who had befriended an Indian sepoy [Indian soldier], who could speak no English, let alone Italian. We gave them a meal and shelter for the night and I felt that it was really a very noble act, on the part of the British officer, to care for that poor bewildered Indian.
One afternoon, we had a message that two very suspicious characters were in the pub. They spoke good Italian, but there seemed to be something odd about them and they could be German spies. Bruno and Pietro were away so the Young Communist took charge, made a plan, and gave us his orders. Peter and I were to go down to the pub and order a drink, but not to talk to the strangers. We did as we were bid and over our drinks we eyed the two men. They were aged about 30, poorly dressed, but clearly not English or Yugoslav and they did not seem to be ordinary Italians either. After Peter and I had been in the pub for about ten minutes, the gang, suddenly and dramatically, burst in and, before the terrified gaze of the strangers, we were forced against the wall at gun point and accused of being German spies. We were frog marched out of the pub and round the corner. Two shots were fired! The strangers were petrified. When the Young Communist returned, levelled a pistol at their heads and demanded to know who they were, they could not talk fast enough. It turned out that they were Jews, which was rather an anticlimax, and they left Massa at some speed, but the gang were highly delighted at the success of their operation.
The Sangro offensive had buoyed up our hopes, but as it died away we became frustrated and our health, as well as our morale, declined. Our morale received a boost, however, when the Young Communist returned from a visit to the Committee with exciting news. The Committee were planning the escape of some 40 or SO refugees by boat. They were looking for a suitable vessel which they could sail from Civitanova, the nearest harbour on the coast, round the mouth of the Sangro and so to Termoli. The Committee promised to reserve six places for us. There had been a number of similar escapes, although some of them had ended in tragedy. In one case the Germans, alerted by a spy, had arrived just as the boat was casting off in the early hours of the morning. They had lined the harbour wall, firing machine guns into the boat, killing many women and children and all the men.
After the Armistice, the Germans had treated the Italians fairly well, except for those who resisted, in the hope that they would continue in the war, or, at least, give them no trouble on their long and vulnerable lines of communication. But now, with the war going badly for them, they had become jittery, suspecting every Italian of plotting to aid the enemy and there had been one or two very unpleasant incidents, including a horrific massacre near Rome.
On 21 November, we received a message to say that the Committee had found a boat which they hoped would be able to
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leave in about a week’s time. We were to stand by, at two days notice, to move down to the coast. We realised that it was going to be a very risky operation. Even if we got safely away from the coast we would still be faced with two of three days of rough seas in a small, heavily laden boat, evading the patrol boats and aircraft, ever watchful for a seaborne landing behind the Pescara front. But our morale soared, because this was action at last, and we put our faith in the Committee because at least they had a plan and it was worth a try, win or lose.
The weather turned against us, however, strong winds blew down the mountains and the coast was lashed with high seas. The Committee reluctantly decided that it would be too dangerous to risk a small crowded boat out in the Adriatic and then, as the weather moderated, the Germans moved a headquarters into Civitanova and the operation was again postponed. The Committee set out to find another embarkation point, but we lost faith in the expedition and turned our minds once again to moving further South.
The pressure on us to move was beginning to build up. The guns started to mutter again and the air was full of planes bombing the towns and strafing everything that moved on the roads. The 8th Army was on the move, not in a grand offensive this time, but in a slow bloody battle of attrition, creeping step by step towards Pescara. The two Peters were anxious to be gone, and even Fred and Mac were beginning to feel that it was about time to get on the move. I looked up at the snow covered mountains, their passes closed by deep drifts, and refused to go unless we could get guides, at least as far as the main Ascoli-Rome road, the last road barrier before the Gran Sasso.
The situation was deteriorating in the village. The constant background roar of the guns; the earth trembling beneath the rain of bombs on the nearby towns; the fighters sweeping over the roads; the Milizia, which had moved into Pieve Torino, combing the neighbourhood; frightened the villagers and made us all nervous in anticipation of what was to come. The gang, much sobered by these events, now mounted a guard on the house every night and manned the look-out place below the village. There were many alarms as the Milizia moved closer, the Germans occupied Mascerata to the East of us and Fologno to the West, where they rounded up all the men and requisitioned the food supplies. Our rations were threatened. Then the Old Communist turned up, a sure sign of trouble.
In the first week of December the Committee sent word that it had become too dangerous for us to stay any longer in Massa and that we should make our way South to the Gran Sasso. They promised to provide us with guides. We were glad to be off and proposed to leave during the night of 6 December, but the Committee asked us to stay a further day to give them time to collect some money for us, so we arranged to go on the 7th. The village soon learned of our impending departure and, on our last day, old Anna invited us down to her shop for breakfast. All the old ladies of the village were there. They had clubbed together to give us each an egg and a few lire, and they wept as they kissed us goodbye. I went to say farewell to Rosena, who had been so kind to me, to the Padre and to all the good people who had helped us. I was near to tears as I hugged them, promised to look after myself and wished with all my heart that they would have a quick and
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painless deliverance from war. They had all been so good to us, [handwritten text] those people of Massa. They had so little to offer, except their friendship and that they did not stint. They were afraid for themselves if we stayed, but urged us not to go, promising to feed and care for us and hide us from the enemy. What real goodness there is in this world, amidst the follies, the hates and the fighting!
The liaison officer came up during the afternoon with 300 lire for each of us and letters of introduction to help us on our way. The gang gave us a farewell supper and food for the journey. The noisy quarrelsome young men were quiet now. In the face of danger they were growing up.
That evening, as it grew dusk, the six of us, with two guides, walked quietly down the hill towards Pieve Torino. Another stage of our long journey was about to start.
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South to the Sasso
Our guides led us down the hill to the Spoleto road. The skies had cleared and the countryside was brilliantly lit by the moon. At the bottom of the hill we had to walk in a wide circle through the fields to avoid Pieve Torino and its Milizia garrison and then on to the main road, climbing up the side of Monte Fema to the little town of Visso. Personally, I would not have dreamed of walking slap up the middle of a main road in bright moonlight, but we had to assume that our guides knew what they were doing and it was good to be swinging along an a hard firm surface once again. But then, coming round a bend, we met a military patrol. I jumped for the ditch, but unfortunately there was not one and I rolled ten feet down a steep embankment. As we somewhat shakily re-grouped on the road, our guides thought it was all very funny. I sometimes think that the Italians have a warped sense of humour! About an hour later, another patrol suddenly appeared and I leaped straight through a barbed wire fence. On the whole, I feel that it is perhaps more comfortable to avoid the main roads!
When we reached Visso to change guides there was, of course, no guides to be found. We had been given the name of the next man up the line, however, so saying goodbye to our Massa guides we plodded on to Castel Santangelo where we arrived just before dawn, having covered a good 25 miles. I have never put much faith in this guide business, although we will certainly need some help when we come to cross the mountain passes, but we do have the names of some trustworthy contacts and the Committee’s letters of introduction.
We stumbled around the outskirts of Castel Santangelo for some time, not knowing where to find our contact, and not daring to enter the town until we had found out whether there were any enemy about. In the end, we found a large chaff bin beside a farm on the edge of the town and settled down to rest for the remaining hour before dawn. When the farmer came out to milk his cows he was very surprised to find us all in his chaff bin, but after we had explained who we were looking for he became quite friendly and went off to rout him out. Our contact, when he arrived, was a large silent man who led us calmly straight through the middle of the town. There were very few inhabitants about at that early hour and when we came to the main square the only people in sight were two very bored looking German soldiers sitting beside their broken down truck. We must have looked an odd group in our scruffy clothes, with our sacks slung over our shoulders, and our very un-Italian boots, and Mac stood out like a sore thumb being twice the size of the locals. But the Germans had probably been sitting there all night waiting for a breakdown truck and, although they stared at us curiously they were much too fed up to do anything about it. On the far side of the town our guide put us on the right road and returned to his breakfast. We were very tired and hungry by now, but the next stage of our journey was not long and we reached our contact, a priest in the village of Gualdo, before midday.
The priest did not seem very pleased to see us, so as there did not seem to be any Milizia about, we went to the pub,
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drank vino and listened to Radio Londra in English – the Allies are still stuck in the mud. The people were fairly friendly, but not too keen about putting us up. However, we were too tired and hungry to go on much further and we eventually all got fixed up in various houses. Peter S and I got a meal and a bed in a hay loft inhabited by some of the largest rats I have come across. In the middle of the night we had an earthquake, but we were all too tired to care.
When we met up again after breakfast, Peter H said that he had heard of an English speaking woman in the valley and proposed to go and see her. We thought that this was a waste of time, but he insisted on going so we sat around all morning waiting for him to come back. He returned after midday with a little money and a loaf of bread, but his trip had proved worthwhile because he had managed to obtain a more detailed route for our next stage. This was important, because we now had to cross a high snow covered pass, Il Paso di Vallopare. It was bitterly cold up there and we were not dressed for this sort of thing; Peter H, in particular, lacks warm clothing and, if we go astray in the high mountains, we could easily find ourselves in serious trouble. Even with the route, finding and keeping to the track buried under the snow was a difficult task and we were cold and exhausted before we reached the pass.
On the far side we came down through a grim, rock strewn land to find the little town of Santa Lucia perched on top of a hill. Despite its name, it is a dirty little place, but we were in urgent need of warmth and shelter. Fortunately our letter of introduction opened doors and we all managed to find somewhere to eat. We then gathered for the night in a small hay loft, which we are sharing with two Yugoslavs and a New Zealand soldier. It is not very comfortable, but after our day in the snows it is wonderfully warm.
We got a rather begrudged breakfast from our hosts and then went to call upon the ‘Mayor’ to see if he had any news. He had nothing to tell us but gave us some toasted polenta. Santa Lucia really is a filthy little town. It looks quite poverty stricken, but in fact I think that it is rather well off, as mountain towns go. We were able to buy some razor blades and a sort of biscuit in the general stores, which used to belong to a ‘fascist’ who was chased out of town. When Mussolini fell, most of the landlords and large shop keepers were dubbed as ‘Fascists’ and forcibly ejected or worse, unless they were too powerful. In any case, of course, they were no more fascist than the rest of the citizens, because nearly everyone has paid, at least, lip service to the Party. The departure of Mussolini, however, has proved an irresistible temptation to many communities to get rid of anyone to whom they owe money.
We made a late start after our shopping, crossing a wide valley and then up and over a high snow covered pass, on the flank of Monte Sibilini. From the top we had a magnificent view of the distant peaks of the Gran Sasso and, nearer at hand, the sight of a squadron of Spitfires [Supermarine Spitfire, British fighter aircraft] wheeling over the roads like hawks, waiting to pounce on their prey.
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We stopped at a small cottage to eat the bread and cheese we had brought with us and met a woman and her two children on the point of moving down to the plains for the Winter. They guided us as far as Pretara, where we have a contact, but we got warning that there is a Milizia patrol in the neighbourhood who captured two English the day before yesterday, so we moved off the road to this isolated farm. The old farmer, who speaks a little (God damn son of a bitch) English has given us a very good welcome. He has a wireless set and we were able to listen to the Sari news. On the 8th Army front, it seems as though the Canadians have made some progress and that the 5th Army is also advancing – which is very cheering.
The old man is full of a rumour, which he says he got from the wireless about a new secret weapon which the Germans have developed. Some sort of rocket, I think, but anyway it has not been used on the Italian front so far.
The old man and his donkey were going to Abitato, which is on our route, so we went along together. When we arrived the old man fixed us up in a barn and arranged for various families to feed us. Peter went to see the Padre to see if there was any news of the war, but it seems that there has been little change. There are three English soldiers staying in the village who have been here for some time. They were very kind to us and generously offered to let us sleep in their beds. One of them, in celebration of our meeting, opened a tin of Nescafe, which he had been saving for a special occasion. Nescafe is a sort of ready-made coffee powder to which you add boiling water. There has been no real coffee in Italy since before the war and Italians are addicted to it. Perhaps that is why they lost the war, you cannot do much on coffee and wine, tea and beer are the only proper drinks! Anyway, the rumour that a tin of real coffee was about to be opened soon brought a crowd of interested spectators. We all sat down round the table, water was boiled, the tin was opened, and the hot water poured ceremonially on to the powder. Cups were handed round so that all could have a taste. It was a great moment, full of anticipation, but, in the event, it was rather an anticlimax and like so many of these wartime miracle foods it was quite tasteless. The Italians were too polite to say so, but I could see that they were disappointed, after their high expectations. I must say that if this is real coffee, I prefer the roasted wheat variety.
12 December – Sunday
This morning we had coffee (roasted wheat), with the Padre and were then going to set off, but a thick white mist rolled up and that, together with the fact that it was both Sunday and a Festa day, meant that we could get no one to guide us. So we went to church instead, joining the noisy young men at the back.
After church I found myself alone, so I went to the house where I was fed last night and they gave me a very good minestrone. I thought that, being Sunday, I would edify the family by telling them all about my visit to the Holy Places in Palestine. I am not sure how much of my halting Italian they actually understood, but they sat in polite silence until I had finished. Needing fresh air, I then went down to another house and had a riotous romp with the children, until Mama came
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back and put a stop to it! After that I went to church again, to meet up with the others, and we all went to a house to listen to the wireless.
It appears that the Germans have declared that their present positions are their Winter Line and are throwing in everything they can to hold it. There have been a number of counter attacks and it is clear that the situation is critical.
This is a very friendly little village and I think that they have got us fixed up in Argole, the next village on our route.
Coming over a high pass this morning we had a wonderful view from the snow covered mountains right down to the coast, where we could see a naval bombardment in progress. We could not see the ships, but we could hear the guns and see columns of black smoke going up from burning trucks on the coast road. We went slowly, arriving in Argole about midday, where we found that news of our arrival had preceded us. Bread and cheese for six was waiting on the table!
A very friendly village, but even filthier than Santa Lucia. In fact, I think it is quite the dirtiest place I have ever come across, either in Italy or India. There is a group of American soldiers, about a dozen, together with an English soldier from an AA battery in Tobruck, who have been here for the past three months. They live in some huts outside the village and come in to eat.
We are still in Argole and I am getting very cross and frustrated about this quite unnecessary delay, but the two Peters have gone back to Abitato, leaving Hooch and I to hang about here, wasting time.
The day before yesterday Fred and Mac left to cross the Via Salaria, the last Strada Nationale before the Sasso. We all felt that a party of six was far too big for safety, when it came to crossing a main German line of communication. It was sad to say goodbye after so many weeks of their company in Massa and on the road, but it is best to split up. I went with them to the edge of the hills, which slope down to Forcella and the main road beyond, and watched them walk down the hill, while a heavy air raid went in on some target not far away to our right.
We had planned to give the South Africans a day’s start and to follow them yesterday morning, but the two Peters decided that we needed some up to date news before crossing the Via Salaria and entering Gran Sasso country. They were concerned about all the talk of a German counter offensive and the new Winter Line. There is no wireless here so they insisted that we should go back to Abitato. Hooch and I felt that this was really unnecessary. We can pick up news as we go along, and, although it is quite mild at the moment the weather can change quickly, so we should take advantage of the good marching conditions. Our hosts are quite pressing in their invitation to stay as long as we like, so Hooch and I have decided to stay until the Peters return.
The Peters left yesterday morning and Hooch and I went down to visit the Americans in their huts. They are a very friendly
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bunch and they gave us a good welcome. They intend to stay here until the Allies come and they are certainly well fixed up. Like many Americans removed from their support systems however they have deteriorated badly and make little effort to keep themselves clean and tidy. It was good to talk to them, but I would not like to stay with them for long.
The Peters were due back yesterday evening, but they did not turn up and we assumed that they had decided to spend the night in Abitato. Peter S turned up about midday with Squadron Leader Paine, still with his sepoy in tow. He said that Peter H had gone on somewhere else for news but should turn up later. The Sari news had talked about a major German counter attack, but said that it was now dying out. 8th Army are only just across the Moro and 5th Army have come to a halt. Not very encouraging. In the afternoon Paine and his sepoy left and Peter H. returned with rather better news. He said that he had heard that the Germans were weakening and that the Allies expect to make an important announcement in about three days time – a major offensive?
I am very angry with Peter S. He has got lice, which is quite unnecessary! I have been nagging at him for days because he will not wash properly and I warned him that he would become lousy if he did not. I adopt the old prison routine of dividing my clothes into day and night outfits. I put on my spare shirt and trousers at night, with my day clothes over the top to keep warm, so changing the clothes next to my skin. I try to wash all over once a week or so, however cold and miserable it may be. Peter on the other hand tends to wear all his clothes all the time without rotation, and claims it is too cold to wash properly. I am angry, because if Peter has lice he will give them to me and I have had quite enough of those dear little creatures.
I cannot stand much more of this filthy place, despite the kindness of its inhabitants, and I hope to goodness that we will be able to get away tomorrow.
On the march again, a mild but misty day, and my morale is much improved. We have now been on the road for exactly 100 days and must have covered nearly 200 miles in a straight line from Fontenellato. I suppose that taking into account all the valleys we have crossed and the detours we have made we must have covered more than twice that distance.
We had no trouble crossing the Via Salaria. On reflection, there cannot be much day time German traffic now, so close to the front, because the Spitfires and Mustangs are always waiting to shoot up any worthwhile target that moves and the Germans are being forced to travel mainly by night. We sat down on the far side of the road to eat the bread we had brought with us and saw only the odd staff car and despatch rider, skittering along, one eye on the road and the other on the sky – which left none for us.
We had been given a contact in San Martino and he passed us on to someone in San Giovanni where we arrived after dark. The village was still awake and we had no trouble in getting some supper and a bed in the straw stack. There are two very pleasant Greek officers here, who were with us when we were in the prison camp at Rezanello, also two English officers, and
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two more arrived during the evening. It was good to meet and talk to them all, but if this is a harbinger of things to come on the Sasso itself, we are going to be very over-crowded.
We walked all morning through a thick damp mist, cominga bout midday to the village of Pietralta, where two very pretty girls provided us with a lavish lunch of bread, cheese and vino. We are now in the Province of Abruzzi, the same province as Monty, walking through dense forests on the mountain side. The tracks are very muddy and are crossed by many little streamlets. Peter H and I incurred the wrath of the others by stopping to do a little irrigation work. I can never resist helping water on its way, creating little channels and breaking down the dams of accumulated leaves and twigs. It may be a childish occupation, but it gives me deep satisfaction and, in Peter H I found a fellow devotee of the art. Peter S and Hooch were unmoved by our pleasure, a little marred by the rain, and shouted at us impatiently.
We followed a good forest track and as we walked along we came upon increasing quantities of broken Italian Army and Carabinieri equipment strewn on the ground. We had stumbled on the battlefield of Paranesi. Our way led us to a tree crowned hill, from the top of which we had a good view down a road, climbing up from the plains to join our track. It appears that shortly after the Armistice about 200 Italian soldiers and Carabinieri had dug themselves in on the hill top, which appeared to offer a very good defensive position. They had sighted an anti-tank gun to fire down the road and had then waited for the arrival of the Germans. The course of the battle was easy to follow. About 500 yards down the hills, the road disappears behind a low ridge and, as the leading German motorcycle combination and field car appeared round the bend, the anti-tank gun had opened fire, knocking them both out. The Italians should, of course, have waited until the enemy had come closer and the main body was in view, but I could imagine the excitable anti-tank gunner, unable to resist pulling the lanyard when he had the leading vehicles in his sights. The German column had then deployed behind the ridge and opened a devastating mortar fire. Then, taking advantage of the denser trees round the flanks, they had moved round to attack the position from the rear. The Italians were completely surrounded and I believe that there were no survivors. This little battle has had a profound effect on the neighbouring villages and we found more fear here than almost anywhere else we have been.
The forest track wound down into a valley, so we followed instead a small path, climbing steeply up through the dripping trees. As we climbed up the muddy path in single file, we met a young woman coming down, a large trunk balanced on her head.
‘What,’ asked Hooch ‘is a pretty girl like you doing walking through the forest with a trunk on your head? ‘The girl looked surprised at the question.
‘I’m the new school teacher at Paranes,’ she said, ‘how else do you suppose I should get there?’
As we edged round her and her trunk on that narrow path, I could not help wondering how our own teachers would react to having to climb over mountains with their baggage whenever they changed jobs!
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We came down the far side of the mountain to a small village which was in great fear of the Germans. It was not until we met an American speaking Italian who could vouch for us that we got invited in. Once the villagers accepted that we were not spies, however, they became very friendly and we were not only given a good supper but real beds for the night. Two in one house and two in another.
19 December – Sunday
No question of having a lie in this Sunday! Our hosts were anxious for us to be gone before day break and routed us out at 5.30 a.m. We made quite good progress over the very muddy tracks, but there is a lot of fear here. We are only 7 or 8 miles from Teramo which I am told is the main Milizia HQ for the area and has a large garrison, and all the locals are terrified of the Milizia. I think that they must have been through here recently, because when we got to San Georgia we were refused even a glass of water by the inhabitants. We were very hungry by the time we reached Poggio Umbreccio, just after dark.
We presented our credentials from the Committee, but the villagers were very slow to accept us. At last, after a lot of worried discussion, we were invited in and given a good pasta asciutta. They would not let us sleep in the village, however, and found us a cold and draughty barn, well away from the houses.
One more road and river to cross and then we will be on the Gran Sasso. This has been our objective for a long time now and there is a sense of achievement at having reached the threshold, after coming so far. But I am afraid. The tracks have become so muddy that we are sliding and slithering about, up to our ankles in mud, and the worst is yet to come. We will have to stop and find somewhere to lie up until conditions improve. But with everyone so afraid, how are we going to find somewhere to stay?
Now we are really on the Gran Sasso. We had arranged for a guide to take us across the Vomano and the main Teramo-Aquila road before daylight. We crossed near the town of Montorio al Vomano and are now over the last lateral road before the Strada Nationale from Pescara to Rome, at the Southern end of the Sasso and that, being immediately behind the German front line, is probably impossible to cross at the moment. We got over the Teramo road, where it ran dark between high cliffs and climbed up the far side of the narrow valley, to a village, where we called on the Priest. He was quite friendly and gave us some breakfast and the news that the 8th Army was stationary on a line from Ortona to Osogna.
From the hill above the village, we could see, to our right, peak after snow covered peak, a great rampart marching down to the South, the main massif of the Gran Sasso d’Italia. On our left, the fertile fields rolled down in a series of ever smaller hills, to a blue line of the sea, some 20 miles away. We now came down into a broad valley with many roads, small towns and villages. The whole feel of the country is different here. There are Germans everywhere, in twos or threes foraging in the villages; single trucks and motorcycles,
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bumping along the lanes; and here and there camouflaged gun emplacements, suddenly revealing themselves as a plane screams across the sky. Above all there is fear. As we approach a farm or village I can almost smell it, a tangible dreadful fear that makes the people behave very strangely. They want to be friendly and to help us, but we might be German spies or agents provocateur, or someone might inform on them with terrible results. They help us at the risk of their lives, but they do help, and at an isolated farm, a woman nervously gave us a hot midday meal.
In the afternoon we met two American soldiers, who told us of a trustworthy man in Forca di Valle, so we called on him in the hope of getting somewhere to stay for the night. He greeted us very warily, but gave us some bread and olive oil and said that we could sleep in a cave up in the mountains. I think that this was some kind of test, because when we agreed he became more friendly. His wife produced some minestrone and we were then allowed to sleep in his hayloft.
Our host told us that there was a British paratrooper in the next village of San Nicola, so in the morning we set out to find him. We hoped that he would be able to tell us something about the land we were now in and, possibly, give us some idea about how we can find somewhere to hole up. We had a lot of trouble finding him, because everyone was too afraid to tell us where he lived, but in the end we ran him to ground in a farm.
The paratrooper was a young, very self sufficient, Corporal, who seemed to be on his own. He said that he had been a little further South, but the further he had been the harder it was to find food and shelter. He felt that he had been very lucky to have found a farm willing to keep him and he intends to stay there until the Allies break through the German lines. He said that he had recently met two Majors who had tried to get through the lines. They had got as far as Sulmona, but had found it impossible and had been forced to return. He thought that they had re-crossed the Vomano, but was not sure.
We debated what we should do now. The tracks are appalling and we really cannot go much further until they dry out a bit and that may not happen until the Spring – so it is obviously vital to find somewhere – a casetta, a barn or even a cave where we can, if necessary, ride out the winter. None of us want to go back. Now that we have actually reached the Sasso we want to stay, if at all possible. We are well placed for when the 8th Army take Pescara and attack up the coast, or to take any opportunity that may arise to slip through the lines. So we decided to push on as far as we can and see what happens.
A few miles on we stopped at a farm to ask the way and were met by two British Sergeants. They were able to vouch for us, so we got a meal and directions to find a mule track that would take us over the hills to avoid Isola del Gran Sasso, a peacetime ski resort and now a rest centre for the German Army. We toiled up a high hill, slithering through the mud, and came out above Isola, where we met a small boy who said that his parents would be delighted to put us up for the night. When we reached his house, however, we found that his parents were not quite as enthusiastic about taking in stray tramps as their young son, and we were rather brusquely turned away. There was nothing for it but to go on climbing up to another
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pass. Then a thick mist came down and we became hopelessly lost. Fortunately, we bumped into a farm hand who was able to guide us down the far side, saying that his padrone would find somewhere for us to stay. His padrone’s name was not to be taken in vain, however, and we got turned away, without even a crust of bread.
The sun had now set and it was very cold. We were exhausted from ploughing through deep mud all day and we were becoming rather desperate to find shelter. We tried several farms, who slammed their doors on us, but, at last, to our enormous relief we were taken in, fed polenta and given a place to sleep. We cannot survive many more days like this, and if it is worse further on we have had it. Peter H says that we should go further up the mountain and find a cave, but I think we would die up there when the real snow comes. What we want now is a nice little miracle.
I think our miracle may have arrived! We set off this morning towards Farindola and a couple of miles up the track we ran into ‘ Mac’ McDowell! He was in rather a state because he had lost Fred. They had gone off in different directions following up suggestions about places they should stay, and had lost each other. We wasted the whole morning joining in the search for Fred, but without success. In the course of our search, however, we met a man in a field digging his potatoes and he offered us some. We called at a farm in the hope of getting them cooked for us and, in answer to our inquiries about casettas or other places to stay, the farmer suggested that we should call on a padrone who lived near the town of Castelli and might be able to help us.
Following his directions we climbed up to a mule track which ran above Castelli and eventually came to a small group of quite substantial houses, standing on either side of the track. As we passed the first house a man leaned out of an upstairs window.
‘Hi, you sons of bitches!’ he greeted us. We had found the Padrone – Dino! He invited us in to a well furnished upstairs room and offered us vino. He was a tall man of about 50, with a lean face and short grey hair. He had lived in America and knew a little English, although we got on best with a mixture of English and Italian.
‘Where you guys going?’ he asked. We said that we were looking for somewhere to stay and asked if he could help us.
‘Maybe’ he said cautiously. ‘How long you stay?’ We said that we really wanted to get through the lines, but that we might have to stay until the Allies came or at least until the tracks improved.
‘Non e possible passare Tedeschi’ he said firmly. ‘You stay here, I find you casetta!’ We were relieved and delighted and showered him with thanks. He sent Peter H off to another house to find the key and took us down to see the promised casetta.
We went along the mule track for about three quarters of a mile and then down a path to a small whitewashed farm, where he introduced us to Stephano, one of his tenants. The casseta was about 500 yards below the farm, a stone building standing among a few scattered trees. The ground floor is a locked
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store room belonging to another padrone, while upstairs, reached by outside steps, is a single room, with a fire place, and lit by a tiny window.
‘OK?’ asked Dino.
‘OK!’ we said enthusiastically – this is our dream house.
Stephano invited us to the farm, fed us and gave us a load of hay and some fire wood. Now we are sitting around our fire, in our own little casetta. Outside the temperature has dropped and it is very cold and the guns have started up again. The roar of the barrage is echoing round the mountains, the house is shaking and the very earth trembles.
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A Home of Our Own
The first essential was a fire. The snow was creeping down the mountains and the nights were bitterly cold, although the days were warm enough to thaw the frozen earth into a quagmire of mud which, aided by the rain, made walking any distance a laborious and almost impossible task. On our first morning, Stefano took us up the hill, above the rough pasture, to where a belt of trees grew below the bare rock of the higher peaks. He pointed out the ‘fascist’ trees that we could fell and the ‘anti-fascist’ ones we had to leave severely alone, and lent us his precious axe.
It took us a long time to fell our first tree, trim it, drag it down the mile or so to the casetta and reduce it to fire wood. Later, I was to become adept at tree felling and derived great pleasure from the bite of the sharp axe into the wood, the cleanly cut chips flying from the trunk and the tree falling exactly as I had planned. My first efforts with the axe were clumsy however and I nearly severed my big toe, cutting a great slice into my boot. The hole in the uppers was now added to my worries about the soles, which kept parting company from the boots. If I was to go any further over the rough mountain trails I would have to find a cobbler, and a cobbler with some leather. Leather had become very scarce and most of the farmers were reduced to wooden soles or clogs. My boots, however, were such a vital part of my scanty equipment that I feared to part with their leather soles altogether.
After the first war, the Crown Prince Wilhelm had been interned at Doon in Holland and had taken up tree felling as a hobby. I had often wondered how the Dutch woods had survived under his axe and I soon came to wonder if the rather sparse forests of the Gran Sasso would stand up to our demands upon them. For our fire was voracious, burning our hard won trees as though they had been match sticks, and one tree, won by so much sweat and labour, barely lasted two days. We had to keep the fire going. With the increasing cold of winter the fire became our life; if it died so would we.
After dragging our first tree down, the Peters went off to look for food, while Hooch and I, concerned about what had happened to Fred, set out to look for him and Mac. We first went up to the Ridge to see Dino. Like many young Italians during the depression of the 1920’s, Dino had emigrated to America to seek his fortune. He had returned some years before the war, not a rich man, but well off by local standards and had bought land near his home town of Castelli. I never understood exactly what land he owned, because ownership on the Gran Sasso seemed to be a very complicated affair. He certainly owned a good house and the top floor of our casetta, and I think he owned Stafano’s farm, but Luigi owned the lower part of the casetta and some of the trees immediately around it, while Nicchi, a third padrone, also owned some of the trees and part of the land. But in our eyes, Dino was the most important padrone in the neighbourhood. He was a vigorous man with a natural authority and his word carried great weight. Although he was always most friendly towards us, I would not like to have crossed him. We never forgot the respect due to him as our landlord and always consulted him when difficulties arose. He had a wireless set and, in the days to come, we fell into the habit of calling on him whenever
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we passed that way, not only to collect news of the war, but also to pass on to him any news that we ourselves had gathered during our foraging for food. We trusted his discretion as he had, necessarily, to trust ours.
Dino knew everything that went on between the mountains and Castelli and, of course, he knew the whereabouts of Fred and Mac. Indeed, he had found them a little casetta of their own, higher up in’ the mountain above the Ridge. To our relief we found them in good heart, although Fred was not very well. Their casetta was smaller than ours and being higher up was covered in snow, but they had a good fire going and seemed to be well organised.
Having reassured myself that Fred and Mac were safe I went on, in the pouring rain, to try to get some food. I was already disturbed to realise just how much food we were going to need. I called on several farms and was able to buy some potatoes and a little flour, but, although my money was accepted, it was really of very little consequence. There was little food, or indeed anything else, that money could buy in the towns and the people had lost all confidence in the Lira. The Germans and the fascist government tried to maintain an artificial value but, to most people, the Lira was just a piece of worthless paper which would only be of use for lighting fires when the Allies came. So the farmers had to rely on their own produce and, with the influx of Italians fleeing from the fighting and the Milizia, and the many wandering foreigners, food was scarce. It was not the money we could offer, but the farmer’s good will, that produced food for us. When I got back I found Peter S flushed with victory; he had bought a goose and had been lent two covers for our communal bed.
On the evening of our first day Stefano brought us down some stew and four little stools that he had made for us. He was a kind man, aged about 40, thick set and very strong. He worked the farm all the hours of daylight and would then work late into the night by the light of the fire. He was very poor but would drop anything to help a neighbour and he had a delightful smile which would light up his face into a thousand little wrinkles. La Signora, his wife, was small, dark and very pregnant. She spoke little and rarely seemed to leave the hearth where she cooked, mended, nursed her younger children and ruled the household. One harsh word from her would silence the most riotous child, send her husband to look hastily at his beloved pig and us scuttling back to the casetta. But she, too, was kind. With five children to care for (two others were away and I never met them) on the small produce of a mountain farm, she did not have an easy life, and our presence added to her worries for the safety of her children and how they were to be fed.
The eldest son at home was Tomaso, who had recently married Philomena, a strong farm girl and a veritable work horse. It is important for a mountain farmer to marry a strong girl and Philomena, whose work seemed never ending, was the perfect farmer’s wife. She could swing a full sack of maize on to her head with one hand and carry it for hours across the mountains, without ever seeming to tire, a sack that would take all my efforts just to lift off the ground, and she would go into peals of delighted laughter at my puny efforts. Once she carried a heavy sack of salt all the way from Penne, in a blinding snow storm at night, and laughed with embarrassment at my concern for her safety. She was a handsome girl and, on
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the night of our arrival she sat at the back of the room, wearing a string vest which amply displayed her wonderful breasts to our admiring gaze. To our disappointment, la Signora soon put a stop to that! Maria, Tomaso’s younger sister was small dark and plump, like her mother, and was being vigorously courted by young Lochinvar, the son of Nicchi, who owned a farm down the hill. He was always around the house, laughing, joking, playing the fool and teasing the shy and bashful Maria, until sent flying by la Signora, but it was understood they would marry in the Spring. Then there was Itala, a boy of 15, Florence, his sister of 7 and a baby, just learning to toddle. We would have great games with Florence, which tended to get out of hand, until a shout from la Signora would produce instant order.
Stefano’s farm was a single storey, lime washed, building, surrounded by the usual pig sty, cow shed and store rooms. It had one large room, dark and smoky like a cave, for there was only one small window, and the sausages and lumps of fat and bacon from the last pig, hung as stalactites from the rafters. Tomaso and Philomena occupied a huge double bed in a tiny room at [handwritten text] on side, while the rest of family slept in a bed crowded room at the back. I cannot imagine how they all fitted in, but one cold night, when Peter H and I slept in Tomaso’s bed, he and Philomena were absorbed into the back room without apparent difficulty.
From Stefano’s farm, a rough path climbed to the upper mule track which passed along the Ridge where Dino lived, winding below the rough pastures and the woods at the foot of the high peaks. Below the farm, the path continued to Patsi’s house and Luigi’s beyond that, from where the lower mule track ran North to Isola through the little town of Castelli, some 4 miles away. Castelli was our nearest town, quite a well to do place, because in peacetime it was a centre for winter sports on the Sasso. The guest houses and holiday cottages were now occupied by refugees from Pescara and other bomb shattered towns and it had a pseudo air of normality. But the Germans came there on convalescent leave, or to rest from the front, there a was Carabinieri post and the Milizia used it from time to time as a base from which to search the countryside for us. It was not a town to be entered carelessly and without due caution, although I was able to pay several visits there.
Below Castelli ran a narrow motor road from Teramo, in the North, through Penne, a town some 6 miles to the South East of us, and on to Chieti, on the far side of the Pescara River. The Germans used this road to service their AA sites and to avoid the dangers of the coast road exposed to the marauding fighters.
Above our casetta, on a fine day, the whole countryside was laid out before us. Behind soared the snow covered peaks of the Sasso, rising up to nearly 10,000 feet, a majestic and awe inspiring sight, while in front the hills rolled down to the distant glint of the sea, a chess board of little green and yellow fields, vineyards and copses, white squares of isolated farms and the larger groups of villages. It was a peaceful sight that fertile land, with the farmers working in the fields, mules plodding along the tracks, the occasional lorry on the Penne road, but looking South we could see the whole battle front of the 8th Army. Black columns of smoke
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rising from the ruins of Ortona, as the Allied guns pounded it into dust; the flash of bombs exploding on Pescara and Chieti; the puffs of AA shells pouring up to meet the bombers wheeling over the front; and the fighters harrying the traffic on the road to Rome. Above all, the noise of battle; the roar of the guns; the earth shaking crump of the bombs; the scream of the dive bombers; and the rattle of machine guns, as the bullets whipped into an incautious convoy. A creeping line of destruction flooding slowly over that peaceful land. But how slowly did it creep! With what impatience we awaited the final battle which would sweep the 8th Army across the Sangro, through Ortona and Pescara and release us from our wanderings!
None of us had realised that Christmas was upon us, but two days after we arrived was Christmas Eve. We were alerted to the fact when Mac walked in with a Christmas present from the ladies of Castelli, which he had received via Dino. He distributed cakes and tarts, a bar of soap and a tin of meat, as though he were Father Christmas. We were overwhelmed and I nearly cried. Those good ladies, whom we had never met, and who had so little to spare themselves, had collected, at some risk, all that they could for us and for five British soldiers sheltering near the town. This was real generosity, the best and most loving Christmas present I had ever received, and I only wished that there was something that we could have given them in return. The collection had been organised by Josephine. Dear Josephine! I was to mat her later in her house in Castelli. Slim, educated, well dressed and grey haired, she might have been the leading light of any Womens Institute or village branch of the WRVS [Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, British voluntary organisation established in 1938]. A do-gooder – but how much good she did, and her compassion was not expended with the passing of Christmas. She organised other collections, each at greater risk than the last, and once she came to visit us in our casetta.
Dino sent us a cover for our straw bed and Luigi, who also kept a shop in Castelli, gave us another – so now we had one each to keep out the bitter cold of night.
On Christmas Day, la Signora invited us in to a wonderful meal, Peter’s goose, our tin of meat, macaroni, cheese, nuts and the red wine which was kept for feast days and pig killing. In the evening we sat round our fire in the casetta drinking wine and thinking how extraordinary it was that we four should be sitting in our own little house on the Gran Sasso at Christmas, while Fred and Mac were sitting in theirs a mile or so away, and the guns of the 8th Army muttered and roared in the background.
After Christmas, we decided that we would have to put our feeding on to a firmer basis. La Signora had fed us up to now with a little help from our gleanings but we were clearly a strain on her household. On the other hand, we could not cook for ourselves. We had no utensils and our small fireplace was not designed to be a kitchen range, as it later, and rather dramatically, proved. So we went to discuss the matter with la Signora. She agreed to cook for us, if we could provide the food. She calculated that we would need 20 kili of flour a week, a little fat and a few eggs for the pasta, anything else we could gather would be a bonus. The day after Boxing Day, la Signora had walked into Castelli, over the difficult and muddy tracks, pregnant as she was, to try and buy some food for us, but there was none to be had. Someone had given her some socks for us, which were a godsend because mine had got beyond
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even my considerable skill with the darning needle. The new socks did not last long, however, and started to disintegrate before the week was out, partly I suppose because the sole kept coming off my boot so that the socks were constantly wet.
We were able to buy a little flour from time to time, but to meet our weekly target of 20 kili we had to rely on begging. We put this on a proper basis. Each day some of us would go up the hill to cut a tree, while the others would set off to forage. We worked out different routes to avoid putting too much of a burden on any one household, but the state of the tracks restricted our foraging area and I found it very embarrassing to have to go back to a house from which I had begged only two or three days before.
I started off rather badly. To me, flour was flour and I had not appreciated that there were different kinds for different purposes, such as bread, pasta or polenta. I tipped everything I was offered into my sack and turned proudly to show the result of my efforts to la Signora.
‘What’s the use of this?’ she demanded, peering into my sack, ‘you’ve mixed it all up – it’s only fit for feeding the pig.’ Maria and Philomena laughed that anyone could be so ignorant as not to know the difference between fine flour and coarse, between wheat flour and maize. They patiently explained, between giggles of astonishment, that I needed separate bags for each kind. Even begging, I found, had its technicalities.
Mondays were baking days, when the results of our labours would be turned into’ the large loaves to last, hopefully, for the following week. Philomena would light the big oven outside the front door, while Maria kneaded the dough. When flour was scarce they would use a mixture of potato and maize flour which produced mouth watering loaves when hot, but after a few days they would taste very bitter and go green with mould. If there was any dough left over they would bake little cakes, which were something to look forward to as we slithered home in the dusk, cold and hungry, with our begging sacks.
The battle for Ortona increased in fury. The air vibrated with the rising crescendo of noise, the ground shook and the whole Southern sky was alight with the flashes of the guns. ‘After Ortone –what?’ we asked ourselves. If the fall of t he city broke the Winter Line we would be able to walk down the hills to safety, but if the Germans managed to hold the Pescara river until the big snows came then we would be stuck, like the 8th Army, until the Spring. The battle raged on day after day. Montorio, where we had crossed the Via Salaria, was heavily bombed. Fighters machine gunned the Penne road and the AA fire along the coast road was almost continuous. There was noise and destruction on all sides of us.
One morning, as I set out foraging with Peter S and Hooch, I met two English soldiers with a message that Fred and Mac wanted to see me. I climbed the hill to their casetta, where Fred explained that a couple of Italians had asked to speak to a British Officer.
‘They are thinking of trying to get through the line,’ Fred explained ‘I’ve told them that this is the wrong time to try and that they would be better to stay but they won’t take my word for it and want to talk to an officer.’
I found the Italians in a nearby hut. Tino and his wife Paola, a delightful young couple, intelligent, educated and well dressed. He had been a lawyer in Pescara, but their flat
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had been bombed and they had lost all they owned. They were under suspicion by the fascists and the Milizia were looking for Tino to call him up for the front or forced labour, so they had fled to the hills where they had met the two English soldiers. The soldiers were intending to try to get through the line to the West of Sulmona and had invited the young couple to accompany them. What did I think? Should they go?
They were still able to laugh at their predicament. Two well to do people sitting in a draughty little hut in the snow, all their worldly possessions packed in their rucksacks, but they were afraid. They had heard that the Milizia knew where we all were and were now moving into the area to start a big round up, before the snow could stop them, and that a company of German troops was about to move into Castelli. Should Tino be caught he would certainly be shot. They had much to fear and surely, they said, it would be better to try to get through the line than stay and be trapped.
They were a handsome pair. Tino, a dark, good looking young man and Paola, very beautiful in her expensive ski outfit, ready to dare anything for the sake of her husband. But the snows were coming, the tracks were already almost impassable, and it was too cold to lie out at night and survive. I thought that it would be foolish to make the attempt.
‘Wait for the outcome of the Ortona battle,’ I urged, ‘If Ortona falls and the Winter Line breaks we can all get through and we’ll take you with us, but if it holds and the Germans dig in all along the Pescara, I don’t think that you will be able to get through, even as far up as Sulmona. The Pescara valley is vital to the Germans and they will be there in strength. Wait a few days – have patience!’ How wise we can be in advising others, how foolish, as we were later to demonstrate, in advising ourselves!
We talked for a long time, but their fear of staying was greater than their fear of making the attempt. That night they went, and that night the snow came down on the mountains in a solid blanket. I pray that they made it. I will long remember the quiet determination of Paola as she sat gazing into the fire, trying to weigh up her fears for her husband, rather than for herself. If they had to die I hope they died together for they were much in love.
We rarely knew what had happened to those who left us. Someone would say goodbye and set off, full of hope and determination down the Southern slopes of the mountain, never to be heard from again. Perhaps they got through, but the few stories which trickled back told of death; death from the bitter cold or starvation, death at the hands of the Germans or the Milizia, or, tragically, from the bombs of the RAF.
Ortona fell about the 28th December and the Allied front crept a little closer, but the Winter Line held. Behind the lines, the Germans and the Milizia were becoming increasingly active. The Germans arrived in Castelli and a Milizia unit started a sweep through the villages rounding up and, on occasion, shooting, escaped prisoners, arresting young men and even boys, carting them off to who knows where. Even Stefano, normally so phlegmatic, became increasingly worried. If the farm were to be raided and we were discovered, he and his family would be punished, their farm burnt and Itala taken away. He decided t hat we must have a bolt hole where we and Itala could hide when the enemy I came. Should he be taken and we escape, he asked if we would take Itala with us. We readily agreed.
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On New Year’s Eve, the sky full of snow, we set off with Stefano to dig a hole in which we could hide. It was hard work digging into the stony soil, while a cold wind swirled the snowflakes round our frozen ears. Patsi came up to watch us dubiously.
‘That’s not the place to dig,’ he said, ‘you’ll strike rock there.’ And we did. He took us to another place and we set to work again, Stefano and Patsi doing most of the work. By midday, we had dug only about three feet into a stony bank and the snow thickened, coming down silent and persistent. The Peters and Hooch went off to get some wood in, before the snow buried it, and I remained to help.
The snow thickened into a dense blanket, building up on the ground until it was over four inches deep. Patsi straightened his back and looked around him.
‘This is the big snow!’ he said ‘Before this stops no one will be able to move; Germans, Milizia or even the English’ he grinned at us. ‘There’s no point in digging a hole now, we can all go home!’
Within a few days the snow was lying four feet deep. Some of the drifts were over 20 feet high and the tracks had become quite impassable. Dino said that it was the biggest fall of snow since 1924 and, for a time, we were safe from our enemies.
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The Big Snow
It was New Year’s Day 1944 and we looked out from our casetta over a quiet, white, landscape – even the guns were hushed to a distant muttering. We sat and shivered around our little fire, trying to conserve wood, silent and depressed. I thought back over the past year. Last Christmas Peter S andI had languished in the cold misery of Rezanello Castle. We had come a long way since then, but our fortunes had hardly improved. Once again we were penned in, cold and hungry, and our hopes of a great Allied victory which would sweep us all home had come to nothing. We looked forward to the coming year with doubt and apprehension. The snow had isolated us for a moment from our enemies, but when it melted they would be back. And how, with the snow lying deep around us, could we cut wood for our fire, or forage for our food? Our spirits were at a low ebb.
Struggling waist deep in snow, the 500 yards to the farm was an agony. When we got there, we found la Signora in a bad mood and even Stefano looked grim, worried about the food supplies and how we were going to be able to contribute to our keep. We felt it best to keep out of their way and returned, despondently, to the casetta to sit before the cheerless fire and worry about our future.
Suddenly, with a loud crack, the fire disappeared! The whole fire place had fallen through the floor! We peered down into the hole and could see it flickering dangerously below. Peter H rushed down and broke into the store room, flinging the fire out into the snow. The fire had burnt through the joists and it took us a long freezing day to put the fire place together again, sacrificing some of our precious wood to shore up the floor. There was a slight compensation, because we found the store room full of seed potatoes and, when we got the fire going again, we roasted some. We could not take any up to la Signora, however, because she would have wanted to know where we had got them, and they belonged to Luigi and Nicchi.
The next day we set out in a desperate attempt to reach the Ridge to see if Dino, or Alberto who lived opposite him, could let us have some food. Stefano and Itala came to help us, but after struggling all morning through snow drifts well above our heads we had barely covered half a mile and, cold, wet and exhausted, were forced to give up. In the afternoon, Peter S and Hooch managed to reach Luigi’s house and were given a little flour, salt and lard; but la Signora’s fears were not abated. Peter H and I cut down one of Luigi’s trees beside the casetta. We knew it would cause trouble but we had to have a fire.
It snowed for three days and then the sun came out, transforming the grey world into a sparkling fairyland. The snow was over four feet deep, but was frozen hard enough to walk on with difficulty; enabling us to get out at last and look for food. Hooch and I took the lower road towards Castelli and managed to get a little flour, some lard and potatoes, while Peter H took the high road. Peter S was ill again and stayed in bed, so that when we got back tired and frozen it was to find the fire out and all the wood gone. We had to go out in the moonlight and cut down another of the nearby trees.
The next morning Luigi the younger came round to collect
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some potatoes. We hoped that he would not notice the absence of one of his father’s trees but, in the light of the morning, the scene of the crime was all too obvious. Branches and twigs lay scattered across the snow and the only foot prints led to the door of the casetta. He filed a strong complaint against our depredations, but then relented and gave us some of his potatoes. Peter H had returned with a little food, but, what was almost as important he had gleaned some news. The Milizia had returned to Teramo and the only Germans in Castelli were convalescents. The best news, however, was that the 8th Army were only 8 kms from Pescara. I hardly believed him, but he swore it was true because he had seen it in writing.
It was still impossible to reach the forest, but Stefano showed us some ‘fascist’ trees in a little wood some way below the casetta. We spent a hard day cutting down two trees and dragging one of them home, appreciating the obvious point that it is far easier to drag a tree down a hill than up it. Stefano, who had recovered his normal good humour, came down in the evening to help us chop it up. We now had enough wood to see us through several days, provided that we let the fire go out at night.
Peter S had jaundice again and suffered badly from the cold. One night he complained so loudly that Hooch and I set off in a blizzard to try and find him another cover for the bed. It took us over an hour to reach the nearest farm and they could not help us, so when we got back we put Peter in the middle of the bed, lying down on either side of him to keep him warm, and piled everything we had on top, but he still shivered uncontrollably. I became rather worried, because this was the second time he had had jaundice and it was quite impossible to get hold of a doctor. There was a doctor in Castelli, although we did not know how reliable he was, but the wind, howling down the mountain, whipped the snow into a vicious blizzard that blotted out all the landmarks. We were cut off again. It had the advantage that, if we could not reach castelli, then no one in Castelli could come looking for us. We were greatly relieved when Peter started to recover. As he did so, Peter H went ill and later I was to develop a high fever. Only Hooch seemed relatively immune to the constant wet and cold.
After the big snow fall, the weather improved a little and the pig killing season opened. Patsi’s pig was the first to go and Stefano and Peter H went down to help, for Stefano was much in demand on these occasions, being the best pig killer in the neighbourhood, while Hooch and I remained behind to look after Peters. The next day, however, Philomena’s father, Pete, decided to kill his pig and I went down with her and Stefano to join in the fun, for pig killing days were great social occasions and all the neighbours who could turned up to help, or at least to join in the feast afterwards. It was a clear but bitterly cold day as we stood in the lee of the farm while Pete proudly paraded his pig. We all said what a wonderful pig it was, the more knowledgeable among us comparing it to last year’s pig, or other pigs we had known and starting fierce arguments about its probable weight.
When the pig had been sufficiently admired, there was a general scrimmage as it was pounced upon and hauled up, squealing, on to a bench. Then we all lay on the poor animal to hold it down while Stefano, in the full dignity of his office, slowly sharpened his long knife. A quick thrust and the squealing stopped; one of the girls catching the blood in a bucket to boil
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up for the feast. Stefano expertly butchered the pig, part into joints for sale, part for the sausages which would be made later, fat for the polenta and for greasing boots and offal, and the rest for the feast. And what a feast it was. Fried blood and offal, white bread specially baked, a huge pasta asciutta and the red wine kept only for high days and pig killings. I felt like a small boy taken out at half term by his parents and given a real blow out at the local hotel. I ate until I could eat no more and, to add to my pleasure, Philomena’s mother gave me some flour so I did not need to go foraging and I spent the rest of the afternoon playing cards with Stefano in the cow shed.
The greater part of the pig was sold for cash and Stefano held back on killing his own pig because, with the lira so debased, he needed a really good price to make it worth his while. A few weeks later, the Germans, prepared to print any number of lira to buy food for their army, opened a butchery in Asceta and announced that they would buy meat at prices the farmers could not resist. There was not much that could be bought with lire, but an essential commodity was salt which, with the loss of Southern Italy, had become very expensive, and paraffin for the lamps, so eventually Stefano’s pig went the way of the others. Twenty-one guests came to the pig killing, including two English soldiers who happened to be passing, and another great feast was provided. This time, however, I had to work for my supper. After Maria and Philomena had scrubbed the intestines, I turned the handle of the mincing machine for three hours without a break, while Maria fed in the meat and Philomena tied the yards of filled-intestine into hundreds of long sausages. These were hung from the rafters to smoke naturally, and the North wind co-operated by billowing clouds of wood smoke into the dark room.
The weather alternated between fresh snow and blizzards and cold clear days and the war alternated similarly between intense bombardments on Pescara and Chieti, with violent air attacks all round us, and periods of relative quiet. Every time the battle intensified we would say ‘This is it. We’ll be free soon’ and then, when it died away, we would become despondent and frustrated and start talking again of making our way through the snow drifts to the battle lines.
In the first lull in the weather, Stefano decided to take his grain down to the Mill. He and the two girls carried the heavy sacks on their heads, while Hooch and I made the path. The snow was very deep and we kept falling through the thin frozen crust up to our necks, to the never failing amusement of Stefano and the girls. To my mind, the joke had worn very thin after the first 100 yards, but we kept up our falling through the snow act all the way to the Mill. Wherever we were, we always seemed to give the Italians a great deal to laugh at, which was perhaps one way to repay them for their kindness! The Mill was out of action because the stream had frozen up, but Stefano was able to sell his grain and buy some flour and we too were able to buy flour; 20 kili at 8 lire a kilo. It was a weary task lugging it back, but we were rewarded by a delighted Signora with a huge pasta asciutta.
With the coming of the snow, the shepherds had tried to bring their sheep down from the high pastures to winter on the farms near the coast. Many of the flocks, however, had been intercepted and requisitioned by the Germans and I met some of the shepherds at Patsi’s farm, who complained bitterly about their treatment. One shepherd had had enough and tried to cross over the lines. He probably succeeded because the shepherds knew every pass and track. I talked to them about the possibility of getting
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down to the front and crossing the lines over the mountains, but they said that, while it might have been possible early in December, now the passes were all closed by snow and it would not be possible to get over the mountains again until April.
In the evenings, sitting round the fire, we would discuss the day’s crop of rumours, who was to go logging or foraging in the morning and where, and, above all, what our future plans should be. We felt that we were becoming too settled, that we should be making a greater effort to rejoin our troops. For the moment, with the two Peters ill and the tracks impassable, there was little that we could do, but we had to have a plan for when the thaw and the Milizia came. We could, of course, try to stay where we were until the Allies or April arrived, whichever was the sooner, but that seemed a long way ahead and, although it might have been a sensible course of action, or inaction, it was too negative. Hooch suggested that we should go down to the coast as soon as the weather improved, to see if we could find a boat in which we could sail round Pescara to Termoli, as we had so nearly done when we were at Massa. I was not convinced that it was a very good idea, because, as we could see, the coast road was lined with AA units, the sea must be under constant observation for fear of a sea borne landing and, surely, so close to the front, all the boats would have been impounded. We talked round and round the problem but no one could come up with a better answer, so we decided that, if the Allies had not taken Pescara by the time the weather improved – for we would need a calm sea for our voyage – then down to the coast we would go.
Little things loomed large in our lives and 9 January was a red letter day for me, because I found a cobbler who was able to mend my boots! I gave him 50 lire, which was a gross overpayment, but I was delighted. After walking around in the snow for ten days, with the soles flapping off and the water pouring in, it was wonderful to be able to walk with dry feet again. I was mobile once more and able, if the opportunity presented itself, to march across the mountains or down to the sea. After water and food, I felt the most important thing in life was a pair of sound boots. Without boots one cannot move, one cannot forage, flee the enemy or do daring deeds. I have never heard of a bootless hero. Boots, I was sure, were the first essential of a hero. Not that I was any hero, but with my boots repaired I felt that even I might aspire to some positive action.
The boots were still without studs, but Philomena scoured the countryside for me, calling on her many cousins whenever she went across to Castelli, or down to Farindola, or Penne. It always seemed to be Philomena who did the travelling, going off at dawn and staggering back late at night with a huge sack of something on her head, while Maria stayed at home to help her mother, and Tomas worked on the farm. Maria was not as robust as Philomena and, being as yet unmarried, it was not perhaps seemly for her to travel the tracks alone. One evening, Philomena came back in triumph and presented me with a set of studs. I hurried across to the cobbler and got his wife to hammer them in for me.
The others now went off in turn to find the cobbler; Peter S getting up from his sick bed and not coming back for two days, which gave rise to some concern. On the second day Hooch and I went off to look for him and found him coming home, having stayed with the cobbler. He brought back a lot of religious magazines
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and some local news. Two Yugoslavs had been killed when the roof of their hut collapsed under the snow; there were only two Germans in Castelli, but twenty in Farindola, the next village towards Penne; and Pescara had fallen. I entered this last bit of news in the rumour page of my diary, which proved to be an accurate assessment. The reading matter was very welcome, for the lack of anything at all to read was a real deprivation. To have something to read every day, even an advertisement on a hoarding, may seem of little importance until there is literally nothing, then even religious magazines in Italian are perused avidly. Peter H did rather better a few days later, coming back with some magazines about film stars and a battered copy of As You Like It [A play by William Shakespeare].
The tracks were still terrible, but by the middle of January we were able to start foraging over a wider area. I went on a long forage towards Chieti and another to San Antonio, and did quite well. Between us we were able to keep up our 20 kili a week and I was able to buy a little more flour from the Mill. Not very much, and it was the last we could get until the stream unfroze and the Mill was working again, and by then the Germans started taking a very unhealthy interest in it. Peter H found a source of figs, which was a welcome variation to our monotonous diet, although our hosts did not seem very fond of them, and bought two chickens, one from the five English soldiers, who claimed to have ‘found’ it. Peter H also got the promise of a live sheep for 250 lire. We offered to give it to La Signora, but she was not enthusiastic. Pasta was one thing she felt, cooking sheep was quite another, so we let it go. Dear Josephine, however, sent up another wonderful present, even better than the last; sugar, salt, cooked chicken, chops, macaroni pies, jam and vests. We gave the food to La Signora who kept it for the Feast of San Antonio.
San Antonio is the patron saint of Castelli and his day is celebrated on 17 January. For several days beforehand the women were busy making dragon rolls, little rolls of bread covered in a pasta of egg and sugar, although the shortage of ingredients that year led to the production of economy models. Early on the morning of the Festa, all the small boys in the neighbourhood went from house to house, where they were each given a dragon roll. We rather let the side down because we had no dragon rolls to give and, to their disappointment, gave them a lire instead. After the dragon rolls, everyone struggled through the snow and slush to hear Mass in the church in Castelli. We had to miss the service because we were told that here would be some Fascists there and this time we had no Massa gang to protect us. We were able to pay our tribute to San Antonio, however, by joining in the wonderful meal which la Signora had cooked up with the help of Josephine’s present.
One of our problems was the rats. They lived mostly in the store room below us, but would make occasional forays into the straw of our bed. I decided that something would have to be done about them and rounded up Stefano’s cat who normally lived in the cow shed and had, I assumed, some experience in the matter. I carried her down to the casetta and carefully explained what I wanted, but she took one look at the, admittedly rather large, rats and hared back to the safety of the farm. I realised that I had rather over estimated the ratting capabilities of the cat and turned to the dogs. Stefano had two dogs, Lilla and Yolanda, black and white animals of very vague parentage. Lilla was about to have pups, but Yolanda followed me down with great enthusiasm and roamed round the casetta, putting her nose into everything, except the rats. I could not get her to understand
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what was wanted and as a ratter she proved no more helpful than the cat. In fact, I soon regretted introducing her to the casetta, because she jumped to the conclusion that I had taken over ownership and she followed me everywhere. Calling on a farm with a loose dog is not the best way of making friends with the farmer and every time I went to forage I had to have an elaborate cover plan to outwit the dog, with only rare success.
So, we had to put up with the rats and, after taking Yolanda down to the casetta, we had to put up with her too. The only other way of dealing with the rats would have been to shoot them, but ammunition was too scarce for that and, anyway, Stefano could see no point of wasting ammunition on something we could not eat. As for the rats, well of course there were rats, what else did we expect to find in a storeroom? Life might be better without rats, but there was no point in making a fuss about them.
The ammunition was reserved for hunting hares of which there were quite a number on the rough pastures. On fine days, Stefano and Peter H, with whom he had become particularly friendly, would go up the hill with the shot gun. He never fired unless he was quite sure of a kill and one day when I was with him he saved a precious cartridge by catching a hare in his hands. He boasted of his prowess for a long time after, implying that he always caught hares that way to save cartridges.
Lilla had her three pups in the cow shed. Two died, but one just survived and, as no one thought of feeding the dog, I brought them down to the casetta where we would feed her and keep her warm. The Italians were very casual about their animals and although they depended on them for their livelihood they treated them very badly, either by neglect or, in the case of the small boys, with active cruelty. We did our best to stop it and Peter H would get very incensed when he saw the boys ill treating a cat or a dog, and would charge in, sending them flying. Stefano would shake his head in wonder, his only contact with his dogs or the cat being through the toe of his boot and he was quite unable to understand our concern for their welfare. They were there to do a job of work, they were not pets. The Italian attitude towards their animals stemmed from the circumstances under which they live. They were not cruel people, but, living barely above subsistence level themselves, they had, for their own self respect, to show that they were a cut above the animals. They beat their donkeys and kicked their dogs, not to be cruel, but to show who was boss.
Apart from Josephine’s present, our feast of San Antonio had been marked for us by the eating of the cock. For us only, because the cock had died of a disease and while it was safe for us to eat him it was not safe for anyone living at the farm. The problem was that the chickens caught the disease from eating human excreta, so if we ate a diseased chicken we had to be very careful where we put the subsequent residue. Lavatories were, of course, an unheard of luxury in the mountains, so the land around each farm was very fertile, but a mortal danger to any chicken whose fellow had fallen ill. Down at the casetta we were considered to be out of chicken range, hence the honour of being allowed to eat the cock. Unfortunately, a few days later all the chickens died and I have a suspicion that somehow Yolanda had got herself into the act. It was a disaster because they were much too precious for that. Although the Italians did not eat eggs as such, they were essential to the making of pasta.
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The whole matter of excreta proved to be a problem. There was no difficulty when we could move about freely, but when we were snowed up our range of movement became unduly restricted. When the thaw came, the smell was overpowering and we had the very unpleasant job of cleaning up all round the casetta.
The first half of January yielded nothing but wild rumours. The electricity supply had been disrupted by the snow and none of the wireless sets we knew about were working. This lack of reliable news was very frustrating because, on the eve of San Antonio, the biggest battle yet opened up just South of Pescara. We could see shells bursting all along the lines and massed formations of bombers wheeled overhead, while whole squadrons of fighters now patrolled the roads. There were constant rumours that Pescara had fallen or Chieti had been over run, and wilder stories too about a third front being opened in France and the Russians sweeping across Europe, but when the electricity was restored most of them proved to have been false.
It was quite ridiculous. We could hear the war, we could see the war, but we had little idea of what was really happening. If we received little news of the war, however, we were quite well informed about what was going on in our own neighbourhood. We became a sort of information exchange; any stranger was sent to see us, so that we could vet them and then report back to Dino; our neighbours would call in; Luigi’s and Nicchi’s children would come for potatoes and a chat; young Lochinvar would use the casetta as an advanced base for his forays on the farm to see Maria; Dino was a frequent visitor, to see that we were alright, and Fred and Mac dropped in from time to time. Sometimes in the evening up at the farm, Stefano’s friends would come and we would have a sing song. The British would be called upon for their contribution although, unfortunately, there did not seem to be one song that we all knew. It did not seem to matter, however, and anything we offered was invariably greeted with prolonged laughter and applause. We had quite a social life.
I had been wanting to go into Castelli to meet Josephine and thank her for all her kindness to us, but first the snow, and then the Germans and Milizia, had prevented our meeting. Then San Antonio ushered in several days of cold clear weather, the Germans had been reduced to two and the Milizia were still in Teramo, so, with the Peters out on a long two day forage, Hooch and I decided to go to town. We found Josephine in her smart little house near the Square and she greeted us like long lost children, bustling about to get us a glass of wine and to cook up some sausages for us. It was strange to be sitting in easy chairs again, a carpet on the floor, curtains at the windows, framed photographs on a polished table, and I felt clumsy and crude in those delicate surroundings. We thanked Josephine for all that she had done for us, for Fred and Mac and the others. She laughed our thanks aside, kissing us and saying that of course she would help us, we were fighting for Italy and were in need, it was her duty. I felt embarrassed sitting in that neat little parlour while the real fighting went on over the mountains.
In the afternoon we went round some of the houses on a forage. I had got used to calling at the farms with my sack, asking if they could spare some flour or a piece of fat, but I was not prepared for begging in a town. To knock on a smart door and to be faced with a well dressed, middle class, lady with a Scotch terrier in her arms struck me dumb. I wanted to apologise for disturbing her and flee. But they were all so friendly, inviting
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us in, offering us wine .and giving us a cup full of flour or a tiny bit of fat, from their meagre stores. If it had not been for the wine I would have given up, but, after taking a glass at every house we called on, I ceased to have qualms and swaggered past the Carabinieri in the Square as though I had not a care in the world!
In the last house we called on, we came across our cobbler also paying a visit. He welcomed us as friends and introduced us to the padrone, Joe, his wife and two daughters, Clara and Lucia. I had eyes only for Clara, fair haired, grey eyed, and beautiful. I was overwhelmed, not just by Clara, but by the whole peaceful atmosphere of culture and civilisation; the books; the snowy white table cloth; the sparkling glasses; the little biscuits on real china plates; Joe’s quiet, informed, talk about the war. The embarrassment I had felt on meeting Josephine was re-doubled. I felt awkward and out of place in that delightful room, with its big window looking out over the hills rolling down towards the sea, sitting there in my ragged clothes, my begging sack on the floor beside me. I gazed at Clara, in her fresh bright dress, listened to her soft voice and felt a fraud. I longed for some way to show her that I was more than just a tramp, begging from house to house, that I was someone in whom she could be proud. I would have fought dragons for her if only she had asked! She represented all that I ha d lost and all that I wanted and, as I ploughed home through the snow to the casetta, suddenly so small and dirty, doubts and dissatisfaction welled up in me, there must be a better way of doing things!
When I went up to the farm for breakfast next morning, I found two Yugoslavs cadging a meal. They were spreading NAZI propaganda about how the Russians were doing all the fighting, while the Allies, who did not dare face the Germans, were sitting back doing nothing. I became very angry and told them that Mihailovic [Yugoslav Serbian General] was a traitor and all who had served under him were too, and that when the Allies came, which would be very soon, those found guilty of spreading false information would be shot, but it was all water off a duck’s back, they just shrugged and grinned. I urged them off the farm, hoping that they had not realised that we lived nearby.
Our visit to Castelli had not, unfortunately, gone unnoticed. Someone had informed on us and three of the Teramo Milizia were sent to investigate. I blame the Yugoslavs, but Dino said he thought the informer was someone living in Castelli. Whoever it was, he knew all about Fred and Mac, because that afternoon when, fortunately, they were with us, the Milizia raided their casetta. They found it empty but caught three New Zealanders nearby and shot one of them.
The next morning, before dawn, a small boy came scrambling down the hill to gasp out a message from Dino. The Milizia were on their way back to the South Africans ‘ casetta and we should get out fast. Peter H was going down to Biscenti anyway with Stefano, so the rest of us went the other way, towards Farindola. We had only recently foraged that area so we were not able to collect very much, but just wandered along slowly until it grew dark and we were able to return. The day was enlivened by a number of aerial dog fights and a formation of 34 Mitchell bombers [B-25 Mitchell, American twin-engine medium bomber] passing overhead. We also nearly met several parties of Germans looking for AA sites. The Germans
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had an inferiority in the air and relied mainly on massed AA guns to protect the front and the roads behind it. Now that the snow was going from the lower slopes, they were moving some of the guns higher up to give them a better chance against the fighters strafing their convoys.
By the time I got back that night I was feeling rather ill and clearly had a temperature. Dine came down to tell us about Fred and Mac who had spent the day up the mountain, while the Milizia raided their casetta for the second time. He said that another six Milizia were on their way from Teramo to step up the search for us. He did have some good news however – the Allies had landed at Anzio.
We left the casetta before dawn, taking all our worldly goods with us in case we were unable to return, and making the room look as unlived in as possible. I now had a high fever and had great difficulty in struggling up the mountain. On the way, we came across Fred and Mac.
‘It’s no good man,’ said Mac, ‘the bastards know where we are and they’re just hanging around waiting for us. We’re getting out!’
‘Where are you going?’ Hooch asked.
‘God knows’ said Fred. ‘We’ll just have to go South towards Sulmona and see how far we can get. Maybe we’ll be able to get through the lines.’
We wished them luck. It was the second time we had said goodbye, and this time it was for good. I was sad to see them go. It had been reassuring to have them living up the hill above us and to have them dropping in from time to time to exchange information. It seemed lonely without them.
It was about the most miserable day I had so far endured, as I lay shivering in the snow with a raging fever. I was reminded of that other unpleasant time at Soragio when Peter had been ill and we had had to spend a wet and uncomfortable day waiting for a German patrol to move on. We spent the time watching the war swaying round Chieti and Pascara. Then, a squadron of bombers came over and dropped sticks of bombs across Penne. As the air shook from the explosions and the columns of black smoke swirled into the air, we prayed that none of our friends were in the town. At midday, Stefano, bless his heart, came up with some food for us. I felt too ill to eat. As I noted in my diary, ‘If today doesn’t kill me, I’m a better man than I thought I was!’
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The Murderer and the Maresciallo
The day after the Penne bombing, Philomena went down to see if one of her many cousins was alright. He was, but she brought back a harrowing story of smashed houses and homeless families. Most of the Germans had moved out two days before and the bombs had fallen mainly on the Italians, hitting the hospital and killing and maiming many children. I feared that this sort of attack would turn the Italians against us, but they seemed to accept it as a fact of war and kept their hatred for the Germans, whom they held to blame for its continuance. I longed to see the 8th Army smash through the German lines, but I hated to see the shells and bombs destroying Italian homes. As the representatives of the Allies, we could well have been held by the Italians to be in some way responsible for the killing of their friends, but they never did so.
As she was leaving the town, Philomena found herself following a man and a woman. Suddenly the man pulled out a revolver and shot the woman dead. Philomena was the only eye witness and ran back into the town to raise the alarm. The first person she met was a German soldier. I thought that that would be the end of the matter, for I did not imagine that the soldier would bother to do anything about it, but that murder was to give us a lot of trouble later.
The weather became quite warm and sunny, which helped my slow recovery from the fever. We now posted a sentry an hour before dawn to give us any warning of any Milizia coming our way. It was clear that, so far, they had no idea where we were, but someone might give us away at any moment, and then we could expect a dawn raid. During the day, we were fairly safe, for there were plenty of people about to monitor the Milizia’s movements and we got sufficient warning when they started moving in our direction. For the time being, however, they seemed satisfied with their capture of the New Zealanders and turned their attention to Farindola, where they nearly caught two English men. The Milizia were not our only problem; a party of Fascisti arrived in Castelli to round up men for forced labour and, as both Tomaso and Itala, were at risk, we all stood ready to move out at a moment’s notice.
One morning, when I was up at the farm, a man of about 30, rather thin and scruffy and with a nervous ingratiating manner, called to ask for something to eat. He was a stranger and we were distrustful of strangers, so la Signora gave him a piece of bread and sent him on his way. As soon as he had gone, Philomena emerged, very agitated, from the cow shed. ‘That’s the murderer!’’ she cried ‘That’s the man who killed the woman in Penne!’ She had seen him coming and, knowing that she was the only witness to the crime, had run and hidden herself, terrified of being shot. By the time Philomena dared come out from her hiding place the murderer had disappeared. We let him go, we had quite enough troubles of our own without chasing murderers and drawing attention to ourselves. But the story of the Penne murderer prowling around our area was too good to be kept quiet and so now, in addition to Germans looking for AA sites, Fascists looking for workers and Milizia looking for us, we had Carabinieri looking for the murderer. The area was really getting a little crowded with people looking for people!
Every day Allied fighters would carry out a dawn patrol to catch any tardy night convoys hurrying home. Standing sentry in the chilly mornings, I had a grand-stand view of these patrols and one day watched some trucks being shot up on the road below me.
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Despite heavy AA fire, the fighters wheeled back time after time, diving on the trucks until everyone was a blazing wreck. Apart from normal shelling, there was now little activity on the Pescara Chieti front and the war seemed to have shifted to the West. We could hear a battle developing round Sulmona, hidden from us by the mountains, and thought anxiously of Fred and Mac. Bari radio talked of the Anzio landing having been a success, and of an advance towards Rome and a big battle round Morte Cassino.
In our capacity as an information exchange, we received disturbing news about people hiding in the mountains who were sick or seriously ill. We also got an indirect message that the doctor in Castelli was prepared to come up to treat the sick, provided that we would collect them all in one place. This posed a difficult problem. If we did not help, some of the sick might die. If the doctor proved untrustworthy, then not only would many be captured, but the Italians who had helped them would also be at risk. We went to see Dino to ask his advice. Dino felt that it could be a trap. While he did not think that the doctor himself was a Fascist, the Milizia might well be using him as a stalking horse and he advised against the idea. It was a hard decision to make, but we could not risk the arrest of the Italians who had helped, even if it meant that same of our own people would die. We let it be known, through the tortuous channels through which the idea had been raised, that we could not help.
Following the bombing of Penne, Bari radio announced that from 27 January the Allies would start bombing the smaller paese or villages, and a few days later pamphlets were dropped on Asceta and Bisenti to warn the inhabitants of aerial attack. It was rumoured that an RAF pilot had dropped a personal message to his parents living in Buffero to warn them that their town was in danger. I suppose that the Allies did their best to warn people before bombing their houses, although I am not sure that the inhabitants of Penne received any prior notice of the attack, but there was little that the Italians could do about it. Many of those now living on the Sasso were refugees from Pescara and the other coastal towns and they really had nowhere else to go. Like us they saw the Sasso as a rock around which the fighting would have to flow and therefore the surest road to the safety of the Allied lines. I think, also, that we all felt rather hemmed in and unable to move. On one side, lay the snow covered mountains, still quite impassable, and on the other was the sea, in front of us the battle raged, while behind the main road was being constantly bombed and strafed.
Despite the increased activity of the Carabinieri and Milizia hunting for our murderer and, if was said, another murderer and a looter from Pescara, dear Josephine organised another collection for us from all the houses in Castelli and brought it up personally with the help of her daughter and an old man. We were delighted to see her again and thanked her with tears in our eyes as she unloaded the good things she had brought; vests and socks and food, particularly the sweet things she had brought, for it was remarkable how desperate we became for anything to relieve our sugarless diet. Josephine had not, of course, forgotten the five English soldiers and had left an equal amount for them.
Peter H was sick again, so the rest of us went on a forage together towards Biscenti. Passing the outskirts of Castelli we met il Capitano, a slightly built man of about 60, retired from the army, but for reasons best known to himself (for we never inquired why people chose to live in the hills) living alone in a
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small damp cottage. He was rather frail and not at all well, so he must have had good reasons for living as he did, probably the Fascisti suspected him of less than wholehearted support for the new Socialist Republic – an offence punishable by death. The Capitano was a delightful man, well read and intelligent, so we called back again the next day to talk with him. There we met his friend the Maresciallo dei Carabinieri, a senior warrant officer of police, who had fled from Pescara.
The Maresciallo was an amusing character, tall and broad shouldered – he reminded me somewhat of Mac. He had had to leave in a hurry and get rid of his uniform, and had clearly had some difficulty in finding any civilian clothes large enough to fit him. He wore a very tight fitting blue suit and a pair of boots far too small for him, so that he could only hobble painfully the quarter of a mile or so from his own tiny cottage further up the hill. He was accompanied by his Sergeant, a dour man with a long sallow face, and at first I was rather suspicious about him.
The Maresciallo asked if we were proposing to get through the lines. We replied, rather cautiously, that that was always in our minds for when the weather improved. He expressed some doubt about the possibility of getting across the Pescara, but asked us, if we did decide to go, whether we would take him and his sergeant with us. We were not at all keen to add to our numbers, which we felt were probably already too large for such an attempt, but we said that, if we did decide to try we would let him know. To show his good will, the Maresciallo then offered to take me to the school the next day to hear the news from London, the Capitano’s wireless set being able to get Bari only, and even that not very well.
The weather broke again and we had another blizzard. Stefano became worried about Peter H and took him up to the farm for the night. With the high winds gusting round the casetta it was bitterly cold even if we kept the fire in.
The next afternoon I struggled back to the Capitano’s in a blinding snow storm and met the Maresciallo who took me up to the school. Reception was very poor, but I was able to gather that the Americans were consolidating the Anzio bridgehead and that a battle still raged round Monte Cassino. On the Eastern front, the Russians were 100 miles into Poland and had cut off 10 German divisions, but about the 8th Army, the only front in which I was really interested, I heard nothing.
I had supper with the Maresciallo and told him about our murderer, complaining that all the Carabinieri charging about the mountains looking for him were giving us heart attacks. I described the man and said where I thought he might be. The Maresciallo thanked me for the information which he said he would pass on to the Castelli Carabinieri the next morning. It was an extraordinary situation; the Maresciallo was on the run from the Fascisti and had a price on his head but he could still give orders to his Carabinieri! The following night, to our great relief, he sent word to say that the murderer had been caught!
The position of the Carabinieri was very ambivalent. They took their orders from the Head of Government and, when Mussolini fell, they followed the instructions of Marshal Badoglio to obstruct the Germans, some even fighting against them, as at Paranesi. They were distrusted by the Fascisti and the Germans but neither could do without a civilian police force, so they remained in being and now owed allegiance to the Socialist Republic. Most of the
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Carabinieri were anti-fascist, but there were sufficient Fascists in their ranks to ensure that any traitor got a bullet in the back of his head and we could not trust them to turn a blind eye to us. A situation where a Maresciallo dei Carabinieri, a declared enemy of the State and with a price on his head, could lead a successful murder hunt was, however, very ambivalent indeed!
After supper the blizzard was still raging and, as the Maresciallo had no room for me in his tiny cottage, he gave me note to the Capitano, and I spent the night with him, sharing his very comfortable bed. In the morning the Capitano brought me a cup of coffee in bed and then produced a cooked breakfast –sheer bliss! I wanted to spend the morning in Castelli to see Clare, but the Capitano had had word that a party of Germans had arrived there and advised me strongly against the idea. The Germans created quite a stir by suddenly descending on the town in the middle of the night, but I learned later that they were merely foraging for plates! Apparently they had lost all theirs in the recent bombing!
The blizzard lasted three days, but we were short of our flour target, so Peter S and Hooch went off on a two day forage, while I got in some wood and Peter H recovered from his illness. Peter and I spent most of the day up at Alberto’s, on the Ridge, chatting with the beautiful blond from next door, drinking vino and eating figs and grapes. As there were only the two of us at the Casetta, Stefano invited us to spend the night at the farm and we shared the bed of Tomaso and Philomena, while they were absorbed, how I cannot imagine, into the large room at the back. The next day Stefano’s sister came to stay so we had to return to the casetta.
When the blizzard abated the sun came out and it was quite warm. There was a feeling of Spring in the air and the two Peters decided to have a big anti-louse boil up. A decision that I applauded. They borrowed a large pot from la Signora which they balanced rather precariously on top of our little fire. La Signora also decided to do some washing and seized all our spare clothes and covers. It took several days for everything to get dry again and the two Peters, without dry clothes, were confined to the casetta. I was astonished by la Signora’s unwonted and rather violent washing activities, but a few days later the reason became clear.
One morning, accompanied as usual by Yolanda, I had gone out foraging, leaving la Signora kneeling on the floor trying to reassemble my spare trousers. When we got back she was nowhere to be seen and when I asked where she was I was told that she was in bed, having just produced a daughter –Angelina! Now I understood why the sister in-law was staying at the farm and the reason for all that washing and I was most impressed by the apparent ease with which the Italians produced babies! I had always understood that it was a difficult process. Despite the fact that the baby was another daughter, Stefano was delighted, beaming all over his face and slapping us on the back. If he had had any cigars he would have been dishing them out by the handful. Both mother and child did well, although how they managed it, under the circumstances, was beyond my limited understanding of these events.
Ten days later, when la Signora was up and about and scrubbing the floors as usual, Angelina was christened. Stefano asked Peter H to be the Godfather and in the morning a procession of friends and relatives accompanied the baby to the Church. Of us, only Peter H went because a party of Germans had turned up at the Mill
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causing rather a scare and it was thought wiser for us to keep out of the way. Young Lochinvar’s sister came up to help prepare the christening feast, making a pasta asciutta with 27 eggs, which must have been a local wartime record. After the feast, when most of the guests had gone, we had a quiet family party and young Lochinvar, carried away by the family atmosphere, dug himself into a corner with Maria and had to be prised out, the last to leave.
After the warm spell the weather turned nasty again with much snow, but it drove the Milizia back to the greater comfort of their Teramo barracks, and we were able to go into Castelli. It was more a case of seeking a little civilisation than foraging, because the people had been so kind to us through Josephine that we could hardly go round begging for more. We called in on Josephine and other friends, finishing up at Joe’s where we spent most of the day. Clara, of course, was there, looking more beautiful every time I saw her and she had her usual affect on me. I felt I had to get out and do something. I could not go on sitting around the mountains day after day doing nothing but begging for food and cutting down other people’s trees. I had to prove that I was not just a scrounger. Not that Clara pressed me. She seemed pleased to see me and wanted me to stay and was horrified at the idea that we should try to get through the battle lines or go down to the coast where the Germans were. But that only made it worse, and the news did not encourage me to stay.
The Germans were claiming that they were pushing the Anzio beach head into the sea and that the British were quite unable to break their Winter Line. This depressing news was reinforced by Dino’s ‘correspondent’, a middle aged man who lived somewhere near Pescara and came up from time to time to give Dino the latest news from the front. He may have had some connection with the Germans because he tended to reflect their thinking. He said that the Germans were holding Monte Cassino against everything the Allies could do, had brought 8th Army to a halt, and were pushing the Americans into the sea. He was most depressing about the future.
I felt more and more strongly that the only way out for us was by sea, so the next day accompanied, despite my stratagems, by Yolanda, I went to see the Capitano. I found the Maresciallo with him and broached the question of finding a boat, stressing that we had a duty to get back to our own lines and that we must get on the move again.
‘No, no!’ said the Maresciallo, very perturbed at my suggestion, ‘It’s out of the question! To sail in the Adriatic at this time of year you would need a big boat and that would need a lot of money, far more than you have got. Even if you could find a small boat and get away unseen, you wouldn’t stand a chance in the rough seas. This isn’t the time to go. The English will come in time, wait for them!’
The Capitano strongly echoed the Maresciallo’s argument, both saying over and over again ‘Now is not the time to go!’ I knew that they were right, I had said much the same to Tino and Paola. But then, I thought, with perhaps the idealism of youth, about my duty to do all in my power to rejoin my Regiment and I could not convince myself that I was doing all that I could. I thought of Clara and knew that I must do more. Right or wrong, I would have to make a move and soon.
It may have been the result of Josephine’s visit, but someone in Castelli must have said, ‘What! British officers sleeping on the floor? Disgraceful! Make them a bed!’ Anyway, Stefano suddenly decided to make us a bed and the two girls came rushing down to seize all our covers to make a mattress for it. This was not entirely
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logical, because we finished up much colder than when we started and besides the bed, when it was made, turned out to be far too small. From our point of view the operation was not a marked success, but Stefano was hugely delighted with his handiwork and we all said how comfortable we would be, just like being at home. It might have been alright for one, but, with four, the two outside kept falling off in the night and creating a disturbance. We eventually jammed the bed up in a corner, which kept us more or less on the top of it, although I still hankered after the pile of straw on the floor which had been both warmer and more comfortable.
But our growing restlessness stemmed from the weather rather than the bed. It was very cold, wet and miserable, and as the winter dragged on so our morale sagged and we began to get on each other’s nerves. We became edgy, accusing each other of hunting with Stefano instead of logging, or not pulling our weight over foraging and of going out to meals too often which I, in particular, felt was eroding the good will of our neighbours. We also had a row about going into Castelli, for it was dangerous for our friends as well as us if we all turned up too often. All this reinforced our previous decision to look for a boat as soon as the weather allowed.
I do not think that any of us had much faith in the idea and Peter H was firmly against it, but it was at least action, and better we thought than trying to cross the lines. If we were to go South we would have to wait until the snows cleared from the high passes and, as the shepherds had told us, that might not be until April, and now it was only mid-February. We went to talk to Dino about it.
‘You stupid S.O.B.’s!’’ he said, ‘You’ve been here nearly two months and you’ve only got to wait another month before the English come. Have patience, don’t throw everything away now. What use will you be to your army if you get caught again? Patience, patience!’
We knew he was right of course, and of course it made no difference to our decision to go.
We could not go down to Pescara because the whole area was crammed with rear echelon units. We would have to retrace some of our steps to hit the coast further North. Talking round our fire one evening we came to the conclusion that we should aim for Giulianova, about 35kms North of Pescara. As we spoke, however, the roar of a naval bombardment came rolling up from the coast and the next morning we heard that a Commando raid had gone in on Giulianova blowing up the harbour. The place was now swarming with Germans so that was out. Our next choice was Roseto degli Abruzzi, a small town about 8kms South of Giulianova.
The following morning Hooch and I went into Castelli to see Joe, because he was a sensible man who knew the coast well. He was dead against our idea and Clara added her pleas for us to stay.
‘You’re probably right,’ I said “and in any case it may be impossible to find a boat or get away in it if we do. But we can’t go on sitting here doing nothing, we must at least go and look. If we can’t find a boat we promise that we will come back, but not to try, not even to go and look, would be inexcusable. As British officers we have a duty to try to get back to our Army!’ I am afraid that I got rather pompous about it.
‘Alright,’ said Joe, ‘if you feel you must go, I suppose you must. But wait until Sunday, that’s only five days away. My wife’s going down to Roseto this week to see her relatives and she may be able to find out something for you. Wait until she comes back, there’s no hurry.’
We agreed to wait. We had a wonderful civilised lunch and listened to a summary of Churchill’s speech on the wireless. As I we went, Clara gave me a pair of gloves she had knitted for me.
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On our way home, we called in on the Maresciallo, who gave us supper, and then on the Capitano, where we slept three in a bed. They both accepted reluctantly that we would be going, but assumed that we would find it impossible to get a boat and would soon be back.
The next few days were difficult. On Thursday, returning before dawn, Dino’s runner came down to warn us that the Milizia were on the next ridge and headed our way, so we got out fast. A unit of 15 Milizia had arrived in Castelli during the night, under a little five foot officer –’a bastard if there ever was one’ said Dino – and were now embarked upon a determined effort to clean up the Sasso.
We set off in lightly falling snow towards the Capitano’s cottage. I called in on the way to give the five English the gist of Churchill’s speech and we all joined up at the Capitano’s. Peter S and Hooch had decided to go down the hill on a forage’ for the boat’ and we agreed to meet up again at the Capitano’s the next morning. We had planned that, if we did find a boat, we would need water and food for about four days. The first night, and probably all the next day, we would have to sail due East to get away from the coast and it would then take us a further two days sailing to reach Termoli, if the Royal Navy did not find us first. There had been another violent naval bombardment of the coast and we had hoped of being picked up by a passing patrol boat. So we needed bottles, a very scarce commodity, for water, and food which would last, such as sausages and cheese. We also arranged for the Castelli baker to bake some bread for us and deliver it to the farm on Sunday evening.
The snow had turned to rain as Peter H and I returned slowly towards the casetta, stopping at Pete’s for a meal, to find out what had been happening. We discovered that the Milizia had not actually reached our casetta, but had captured 30 Yugoslavs and two British nearby and were still prowling round the area. It was a relief to know that the Milizia were as yet unaware of where we were living, but they were still looking for us and we had several alarms during the day. It needed only an informer to tip them off for our casetta to be surrounded and raided. We had been living in the area now for two months and had made many friends. A lot of people knew where we were living and, with the big reward being offered by the Germans, it was remarkable that no one had so far informed on us. We had nothing to offer in return for our safety, and the Italians kept our secret and ran great risks for us, out of the goodness of their hearts and their hatred of Fascism. We felt, however, that it would be too dangerous to stay in the casetta that night and that it would be better if we split up. Peter H went up to Alberto’s, while I returned to the Capitano .The snow was melting fast and under the heavy rain the tracks had become ankle keep in mud. Walking in the dark was slow and hazardous, and after all my walking that day, I was very tired.
Peter S and Hooch turned up at about 10a.m., having had quite a successful forage. On their rounds they had met a man who claimed to know an Italian Colonel who had tried, but presumably failed, to get away by boat. They thought that they should go and see the Colonel before we set off, in case he had any useful tips. He lived a good day’s march away, so we agreed to meet up again on Sunday, after I had been into Castelli to see if Joe’s wife had managed to find out anything from Roseto. I then went back to find Peter H, I was getting very tired of that long muddy track. I found that there were no Milizia in the immediate neighbourhood of the casetta, so we spent the day cleaning it and ourselves. In the evening, Peter H turned up at Alberto’s.
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I could not face another long tramp back to the Capitano, besides I felt that we had visited him enough for his own safety, so I called on a farm I knew, some way down the hill, and asked for a bed for the night. This turned out to be a little awkward, because they had nowhere to put me and they wanted to know why I was not sleeping at the casetta. So far as I knew, I was well outside the area in which the Milizia were operating, but I did not want to create a panic by telling them that I had been chased out of the casetta. In the end I was given an armful of very damp straw and allowed to sleep in front of the kitchen fire.
I spent a miserable day sloshing about in the mud and rain, trying to keep out of the way of the Milizia patrols, whose persistence was beginning to make life a little intolerable .Apart from the fact that we now wanted to leave, we would probably have had to go anyway, so that going down to the sea ‘just to look’ began to seem almost sensible. I called in on the five English to warn them of our impending departure and found them in good heart, although very much on the alert. They had decided to stay on as long as possible and then, if the Milizia kept up their pressure, to go South. I said goodbye to them and returned to the casetta where I met Peter H.
Peter felt that he could not go back to Alberto that night without endangering him, he had already spent two nights in his house and, as I could not face another long walk in the dark to find somewhere to sleep, we persuaded ourselves that we would be as safe in the casetta as anywhere else, but we went to bed very late, after making sure that there was no one snooping about and were up well before dawn.
It was now Sunday, so we set off for Castelli to see Joe’s wife, who should be back from Roseto. With all the Milizia in Castelli, we had to approach the town with great care, coming into it from below and slipping into Joe’s house when, we hoped, no one was looking. We were given a wonderful welcome. It was a happy but a sad day, for it was now generally known that we were leaving and lots of our friends came in to say goodbye and give us little presents. No one dared stay for long because the Fascisti and the Milizia were abroad. One of Joe’s friends looked in hurriedly to say that three Yugoslavs had just been taken further down the street and warned us not to leave before dark.
‘Of course you must stay!’’ cried Mrs Joe, ‘they must not go out before it gets dark, it would be too dangerous!’ And her husband agreed. We asked her about her trip to Roseto.
‘It’s easy enough to get there,’ she said ‘You can go by bus. No one asked to see my papers. But don’t go down to the coast the road because the Germans are there with big guns all along the coast and lots of soldiers going up and down all the time. The Germans have stopped all the men fishing – the poor fishermen don’t know what to do. If they were to use their boats, they are arrested and the boats destroyed. You won’t be able to get a boat and the Germans are sure to catch you. Why don’t you stay here?’
‘Yes, do stay!’ pleaded Clara ‘We’ll look after you until your soldiers come!’
‘We’re just going to look.’ I said for the umpteenth time ‘Anyway, with all the Milizia about it’s probably best to keep out of the way for a bit, but I promise if we can’t get a boat, we’ll come back as soon as it’s safe.’ Joe shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well be careful!’ he said
Dear Josephine looked in for a moment to give us each a hug and some food for the journey and I had to promise her too that we would come back and see her if we could. A friend of Joe came and they discussed the best way of getting to the coast, having
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discarded Mrs Joe’s suggestion of taking a bus as a little too foolhardy! They drew us a little map.
Then Mrs. Joe gave us a veritable feast, ending with zabaglione, a confection new to me which tasted like ambrosia. Whenever, in after years, I have tasted zabaglione I am reminded of that loving gathering round the table with its white cloth, everyone so concerned for us and anxious to help, despite the ominous tramp of the Milizia passing outside. I wanted to stay in that peaceful room forever, but I was glad to be going. It would have been unbearable if we had, by our presence, brought destruction to those kind and generous people.
It grew dark and it was time to go. We were kissed and cried over and given last minute presents. Clara gave me her scarf to wear. I kissed her sadly, feeling that I would never see that sweet face again, normally so full of fun, now tear stained at our parting. Joe looked out into the street. It was empty. We slipped out and made our way quickly out of the town.
We felt that it would be too dangerous to go back to the casetta in the dark, not knowing what had happened in our absence, so we stopped at a farm on the way and spent the night in the cowshed.
Monday dawned clear and sunny and we went on to the Capitano’s to meet up with Peter S and Hooch. They had been to see the Colonel, but unfortunately he had been away. His wife had said that they had indeed got away by boat. At that time the 8th Army were fighting on the Sangro and they had hoped to get round the mouth of the river to Termoli, but a bad storm had blown up and, at Ortona, just 12km short of the Sangro, they had had to turn back. She had been more hopeful than our other advisors, however, and thought that it should still be possible to get away by sea, although the Germans had removed or damaged most of the boats.
We told the others about the Milizia activity and we agreed that we should set out that day as planned. We said goodbye to the Capitano and returned to Stefano’s farm to say goodbye to the family and collect our bread. By 3p.m. the bread had still not arrived from Castelli so we decided to set out, without it, after another round of tearful farewells. Philomena enveloped us in her ample bosom and cried, Maria kissed us shyly and cried and even la Signora had tears in her eyes. We shook hands with Stefano, thanking him for all their kindness to us and feeling, as I had done at Joe’s, that our departure was perhaps the best thing that we could offer them, for now they could live in greater security.
As I wrote, rather melodramatically in my diary; ‘ So we set out once more on our long trek. How will it end – death or freedom? Read the thrilling sequel in the next few pages!’
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Down to the Sea
We were on our way to the sea! It may not have been the best way to go, but at least we were on the move again and our spirits were high. We spent the first night at a farm Peter H knew and then, the next day, under clearing skies, we set out to cross back over the Vomano.
When we had arrived on the Sasso, we had crossed the Vomano near Montorio, now bombed and in ruins, and we had to cross back to reach Roseto, on the North bank, near the river mouth. We started off down the road to Bisrenti, our heavy sacks slung over our shoulders, glad to be marching on a firm level surface again after all those muddy, rock strewn, mountain tracks. Before reaching the town, we branched off across the hills, coming eventually into a valley running down to the Vomano.
As we came into the valley we passed a farm where an American speaking Italian gave us some bread and sausage for lunch. It was a much bigger and more prosperous looking farm than we had been used to in the mountains. The fields were already looked lusher than the mountain pastures and we were entering a different world. As we sat outside the farm eating our lunch we could see down to the Vomano and, beyond it, a road climbing up the far side of the valley to Teramo, that nest of Fascisti and Milizia. We watched a small German convoy crawling up the steep Teramo road and commented on their stupidity in driving in daylight so close together. Our comments were justified, for two Spitfires suddenly dived over the hill, the rattle of their cannon and machine guns reverberating round the valleys. One by one, the trucks slewed off the road, oily smoke curling up into the sky.
Further down the valley we met the man who had guided Peter and Hooch on their way to find the Colonel and he took us to his padrone who plied us with Vino. Afterwards, walking along the road below Basciano, perched on its hill, we felt as though we were on holiday. The sun had come out, it was warm after the mountains and there was a feeling of Spring in the air. This we felt was the life! A little further on we found a track, which took us down to the main road to the coast and to a small bridge by which we crossed the river. We were over the Vomano and had completed the first stage of our journey, so we sat in the sun looking back over the way we had come, over the rolling hills surging up to the great wall of the high mountains. Four Spitfires suddenly dived on the battered remnants of the convoy just above us demonstrating their mastery of the air and, presumably, their lack of worthwhile targets. It was all most impressive, but much too close for comfort!
We went further up the hill and then, as the evening shadows of the mountains raced down towards the sea, we found a farm for supper, where Hooch and I stayed the night. We were too many for one farm to accommodate so the Peters found a bed in a farm nearby.
Hooch and I had a boiled egg each for breakfast. We were certainly in a more prosperous land. We had to wait for the Peter, who for some reason did not turn up until nearly ten o’clock, so we made rather a late start. The main road had now crossed over to our side of the river, but although there was very little traffic on it, we thought it best to keep to the hills above, for we were now about to enter the defended coastal zone. We had many side valleys to cross and made slow progress, but it was very beautiful, with the river shining through the trees below us and the snow capped mountains soaring up behind. It came on to rain in the afternoon, but we had filled our water bottles with vino and walked in a golden
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haze. We stopped at a farm at midday for bread and cheese and were given more wine. Peter S was so overcome by all this hospitality that he fell in a stream and had to be fished out again! The wine, the warmth, the freedom of being on the move, made us all a little light headed.
In the evening, we came to a large farm which took us in. The old farmer insisted on us playing snap with him and we got the idea that our supper might depend on the outcome. I have never met anyone, however, who played snap so badly and letting him win required considerable skill.
‘0h dear’ we would say as the old man vaguely waved a matching Queen in the air, ‘isn’t that a Queen we have just put on the table? If we are not very quick he will call out snap first!’ At last a light would dawn ‘Snap!’ the old man would cry, smashing his Queen down on the table so that it shook under the impact. ‘I’ve got snap!’ We looked suitably glum while the old man beamed with pleasure thinking ‘these English are not very bright’.
In high good humour, he ordered our supper and arranged a bed for us in the barn. A heavy air attack on Giulianova shook the building and made the windows rattle, reminding us that our short holiday was nearly over.
It was the third day of our march to the sea and the harsh realities of war were brought home to us. We were still keeping parallel to the Roseto road, struggling down and then up the sides of the interminable little valleys running down to the Vomano. The sacks were heavy on our shoulders, our progress was difficult and slow, and we looked longingly at the road below us. But at first the occasional truck and staff car deterred us and then the road began to fill up with traffic from the coast. First a trickle and then a flood; old lorries piled high with household goods; laden bicycles being pushed laboriously up the gentle slope; donkeys and mules, all hidden under their burdens; and around them a stream of people, well dressed, poorly dressed, men, women and children, infants in arms and babies in prams. A long straggling untidy column of people making their way to the hills, glancing fearfully at the skies, urging each other on. A creeping tide of refugees flowing inland while we, on the hill above, still plodded on towards the sea.
From the top of a hill we saw the mouth of the river, about 10kms away and the sea beyond, leaden under a grey sky. We had to move cautiously now; skirting gun emplacements, pausing at a road to allow a staff car to pass, meeting German soldiers on the tracks, ignoring them as they, fortunately, ignored us. But we might meet a soldier more observant than his fellows so we tried, but without much success, to keep out of their way. We stopped frequently to ask about the enemy.
‘Are there any Germans here?’ we would ask.
‘No,’ the farmer would reply, ‘none here, they’re over there you can see them’
In the hills, a German ‘over there ‘ would have caused a panic, but here they are used to Germans and were quite blasé about them. They sold food when the Germans demanded, but otherwise they kept apart, in uneasy co-existence. The Milizia were quite a different matter, but here, within the German lines, the Milizia appeared to be few and far between.
I was astonished by the richness of this land near the coast. After six months of living on hill farms, the fields here seemed so fertile, the buildings so big and the people so prosperous. Nearly every farmer appeared to have lived in America and, as we passed one farm, a beautiful girl came out to speak to us in quite good English. Hooch at once decided that we had walked quite far
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enough for one day and suggested that we should stop for the night. As we had barely covered 5kms however we over ruled him and he was quite upset about it, but we did not go much further that day because we were getting very close to the sea and we had a growing feeling that we should try to get some better information about where we should start looking for boats. We stopped for the night near the small village of San Maria di Propezzano, where a farmer’s wife spoke a little English and was prepared to let us sleep in one of the barns.
We woke to a beautiful sunny morning and set out again with high hopes. Over supper we had been told of an English woman who lived nearby and might be able to help us. Although she lived quite close, we took a wrong turning and spent over an hour trying to find her house. When at last we did find it we were astonished. There, in that Italian landscape, was an English country cottage, surrounded by a little flower garden such as only the English can grow. We walked up the path and knocked on the door, which was opened by a bright little lady of about 60, speaking Italian in a broad Yorkshire accent. When she realised that we were British she welcomed us with open arms.
Her parlour was so English that we could have wept. A carpet on the floor, pictures on the walls, a mantel piece covered with china ornaments, a small table with family photographs; there was a chintz covered sofa and comfortable chairs – we rubbed our eyes in disbelief, wondering if we had somehow stumbled through that door into the North of England. We were introduced to her husband, Mario, a tall thin Italian of about 70 and then. Betty, his wife, bustled off to the kitchen to come back with scones (real Yorkshire scones), butter and jam.
Mario and Betty had been married just after the first war, when of course Italy and Britain had been allies. Mario had owned a large farm in the neighbourhood, but now they were retired and were living in this lovely little English cottage. We looked out of the windows at the spring flowers nodding in the sun and, apart from the occasional thump of a nearby AA gun and the distant rumble of the front, we might have been in Yorkshire.
Betty’s English had grown rusty from disuse, but her accent was as fresh as the day she had left home. She was avid for news, news of the little things that make up England, for she had been totally cut off from Home since Italy had entered the war. She plied us with questions which I, who had not been in England since 1939, and Peter S, who had been away even longer, we were quite unable to answer. But Hooch and Peter H were able to tell her about the bombing and rationing, the war time spirit of Britain, what the women were wearing and what could be bought in the shops. Betty in her turn was informed us of a local priest she had met who had the Stigmata and had to wear mittens and of how he had cured many sick merely by touching them. But we had come for information about boats and turned the conversation to how the Germans guarded the coast and where we might be able to find a boat in which we could escape.
‘Up to January,’ Betty said, ‘we could have arranged matters. People were still going then. We might have gone too, but we are too old and settled, and this is our home. We decided to stay and see what comes. Now the Germans are all along the coast, there is a curfew every night and there are many patrols. The Germans are afraid of an English landing here, because there is a good beach. I don’t think that it will be possible for you to get away. No one is allowed to take out a boat and the Germans are watching all the time. It would be better for you to wait for the English to come.’
Once again it seemed we had missed the boat, this time quite literally. I thought back on the way we had come and the decisions
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we had taken. It would have been better if we had looked for a boat further North, or had made faster progress to the Gran Sasso, instead of waiting in Massa, so that we could have got through the lines before the snows came. There were many other routes we could have taken, but each step we took seemed right at the time and had brought us here, in sight of the coast and, if we could find a boat, of freedom. It might be, as Betty said, that it was no longer possible to get away, but having come so far we could have to go and look, to satisfy ourselves that our plans were impossible, if indeed that were the case.
We meant to go on that morning, but the enchantment of the cottage and the boundless hospitality of Mario and Betty held us. We stayed for lunch and then for supper and finally for the night, promising ourselves that tomorrow would be the day of action, tomorrow we would go down to the shore and look for a boat.
The next morning we set out to reconnoitre, promising Betty that we would return that evening if we found no means of getting away. We walked slowly and carefully round the edges of the fields, watching for the German gun emplacements and the patrols moving between them. We came, in the afternoon, to the last of the little hills before the sea and from the cover of a hedge, we looked down on the scene before us. A track wound down between two fields to join the coast road; immediately beyond the road was a railway line, at the very edge of a wide sandy beach. The sea was calm and leaden under a cloudy sky and the rain suddenly swept in, blotting out the mountains behind us. To our left, we could see the dark mass of Guilianova about 5kms away, while only a kilometre to our right, the whitewashed houses of Roseto stood out clearly.
The track continued on the far side of the road over an unguarded railway crossing, and, through the increasing rain, we thought we could see the shapes of one or two small fishing boats, drawn up on the sand. Three AA trucks passed down the road towards Pescara, but otherwise the landscape seemed empty of life. Apart from the background rumble of war and the hiss of the rain, an ominous silence hung over the scene. We lay on the wet grass, the rain soaking into our thin clothing, wondering if we dared to move, for, on either side of us, there must be Germans in their camouflaged positions, also straining their eyes to see through the curtain of rain.
Suddenly, with a rising scream, a flight of Mustangs streaked down the coast, just skimming the water. At once, the whole shoreline erupted in a pandemonium of noise as gun after gun opened up, pouring a stream of shells and tracer towards the fighters. In seconds they had gone. The noise died away to the South, and the heavy expectant silence flooded back. But we had jumped up when the guns had opened fire and could see that we were midway between two gun emplacements, both several hundred yards away. There was nothing between us and the sea.
We thought about the boats. They might, of course, merely be wrecks, but they could be sound. If they were, it seemed much too easy to walk down to the beach, get in a boat and push out to sea. There must be a catch. We felt like mice, sniffing round a piece of cheese. There might be a mousetrap under that cheese and if we nibbled the trap might spring shut! But we I could not just walk away and leave that lovely cheese – the boats beckoned us. Perhaps, we told ourselves, the boats were there just because they did offer such an obvious way out, a route which no one else had dared to accept. Perhaps, just perhaps, in this case the obvious way was the right one and there was no trap under that cheese. Someone would have to go and look. If the boats were indeed wrecks then we could tick them off with a clear conscience and continue our reconnaissance towards Roseto.
Four men peering at boats would attract too much attention,
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besides which, if it were a trap, it would be silly for all of us to be caught. So Hooch and I went, leaving our sacks with the others. We walked slowly down the track, trying to look as though we had business there, whistling soundlessly to keep our spirits up. We felt as though the eyes of the whole German army were upon us, as we crossed the main road, over the railway line and walked out onto the soft yielding sand.
We ignored the boats and pretended to be beachcombing, looking intently at the jetsam, picking a piece up, discussing it with exaggerated pantomime, for the benefit of our hidden audience, before throwing it away. The Germans, peering through the rain at the distant horizon, or up into the sky might not, we hoped, be all that interested in two poor Italians looking for wood or bottles on the beach.
We edged our way round so that we would pass the boats on our way back. There were two of them, about 50 yards apart. The first we came to had a great hole in its side and we passed it with only a quick glance, but the second appeared to be sound. We leant against it, as though resting from our labours, while we tried, by casual glances, to assess its condition. It was a heavy boat and I wondered if the four of us would be enough to push it the 100 yards or so to the water’s edge. It had, of course, no mast or sails, but it seemed in fairly good condition and it was, at least, a possibility.
We walked on to show that we really had no interest in boats at all and then circled back to the railway crossing, over the road and very slowly up the hill, to fling ourselves down behind the hedge with profound sighs of relief. We had found a boat! Now we had to find its owner, or at least where the mast and sails were kept. Betty had told us of a friend, an American speaking farmer, who lived nearby so we set off to find him.
The rain heavy clouds had brought on an early dusk and it was almost dark when we found the farm, a large collect ion of buildings above the coast road, with a deep gully running down beside them to the sea. We entered a big, poorly lit kitchen and the farmer, who spoke a little English, regarded us rather coldly and asked what we wanted. We mentioned Betty’s name and the atmosphere thawed a little. We were offered food, which we gratefully accepted, but here, with the Germans so close, we were not very welcome.
We answered the usual questions about ourselves, what we did and how wealthy we were, and then raised the question of the boat. I had expected the farmer to say at once that the whole idea was quite impractical, but in fact he showed some interest and said that it might be done. A young man came in, possibly the farmer’s son. He spoke fair English and, when the reason for our visit had been explained to him, became quite enthusiastic, saying that he would help us to get the tackle and launch the boat, and that he might even come with us.
I asked the farmer if he knew who owned the boat and he told us his name and where he lived, saying that he thought that the owner kept the sails and mast locked up in his barn, as ordered by the Germans.
‘But’ he added, ‘although the padrone’s alright and you can trust him, keep well away from his brother, who is a Fascist. If he knew you were here, he would inform on you. He’s a dangerous man!’
We had got the information we had come for, so the Peters went off to find the owner of the boat and see what could be arranged while Hooch and I retired to a barn, overlooking the yard, where we had agreed to meet up again. The farmer was clearly uneasy about our presence and we did not want him to be involved should anything go wrong. It was still raining and was by now quite dark, as we sat on a bale of straw in the entrance to the barn, from where we could watch the yard without being seen.
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About an hour later the Peters returned and we went to join them in the middle of the yard.
‘We found the owner alright,’ said Peter quietly, ‘and he said that we could have the boat. The Germans won’t let him use it so it’s no use to him. He says the boat’s tackle is OK, but he keeps it locked up in a shed. He won’t give us the keys because he’s afraid that the Germans will see that the boat’s gone and will then interrogate him and want to know where the keys are. However, he said if anyone broke in and stole the tackle, he wouldn’t notice for a day or two, because the shed’s away from the farmyard. It went off alright but I’m a bit afraid we may have met his brother – the Fascist one. The first house we called on was the wrong one, the right farm was the next one on. The man we spoke to could have been the brother but, of course, we didn’t mention the boat.’
We stood in the rain debating our next move. We had a boat, we knew where its tackle was, the night was dark and the visibility poor. The conditions seemed right for making our escape. On the other hand we must have created a bit of a stir by our presence and I was worried about the hostile brother. Too many people knew about us. Also, there was the question of patrols, we should perhaps watch for one night at least to find out how well the shore was guarded. I turned to speak to Peter H, who was standing a little way behind us.
‘Halt! Mani in alti!’ Lights sprang out, catching us in their beams. Peter H leaped for the gully. A shot rang out. An Alsatian lunged snarling towards me. I stood very still.
Armed men moved into the circle of light. Not Milizia as I had expected by Waffen SS. I looked round the circle of funs and slowly put up my hands. An SS man prodded me in the back, roughly, with his gun.
‘A basso!’ He shouted in Italian. I lay face down. He knelt roughly on my back and tied my hands tightly behind me.
‘In piedi!’ I stood up and was roped to the others. Peter H had gone.
‘Avanti!’ We were prodded down the farm track, on to the road, and along the shore to SS Headquarters.
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The SS Hauptmann interrogated me in the morning. I blessed the scrap of creased, water stained, paper, my pay account from Fontenellato, which I had carried so far and which now proved my identity status. The Hauptmann picked up my diary and turned the pages and I was afraid. He might press me to explain my cryptic references to people and places. But he knew no English and I would admit to no German and but inadequate Italian; a vehicle was waiting impatiently to take us to Teramo and the Hauptmann wanted to be rid of us. He flung the diary back on to the little pile of my belongings and waved for me to pick them up and go.
It was exactly six months since the Italian Armistice and the start of the long trek South and now I was in a large open sided bus, well guarded by SS, making the perilous journey back towards the North. I was in constant fear of air attack, a fear shared by our guards who kept a nervous watch on the sky. But it was overcast and beginning to snow and, despite the bitter cold, I prayed that it would continue to hide us from the wheeling fighters overhead.
At Teramo we were handed over to the Milizia and flung into a filthy, stinking, cellar to await a German supply truck which was to take us on the next stage of our journey. As we climbed over the mountains to Aquila that afternoon the snow increased and a bitter wind tore through our thin clothing. We were half frozen and very hungry by the time we arrived at a small POW cage to join a few officers and men taken in the recent fighting.
It still snowed the next day as we were taken in an open truck to a POW camp at Laterina, near Florence. We passed vehicle after vehicle gutted and blackened beside the road and groups of sad conscripted Italians shivering miserably in their thin uniforms. At Terni the truck broke down and we were herded into a tiny room for the night. There was no food and we had had nothing to eat all day.
Terni was badly damaged but Arezzo, through which we passed the next morning, was even more desolate. Every building was gutted or lying smashed in a heap of rubble. The devastation was complete and little attempt had been made to clear the streets, for there seemed to be no living soul left in that city. Not one single person did we see as the truck picked its way cautiously through the shattered streets. The emptiness and the eerie silence were almost frightening.
Laterina was a proper POW camp, but grossly overcrowded with men of many nationalities – British, America, Canadian, Italian, French, Czechoslovakian, Yugoslav and even one Russian. Here Peter Hunt joined us, for, although he had escaped into the gully that night, he had been captured the next day, trying to make his way back to the mountains.
Laterina was a cold and filthy place, damp straw to sleep on, stinking latrines, little to eat, nothing to do except pick lice. We spent ten miserable days waiting to be entrained for Germany, assailed by rumours of POW trains being bombed and many hundreds of prisoners killed.
Until we reached Laterina, I had been too preoccupied with existing with the cold and hunger and the danger from the sky, to think much about the situation in which I found myself, but now, as I sat on my straw, picking the lice from my clothing, the full realisation of what I had become dawned upon me. We had set out with such high hopes of imminent rescue and, although those first hopes had been dashed, I had kept the belief that one day soon we would meet up again with our own forces and would be free. Now
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I was back where I had begun, nearly two years before; back at the start of a sentence without end; back to the mindless routine of the camps. I felt anger that so much of my life had been wasted, would be wasted; despair that the barbed wire was to once again cut me off from freedom; frustrated that I had had my chance and wasted it. I felt sick with a deep, almost desperate, hopelessness.
Peter Streicker rose to the occasion. He formed discussion groups, bullied people, including myself, into giving talks, telling stories, discussing experiences. He helped to bring some order into our disrupted lives and a more positive acceptance of our appalling conditions.
At last, on 15 March, we were loaded into cattle trucks for Germany. The trucks were divided across the centre by a barbed wire fence; 23 officers in one end and 6 German guards in the other, happy to be going home on leave or posting. There was no possibility of escape, but the guards took on chances and removed our boots, braces and belts.
Two days later we reached the Brenner Pass, the gateway to Germany, and waited in the little station for the arrival of the southbound Milan Express. We were cold and hungry, lousy and dirty. The Express drew up alongside, the lighted windows of the dining car opposite our miserable truck. I stared through the window at the little tables with their shaded lamps, the stewards in their white jackets serving dinner, at a smart attractive young woman sitting alone by the window; a small self contained world of warmth, light and good. The Express moved on, carrying the young woman down into Italy, down towards all those good people I had known. My thoughts went back to that first ‘Venite’ which had welcomed us to the Mountain Highway; to Scaffardi, to Rosen; and our friends in Massa, to dear Capitano, but most of all to Clara of the clear grey eyes. I felt sick with longing. Then our train started with a jerk and plunged into the blackness of the tunnel which led to Germany.
Looking back, I am reminded of Alice’s adventures Through the Looking Glass [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. A popular English novel published in 1871 that follows Alice’s journey through a fantastical world]. Like Alice, I was but a pawn in a game played by others: like her I travelled hopefully down the board towards the Eighth Square, where I would be transformed into a more powerful piece, able to move at will. But from the Seventh Square, I had been swept from the board, to be thrown into a box with the other captured pieces, until the great game should be over.
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[Sketch of a map by Peter Watson, detailing the journey taken from Fontenellato to Valsavignone]
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[Sketch of a map by Peter Watson, detailing the journey taken from Valsavignone to Roseto]