4 Italy, Naples, August 1942

In the hold of the cargo ship we made ourselves as comfortable as we could. The hatches were left open and the Italian sentries kept an eye on us from up on the deck. I was fearful that the ship might be attacked from the air, and once we did hear the sound of aircraft, but fortunately for us this was a time when the strength of British forces in Malta and the Mediterranean was at its lowest ebb. We had sailed on 3 August – Bank Holiday Monday – and as the voyage from Tripoli to Naples was over 500 miles it must have taken a couple of days, although I cannot now remember being in the hold at night. The sanitary arrangements were to allow us up on deck, four or five at a time, to use the improvised latrines which hung out over the side of the vessel. It was while using these that I got my first sight of Italy, a quite close view of picturesque cliffs which must have been Capri.

Disembarking at Naples we were loaded at the quayside into railway goods wagons and taken about twenty miles to Capua where we marched from the station to what was to be our new home, called rather grandly, Campo Concentramento P.G. No.66.

Nearly three years later I again disembarked at Naples, this time from a British troop-ship. By a not unusual quirk of army administration I was now the NCO in charge of a small draft of Royal Engineers. Our value as reinforcements – there were only about a dozen of us – had been even more diminished by the war in Europe having ended during our voyage from Liverpool. At the quayside there was a truck waiting to take us to the RE Depot. I was only mildly surprised to find that this was at Capua and on the same site as the former Campo Concentramento P.G. No.66.

Our camp at Capua was an improvement on those in Libya although still somewhat basic, with rows of low tents in a dusty enclosure of barbed wire, and with an intermittent water supply. The compound was empty when we arrived and was reasonably clean, although there was evidence that it had previous1y been used by other prisoners. During the first evening we found little scraps of paper amongst the dust of the earth floor and, with mounting excitement, realised that many of them were from the labels of food tins and that they were printed in English. Here was confirmation of a rumour that had earlier spread amongst us, with some scepticism, that prisoners received parcels of food from the Red Cross.

We were now allowed to write home and for this purpose were issued with one letter-card and one post card each week. The latter had only a very tiny section for the message; we were given to understand that this was a reprisal for the restricted writing space allowed Italian prisoners in England. The food parcels were slow to appear; a very large number of British prisoners had arrived in Italy during the last few months and the resources of the International Red Cross must have become very stretched. The intention in Britain was that each prisoner should have a parcel each week, together with fifty cigarettes, but I doubt if one quarter of that scale was ever achieved during our time at Capua.

Everyone continued to be very hungry and there was some bartering for food with the Italian guards. A secluded section of the perimeter fence became a market place in the evenings where a prisoner with any remaining valuables could negotiate an exchange with off-duty Italian sentries on the other side of the wire. The articles were thrown over and an agreed number of loaves of bread came back in return. Harry Brown parted with his Ronson cigarette-lighter and, as he shared the resulting loaves with me, I felt obliged to do the same with a wrist-watch which I had bought when on leave in Cairo. The Italian soldiers seemed to be honest enough in their dealings. Of course they got much the best bargain in terms of value but I never heard of one of them just walking off with their prize without paying the agreed price, something that could easily have been done. We were not as scrupulous: there was some trade in the contents of our Red Cross parcels, chiefly in tea and coffee which were in short supply with the Italians and could be exchanged for bread which seemed more important to us. I am rather ashamed that I sold dried used tea leaves, carefully re-packaged in the original carton. This I was able to do only once, as the Italians soon learned to recognise the paler appearance of the leaves. I did not follow the example of one prisoner who added ashes to darken the mixture.

The despair of the period in Libya had by now given way to a general acceptance that our situation was bearable. The tents were not very comfortable, but sleeping on the hard and dusty ground was no worse than we had often been accustomed to. Everyone was infested with lice but we had become used to the daily routine of searching through the seams of our clothing. We were hungry but not starving, and there was the occasional excitement of the arrival of Rec Cross parcels. There were now a few books circulating in the camp and Harry and I used some of our cigarette ration to buy one. This we were able to swap for others so that in turn we must have read nearly all that were available. Mostly they were rubbish, and I can now remember only one of them – a rather pedestrian history of the United States by the brother of G.K. Chesterton. How had this got there I wonder? It seems an unlikely book for anyone to have carried in his kit from Egypt. Perhaps it had been swapped over the wire by some Italian soldier who had found it in a second-hand bookshop in Capua, but that does not seem very plausible either.

By mid-October it was becoming cooler, there was some heavy rain and we began to face the prospect of spending the winter in this now muddy enclosure. Instead, with but an hour or two of warning, we were told to assemble with all our kit and were marched off to the station where, waiting for us in the sidings, was a row of cattle trucks.

INTERPOLATION 5: Cairo, April 1942
Going on leave to Cairo six months earlier I travelled in the luxury of a proper passenger coach. The front-line positions at Gazala had been static for a couple of months when small parties began to be sent back to the Delta on leave. I thought myself lucky to be in the first group; there were only four of us from Battery HQ and we went back in the ration truck on our way to a transit camp at the railhead. Here I was delighted to meet Alan Childs, a great friend who I had not seen for months. He too was coming on leave and we travelled together by train to Cairo where we stayed at a little hotel for a week at the Army’s expense, and slept in actual beds. Many things that we would have liked to see were not available in to wartime, the Museum of Antiquities Has closed for instance, but we did get to Giza. Can my memory be trusted when it seems to me that we travelled there on a tram with a destination board on the front saying ‘Pyramides’?

Link to next chapter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s