John Woods, 2nd Lt in the Durham Light Infantry was captured in Gazala Line in North Africa just before the fall of Tobruk in June 1942. His account begins with the escape from Fontanellato (PG 49) in September 1943. He sets out on his own but after two weeks meets Arthur Hall and Peter Gunter, two Royal Artillery officers, also from PG 49, near the Taro valley and walks south with them.
Gunter and Hall are both recaptured in the Abruzzo region and Woods spends six months being sheltered by two families in Popoli, living rough and spending time with partisans. In May 1944, he makes contact with Allied troops and returns to UK. The account contains a brief description of his subsequent army career and return visit to Popoli. It includes copies of letters from Arthur Hall in 1946 concerning the return of a portrait of Woods by Ronald Mann (illustrated).
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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[Title] Capitano Inglese The story of the journey through enemy-occupied Italy of John Woods
[Handwritten text: Keith Killby’s resume: From Fontanellato to Popoli. With copy of letter to wife from War Office saying J.W. had been sighted in the hills of Italy. Copies of letters from fellow PoW who had rescued portrait painted by Ronnie Mann J.W. lost in separate incidents, two fellow PoWs and was with most southerly partisans.]
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[Photocopy of Ronnie Mann’s oil painting of John Woods referred to in letter from Arthur Hall]
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|3||The Taro Valley||12|
|4||Along the Edge of Tuscany||15|
|5||Along the border between Umbria and Marche||23|
|7||A new identity||37|
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For the last fifty years my family have been asking me for an account of my journey as an escaped prisoner of war down through Italy to the Allied lines, which took from early September 1943 until the end of May in 1944. I have resisted all invitations until now. It was an unpleasant part of my life, one that I would have preferred not to have gone through.
Time has been a great healer and the passing of the last 50th anniversary of the various landmarks of the European war has made it easier to tell the story.
It has also dimmed some of my memories. My greatest regret is that I cannot remember the names of so many Italian friends who in one way or another helped and sheltered me, at great risk to themselves. To them I will ever be grateful.
There may be other details on which my memory is less than perfect after all these years. If anyone who ever reads this is offended by any error or omission on my part I hope that he or she will forgive me, but the pages that follow give a true picture, I think, of my adventures as Giovanni Boschi.
John Woods, June 1995
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CHAPTER 1: Escape
I had been captured in April [more like May/June – KK] 1942 in the Gazala Line just before the fall of Tobruk. Because the Italians claimed Libya as their colony, I was fated to spend my time as a prisoner of war in Italian camps. They were conspicuously less well organised than their German equivalents, but the last camp I was sent to, PG 49 in Fontanellato near Parma, was the most civilised. It was in a recently and opulently built orphanage and was deemed suitable also for some quite senior officers. I was one of the better bridge players and this brought me into occasional social contact with the commandant who was a pleasant man who had been a bridge international before the war. My spell in the camp certainly improved my bridge skills, and enabled me to supplement my small income, albeit in camp money rather than anything which had any currency in the real world, while I was kicking my heels at my enforced idleness.
I was not a contented prisoner. Before the war my passions had always been sporting ones. Whilst there were regular games of rugby and football in which I always played after we had been allowed to convert a field behind the orphanage into a recreation ground, that was not enough to keep me occupied. Unlike many other prisoners of war I could not lie on my bunk reading a book. Lectures, even the ones at which a local priest gave lessons in the Italian language, did not appeal to me. I had to be doing something with my hands. I developed a trade of making sandals out of scraps of wood and discarded tyres for my fellow prisoners. I volunteered to help in the art club, since I had always enjoyed painting and drawing, and built up quite an art collection of paintings and drawings by other prisoners given to me in payment for something – my own produce, or cigarettes, some favour or other, or a bridge debt. I was very good at copying things in pen and ink; when there was a drama production I would make many of the props; more significantly, in each camp I stayed in I worked for
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the escape committee forging the signatures and other handwriting on such items as fake identity cards.
The greatest advantage of being in an Italian camp was that it gave us the prospect of freedom earlier. In July 1943 we heard that Mussolini had been overthrown, in August that Sicily had fallen to the Allies, and by early September were awaiting news that the first landings had been made on the Italian mainland. We were hanging on every bit of news, whilst our senior officers were already making contingency plans with the camp commandant for our release, since an Italian surrender was plainly imminent.
We did not then know that the Senior British Officers in all the Italian prisoner of war camps had been sent a most bizarre order from the War Office in London – namely that on the Italian surrender all prisoners of war should remain in their camps until the main Allied forces arrived. Apparently someone in Whitehall feared that 60,000 suddenly-released British prisoners would cause chaos in the aftermath of surrender. Only such an order, and the military discipline that begets the obeying of orders, could explain the farce that followed the Armistice.
On the evening of the 8th September there was jubilation on the streets outside. Cries of “Armistizio” rent the air, shots were fired into it and the local people celebrated. We were called into the assembly hall and told that there were unconfirmed reports of Italy withdrawing from the war and to wait on further developments.
The next morning we were told to pack haversacks and leave them on our beds ready for a withdrawal from the camp. I had a slight difficulty in that I did not have a pack. I had been captured on patrol and what little I had had in the way of personal possessions had been systematically looted from me by the Italian soldiers to whom my German captors had had to hand me over. Indeed I still only had my signet ring because a German officer had suggested that I suspend it on a piece of cotton inside my trousers before I was searched. I had only the shirt and trousers I was wearing, a pair of socks and my boots. I had been without a battle-jacket or a pullover since my capture. My wife Joan had been unable to send me any clothes in a Red Cross parcel because the
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Italians would not have allowed me to wear civilian clothes (indeed uniforms had diamond or square shaped pattern cut out of them, and a different coloured patch stitched in its place, so as [to] prevent disguise in an escape attempt) and she had been unable to obtain any official uniform for me.
My boots were, however, most impressive. When I had been captured I had only been wearing desert boots and my wife had sent me out a pair of new officer’s boots in a Red Cross parcel. These had become a matter of contention because the Italians had confiscated them because they were brown, rather than black and so in their eyes civilian clothing rather than military. It was only after a recent Red Cross visit to the camp, and the matter had become one of official complaint, that my boots had been released to me. Because prisoners generally speaking wore camp-made sandals around the camp, my boots were effectively in pristine condition – something I was to be very grateful for in the coming months.
My kit was therefore very sparse. I added to it a razor, a photograph of my wife, a miniature painting on wood of her painted by another prisoner of war in an earlier camp from that photograph, and a rolled up canvas oil portrait of me by another prisoner of war at Fontanellato, Ronnie Mann. I decided that I would have to leave the rest of my art collection behind if we had to leave the camp suddenly. I had my pipe but although I did not know it at the time, it would be a very long time before I would have any tobacco to put in it.
That morning there was a sudden bugle call which meant that we had to assemble on the football pitch with our prepared kit for an immediate withdrawal. We were told that there were reports that Germans were coming to recapture us and that our Italian commandant was allowing us to make a break out through the barbed wire surrounding the camp. We left immediately, marching in company formation to set up separate company camps on different areas of ground near the camp. Our camp was in fields next to a river with a high earth dyke along its bank as a flood wall. We came to call the site the Bund.
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The young locals all came out to see us to celebrate and practice the English they had been learning at school. It was something of a carnival atmosphere as they entertained us with music, wine and food. We for our part would rather they had not joined us because it made our position more noticeable than it might have been, but they were very kind, made sure that we were fed and were constantly offering us shelter in their homes until the Allies came.
We stayed on the Bund, concealing ourselves as best as we could in shrub and amongst vineyards, which provided us with plentiful supplies of fresh fruit, for a couple of days as German convoys thundered down the main north-south road in Italy some five miles to the south of us. On one occasion a Luftwaffe transport plane descended directly above us, effectively an enemy encampment it could have been bombing, on a flight path into a nearby airstrip.
It was a nerve-racking time, since we all felt like sitting ducks. After our release it seemed illogical to the junior officers, who were unaware of the orders from Whitehall, that we should be kept in large numbers, supposedly in hiding, so near the place of our escape. Having tolerated captivity we were anxious to be on our way.
It did not take long before the Senior British Officer decided that the order from Whitehall should be read as having a tacit rider that he should be free to disregard it for the safety of his men. There were further reports of German troops coming into the area to recapture us. Some officers were allowed to leave in twos and threes. Eventually the order “every man for himself” was issued and as the Germans arrived the remaining officers scattered. Many were back in German hands within hours.
It seemed to have been all most unfortunate. If we had been determined to make a getaway immediately, we could have all made detailed maps, set off in co-ordinated fashion and all been out of the area and up in the hills before there was any danger from the German troops now pouring into the plains to recapture prisoners of war and to secure the area behind their battle-line in the south now that their Italian allies had surrendered. What could have been an exodus had become a genuine escape.
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During our time on the Bund one of the main topics of conversation had been as to which direction one should head when the order to disperse came. Rumours were rife as to where there were Allied landings and as to what the German reaction had been – had it been to retreat or to move to reinforce existing positions? The source of all our information was the Italians coming to the Bund, but it was patently unreliable because it was repeatedly inconsistent and it soon became clear that it was more fired by hope than reality – quite simply the locals wanted to believe that the Germans were on the run and Allied relief at hand so that they could go back to a normal peacetime existence.
There were rumours of Allied landings at Genoa, and even at La Spezia, a few days’ march over the mountains to the west. If the Germans were resisting these landings one’s best bet was to head towards them since one could then seek to slip through the lines. However any journey to the west would involve an early hazard because it would involve crossing the main north-south road in Italy, the Via Emilia, and the railway lines alongside it. These were only five miles or so to the south and were bound to be very heavily patrolled and we were told that there were a number of German troop encampments on the other side of them.
If, on the other hand, the Germans were in retreat to the Alps then the safest course was to find somewhere to hide for the short time until the Allies occupied the Lombardy plain. The difficulty in this course was that the plains were not an easy place for a lot of escaped prisoners to hide. One might be better off heading north over the plain towards the Alps because everybody else would be heading south and there would therefore be fewer people hiding in that area. One repeated suggestion was to head for Switzerland since if one found nowhere to hide before reaching the border one could slip across it; although under international law one would be interned for the time being, one would be safe there and in any case the Swiss would be obliged to release us as soon as the Allies reached any part of their borders.
Since I knew as the order to disperse came that there was no reliable intelligence as to the best route for me to take I decided to head off in the same direction as the
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senior officers in the camp. I set off north towards Lake Como, sleeping rough, and begging farmers for food as I passed.
At this stage the area was in a completely disorganised state. The Armistice had only just been announced and people did not really know where they stood. In no time at all, however, I was starting to hear stories of great concentrations of Germans troops along the route I was taking and in the area I was heading for. It was also clear, as I approached the Po River, that for a long way I would be passing through flat country, with little real cover, criss-crossed with lanes, rivers and drainage ditches which would always be hazardous to cross. It was not long before I came to realise that nearly all the traffic was heading south, which meant that the Germans intended to defend their present line, so that there was little prospect of early liberation in the north.
I decided to retrace my steps and head for La Spezia. If the rumours of an Allied landing there were true I could meet it and if they were not I would be on the highline of the Apennina, the mountain chain that runs down the spine or Italy from north to south, and able to head south along it.
I had a particular incentive. On 23rd November 1938, when I had been courting my wife, whose birthday it was, we had promised each other that, no matter what happened in our lives, we would meet on the steps of Eros in Piccadilly Circus five years hence. That date was ten weeks away and I now felt that I had a chance of making it.
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CHAPTER 2: Alone
At the time I set off I still possessed only the clothes I was wearing, my family mementoes and my pipe. I had no money. I had no map other than a hastily pencilled sketch showing the outline of Italy and the position of its main cities, prepared from memory, and a separate sketch on the same piece of paper of the known positions of German encampments within the immediate vicinity [see digital page 70]. I recall sitting down with one or two other prisoners of war in order to prepare this map as we waited on the Bund and I suspect that their own copies of it were their only guide in the early stages.
When I had left the camp I had not been too concerned that I was travelling so light. It was still summer, the days were hot and sunny and the nights warm and we had all had hopes of arrangements being made for our early repatriation. Now that we had dispersed I was inevitably concerned that I would not meet up with our troops before winter set in and I had already spent one winter in captivity in Italy and knew how cold it could get. Already a cool mist was settling over the plains as the evenings set in. For the moment, however, I was revelling in my freedom. It was delightful to be walking alone and unencumbered with a warm sun on my back, free to go into the fields to pick the ripe fruits waiting for harvesting, the cicadas blasting away as if summer would never end.
Another concern was that I was unable to understand or speak Italian, a severe hindrance since I was to be travelling alone. I had learned French at school and although I soon spotted some similarities it was clear that it was only the fact that I had already been taught the discipline of learning another language that would help me. However, I soon learned, probably within hours, some most essential Italian words. I suppose these were please, thank you, hungry, food, what is the name of the next place, and are there
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any Germans around. I also learned a lot of the sign language that frequently passed for conversation amongst country folk.
One of the first farms that I stopped at was near Fidenza. I was very nervous because I knew by this time that to be an owner of a farm of any substance you had to be a member of the fascist party. Obviously many people would have joined the party as a protective measure, rather than out of political conviction, and would now see no advantage in giving it any further allegiance. But I was already very hungry and had to take a chance. As it turned out, the people were extremely kind. They gave me food, and shelter in their barn. The next day the farmer’s wife dyed my khaki trousers and shirt black, so as to give me some disguise. The couple suggested that on leaving them I should go to Bobbio, up in the mountains to the west, where they had relatives.
It was a precarious journey. I had first to cross the main north-south road and railway line in Italy, running from Milan to Rome, which was obviously a major supply route for the Germans. In consequence the area was heavily patrolled and there was heavy traffic. We had heard while we were on the Bund that an entire company of our fellow prisoners of war had been rounded up trying to cross this road immediately after the break-out. However, I was able to pass under these hazards in a dried river bed without any trouble.
I was still in a heavily patrolled area. Knowing that there was a haven in Bobbio, I decided to take no chances and make for the mountains as fast as I could, walking day and night, and avoiding contact with anyone. In some ways this was easy as I crossed the plain. It was heavily cultivated with corn, maize, vines and vegetables and the crops gave reasonable cover as well as snack meals. One could therefore stay out of sight until one had to cross a road and in my black clothes, travelling alone, crossing a minor road was not too hazardous. The mountains were coming ever closer and offered greater security.
By the second day I was in the valley, walking in the olive groves up on the hillsides, leading up to Bobbio. I arrived safely in the village and was very well looked
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after by the relatives of the farmer on the plain, who owned a cafe in the main square. They were also sheltering some Italian refugees on the move after the Armistice, so that I was soon aware of the general migration of all sorts of people at this time, something which was to provide additional cover, as well as intelligence on where the Germans were at any one time, to me throughout the coming weeks.
Refreshed, I set off at dawn the following morning and headed for the first time due south towards the known Allied landing. I was now walking in mountain country. Obviously the secure way to travel was to stay up in the mountains, going down the spine of Italy, the Apennina. These mountains were sparsely populated, and mostly by subsistence farmers living off their own land. There were few roads and one had to walk a long way, up and down ridges, to make distance.
Nevertheless I was starting to establish a routine. I would, as the afternoon wore on, look for an isolated cottage in the southerly distance and make for it. I would aim to arrive shortly after dark so as not to be seen entering it, because there were two means of betrayal to the Germans – by one’s chosen host and by his neighbours. I already knew that there was a reward of £20 for providing information leading to the recapture of an escaped prisoner of war. Picking an isolated house reduced the chance of betrayal by a neighbour and meant that the host would have a long walk to report one’s presence if he was inclined to. There was also less risk of betrayal of one’s host by a neighbour, and the consequences for him and his family would be far worse than they could possibly be for me.
Now that I was in country that was scarcely patrolled by the enemy, I could make more contact with local people, and was constantly amazed by their kindness and generosity, particularly since most of them were living in conditions which would be described as abject poverty in England. One of the conventions was in immediate use: if a family gave me shelter, I would in the morning give them a chit with my name, rank and serial number certifying their help. One hoped that this would entitle them to compensatory privileges when the Allies arrived in their area. One could never be completely certain that knowledge of this convention was not the only cause of
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assistance; indeed further south I was sometimes aware that the chit was the only reason for shelter, for example when, having committed myself to a house, I entered it and found all the paraphernalia of a committed fascist party functionary. But up here in the mountains I was always certain that I was being sheltered by simple country people who had no interest in politics and were merely observing a tradition of hospitality to travellers. But I was still not taking any chances – I would never stay with any family for more than one night and would always leave at first light.
The hills were well forested and from time to time I would come across charcoal-burners. Charcoal was a popular fuel for cooking and it was a lucrative trade. The charcoal-burner would collect timber and heap it in an arcane way and then fire it. The fire would burn for days and he would have to stay on site while it burned. Their huts were another place one could stay, although it was a very dirty place to sleep and there would not be much food, perhaps only a bit of bread, because the charcoal-burner would only have brought enough for himself. For this reason one was never a very welcome guest, but if you were caught in rain late in the afternoon with no other prospect or shelter you were inclined to impose on his hospitality.
The weather was already starting to deteriorate. Whereas we had still been in summer down on the plain, autumn was setting in in the hills. The corn and vegetable crops had all been harvested and we were past the harvest moon. I was frequently walking in rain or mist, which added to the danger because one would have less warning of an approaching German patrol. The streams were now flowing freely and I would frequently arrive at the end of the day drenched to the skin and very cold.
A few days after leaving Bobbio, as I was approaching the Taro valley, I stopped on a lonely mountain track at a cottage to ask for bread. The farmer and his wife appeared to be hesitant and afraid. They indicated that two other men who claimed to be British officers were only a short way ahead, although because of the mist and the rain I was unable to see them. I could understand their suspicion that two groups of escaped prisoners of war could not be so close to each other and yet ignorant of each other. It was too much of a coincidence. Could I or they be German spies?
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I was already well aware of the concerns of local people about German spies. There were many stories circulating of Germans masquerading as escaped prisoners of war in order to entrap sympathetic Italian countryfolk. If food or shelter was offered the hosts would be arrested and an example made of them to their neighbours. It was an effective tactic. People would become too frightened to help escaped prisoners of war, who would then be flushed out into the open. It required far less German resources than patrolling the countryside. It was probably not a tactic in widespread use, because of the distances involved, but word of it inevitably got around and it certainly made everyone I met very suspicious of me when I first asked for help. Frequently I would be turned away, but very often I would be watched to see my reaction to rejection – was it the reaction of a hungry man or of someone doing his business? – and would often be invited back to be given the assistance I had originally asked.
Knowing of this German practice, I could not take the risk that the other two supposed prisoners of war were spies, yet could not turn down the opportunity to meet up with comrades. I had now been travelling alone for a fortnight and was starting to feel somewhat lonely, particularly as I was unable to carry on a sensible conversation in Italian.
I decided to move off the mule-track and take a parallel course as best I could, hoping to overtake these other people and catch sight of them later down the path. An hour or so later, when I was hidden in bushes, and to my utter amazement, two familiar faces appeared, Arthur Hall and Peter Gunter, who had both been prisoners in my camp. We were delighted to see each other and decided that we would join forces from then on.
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CHAPTER 3: The Taro valley
Arthur and Peter were very good friends. They were both Gunner officers who had served in the same battery until the time they were captured. They too had no money, but they had both learned to speak Italian at the lessons given by the local priest at Fontanellato, although in a very polite and metropolitan fashion which sometimes failed to communicate with people who were only used to a very local dialect! They were in all respects excellent companions and I was lucky to have bumped into them.
They had spent the last two weeks staying with a family to the south of the River Ceno. Having spent nearly three weeks marching every day, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that I was still only 30 or so miles from the camp. Without a map or compass, and the sun so often having been obscured by cloud, I had had to rely solely on the directions of locals and had wasted a lot of time and energy to arrive in an area which the others had reached with little effort. They were able to bring me up to date on developments because they had had access to a radio in the village in which they had been staying. The news was not good. The Germans were defending their battle line in the south, and had rescued Mussolini, the fascists were again in the ascendancy in the towns, a night-time curfew had now been imposed and the Italian people had been ordered not to shelter Allied prisoners of war on pain of punishment under martial law. They had heard nothing to suggest that there had been any Allied landings in northern Italy. Arthur and Peter had decided that they should head south to the Allied lines as fast as they could and that became my objective too.
Our first project was to negotiate the Taro valley, which is the natural artery between the industrial towns of southern Lombardy and the port of La Spezia. Indeed its head is only some 20 miles as the crow flies from Spezia itself. The road and railway line along it were therefore of clear strategic importance to the Germans and there were
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likely to be heavy patrols, as well as guards on the bridges. We did not then know what a deep and narrow valley it was.
We arrived in the valley some way south of Fornovo near Citerna and spent the night with a smallholder whose cottage was on a high spur overlooking the valley. It was inevitably worrying that this time it would be a very short walk for the farmer if he was minded to betray us to the Germans, but we need have had no fear. We left him before first light the next morning, before we could be spotted by any German sentries or patrols below. Indeed we were somewhat shocked when we left his home to see that one of the river bridges was directly below him in the valley, and a train moving along the railway line on the other side.
As we left I gave a chit and this farmer, whose name was Artemio Cattani, was one of the few who contacted me after the war. Usually these contacts were requests for assistance in tracing sons who had been taken as prisoners of war, and it was very easy in the case of prisoners taken on the Western front to establish contact through normal channels, although it was satisfying to be able in a small way to help people who had risked their lives for you. Unfortunately this man’s son had been captured on the Eastern front and my efforts were to no avail. Some 20 years later my son announced that he would be spending part of his university vacation hitch-hiking in Italy and I gave him as many directions as I could to enable him to trace the route of my journey. Old Cattani and his cottage was his only successful contact, and my son also was humbled by this simple man’s warmth and hospitality.
After leaving the cottage we headed south on high ground, looking for a safe crossing of the river. We were told that the bridges were heavily guarded by the Germans, so we knew that we would have to wade across. We spoke with various farmers along the way, since we needed local intelligence as to where the fords were. We were shown a fording place, with no German in sight, and given the impression the water was only shallow. However, it was much deeper than we anticipated and was flowing at a very much faster rate because of the recent heavy rains.
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We removed our boots and socks and rolled up our trousers in an effort to keep as dry as we could. I tied my boots round my neck by the laces. A few moments later I stumbled on a boulder and my boots were washed away. Happily the laces entangled themselves with my walking stick. It was, however, a warning to us that the smallest carelessness could jeopardise our escape. I decided that thereafter I would never remove my boots again.
Crossing the road and railway line was relatively easy and, unseen by any German patrols, we scrambled up through the woods on the far side of the valley, before turning right to follow the ridge to the head of the valley, where certainly we would find the high line of the Apennina. We turned south-east, which would be our main direction for the following weeks, before the Cisa pass, which was bound to be heavily patrolled, north of Berceto.
We had now achieved a major objective, namely to reach the spine of the mountain range. It would be a constant geographical reference and hopefully less hazardous.
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CHAPTER 4: Along the edge of Tuscany
We could not follow the highline of the Apennina, or crinale as it was known. It was above the treeline and therefore too high for farming. We would have to follow it some way down the north slope at a height where there was cultivation and therefore the prospect of food and shelter. This meant that we were constantly climbing up and then down the ridges that separated the valleys opening from the watershed. It was arduous and meant that we walked many more miles than one would have thought from looking at a map.
Again it was very much a matter of climbing, choosing an objective across a valley, heading for it, and then repeating the process. Sometimes these valleys were open so that we could see where we were heading, but sometimes they were heavily wooded. If we were lucky we could follow the tracks used by the muleteers who acted as common carriers in the mountains, but sometimes we were scrambling through dense vegetation, brambles and ferns, trusting entirely in our ability to follow the general line we had picked from the previous ridge.
If it was raining this would all be very unpleasant, particularly if the slopes were slippery, but each time we reached the high ground again we could, unless we were shrouded in cloud, re-establish our bearings. If the sun was shining there were sometimes great treats as after an arduous climb we reached another ridge and found a view of indescribable beauty, a scene straight from a Renaissance painting with rolling hills, grasslands, chestnut woods, cypress trees and tranquil farms and villages.
We continued to avoid, unless absolutely necessary, all towns and villages. We were in subsistence-farming country with poor, rocky soil and very few roads of any importance, no electricity and no telephones, and the people lived very simply indeed.
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As the afternoon wore on we would look for an isolated farm in the distance and head for it, arriving at dusk to ask for shelter.
The mountain folk were wonderful and more than kind, sharing their food, which was mostly polenta or minestra. Minestra was a vegetable soup, mostly of potatoes and beans, although different vegetables provided some variety, eaten with bread. Polenta was a kind of boiled maize, which was tipped from the pot onto a scrubbed table, solidifying like lava as it spread outwards, and usually a tomato paste, flavoured with onion and garlic, was spooned over it. We always regarded polenta as a treat because we knew we would eat our fill after a hard day. It was eaten by the light of an oil lamp, from the outside towards the middle. Sometimes, obviously by convention, the men ate separately from the women and children. The families were usually large. Apart from the smaller children, all would have been working on the land all day and have built up quite an appetite. Sometimes there would be fruit or nuts, or even cheese, afterwards. Their food was always very simple – basically it was the produce of their own land.
The food was always washed down with the family’s home-made wine. This never had bottle-age of more than a year. At this time of the year it had a bottle-age of less than a week. They called this young wine brutto, to reflect its effect on one’s system, but it was never difficult to accept another cupful, and then another. The days were now noticeably shortening and so conversation would continue for some time after the meal. Arthur had been a farmer before the war and this provided a certain topic of conversation over these meals as comparisons were made between climates, soil, crops and livestock, and it was quite bizarre to hear the amazement of the people bestowing their charity on us at what riches Arthur and other English farmers had. These conversations, which would have been a different language to me even if they had been in English, provided a welcome variety from other topics. For their part the locals always wanted the most detailed information on our families and our country. Our preferred conversation-piece was a constant probing for information on the next stage of our route, such as what direction to head in next, what difficulties could be expected, and where were there likely to be Germans. The farmers’ knowledge of such things was
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inevitably limited because they rarely went far off their own land, but we learnt a lot of useful information as we chatted over further cups of wine.
We would then leave them to sleep in the barn. If a patrol came along the farmer could at least claim that he did not know we were there, and in any case the barn had a great attraction in that the heat generated by the hay would dry out our clothes. On the other hand, it would be full of rats and if we did not have enough wine with our meal we would be constantly aware of their presence, since they had a habit of running over you during the night. Sometimes you would be visited by fleas as well, which made for interesting diversions the following day.
Sometimes we would be invited to stay another night and if we felt that it was safe for the family as well as for us we would accept because it would enable us to repay their kindness by working in their fields. It was the time of the grape harvest and picking and treading grapes is probably the most satisfying type of agricultural labour. We did of course take off our boots for the treading, but that did not really improve the hygiene of the operation. Everyone would take his or her turn in the tub. If feet were dirty, so what? Even if they had just crossed the farmyard. A dead insect, or even some rodent, dropping in would simply add some protein to the mix. The fermentation and the alcohol would kill any germs. Wine remained an attractive beverage.
The food we ate was a very basic diet. Sometimes when we were walking in the daytime we would be given bread and cheese by local people – indeed the couple who told me of Arthur and Peter further down the path just before I met them had given me some – but it was always hard mountain cheese, which left a dry taste in the mouth. But there was rarely any meat because the farmers needed their animals for milking. Everything was stockpiled. The maize flour for the polenta would have been milled at the end of the season and then stored for the rest of the year. The tomato paste that sometimes was poured onto the polenta would have been prepared in bulk after the tomato harvest. One was aware of onion and garlic in the paste, or even mixed into the polenta while it was being cooked. Sometimes we would have pasta as a change, and this would be made on the spot from the appropriate flour, mixed with water and salt,
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kneaded into a dough and then extruded through a metal machine into strips. Most kitchens seemed to have one of these small, hand-held machines, invariably very old and obviously treasured, hanging from a beam and on one occasion I did my share of kitchen duties by winding dough through the machine to make the strips for our supper.
Earlier on the trip we had had the opportunity to pick fruit from the fields. We did not regard this as dishonest. We had been encouraged to do so by the locals when we had been camping out on the Bund outside Fontanellato. Friendly farmers would always invite us to help ourselves to their fruit. If they were not around, we assumed that they would have offered it to us anyway and by not approaching them we were saving them from the risk of being seen to assist us. At other times we were able to pick nuts. But the season for fruit and nuts was now past. Our diet was lacking in protein and vitamins, which inevitably affected our feeling of well-being, particularly as we were expending so much energy on our daily walks after our period of enforced idleness in prison camp.
We were living on the same food as the locals, so it must have been a sustainable diet, but we were all losing weight. These people lived a very poor life. They wore the same clothes, old and heavily patched, all day and every day, except when they changed into their Sunday clothes to go to church and pay their social visits, and even the Sunday clothes gave every indication of being handed down from generation to generation. Their cottages were all very old, made of stone, with slate roofs, and obviously patched up with whatever materials were around when something fell down. Indeed the very primitiveness of the cottages was a source of comfort to us when we first knocked on the door; we knew that people who lived like that would have no interest in politics, certainly have no truck with the fascists, and in time we realised that they all had old-fashioned views on providing hospitality to travellers. Indeed there were many occasions, when we expressed our gratitude, that they reminded us that they had sons of their own still away at the war, who they hoped would be offered similar comfort if they needed it; it was what was to be expected amongst Christian folk.
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The kitchens were spartan, with a fire beneath a chimney, the smoke from which as the day had drawn to a close had been a beacon for us. Things were hanging on nails from the beams. On one or two occasions we saw smoked meat, but these were rare. I remember once seeing what looked like a sausage hanging up and being surprised to discover that it was a variation on navy-cut tobacco. Sailors used to preserve their tobacco for their voyages by dousing the tobacco leaves in rum, wrapping them in canvas, and then compacting the mixture into a plug by wrapping rope around it as tightly as they could; they would then cut a piece off the end and rub it when they wanted to smoke it. Here in the Italian mountains farmers were doing exactly the same, using wine instead of rum. It was not the nicest way to preserve tobacco, but a sheer delight to be able to use my pipe again, and there is no nicer way to establish a rapport with a stranger than to sit down together contentedly smoking your pipes.
Our social contacts were not entire!v limited to isolated farmhouses. We of course avoided any towns or large villages, but small hamlets up in the mountains could provide good information about the next stage of our journey. If we came across one, we would watch it carefully from high ground to see if there was anything threatening there, but if it became clear that there were no Germans around and that we would have adequate warning of their approach if they came by, we would go down into it. Some of these hamlets gave us a better welcome than others and we were frequently given bread and cheese and told about what lay ahead of us. Indeed we frequently got more reliable information in such hamlets because other travellers would be stopping in them and telling the locals where they had seen Germans. The locals themselves were as anxious as we were not to have their daily routine spoiled by the hated tedeschi.
In these hamlets the people were well-used to seeing prisoners of war. We were in fact on a well-trodden route. When I eventually made Allied lines I was asked to trace my route on a map. The places I was able to identify as ones we had passed nearby – Berceto, Corniglio, Rigoso, Passo di Cerreto, Fanano, Porretta Terme, Borgo San Lorenzo, Bagno di Romagna, Verghereto, Bocca Serriola, Scheggia, Fabriano, Norcia and Amatrice – followed the provincial boundaries and the highline of the Apennina. Clearly there were many other prisoners of war following the same route. One would
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sometimes go into the bushes to answer the call of nature and find a page from an English book sacrificed to the necessity of personal hygiene.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is that, despite the fact that we were on a well-worn trail we never met any other prisoners of war. We became good, although never as good as the locals who seemed instinctively able to spot a foreigner at a hundred paces, at spotting a figure that seemed out of place. If we saw one we were not going to take the chance that he was a German rather than a compatriot, and I suppose that we must have seen other prisoners of war without knowing it. When I returned home I found that my wife had received a letter from the War Office in April 1944 to the effect that I had been seen on Monte Fumaiolo, near Bagno di Romagna, in October 1943. The six-month delay suggests that this information came from another prisoner of war who had only just made it home, but I cannot recall meeting anyone who could have passed on this information. Perhaps he had stayed at the same house as me but afterwards and had seen my chit. Certainly I sometimes saw my chit being added to an already substantial collection.
There was one other type of traveller we were frequently coming across. At the time of the Armistice it seemed that the massed ranks of the Italian armed forces had, without bidding, laid down their arms, changed into civilian clothes and set off to walk home. They were instantly recognisable as such and we were always pleased to meet them because they were a constant source, albeit sometimes a little unreliable, of information on German dispositions ahead of us, since they were equally anxious to avoid them.
I mentioned the difficulties of personal hygiene. We were living amongst people who had no running water. To wash ourselves we did what they did, namely to wash from a trough or under a hand-operated water-pump. Sometimes we would strip off and wash ourselves and our clothes in a stream, but as winter set in this became so unpleasant that staying dirty meant staying warmer. We ran out of razor blades and grew beards, although this probably made us less conspicuous. As for the more basic functions, we had no paper, came to the conclusion that grass was a most unpleasant
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alternative, and instead went for the local practice of finding a smooth stone. I had picked up dysentery when in transit prisoner of war camp in North Africa, and it had persisted ever since; the privations of our journey were exacerbating it and I came to regard it as fortunate that we were travelling in such stony country.
By now weather was getting noticeably worse. The rains we had been experiencing almost every day were becoming sleety and it was becoming noticeably colder. If one had a long trek through a forest the dank and gloom would be demoralising, particularly if the only prospect of shelter at the end of the day was in a charcoal-burner’s hut. The days were getting shorter and shorter. More significantly, the leaves were beginning to turn their colour. Whilst this meant glorious colours to view from the high ground, we knew that it was the prelude to the leaves dropping, after which there would be very little cover if we were surprised by a patrol.
There were inevitably scares when we became aware of German patrols, but fortunately we were always able to avoid them. We were now, however, coming to the part of the Apennina where a number of main roads cross the mountains to the north of Florence from the cities of the north to the cities of the south. We had crossed the road in the Taro valley together, but with hindsight had thought that a mistake. If a patrol saw in the distance a solitary man crossing a road with a stick it could easily assume that he was a farmer going from one field to another. But not three men. We adopted a procedure whereby I, because of my infantry training, would leave the others concealed, recce and cross the road, find a rendezvous on the other side, and cross back to the others. The rendezvous would be at least six hundred yards beyond the road, with good cover, and would have some prominent feature – a particular tree or rocky outcrop – by which to recognise it. We would then have a thorough briefing session on the route to take to it so as to avoid missing each other on the other side. We would slip across singly and at intervals and then meet at our rendezvous.
The roads were of course heavily patrolled and there was the amount of traffic you would expect on major supply routes. In those days they were narrow roads, following the contours of the land and therefore winding in and our of rock outcrops.
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This meant that if there was no traffic immediately coming no-one would be any the wiser that someone had crossed the road. But it also meant that you could get a nasty surprise if a German vehicle, unseen and unheard, was just about to come round the bend to the stretch of road you were on. We had some narrow escapes on these road crossings, but always succeeded and if any of us was ever seen he was never challenged or pursued.
Even hiding in cover near a road was hazardous. Sometimes we would see a German truck stop and soldiers on the back would fire machine gun bursts into the scrub by the side of the road, almost for the hell of it, although they must have realised that in this area there were regular crossings by escaped prisoners of war on the way south.
On one occasion we were very near a road, for some reason together at the time, when a German vehicle came into view. The only cover available was a bank and we dived behind it, fearing that we must have been seen. The lorry stopped. We dared not look over the bank and dreaded immediate discovery. Why the truck stopped we will never know, but shortly afterwards we heard it start up again and move off.
Although there were these roads, we were still in mountainous terrain and the pattern of long daytime marches and approaching isolated farmhouses after dark, eating their simple food and drinking their wine, sleeping with their animals and rats in the barn, and leaving at dawn continued. We were making good progress and, although we were walking ourselves to exhaustion each day and inevitably living on our nerves, each day was another day of freedom and another day nearer the Allied lines. It was now late October and we had been travelling for nearly seven weeks.
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CHAPTER 5: Along the border between Umbria and Marche
Once across these roads we were heading again, a few miles north of Perugia, into more isolated country. We swung due south and now had a long stretch, as we were to find out, in more rugged terrain. The mountains were more craggy, the soil was less good and the farms needed to be larger to support a family and so were further apart. It felt less comfortable than the more green uplands we had been in before and we were seeing the signs of a mountain culture with villages perched on rocky spurs and monasteries on mountain tops. One advantage was that in this part of the journey we were following the very long ridge that marks the boundary between Umbria and the Marche, so that there was less traversing of valleys, less up and down walking, and we were now able to walk longer distances in a day.
We all lengthened our stride. Peter and Arthur both had long legs and at times, it appeared that we were at light infantry pace. This is not to say that it was any easier. The days were shortening, it was getting colder, the leaves had now fallen from the trees and the fact that we were on such high ground meant that we were often contending with a bitter wind. It could not be long before the snow came, which would slow us down and make it even less easy to find cover. We had to make distance as quickly as we could.
There were fewer major roads to cross on this section, but still from time to time less significant ones. We continued to take the same precautions and crossed them all without incident. The area was isolated enough to make patrols less likely. We were a long way from any towns and to send foot patrols out into it, particularly in such unfavourable weather, would have been a waste of resources; the only likely gain would
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be to recapture unarmed escaped prisoners of war, whereas patrolling the towns and roads had a more important strategic purpose. If, however, the Germans had heard of a significant number of prisoners of war travelling together, that would have been a different matter – hence the fact that we were travelling in such a small group.
The isolation of these mountains meant that the local people were even less well-off than those we had met earlier on. They were still amazingly generous, there were still copious meals of polenta, washed down with the farmer’s own wine, to restore our strength and spirits after a hard day, and again I was occasionally able to share a pipe with the farmer. On one occasion a family brought out their photograph album, and one of the others reminded me of the photograph of Joan that I carried. It is a strange fact that one of the first questions you are asked by country Italians when you move into social conversation is if you are married, and if you are how many children you have. I was the only one of our threesome who was married, and my answer to the second question was that there had not yet been the opportunity to have children because I had been away at the war since our marriage. They were always very sympathetic to my situation, particularly when my photograph showed them how “bellissima” my wife was. And although it was nice to have family as a topic of conversation with such wonderful people, it was always a poignant reminder of how much I wanted to be on my way.
On one occasion, I think it was All Saints Day, we had a special meal. Peter recalled it as roast goose, although I remember it as chicken. It does not matter because it was a treat to have roast meat. A particular memory of the meal is that Arthur, having revealed that he had been a farmer before the war, was invited to dispatch the bird. He was a little bit out of practice and for years afterwards we all remembered his second, this time successful, attempt as Peter struggled to hold onto its legs as Arthur wrung its neck. Perhaps I remember it as chicken because the episode brings to mind Churchill’s “some chicken, some neck” speech, and perhaps Peter’s recollection that it was goose is right. It was nevertheless a wonderful meal.
The weather was now rapidly deteriorating. In mid-November we had our first major snow-storm and we were now often walking in deep snow. The streams we had
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to cross were long since frozen. We were also conscious that if we had to leave a path because of an approaching patrol we would leave a trail behind. Since we were up on the crinale we were in constant snow and anywhere in shadow was icy and slippery. Our socks had long since rotted and worn away and our feet were in very poor condition. Indeed Peter was starting to develop quite nasty sores on his ankles and was clearly walking in considerable pain. We were dressed only in shirts and trousers, and our nights in farmers’ barns were a welcome chance to thaw out after generous helpings of wine with our simple meals.
The arrival of the snows brought the only disagreement between us of any significance throughout our entire journey. Notwithstanding that Arthur and Peter were old friends, so that I was the newcomer, as well as younger and junior in rank, we had been a harmonious group, with few of the outbursts that occur when a few people are forced by circumstance to live on top of each other for too long. Although we had been constantly exhausted for weeks, the need to make as much distance as possible before the snows came had precluded any differences of opinion on whether we should have a few days’ rest before any next stage. That reason for unanimity was now gone. We were all suffering from ailments of one kind or another and it was very easy to accept the offer of more than one night’s shelter that the families were now offering, since they all knew that, apart from it being very uncomfortable for us to continue our journey in the snow, there was now considerably less chance of the Germans making speculative patrols in such inclement weather. I was always for moving on as soon as possible. I felt that my dysentery would never get any better until I made the Allied lines, and also I was desperate to get news to Joan that I was still alive, which would not be possible until we got through. Peter’s ailments – he had now developed nasty sores on his face as well – might, however, improve with a few days’ rest, and poor Arthur was forced to the judgement of Solomon. He voted for pressing on, saying that it gave us a chance of making it home for Christmas, but I knew that it was a difficult decision for him, in the same way that I knew that my condition was making life more difficult for Peter.
We were also now reaching a much more difficult section of our journey. There were roads between the major port of Ancona and the western cities to cross and it was
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clear that the valleys were very heavily patrolled. Near Norcia we stayed in a house in which two Italian army officers, their wives, and an Italian air force officer had been staying for some time, having abandoned their journeys home until the weather improved. We had met these officers by the roadside and they had invited us back to the house, which is why we were now staying somewhere so untypical of what had gone before. It was strange after so long amongst subsistence farmers to meet a group of people who were well dressed and obviously well educated. We spent a most convivial evening with them, eating well and in the style of the officers’ mess and drinking far too much grappa after the meal. They left us in no doubt that there were real hazards ahead. They showed us a map, from which we could see that the Gran Sasso mountains were directly ahead of us. It was out of the question that we could stay on the highest ground once we reached the Gran Sasso because it was covered in deep snow, there were no tracks, very few people living up there and it would be simply too cold. We would have to descend to lower ground. That would be something to ponder on as we continued south towards Amatrice, where, the Italian officers had told us, we would start to find more German patrols.
As we reached the top of the ridge before Amatrice we saw the Gran Sasso for the first time. They were forbidding, massive and covered in snow. We had to go round them.
It would be nice to think that our decision to skirt these mountains to the west, rather than the east, was a considered one, but it was not. Although we had had the chance to look at a map in Norcia we still had no map to refer to when we had to decide which way to head or turn next. Our day-to-day route from the beginning of our journey had basically followed the suggestions of the people we had met on the road or had stayed with, the next day’s destination being the main item on the agenda when we ate with our hosts. Sometimes our host’s recommendation would be based on the rumours he had heard of where was more likely to be patrolled by the Germans. Sometimes, as happened at the outset of my journey, he would direct us in a direction where he had relatives.
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Earlier on differences of route were less significant than now. The route we took now would dictate where we would attempt to cross the battle-line, and the people who were directing us had no military training in spotting the significance of what the Germans were doing in the area, so that our prospects of avoiding the Germans were now dependent to a much larger extent on luck.
Even before we reached the Gran Sasso we came to another obstacle, Lake Campotosto, and were told that there were many patrols around. We were slightly sceptical because so many reports earlier on our journey that there were Germans in the next area had proved wrong, but on this occasion they were accurate. The lake was some five miles wide, surrounded by mountains and itself some 4,000 feet above sea level, so that it would not be without strategic significance. The Germans clearly saw it this way because there were an awful lot of them around. It was snowing heavily, visibility was bad, and so there was a much greater chance of our bumping into them on their patrols. It was at this stage that the die was cast that we would skirt the Gran Sasso to the west rather than the east. The directions we were given to avoid the German troops effectively gave us no alternative but to go to the west. We were, however, warned that we would have to stay as far north of L’Aquila as possible, because it was on a main road and a rail line, and advised to stick to a valley directly below the range running eastwards to Assergi.
The directions were good because we were able to avoid the patrols in the area, but our luck was about to change. We spent a very cold night in a barn on the south side of the lake and set out well before dawn to cross the Aquila to Teramo road. We had not expected this road to be a particular hazard, but in this weather and with so many Germans around it was going to require particular caution. It was a winding road in mountainous terrain. Visibility was bad. There were snowdrifts on each side of the road, and we would be bound to leave tracks. There was clearly a lot of German traffic on it, something which itself told us that we were now not far from the lines, and we were obviously going to experience great difficulty in crossing it. We followed our normal procedure and I established a rendezvous in the mountains on the far side and crossed
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the road without incident. Arthur too crossed without incident. Sadly Peter, who was coming over last of all, never arrived at our rendezvous.
We were completely at a loss. Fortunately it was still morning, so that we were under no pressure of finding shelter for the night. We waited for hours, taking it in turns to search around while the other of us stayed at the rendezvous point, in a heavy blizzard. But it was clear that something very serious had happened to Peter and, because of our inability to find out what it was and the risk that we too were now compromised, we were forced to go on our way, very saddened but even more determined. We knew that we had reached the part of our journey where we would be continually at risk without any warning, because by now we must be approaching the front line. We had left Fontanellato knowing that the Allies were already at Salerno. More than two months had passed and some progress must have been made.
Throughout our trip along the Apennina, we had known nothing about how the war was going. The very isolation which had protected us from recapture had meant that we had been out of reach of the news. In areas where there is no electricity there is no radio, and in any case what need of news of political affairs does a subsistence farmer have? But now we were coming into an area of strategic importance, where there was troop activity and where there were communications, and where the local people would be desperate for news as to how the war was going because the arrival of the Allies would be the end of their privation under German occupation.
It was also clear that we were going to need much more contact with local people. For hundreds of miles we had been able to rely on the sun when we could see it, the topography, the suggestions of country folk and our own instincts in picking our route. We would now need genuine intelligence, from more sophisticated people, as to where the Germans were before moving on. Whereas before we had avoided the more affluent locals, because they were more likely to have political views and something to lose by assisting us, we now needed contact with them and this inevitably increased our chances of betrayal.
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CHAPTER 6: Abruzzo
Arthur and I skirted Aquila in the next valley to the north, and near Assergi we took to a forest for cover to approach a road we had to cross. In the forest we came across some men in green uniforms and hid from them. After a while it became clear that they were forest rangers, we spoke to them, and they suggested that we go to a large house nearby. We were received well at this house, and after a good lunch given a map. It was a pre-war 1:500,000 scale Touring Club Italiano map, showing roads, railway lines, rivers and mountain ranges, covering the area from Rome in the west to Pescara on the east coast and to the River Sangro to the south. It was to be most useful in the coming months: indeed I still had it in my pocket when I reached the Allied lines.
Whilst it was a source of great encouragement to us to have a map at last, it also showed us how precarious our journey was becoming. We became soldiers again and pored over this map for hours, working out where we would be placing our defences if we were the Germans, where we would be probing for weak spots if we were the Allied generals, and therefore which areas we should be avoiding and which ones gave us our best chance. We had been told that Naples had fallen the previous month and we could see from the map that the Pescara valley was of considerable strategic importance to the Germans because it was their most southerly east to west coast road and rail link behind their line. If the Allies were to switch their main attack from one flank of the line to the other, then the reinforcements would have to pass along this valley. Also it was clear that if the Germans lost the next battle they would lose Rome, so that they would be bound to have built as secure a defensive line as they could.
We could see that we were going to have to cross the Pescara River somewhere in the region of Popoli, where the mountains came closest to it and there would be
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narrower plains to cross, and that if we were to return to high ground for the last stretch we should head south from there in the general direction of Castel di Sangro.
We travelled south-east for the next day or so in the foothills of the Gran Sasso and were now approaching Popoli. We were now being constantly being warned by locals of the perils of crossing the Pescara River or of passing anywhere nearby.
These warnings were often accompanied by offers of shelter until the Allies arrived, since the locals remained ever hopeful of early liberation and could see no reason for our risking re-capture, or even our lives, trying to get through such a heavily patrolled area. One could understand their optimism in a way: after Alamein the Allies had quickly cleaned up North Africa, had swept through Sicily, and had taken Salerno on the mainland without too much delay. The Italian Government had surrendered at that time because it seemed only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before such an all-conquering army would be at the gates of Rome. Even ten weeks later it seemed to the local Italians only a short time before that army would be here. Having studied the map, and knowing that such campaigns are much harder in winter, we were more sceptical. In any case we were now so close to the line that we were determined to keep on our way.
Up to this time we had always been very wary of accepting guides, but it was clear that we would need one to cross the Pescara River. At this stage we had a stroke of great fortune. A farmer offered to take us to a man of substance who had been active in anti-fascist politics before the war and was now living in hiding, but would be able to enlist help to get us across the river. We allowed ourselves to be led in some secrecy to this man. He was clearly well-educated and he questioned us very closely, obviously concerned as to whether we might be German spies, for some time before undertaking to provide guides to take us across the river and through Popoli to the partisans in the mountains on the far side. We felt that we could trust him, and had no qualms as he sent out for the guides to come to his hideout.
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He was as good as his word. We were guided to and over the bridge across the river and I recall thinking at the time what a narrow river it was to be such an obstacle to us, but it would doubtless have seemed something quite different had we been on our own. Our guides then took us through Popoli, separately but steadfastly, through Germans, many of them in drink, and though we passed them at arm’s length, we were ignored and moved through the village within the hour – a frightening experience.
We slept upstairs in a cottage on the outskirts of the village, strangely enough alongside cows – how they had got up the steps to the first floor was beyond all reason, although they were probably themselves in hiding from the Germans. The following morning we were guided by the owner of this cottage, an old rifle in hand which to our horror he kept firing into the air to demonstrate his disdain for the Germans, accompanied by a succession of oaths questioning all kinds of virtues of the tedeschi, up into the Morrone Mountains. After a few hours’ walk we came to a camp just below a mountain-top, where we were welcomed by a hundred or so Italian partisans, who were already sheltering a dozen or so other Allied other rank prisoners of war who had escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp at Sulmona, some 10 miles to the south, at the time of the Armistice.
It was now the end of November and we had been on the move for nearly three months and, taking account of detours and contours, must have walked at least seven hundred miles. We had walked as far as we could every day in those weeks, and had slept in barns where we had constantly feared the Germans bursting in as a result of betrayal or our having been spotted by a spy. We had lost Peter on one of road crossings and had had many narrow escapes. It was quite simply a great relief to find ourselves amongst so many people clearly on our side, with food and shelter, and lookouts to give us the opportunity to scatter if the Germans approached.
To say that we were surprised by the size of the partisan group would be an understatement. We had of course during our journey heard of embryonic partisan groups being set up by Italian army officers who had walked away from their posts at the time of the Armistice, but there had always been a flavour in the reports of an uneasy
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alliance between army deserters and communist agitators doing no more than putting on a display of bravado. Certainly everyone knew that any military action they took in those days would have no more effect on the Germans than a pinprick and lead to horrifying reprisals. The general impression one had was of disparate, small groups organising themselves in secrecy to harry the Germans when the inevitable retreat occurred. When we had been offered conduct across the Pescara River to them we were expecting something rather more modest than what we now found. This operation was the real thing and we were surprised that it could exist without the Germans’ knowledge or serious attempts to destroy it.
The camp was a large one and well organised. It was based around a log cabin which had obviously been a summer retreat in peacetime and a number of timber and stone outbuildings with corrugated iron roofs. There were also a number of makeshift shelters. There were clearly Italian army officers there as well as Italian other ranks, beside a number of local young men staying clear of the Germans in the villages. Rifles and hand guns were much in evidence.
Some of the wives were also there – even one or two children, although I had the impression that they did not live in the camp, but merely made daytime visits with supplies. Provisioning it was clearly a major task. The partisans had made a field kitchen out of an oil drum, and these being sheep-farming hills we were able to eat mutton and potato stews sufficient to feed us all. The Allied other ranks, many of them Indian, were clearly fully taking part in running the camp and it was quite odd in the Italian mountains to see sheep being slaughtered according to the custom of the East.
Arthur and I were allocated bedding under shelter in a hut with a fire. Whilst it was nothing like the more relaxed farms we had stayed in before our journey had become so perilous, we felt that we had found a haven in which we could recover some lost sleep and build up our strength for the last push to the Allied lines.
Arthur and I stayed in the camp for a few days to recover from our journey. We were encouraged by the partisans to stay with them until the lines passed north through
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us. They said that the Germans had within the last month or so retreated to a line only 30 or so miles south of us and that there had been heavy bombardments across it. An Allied attack across the Sangro River must be imminent. They could see no reason for our risking our lives trying to cross a battle-line on a river, with minefields as well as troop positions, and heavily-patrolled areas immediately behind it, when yet another Allied breakthrough would lead to the Germans retreating through the valleys beneath us and our finding ourselves in Allied territory. They added that two British officers could add to the efficiency of their unit in doing whatever could be done to hinder the Germans and help the Allies when the inevitable breakthrough came.
The picture they painted of the terrain to the south was a bleak one, and it was confirmed by the other prisoners of war who were staying there. At the time of the Armistice there had been hundreds of Allied prisoners of war at camps in Sulmona and they had escaped into the mountains at the time. The Germans had moved swiftly to round up men who could be a considerable nuisance just behind their line and had made strenuous attempts to re-capture them. They had captured many men in the houses of locals and the lucky ones of these locals had only had their houses destroyed. In consequence we would find the local people too frightened to help us or even feed us. Indeed they were themselves very short of food because the Germans had been taking it from them. So many men from the Sulmona camps had failed to find a way through, even before the Gustav Line had been built, and many of them had given up and had moved north of the Pescara River to lie low until the spring. We were told also that the terrain was very rugged. Whilst there were caves and the occasional charcoal-burners’ huts to hide in they were now very cold. We would be attempting to get through in an area where the only cover was rocks, where it was snowing, where there would be no help from the locals and where the Germans were patrolling very effectively.
The argument that we should stay was not without attractions, but Arthur and I were concerned that the Germans would make a determined stand on the last defendable line south of Rome and that the terrain would make another Allied offensive very difficult before the weather improved in the spring. The weather would also make life unpleasant for the German defenders, who would be more inclined to shrug their
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shoulders if something suspicious but not threatening occurred, and since we would be attempting to cross the line up in the high mountains we were more likely to find a gap in it. We were also somewhat concerned as to how long such a large partisan camp could escape detection by the Germans and so worried about how secure we would be there.
Much more significantly, we knew that if we set out for the line we would reach it the same day, or at most the following day. We were really far too close, having come so far, to turn down the chance of being in the officers’ mess the following evening. We thought it was worth taking a chance, and set ourselves a 60:40 test; if we had a 60 per cent chance of getting through in a particular situation, we would take it.
Between the Morrone Mountains and the Maiella Mountains was a minor road running through mountainous terrain some 10 miles to the east of the main Popoli to Castel di Sangro road, leading through Caramanico and Campo di Giove to Roccaraso. We decided to follow the line of this road, but of course off to the side of it. We soon realised that this was hostile territory. The villages, like so many in this area, were all compact ones built on rocky spurs and all showed evidence of a German presence. There was no opportunity to make safe contact with the local people.
Of course we were making tracks in the snow and the tracks we were walking along were inevitably patrolled from time to time by the Germans and we often had to make hurried detours when we spotted patrols in the distance. We were often walking in blizzards, which meant that visibility was particularly bad, and more than halfway to the line, south of Cansano, we very nearly blundered into a patrol. They had obviously seen us, but there was a steep, bouldered rise to one side of the track, and we scrambled up it as fast as we could, three steps up and two steps back. It was very icy and we were constantly slipping, dislodging scree as we did so. We could not believe that we would escape in view of the clatter we had made and the clear signs in the snow on the track that two people had very recently taken a very hurried exit. To our amazement no-one followed us up. We were inclined to think that the Germans had taken one look at the
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move. We decided that I should go. I was 5′ 9″ and dark-haired, whereas Arthur was 6′ 2″ and red-headed, and during our previous trip to Popoli Arthur had been the least Italian-looking member of our party. Armed with our precious map, so that I could identify the places mentioned in the broadcast, I went down with one of the women as my guide and spent the night with a communist family who had managed to conceal their radio throughout the war, but there was little of help on that night’s broadcast.
My guide next morning was a young man and he and I and I left Popoli in the early hours to walk back to the partisan camp. While we were climbing up the mountain to the camp it was suddenly subjected to the most ferocious German mortar attack. Infantry who had surrounded it fired continuously into it and then rushed it. My guide and I were spotted and fired at. We turned and ran back down the mountain as fast as we could. I descended the mountain several hundreds of feet per second and escaped unscathed. Fortunately the mountainside was so steep that it had been difficult for those above to aim accurately.
Some time later, after the camp had been looted and destroyed, I watched from some cover as Arthur and all the other British prisoners of war and partisans were marched down the mountain under very heavily armed escort. That evening under cover of darkness I found my way back to the house in Popoli where I had listened to the radio and the family and their next door neighbours offered me shelter.
I have often since wondered if the South Africans were German spies making a final reconnaissance for that attack and whether we should have dealt with them summarily. We took a civilised decision to let them go and now many Italian friends were in danger of being shot. I still take comfort from the fact that if they were spies they had walked in on their own, so that the Germans must have already have identified the camp as an assured target, and wonder if the partisans would have been very much more harshly dealt with if they had executed German spies.
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CHAPTER 7: A new identity
It would have been easy to despair in the following days. Within the space of a fortnight both Peter and Arthur had gone, both hopefully uninjured as German prisoners. I had discovered how difficult it would be to cross the battle line and what inhospitable country lay between me and the line. The partisan group had been captured en masse. We were obviously set in for a long, cold, snowbound winter. My only haven was in a village on the main east to west coast road and rail link north of the battle line. The village was full of German soldiers because, as it soon became clear, it was one of their leave centres for troops from the line.
It was a great comfort to me that I was immediately welcome in two families. Popoli was a very compact village in that it was squeezed between the northern spur of the Morrone and the Pescara River. The old stone houses were in terraces, with front and back entrances down steps into small alleys and shared a balcony. One could move from one house to the other along the balcony, which meant that there was always an easy escape from one to the other if danger threatened; indeed at one stage I discovered in the fascist house what would in England have been called a priest-hole and always regarded it as my final refuge in the event of a search. There was an added spice which added to my sense of security: one family were notorious communists and the other were notorious fascists!
The communist family were the ones who had first sheltered me and who owned the secret radio. The father, Rudi Ciccarelli, had been a racing cyclist who had represented Italy before the war, although his blond, Germanic looks and indeed his Christian name always led me to think that his mother was probably herself German or Austrian. I think that the communist connection was through Rudi’s wife Brera, because I later learned that her father had been a communist leader who was lynched by the
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fascists in his own shop shortly before the war. The family had left the hook in the ceiling to remind them that their day would come to string up the fascist leader who had led the lynching, and I could never be certain – certainly I was too polite to ask – who of the villagers was destined for suspension there.
The fascist family were always a puzzle to me because they were plainly still consorting with the Germans in the village, and I could never help but wonder if they were hedging their bets by sheltering me, whilst knowing that with their German connections they could not ever run the risk of my presence being betrayed to the Germans. In truth they looked after me with every bit as much kindness as the commununist family. The father was an old soldier who had lost a leg in the First World War called Mambriano Cipriani. He and his wife had two sons in their twenties, Artibano and Bengiamino, and a daughter who was about 14. The whole family became as firm friends to me as the Ciccarellis.
My other urgent necessity was to learn to speak Italian. For as long as I had been with Arthur it had not been necessary. Although his Italian at the start of the journey had been metropolitan, he had quickly developed such articulateness that he had done most of the talking on the way down. I had listened all the while and, but for the vagaries of passing through regions with different dialects, had long since been able to pick up the drift of conversations and to make my needs known. But when I had come back down into Popoli after the attack on the partisan camp, without a guide, I had been very lucky. If I had been unable to find the house I had stayed in the previous night I would not have been able to ask anyone for directions. And if I had been challenged by the Germans I would have had no chance of bluffing it out.
Fortunately Brera Ciccarelli spoke a little bit of English, and her two small daughters, Seria and Elena, who were about 3 and 10 years old, were like all children delighted to find new ways of communicating and I was effectively teaching them English while they were teaching me Italian. These little girls were delightful: Seria, a small girl with blond pigtails and oversized boots, took me under her wing. They were not formal lessons. We simply exchanged words as we went through our daily routines.
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The first step was to give me an Italian name. I became Giovanni Boschi, the exact literal translation of my own name. Everyone called me that thereafter.
After a while, although the partisan mountain huts and structures had been deliberately destroyed in the attack, the camp on Morrone had been restored in a fashion by partisans who had escaped from the various working parties. When the camp had first been captured I had inevitably been concerned as to their fate since, unlike the prisoners of war they were sheltering, they would not have the benefit of the Geneva Convention. As it turned out, a hundred able-bodied men had more use to the Germans as slave labour for clearing roads blocked by the constant heavy snowfalls than for target practice and they were put to work. I heard that when the camp was first captured some of them were subjected to savage beatings to get them to identify their leaders, doubtless so that the leaders could be separately dealt with, but the bravery of these men was such that the leaders were never betrayed. They were put to hard and unpleasant work, with constant punishment for perceived misbehaviour, and at night they would be marched back to a concentration camp in a factory to the east of the village along the river. But their resilience was such that gradually they were able to escape and return to the mountain. In ones and twos they moved back to their mountain makeshift huts and active service again, and I was able to rejoin them.
One of the first to return was Salvatore. He had been supposedly the cook at the camp, but the Germans had assumed that he had been one of the leaders. He had been taken to Chieti and treated quite savagely but had been able, the night before he was due to be shot, to escape through a window when he was assumed to be unconscious. Salvatore was now a marked man, constantly in hiding thereafter, and with an increased hatred of the Germans. Even if he had not been one of the leaders at the time the camp was taken, he certainly became one thereafter, along with Giuseppe and Lorenzo, who had brought me up to the camp with Arthur the first time, and one or two others whose names I find it impossible to remember after all these years.
The camp was now a dangerous place because the Germans knew where it was, and the smoke from our fires would indicate that it was back in use. The area was now
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constantly patrolled by them. The weather made it relatively easy to avoid these patrols, although the possible cover near the camp was itself dangerous. Hiding in the scrub if they came by was hazardous because it was standard procedure for the Germans to fire machine-gun bursts into any bushes where people might be hiding. We were constantly harassed by these German patrols.
It was clear that I would need a number of bolt-holes and even when only one or two of the partisans had returned to the camp I had decided to make my own hideaway in these mountains. I think that also at this time I was slightly suspicious as to whether it could have been one of the partisans who had betrayed the camp. I had only been with them a few days at the time it fell. So it was a natural reaction to set up a bolt-hole which no-one knew about. As it turned out, I need not have worried. In time all my partisan friends knew that I must have a separate hide because of my absences, but they never asked where it was. And it was not long before I realised that they were all brave and loyal friends.
Nevertheless it would be useful to have a hide if the camp was attacked again. Some way from the camp, in an area I had noticed the Germans would not patrol because of firing sight lines, I dug a trench the size of a sheet of corrugated iron, which I had recovered from one of the damaged buildings. I picked a site on a fairly steep incline, so that the trench would not flood and used the iron sheet as a roof. I made an upward-hinged front door out of wood retrieved from the camp. I used timber and the soil dug from the trench to camouflage the outline of the hide and covered the roof with branches. When I left it I would pile fern against the door. Fortunately it was never discovered by the Germans, and indeed my greatest problem was with grazing sheep disturbing the camouflage.
The hide was very spartan. I retrieved some rags from the camp for basic bedding, but had no blanket. I slept in the clothes I wore in the day, shirt and trousers, so that I would get extremely cold at night. I was able to give myself light from a single candle I was able to obtain; as it burned I would collect the molten wax for recycling around a piece of string in a cardboard tube to make the next candle. I say that I was
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able to get a candle; they were in short supply because the Allied bombing raids were knocking out electricity lines and everyone was having to use candles for lighting; matches, however, were easy to obtain. For water I would use snow or water from a nearby sheep-trough. Food was what I could scrounge from passing farmers, although sometimes I would go to the camp to eat before returning to the hide to sleep. Sometimes, if I knew that the camp was deserted because the partisans were off on one of their expeditions or if there were German patrols around, I would simply not eat. The hide was too far away from any farms or cottages for me to be able to use that as a source of food. It was a desperate way of living – surviving would be a better word – but I needed a variety of sleeping places given the patrols.
By now it was snowing every day. The Italians told me that this was quite the worst winter for many years. It was so cold that I could not manage more than two or three nights at a time in the hide and other nights I would return to the camp. Here at least there was more warmth – not only was there bedding, but there was a cat which used to sleep on my feet at night and keep them particularly warm – and the food was much better. Almost invariably it was a stew of meat and potatoes, cooked in an old oil drum. The meat was usually mutton, because of the sheep around, but as the winter wore on the sheep population of the mountains was regularly reduced by confiscations to feed the German troops. Fortunately these mountain people were natural hunters and we would have alternative meats, sometimes dog, sometimes squirrel or other game, which they had trapped. Squirrel was in fact to our taste at the time rather good, sweet meat. One night we had what tasted and appeared to be rabbit stew, but sadly it was not and my feet were somewhat colder at night from then on.
By now Christmas had passed unnoticed. Everyone was in a mood to survive and no more until the Allied breakthrough came, whilst looking for every opportunity to make that breakthrough a little easier to achieve. To be so close to such a crucial front-line is hardly conducive to normal social life. In any case, there would be no question of the partisans returning to their families for Christmas – that would be too dangerous. Next year, if we were still alive, would be a time to celebrate Christmas.
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From time to time I would return to Popoli to stay with the Ciccarellis and the Ciprianis. Popoli was obviously a dangerous place for me, and my presence there was even more dangerous for these two families and I would only stay there for two or three days at a time, staying indoors and away from the windows. But both the partisans, who at least could move relatively freely in the villages, and the families themselves realised that I needed periods out of the mountains to recover from the appalling conditions I was living in and would from time to time make the necessary arrangements for these visits. Apart from a fire to sit in front of and a bed to sleep in, I could eat home cooking again and from time to time would have such luxuries as fried eggs and potatoes and cooked meat. The Ciccarellis also knew that I remained desperate for news from their radio that would identify an opportunity somewhere along the line for me to get through.
It remained a strange paradox that a communist family and a fascist family were co-operating so closely to shelter me and that sometimes it was one of the fascist sons who acted as my guide. Neither family trusted the other except where I was concerned, and certainly I was always under instructions never to reveal the existence of the Ciccarellis’ radio to the Ciprianis. Indeed there was plainly no love lost between them. Quite what their relationship had been like before the downfall of Mussolini did not bear thinking about and perhaps it was now a necessary bond between them in order to survive. But both families co-operated fully to protect and succour me and I will ever be grateful to them.
The fact that I now knew the area well and my growing proficiency in Italian meant that I was becoming more adept at these visits to the village. At the end of the side valley down which we came from the camp was a small church and cemetery overlooking the main road. We could make our first reconnaissance over the wall of this cemetery to see if the coast was reasonably clear. Next to this wall was a small track which led through a hole in the village wall into the village itself. In the early stages I was always taken in by a guide, who would lead the way, I walking fifty or so yards behind. He or she would have a pre-arranged signal for danger. My instructions always were, if Germans came too near me, to find a wall and start urinating. Apparently the
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Germans considered this an offensive and peculiarly Italian habit and were inclined to give a wide berth to anyone doing it. The first time I had to do it, I found no difficulty and the trick worked, as it was to do on a number of later occasions.
During one of these visits, in late January, I was awakened early one morning by a low-level Allied air attack on Popoli railway station, followed later by a high-level saturation bombing raid. It was a most unpleasant experience and I was indeed fortunate to survive.
These raids were a new development, the reason for which was clear from my map. Popoli was on the direct route from Pescara to Rome and the Allies were attempting to destroy it so as to impede the Germans moving reinforcements from one end of the Gustav Line to the other. Although it was a very frightening experience for everyone, we all realised that it must be the prelude to a new Allied ground attack which might speed up our liberation.
Everyone assumed that these raids would become a daily occurrence, which they did, and the locals for a while moved out of the village during daylight hours, leaving their windows and doors open to minimise blast damage. For obvious reasons I could not join the exodus and was asked to stay out of sight in the houses and, if I heard Germans on the prowl for loot, to lock the windows and doors, earning my keep, as it were, as their caretaker. Their concern was justified. After one raid I suddenly became aware that the Germans were looting the fascist house and just had time to lock up the communist house before they turned their attention to it. I was in some trepidation as they tried to get into the house I was hiding in, but fortunately they decided that the pickings would be easier in an unlocked house and moved on.
The chaos created by the raid gave me two wonderful opportunities. I found a deserted printing shop. One of its functions was to print identity cards and I was able to appropriate a blank one. The shop also had some materials, some machine belting and nails, which could be used for re-soling my boots, which by now were in very poor
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condition indeed, and on my return to the camp I was able to make some much-needed repairs.
After two or three days of being alone under these air-raids I had had enough. I was on edge, I could now see daylight through our roof where the tiles had been dislodged by the shock waves of the bombs, and looking down on the rubble from my balcony I felt that it was almost a miracle that I was still alive. I decided that my days as a caretaker were over. I got out of Popoli during a curfew enforced by armed patrols – indeed as I left the village I tucked in behind one of these patrols, slipping from wall to wall with my boots in my hand so that I would make no noise – and rejoined our partisan group. As I reached the mountains I looked back into the valley and saw the reason for the raids. There were very heavy troop movements along the Pescara Valley from east to west. There was obviously a major new battle in progress on the west coast. Only later was I to discover that this battle was the Anzio landing.
One of the first things I did on my return to the partisan camp was to complete my new identity card. I borrowed one belonging to one of the partisans and brought into play the forgery skills I had learned in prisoner of war camp. Cognome: Boschi. Name: Giovanni. Nato il: 6 agusto 1916, a: Bulzano, in the far north of Italy where people had fairer skins. Professione: carpentiere, carpentry having been one of my pre-war hobbies. I was given a scrap of rubber from an old tyre (something easy to find in a war-zone), took a tracing from the rubber-stamp on a genuine card, and then using a borrowed knife made a mirror carving on the rubber scrap, inked it and applied it to the card. Someone retrieved from his family album an old photograph of someone who looked a bit like me and we stuck it to the card. It was then mistreated to make it look old and tattered enough to be both authentic and difficult to read. We felt that it would pass anything other than a very close inspection. The transformation to my new identity was now complete.
To the partisans in the mountains, however, I remained “Capitano Inglese”. They had first met me as a British army officer, and they had remembered how I had warned them not to trust the South Africans, who they were certain had been German spies. I
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was always an army officer to them, and although my sobriquet represented an unjustified promotion from lieutenant it was a name which also became my own.
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CHAPTER 8: Capitano Inglese
At this time I made another significant acquisition. Whilst searching wreckage in the camp for materials for my hide I found a loaded Beretta 9 mm pistol, which had obviously been hidden by one of the Italian officers at the time of the German attack. Under conventional thinking it is positively suicidal for an escaped prisoner of war to be caught armed, but it is a sign that I was now thinking of myself as a partisan involved in fighting the enemy, rather than as someone passing through, that I decided to keep this pistol. I now regarded a firearm as necessary for my protection, for my survival, and kept it with me at all times thereafter, although I always hid it when I was in one of the houses in Popoli because of the additional danger to the families if I was caught with it on me. I cleaned it regularly but although I regarded myself as quite prepared to use it to evade recapture I never used it in anger.
We were not an active partisan unit in terms of making frequent hit and run raids. After the attack on the camp we had few weapons, some rifles and handguns, and little ammunition. Shooting German soldiers, or engaging in obvious acts of sabotage, would have led to appalling reprisals in the villages. It was, however, often easy to conduct sabotage during, and which could be attributed to, Allied air raids, and the aim was always to disrupt German communications.
The air raids were frequent, and to exactly the same purpose. Sometimes we would be on top of a mountain and a squadron of bombers would fly past us (not over us – sometimes we felt that it was as if we could look into the cockpits). They would fly over Sulmona and all drop a stick of bombs at the same time and then fly on to the next target to repeat the exercise. The partisans would move about a lot after these raids looking to add, by surreptitious sabotage, to the strategic damage caused by the bombs whilst trying to make it look as if it was the bombs that had caused it. Almost as much
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damage was done to railway, telephone and electricity lines in the immediate aftermath of these raids as by the raids themselves. The frequency of the raids meant that there was quite a lot of this activity.
But our most important achievement was that the Germans considered us enough of a threat to divert soldiers who would otherwise have been on the front line to come looking for us, and the frequency and strength of the patrols which was making life so difficult for us was a sure sign that we were causing a headache to the Germans.
One of the ironies of all this was that the Germans were constantly capturing partisans without realising it. Whenever there was snow or a heavy air-raid, all men around were impressed into road-clearing gangs and many partisans were taken for this purpose. I can remember one occasion when I was hiding in Popoli and the Germans knocked on the door of the house I was in to see if there were young men in it for snow-clearing. It would have been interesting to know if I could pass for an Italian when press-ganged for road-clearing, but fortunately I did not have to find out.
It was slave labour on these gangs. The men had to work for the full daylight hours and if there was a lot of work around, they would be marched back to the concentration camp outside Popoli for the night so as to ensure that their services would still be available the next day. Whenever partisans were unfortunate enough to be around when the press-gangs were out and forced to work on these working parties they would always lead the parties to work as slowly as they could in order to hamper the Germans, and no amount of beatings, obvious to me when they eventually returned to the camp, would induce them out of this strategy. Men would be shot if they tried to escape, and I can remember one occasion when we saw two men who had been buried up to their necks by the Germans by the roadside as punishment of some kind. But at nightfall the partisans who had been impressed in this way were often able to slip away and rejoin the group.
I was not constantly with the partisans. Fortunately I had been carrying our precious map in my pocket when I went down to Popoli the night before the camp was
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attacked in early December, and even before the January air-raid and ever since I had been making excursions towards the line to try to find a way through. As time went on I became more confident of my ability to pass as an Italian. I had genuine identity papers, and by now I spoke fluent Italian in the broad Abruzzi dialect – indeed my accent has been a source [of amusement] to all Italians ever since! I was now prepared to travel around on my own. More to the point I might stand a chance of slipping through the line masquerading as an Italian and in the company of an Italian guide able for some reason or other to cross it. But I was never able to find such a guide on any of my excursions. A guide seemed absolutely necessary to cross the central part of this line because it was on the river. Even if one had managed to slip between the German positions, one would still have to cross the river and the Germans would doubtless have designed their positions so that their firing lines were interlocking, not to mention laying minefields. Each time I had to return to the partisans.
My language skills and papers also gave me more confidence that I could pass for a local when walking into Popoli. I was quite prepared to saunter along the road into the village as if it was a natural thing to do. One evening I went down alone once more to listen to the radio in Popoli with one of the partisans as my guide, following the normal procedure. Unfortunately, when he came to a road-block just outside the village he forgot that I was not one of his fellow Italians and omitted to give me the danger signal. I strolled past the German traffic controller as casually as I could, but some yards after I had passed him he challenged me. The time had come for me to put my ability to pass as an Italian to the test.
In spite of my gesticulations and protestations that I was an Italian – certainly I felt that I was fluent in the Abruzzi dialect by now – I was taken to a small building and was searched. My British army identity tags were discovered and removed. The German used a wall telephone to summon assistance to take me away. I was desperate. I had not been properly searched and my Beretta had not yet been discovered, but I knew that when it was I would probably be facing a firing-squad. I lashed out at the man with my bare fists and leapt from the room. As I left the front door a shot whistled past me. Outside was another German with a rifle and as I ran along the road, zig-zag in true
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infantry fashion, a hail of shots rang past me. I remained unscathed until I fell in some bomb debris, smashing my nose and suffering severe cuts on my hands, face and legs. The area along the road had been severely damaged by bombing raids, so that there was plenty of cover around, and again I managed to hide.
My guide had obviously gone into the village to report on what had happened. An hour or so later I heard Seria Ciccarelli hunting around the rubble calling out “Giovanni, Giovanni Boschi”. I called out to her and she took me home. I was taken to the village doctor, who patched me up as best he could, but medical supplies were very scarce and my various wounds all turned septic and remained septic until I eventually reached the Allied lines.
My troubles were not over. During my period of recovery I was unaware that the carabiniere were searching houses for loot taken from bomb-damaged homes. They would have had more luck, as I am sure they knew, in the German barracks, but perhaps the Germans had told them to do this. At this time I was in a room in the communist house with another partisan. We heard voices, which we immediately realised spelt danger, from the other side of the door. My partisan companion, who was by the window, was able to escape over the balcony, but I was on the bed and unable to do so in time – I was still weak, having lost a lot of blood when I was injured. As I made across the room the door opened and I realised that I would not be able to get out in time. Fortunately there were some stacked mattresses and blankets in the corner of the room, where at least there was a chance, for the family and me, that I would not be found, and I managed to dive under these without being seen. I listened from beneath the bedding as a furious argument went on between Brera Ciccarelli and the carabiniere as to who owned my hiding place.
Miraculously she managed to satisfy them that the bedding belonged rightfully to the family and dissuade them from subjecting it to a thorough examination in the process. After the carabiniere left, I emerged from my hiding place to the signora’s obvious horror, she having assumed that I too had had time to escape over the balcony. She had thought that she had been simply arguing to keep her family’s property, rather
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than to save their lives. Would she have been able to argue so indignantly and convincingly if she had known I was still there? She thought not, but in a short while a matter of horror had turned into one that gave her a great sense of achievement and amusement.
I think that it was around this time that the Germans started making serious attempts to capture me. Maybe they thought that I was in communication with the Allies, providing them with behind-the-lines intelligence. Maybe they thought that I was organising the partisan activity, which as I have mentioned they devoted considerable resources to trying to track down. They posted a princely award – I was told that it was as much as £70, a year’s income to some of these people, although my Italian friends did have a considerable penchant for exaggeration – for “Capitano Inglese”! In some ways this was a compliment because it was considerably more than the standard £20 for information leading to the capture of an escaped prisoner of war, but it did make me feel more vulnerable.
The older locals, who supported but were unable to join the partisans, took much pleasure in the idea that the British had sent someone over to support the partisans, and even took pleasure in taunting the Germans with the thought. As the bombers came over they would nod and smile that Capitano Inglese was directing the attacks. Mindful of being treated as a spy if I was captured, the risk of which was greater now that I no longer had my identity tags, I tried all I could to dissuade them from these taunts, but any thought that something significant and helpful was being done on their side of the line was of great comfort to people who were living in enemy-occupied territory in bomb-damaged homes and in straitened conditions.
After my recent scares I resolved to spend more time in the mountains with the partisans. This meant that I was constantly cold and hungry, and by now my dysentery had become quite debilitating. I was living in intolerable conditions. Like the partisans, I was living day to day. The partisans were also a source of inspiration. They were clearly brave men, but happy-go-lucky with it so that one’s spirits were frequently raised by their camaraderie and love of life. Sometimes, for example when they wasted precious
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bullets with celebratory shots into the air after a particularly successful expedition – I soon discovered that Lorenzo’s spontaneous display of contempt for the Germans on the morning he first took me up to the camp was not an isolated rush of blood to the head – one felt that their bravado might cause unnecessary danger. But they were spontaneous people and needed these outpourings of emotion.
Throughout my time with the partisans I remained on the constant lookout for opportunities to rejoin my own troops and whenever the partisans heard any news which might help me in this they would pass it on as soon as they heard it. There were in fact repeated rumours of the Allies breaching the Gustav Line and, although with growing scepticism as to their accuracy, I would invariably set off in the direction of the reported breach. The ridge of the Maiella Mountains, running north to south for some 30 miles immediately to the east and rising to some 9,000 feet, presented a substantial obstacle to such excursions because it was clear that there was no way across them without a trained guide and then in very deep snow.
Sometimes I tried re-exploring the route to the south which Arthur and I had taken in early December, principally because it was a known one which did not cross any major roads. On a number of occasions I tried skirting the Maiella to the north to explore its foothills to the east; this was particularly hazardous because the early stages involved walking along the Pescara Valley, where there was constant troop and supplies movement, and then took me onto the left flank of the Gustav line where it met the Adriatic Sea. I invariably found myself having to turn back on the eastern expeditions because I was finding heavily dug-in positions.
Sometimes I would set out west towards the battle around Cassino. This was also a very hazardous route because one first had to cross the main road from the north, through Sulmona, to the centre of the Gustav Line at Castel di Sangro. On one occasion I made a four-day trip across the Grande Mountains in response to a rumour of paratroop landings in the north of the Liri valley. (Incidentally, I learned many years later that this rumour was only slightly wrong. Someone had obviously seen paratroops landing in the ruins of Monte Cassino after it had been bombed and assumed that they
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were Allied rather than German, and of course Cassino is also in the Liri valley. It is easy to see how reinforcements had become three and fourpence as the story crossed the mountains.)
Sometimes, almost to have something to do to keep me warm, I would set off in mere hope. The failure of my disguise when I was arrested in Popoli had shown me that my deportment had still needed working on and I had been using my time observing and seeking to copy the body-language of my fellows and I had learned a lot from the experience. I was now much more confident of my ability to pass as an Italian, unless my papers, which were getting more tatty by the day, were particularly carefully examined, so that walking alone through villages on the way was less daunting.
It was still bitterly cold in the mountains. If there were reliable locals around it was not so bad; you could walk around in the sun by day, rest in shelter by night, and have some bread and cheese to eat. But sometimes I was in completely uninhabited areas and then I would travel at night and rest by day, simply to avoid freezing to death. Indeed in some ways it was easier to travel by night. At this height it was frequently sunny by day (so that I could sleep in relative comfort), there would be a slight thaw, and after the sun went down a crust of ice would form. One could walk on this surface considerably more quickly, without leaving tracks. At these times I would sometimes go for days without eating. They were unpleasant journeys.
Each time I came near the lines it was obvious that the Germans were still very well dug in. Sometimes I would feel that I was making good progress and I would suddenly see a German patrol, or without seeing anyone hear a conversation in German, and have to beat a hasty but silent retreat. One was somewhat exposed against a white background, and if the Germans saw you acting suspiciously so close to their lines they would fire at you. On a number of occasions puffs in the snow would show how close to hitting me the German riflemen were. The Gustav Line was clearly a very solid one and it was no surprise that the Allies had been held up by it for months.
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It was very depressing to be so near to my compatriots and yet separated by a furious battle line and series of minefields, knowing that my chances of getting through were very slight. I consoled myself by the thought that with every week that I was still free I was surviving the winter, that spring would make life easier, and that if the Germans did start to withdraw the partisan group could make life more difficult for them and perhaps also prevent the Germans blowing up one or two bridges.
Spring came at last, later of course in the mountains than on the plains, and with it the prospect of the Allies being able to make a major attack. The snowline began to recede up the mountain sides, the days grew sunny and wild flowers began to appear in the fields. One was beginning to feel alive again.
Although it was not immediately obvious to us at the time, there were symptoms of a change in fortune as May set in. The patrols in the Morrone Mountains, although not those just north of the line, became less frequent and then stopped. The German supply lines were beginning to look thinner and there were clearly not so many soldiers around. The artillery barrages to the south were becoming much more intense and the bombing raids more frequent. One became conscious that looting by German soldiers, previously casual, was becoming systematic.
One morning in late May we looked down from a mountain top and saw the Germans laying charges on the railway line from Pescara to Rome. They were working from a maintenance trolley, and after laying charges on one section they would move on, detonate the charges, attach hooks to the blown rails, haul them off, and then repeat the exercise on the next stretch. I immediately knew that this railway line was of no further use to them and that they must be about to withdraw to their next line of defence, north of where I was living.
We never saw the Germans withdraw in mass, either because they went through another area or because they did so by night when we were out of sight in the mountains, but from the mountain top we could see isolated bands of infantry moving north and knew that the collapse of the Gustav Line had at last happened.
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We went straight down into Popoli. The Germans had indeed gone, although there was some sporadic firing by them into the village from the north. My partisan friends, in jubilant mood, immediately set about securing the bridge and rounding up as many Germans as they could. We parted in the hasty fashion of war as I immediately set out to walk south as fast as I could to join, and report on these developments to, my own countrymen.
There was one touching episode in this parting of the ways. My friends looked at me and said that I could not go back to my own troops dressed as I was in such rags. They hunted around for some better clothes, but could only find one shirt. I set off still dishevelled but in a spanking new, pink, short-sleeved shirt.
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CHAPTER 9: Deliverance
I walked south as fast as I could towards the British lines along the mountain road to Cansano which Arthur and I had followed some six months earlier and which I had re-traced so many times since. On the way this time I met an Allied jeep. I waved it down and told the occupants I was an escaped prisoner of war. They appeared to accept this. Why they did so I do not know, because when I eventually made the British lines there was considerable doubt as to my identity.
I have to admit that my recollection of this incident is very hazy. To this day I cannot picture it. Nor can I say in what language I spoke to the soldiers in the jeep. It was almost certainly Italian, because I know that later that day I had considerable difficulty speaking English, but doubtless the first reconnaissance patrols would have had Italian-speakers on board.
Why is my recollection so hazy? It must have been exhaustion. I had been on the run for more [than] eight months, and for the last six of them frequently living like a hunted animal. I had been afraid of betrayal throughout. I was suffering from chronic dysentery and the after-effects of my injuries in my last escape and had been under my own side’s carpet-bombing. Quite simply I was exhausted and must have been in a daze when I had seen them.
But I was not taken back to the lines. I was able to tell them that Popoli was free of Germans and they wanted to establish as soon as possible if this was true and to take with them someone who had, so he claimed, just been with the partisans and so knew the area quite intimately. I was in a position to help them. I was taken back to Popoli to confirm that the Germans really had withdrawn.
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The village was by now in muted celebration. It was very badly damaged by the repeated air-raids and anything worth celebrating with had been looted by the retreating Germans. The gaol was now full of German stragglers and known collaborators. There had, however, been a most unsavoury development while I was gone in that an “official” body of partisans, who had been nowhere in evidence while the band I had been with had been doing all the hard work, had now arrived from outside the area and were seeking to take the credit for the partisans’ achievements from the local group. They were even presuming to give orders to the very men whose credit they were now stealing. I found this very distasteful since the real partisans, although lightly armed, had behaved bravely with disdain of the enemy and deserved commendation. I made this clear in no uncertain terms to the British patrol as I did at my later debriefing by military intelligence, and hopefully this would mean that credit was given where it was due when the full British force arrived.
After this unpleasant interlude we returned to the British forward post to report the extent of the German withdrawal.
I was then taken back to the nearest British battalion headquarters and, despite the fact that when we had returned to Popoli the partisans had called me Capitano Inglese and confirmed my story to the patrol, I found them highly sceptical as to my identity. My tags were gone and I had Italian identity papers on a genuine card. My face and hands were covered in festering sores. I had a beard, my hair was greasy and matted and down to my shoulders, my clothes (apart from my new shirt) were in tatters and my boots barely wearable.
More to the point I found myself, doubtless because of the stress of deliverance, utterly unable to converse in English, and unable to keep my hands by my side when talking. I must have developed all the body language of an Italian peasant, his gait even, if I had been able to walk in and out of Popoli so many times without attention being specially paid to me. There is considerable irony in the fact that, having for so long been I afraid that I would be taken for an Englishman when I was masquerading as an Italian, my fellow-countryman were now unable to give me credit for not being an Italian!
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To say that I found the following events bemusing is an understatement. The battalion I was with was, I think, an Indian one because there were many Indian soldiers in it, but I was so unused to English that I was unable to understand what people were saying around me. I suppose that at some stage I was offered the opportunity to have a bath, a shave and a haircut. Looking back, I would have thought that such a luxury after so long would have been indelibly printed in my memory, but I have absolutely no recollection of such an important event.
I was then taken off to the intelligence officer. I would be asked a question in English and have to translate it in my mind into Italian and then reply in Italian. The adjutant was an Italian speaker and I remember the commanding officer suggesting that I go off for an hour or so with the adjutant and walk around so that he could gradually wean me off Italian and on to English as a means of communication.
With hindsight, I can see why they were so keen to talk with me. I had brought their first information of the extent of the German retreat, and I had been with an active group of partisans; they doubtless hoped that I would have much information [that] could help them during their advance northwards.
For my part I was delighted to give them as much information as I could, and concerned that the occupying forces should give credit and as much comfort as possible to the people who had been helping me – particularly the Ciccarellis and the Ciprianis and the true partisans.
The information I was able to give them as I became more composed must have impressed them, because next day I was driven alone in a 15 cwt truck to Naples to be interrogated by military intelligence there.
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CHAPTER 10: Debriefing
In Naples I was interrogated very thoroughly. It became clear that my partisan group was known about on the British side of the line – indeed we were the most southerly group of partisans that they knew about. Apart from wanting to know as much about the Pescara valley as I could tell them, they were also generally interested to know the route I had taken from Fontanellato. We spent time with a map and I was eventually able to pick out a number of place-names along the route and jot them down on a piece of paper. I have kept a copy of that piece of paper, along with the pencil map I made at the time of the breakout, and am certain that without it I would have been quite unable to write this account of my journey.
Although at all times people led me to believe that they accepted that I was who I said I was, I am sure that they were not so sure. From time to time I would be asked questions with a certain edge to them – why, for example, were they so interested in the early stages of my journey from the north? – and it was some time before I was given replacement clothing or money to spend. One can understand their caution. Signal traffic with England would have been too preoccupied with the logistics of the advance to Rome to check if there was a John Woods of the Durham Light Infantry reported as a prisoner of war in northern Italy. And I must have still have been behaving in a very Italian way – indeed my wife and my brother tell me that for months after my return I would still do things that were not exactly English – and I suppose I could have been there to spread false intelligence on behalf of the other side. They must have been looking at me in the same way as I was looking at those supposed South Africans just before the fall of the partisan camp the previous December.
Nevertheless, everybody at this time was extremely kind. The officers’ mess was exceptionally welcoming, although in my partisan rags I must have looked somewhat
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out of place, and the fact that I had no money was no obstacle to my becoming extremely inebriated, although it did not take many drinks to induce that state. Altogether I was entertained very well. But I was still in very poor shape and it is clear with hindsight that it was decided that I needed to be repatriated as soon as possible.
Three days later I was aboard a ship on my way back to England and just prior to leaving I was issued with an other ranks uniform, adding my badges of rank, to replace my tattered garments. It is of interest that I was debited with the cost of it a month or so later – officers were, after all, expected to provide their own uniforms.
We then sailed through still-hazardous seas to Scotland, where I was further interrogated by military intelligence. To this day I remain puzzled as to what it was that I could tell them that was so special that my deliverance had to be kept so secret that my wife, who was serving with the WAAF, was not told of it until my arrival in Scotland (although it must be said that there was considerably more important signal traffic between Italy and England at the time). Since the Fontanellato breakout in September 1943, she had been unaware if I was still alive, although in late April 1944 she had received a letter from the War Office informing her of a report that I had been reported as seen in the northern mountains, on Mount Fumaiolo, the previous October.
After a further debriefing session with military intelligence in Scotland, I was put on an overnight train to London. At Euston I stepped into a taxi, trusting to get the money to pay for it when I reached Jean’s parents’ house in South London, where she was then living. I arrived to a deserted house. The war still had to go on and Joan had not been allowed leave from the WAAF, her father was at war-necessary work, and her mother, the neighbours told me, had been queuing since the early hours of the morning to try to get some fish with which to celebrate my return – although when the reason for her wanting fish was known to the other people in the queue she had immediately been ushered to its head. Neighbours paid the taxi fare and looked after me until Jean’s mother returned. Clearly the people of London shared some of the problems of the people of Popoli.
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Although I was entitled only to 28 days’ leave on my return I needed considerably longer to recover. I needed surgery to remove all the remaining bone and gristle in my nose and my general condition was such that I was not able to go back on active service until December. Even then I was not fit for action and I was posted to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to assist in training officer cadets. One of the things I was asked to lecture on was survival behind enemy lines.
During this period I was lucky enough to be able to say thank you, albeit in a small way, to some of the families who had helped me during my journey. As I mentioned earlier in my story, many of them had had sons away at the war, some of them themselves prisoners of war in Allied hands. Some of these families were able, because of the chits I had left, to contact me asking for help in tracing their sons, the Italian government of the time having been singularly inefficient at notifying next-of-kin of prisoners’ dispositions. With the exception of poor Artemio Cattani’s son, who had disappeared in Russian hands, I was always able to do so. I was even able to meet Rudi Ciccarelli’s brother Guido, who was in a British camp awaiting repatriation, and it gave me enormous pleasure to be able to show my gratitude to him for all that his family had done for me.
One of the things that had been impressed on me during my various debriefings – indeed I had had to sign a piece of paper confirming that I would do so – was that I should keep secret all the details of my escape and journey through occupied territory, so as not to prejudice the prospects of other prisoners of war still on the run or the local people who had helped me. However, while I was at Sandhurst I was instructed by the War Office to report to an office near Lincoln’s Inn Fields so that I could brief some Italians about my time with the partisans. Whilst they were introduced to me as from an Italian national newspaper, I had no doubt, given the venue and circumstances of the meeting, that they were representatives of the new Italian Government. I recalled how on my return to Popoli with the reconnaissance patrol I had seen the wrong people taking credit for the partisan activity there and was delighted to be able to give information which would ensure that credit was given where it was due. I left with them a list of the names of my partisan friends, but have ever since regretted that I did not
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keep a copy of it, although I was mindful at the time of my secrecy undertaking. These Italian officials also, all these months later, told me that the Popoli partisans had been the most southerly active unit, and that their activities had been regarded as highly useful in tying up German troops behind the front line.
It goes to show how false intelligence and self-deception can lead to strange decisions in the mist of war. If only the Germans had known that Capitano Inglese was not a British agent who had slipped across the lines to organise these partisans, but merely an escaped prisoner of war who was merely attached to them whilst looking to slip the other way across the lines, and if only they had known how few guns and bullets we had!
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CHAPTER 11: Postscript
After the war I stayed on in the Durham Light Infantry, and the people I had known in captivity either went back into civilian life or stayed with their regiments. I spent time in Germany, in Burma at the time of independence (where eventually I had to throw my Beretta down a latrine since we had, for political reasons, to dispose of our weapons before our withdrawal from Maymyo, near Mandalay), in Malaya during the Emergency and then as a staff officer at GHQ Singapore, where I was involved in the re-formation of the SAS to fight against the insurgents in the jungle. By the time I retired in 1954 I had lost touch with my former colleagues in Fontanellato.
I did receive one pleasant surprise. In 1946 I received a letter from Arthur Hall asking if I was the John Woods he had escaped with, and if I was then he had some things for me. As it turned out, when the Germans had taken the partisan camp, one of the British soldiers at the camp had rescued the paintings and photograph I had carried down through Italy and handed them to him for safekeeping. He sent them to me (and had obviously looked after them most carefully whilst in captivity) but since he was just about to be posted to South East Asia we were unable to meet.
He had further great news. He wrote that when he was in transit to Germany he had been re-united with Peter Gunter in a prisoner of war transit camp in Austria and that they had remained together until the end of the war. It was most re-assuring to hear that Peter had survived, particularly since one was aware of quite how many escaped prisoners of war in Italy had simply disappeared, either because they were blown up in minefields or were simply found dead in the mountains and buried in unmarked graves.
Another pleasant surprise occurred a year or so back when I was watching a television programme and a Mr Ronald Mann, a distinguished water-colour artist,
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appeared. I wrote to him, asking if he was the Ronnie Mann who had painted an oil colour of me in Fontanellato and he told me that he was. He was delighted to see it again, I am delighted to own one of the early works of a distinguished artist, and we now see each other from time to time.
In 1993 my family suggested that, with the 50th anniversary of the Fontanellato escape coming up, I should be looking out in the newspaper personal columns for notice of an anniversary celebration. It appeared a few weeks later and I was absolutely delighted to attend and see so many old friends after so many years. I was very sad to hear that Arthur Hall had died, but one of the other people there was able to put me in touch with Peter Gunter, who lives only some twenty miles away and we have been able to yarn over the journey of so many years ago.
A more lasting sadness is that, because of my continuing service with the army and then the peculiar holiday demands of a young family, I was never able to say thank you to so many brave Italians who risked their lives by sheltering me and who shared their very meagre food with me. I could never take the risk of keeping any memento of them, in case I was recaptured. As I have mentioned, my son did manage to find one family, but then he was only able to do so because their home was in such a memorable spot and by the time I was able to visit their area they were long dead. When I next went to Italy, the winding narrow roads had been replaced by wide dual carriageways in different locations, villages had become small towns and the ramshackle cottages that I would have stayed in, even if I could have found them, would have disappeared to be replaced by more modern buildings served by electricity and the telephone.
I did however have one memorable reunion. Joan and I spent a holiday in Southern Italy a few years back and we visited Popoli. I set off in search of my old haunts and friends. What I had left as a bomb-damaged village was now a seemingly prosperous town. The two houses I had stayed in were still there, although now looking very smart with window boxes and hanging baskets of flowers, but the families had moved away.
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As I was passing the railway station I suddenly remembered that one of my comrades-in-arms had worked there in peacetime. I went in and asked after him. At first I met a wall of silence, his colleagues fearing that I brought retribution from the other side to the conflict. There was a familiar whisper of “tedescho?” Suddenly there was a shout from the stationmaster’s office “Capitano Inglese!”. I received the traditional greeting and, doubtless to the inconvenience of the train service that Mussolini had made run on time, was dragged off to a cafe in the main square. We were gradually joined by a large number of fellow-geriatrics greeting me in the same way. To Joan’s total bemusement, not to mention that of the younger Abruzzini around, we spent many happy hours drinking much wine, speaking a dialect of Italian that no academic student of the language would understand, and reliving the days of our youth when the might of Hitler’s army had thought that we presented a threat to their rear.
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THE WAR OFFICE,
CURZON STREET HOUSE,
20th April, 1944.
I am directed to state that information has been received in the Department to the effect that your husband, Lieutenant C.J. Woods, The Durham Light Infantry, was seen free and well at Monte Fumaiolo, Italy in October, 1943.
It should be clearly understood that in passing this report to you the Department is not in a position to confirm it from official sources but it is sent in the hope that it will serve to allay some anxiety on your part, though it is not recent news.
In the circumstances it will be appreciated that it would be unwise at present to make any further enquiries as to his location or welfare as these might prejudice his chances of reaching ultimate safety.
Mrs. C. J. Woods,
41, Cedarville Gardens,
Streatham Common, London, S.W.16.
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Immediately any further news is received you will, of course, be notified. Should you receive any communication direct, however, prior to an official report, it would be appreciated if you would inform the Department.
Your obedient Servant
G.T.H. Rogers [?]
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[Map with caption] Photocopy of map drawn in Bund shortly before my decision to move south
[Map of Italy and a sketch of area around Fontanellato]
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Journey South: A copy of list of villages and towns I skirted given to Intelligence officers during interrogation on return safely to British Forces
Passo del Cerreto
Borgo S. Lorenzo
Bagno di Romagna
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[Photocopies of letters written to me by Arthur Hall on his return to UK from German PoW camp]
District Claims Office
(adjacent to Cowley Barracks)
I am afraid that I have left this small matter until the last moment. However, it is not all my fault as I experienced great difficulty in tracing your address. No one in camp with me in Germany seemed to know it – neither did the DLI depot, however I eventually got this one from Hardwick camp and trust that I am writing to the correct Johnny Woods (i.e. ex-Campo P.G.49 Italia)!!
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I never succeeded in finding out what happened to you in the village of Popoli on that historic morning of 5th Dec. 1943 when I was recaptured together with all the others plus about 100 wops. But I did succeed in rescuing two objects of sentimental value to yourself – namely the oil portrait of yourself and also the painting on wood of your wife. These I still have with me at the moment, and will gladly post them to you if you can give me your proper address and also confirm that you are the correct Johnny Woods!
Please reply as quickly as you can as I have signed on for another year and
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hope to sail for S.E.A.C. any day now in my present job in the Claims Commission which I find rather interesting and well paid. After that year’s service I intend to go planting coffee in India as this country is certainly not good enough for me with all these blasted controls in force.
Excuse short note but this is written in great haste.
With all good wishes.
P.S. Peter Gunter was demobbed last October and I was best man at his wedding on Oct. 25th.
AFH [Arthur Hall]
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M.V. Capetown Castle
Wednesday night, 20th Feb
Many thanks for your letter. I am glad that the paintings and photograph reached you O.K.
I was interested in your account of your happenings. You certainly seem to have had a hectic time of it. Actually I am going to send your letter onto Peter, who I am sure will be interested in your wanderings. I am afraid I have left my address book in my trunk, which is in the hold, so I won’t be able to send it to him until I am sure of his address, although I am pretty certain it is
P.K. Gunter Esq.
50 Princes Gate Mews,
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As you see by the address I am now on board. I arrived here this afternoon and have been told we do not sail until Friday but we may not leave the ship! A lot of good telling an ex PoW that sort of thing! I went off this afternoon and shall certainly try to get off tomorrow again.
My quarters are foul – we are quartered in troops’ quarters – a 100 of us in the old swimming bath which has been boarded over and fitted with 4-tier bunks! I have remonstrated with the ships’ adjutant about this and he said he will fit me up with a cabin when we reach Port Said where a number are disembarking. That is some consolation at any rate, as I do not relish the idea of the Red Sea in my present berth which has no portholes, lockers or tables!
Please excuse this awful bumph and pencil but my pen has run out, as also has my supply of notepaper, and the
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canteen is not open yet.
I am sorry that I shall not be able to join you over a mug of ale but I was pushed down here at 48 hours notice. However, if you will send me your home address, which I appear to have lost in the haste of packing, I will contact you when I get home in a year’s time. My own address until further notice is
Capt. A. F. Hall RA,
C/O Claims Commission and Hirings Directorate,
Allied Land Forces,
South East Asia Command.
Actually we stop at a lot of ports on the way – Gib [Gibralter] first, then Malta, Naples (where we drop off 100 wop PoWs), Port Said and then Bombay. After that I do not know how I go – I may
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go overland to Calcutta and thence by ship to Singapore or I may fly from Bombay to Singapore. Anyhow it looks as though I shall see quite a lot of the world on this trip.
No more now. Don’t forget to send me your home address when you have time.
Best of luck to you when you get demobbed.
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District Claims Office
Morris Sports Pavilion
(Nr Cowley Barracks)
Friday evening, 15/2/46
I am very glad that I have been able to track you down at last, because keeping these pictures has been weighing on my conscience for some time. I am afraid the photo of your wife is very dirty and battered, but having nothing else to use, I kept the photo wrapped round your portrait in the hope that the latter would not get too tattered. Because, as you know, the facilities which a PoW has of keeping his kit in good order, especially during
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transit, are not many! However considering that they have had to weather the storms of several German military searches and Gestapo searches I don’t think that they have survived too badly. As a matter of fact I did not get a chance to go through your kit at all as I was caught by the bosche in the “ante-room” at the hut whilst I was warming my toes by the fire and was not allowed back into the sleeping quarters. Luckily I had my own sack of personal belongings with me. However, the gun-fitter from the 72nd Field Regt (I forget his name) handed your portraits to me when we were lined up outside the hut and I said I would hang on to them and give them back to you one
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day! I had a sticky ten minutes when I was interrogated immediately afterwards as the Bosche officer said that he would not be able to treat me as a PoW as I was caught in “civvies” and there was also a rifle and a revolver found on the premises. However, as he was trying hard at the time to “pump” me and the others for the names and location of the wop officers who were looking after us I guessed that it was mostly bluff and so it turned out to be – thank God! As I had visions of being stood against a wall and being filled full of Tommy gun bullets! Although they did not get the names of the wop officers from us, as I was
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being marched off to a waiting lorry I noticed the two officers were amongst a crowd of other wops whom they had rounded up after a bit of a shooting match. I don’t know if the bosche ever discovered their identity – I hope not.
Our cook, “Salvatore”, received a hell of a beating up which sickened me, all because he would not talk and tell the bosche who the leader of the gang was. He was taken off and was supposed to be going to be shot next day, however, I was very glad to hear later that he escaped from Chieti jail that same night.
All us ex-Pows were were taken to Sulmona and later, by various
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tedious and uncomfortable stages to Deutschland. I met Peter Gunter in a transit camp at Moosburg in Austria. He had been recaptured about a fortnight before me. We were both delighted at meeting each other again as both thought the other had got scuppered. We managed to stick together for our 18 months incarceration in Germany and came home together.
I had 15 weeks leave when I returned and was then only given a job to do because I had got rather bored with leave and asked to be given some work. So I was attached to the Claims Commission and sent to this office
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in Oxford, where I have been for 6 months. The job is an absolute sinecure. We live in billets, I have my own private car, for which the army pays me a generous allowance and gives me all the petrol I want, and I merely turn up at the office at 9 a.m. find out what needs doing and then drive around and visit the various people who have claims for damage against the W.D. I finish at 6 p.m. and the weekends are my own! In fact I like it so much that as I have already told you I have signed on for another year
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and have volunteered for S.E.A.C. to do the same sort of job out there. I get my third pip when I sail and I gather that the chances of further promotion out there are quite good.
No more now, Johnny. I must go to bed. I should like to hear your story if you have time to write. If I stay in this country long enough and get anywhere near Camberley I will certainly pay you a visit. By the way the address of my “digs” is:
8 Stile Road,
Phone no. Oxford 6459.
I am in most evening after 6.30
[Digital page 86]
if you wish to phone in the evening at any time. During the day Oxford 47471 ext: 149 is my office number and they will take any messages.
Excuse this bloody awful handwriting but am writing in great haste.
Hope all goes well with your wife.