The journey from Capua was uncomfortable but interesting. For much of the time the doors of our cattle truck were left partially open – there was an armed guard in each truck – so we were able to get some idea of the direction in which we were going. After some hours we realised that we were passing through Rome and I actually glimpsed the Colosseum before we veered off through the suburbs, skirting the centre of the city. Progress was leisurely, with long stops in sidings. At one halt in what seemed to be a working-class area, local people came from their backyards and passed food and drink up to the prisoners in some of the trucks. I am not sure if they knew who we were, or whether they assumed us to be Italian troops, but whatever the case it showed a nice generosity from people who were themselves quite strictly rationed. From Rome the slow journey continued northwards; mostly I dozed, but from time to time there were tantalizing glimpses of little hill towns, reminiscent of those to be seen in Italian painting, as we wound our way through the valleys. We had only a vague idea of where we were when the train stopped in the sidings of a small station. We climbed down from the trucks and were marched a few hundred yards to the camp which was to be our home for the next eleven months. It was 17 October.
Campo Concentramento No 53 at Sforzacosta was a great improvement on any of the previous camps. We were the first occupants and surprisingly adequate arrangements had been made for our arrival with each bed already furnished with a straw mattress on which was laid out a food bowl and spoon, blankets and even sheets. Sheets were something quite unknown in the British Army and indeed we did not now have them for more than a few days before they were withdrawn. It seems that the camp authorities were informed from on high that Italian prisoners in Britain did not have such luxuries, and that therefore we should not either.
Sforzacosta, which was in the valley of the river Chienti, seemed a place of little importance apart from its station and crossroads which provided a route from the valley up to the large hill town, and provincial capital, of Macerata – about four miles to the north and visible from the camp itself. The camp was actually at the crossroads and consisted of a series of new warehouse-type buildings which were said to have been built as a linen factory. They had not been used however and were now suitably adapted, including the addition of wash-places and latrines. The camp area included a large field and the whole was surrounded by a high wall with barbed wire on top and another wire fence, overlooked by raised wooden platforms with sentry posts, and was illuminated. On the edge of the field was a water tower, and there was a good water supply which I expect was used by the village too.
[The colour pictures below must have been taken more recently – the camp became a factory after the war – but the diagram and black and white photo are probably of the time. AB]
Harry and I were allocated to one of the six large barrack rooms, each of which took some four or five hundred prisoners. Set out in closely-packed rows, with narrow gangways between, were three-tier wooden bunks with two bed spaces on each level. There was something of a scramble for what were judged to be the best places, but Harry and I managed to secure a couple of beds together on the middle level, as being the most convenient. The top bunks were quite popular; they lacked privacy but gave a nice panoramic view over the whole room. Certainly those on the lower level, only a matter of inches above the floor, were the worst; not only were they claustrophobic but they collected all the debris which filtered down through the slats of the beds above. Fortunately, crowded though we all were, there were large windows and a high vaulted cei1ing which prevented the atmosphere becoming too oppressive even in warm weather.
The camp soon became organised in a more or less military manner. There were no commissioned officers with the exception of four doctors and thre padres who were housed in a separate enclosure and played no part in the running of the camp although one of the doctors was nominally the Senior British Officer. The administration of the camp became the responsibility of the warrant officers and sergeants who had their own room, within our compound, but in slightly less crowded conditions. These actually elected from amongst themselves the rather thankless job of camp leader – hardly in accord with military tradition which would have meant it going by seniority. I think that we were fortunate in their choice; things came to be run without the sort of corruption which I learned later was common in some camps. Regimental Sergeant-Major Burningham, a regular soldier who had served mostly in India, had the respect of most prisoners and it was he who was now responsible to the Italian Camp Commandant for the internal running of the camp. At the lower end of the scale, the bed-group of six prisoners was the basic unit, and each row of beds – some forty or more men – was under a corporal or equivalent who had the job, amongst other things, of distributing the rations. Our barrack room had about a dozen rows of beds with a warrant officer nominally in charge of the whole, although he interfered very little in practical matters.
There was a camp infirmary, staffed mainly by the British doctors and orderlies but with an Italian in overall control, which not only treated minor ailments but had a number of beds for the more seriously ill. The cookhouse was an entirely British run undertaking; they took delivery of the rations allocated by the Italians and did what they could with them. All permanently employed staff, latrine cleaners for instance as well as cooks or hospital orderlies, were allocated extra rations and there were always volunteers available for these sought-after jobs. Consequently the wash-places and also the latrines, which were of a simple hole-in-a-concrete-floor variety, were kept decently clean. There was a bath house which was supplied with towels although these were in fact the sheets with which our beds had at first briefly been furnished.
Understandably these material improvements made the atmosphere in our new camp seem less gloomy, but it hardly amounted to a feeling of optimism; indeed everything now seemed more permanent and implied a long stay. We were still in very crowded conditions, without letters from home and usually hungry, with only an occasional share of a red-cross food parcel. Moreover, try as we might, it was impossible to be free of lice for more than a day or so.