Although there was no morning reveille, a fixed time-table of events did punctuate the monotony of the day, most of them to do with food or drink. Cyril Goose, the corporal in charge of our row of beds, had the thankless task of distributing whatever was brought back from the cookhouse by whichever two of us were acting as carriers that day. First there was a container of what was called coffee although it must have been made from some substitute. Later in the morning the bread was issued, the rolls being counted out at the cookhouse into a blanket held by the carriers. Nominally these were of 200 grams each but in fact were less; however as the Italians had issued them by weight there was a small surplus each day and these were distributed on a rota system so that perhaps once in a fortnight we received an extra one. On two days each week we got a small piece of cheese. Later in the day came the cooked meal, a cauldron of stew with some meat in it if it had not been a cheese day, but mostly root vegetables with some rice. Cyril had the problem of ladling this out equitably, watched closely by a critical circle to see fair play. Would those who were served first do best, or would too many of the solids remain at the bottom until near the end? These were important considerations, and difficult to assess, as the consistency of the mixture varied from day to day. Cyril, using a ladle made from a food tin, would give the whole a stir between each serving, judging the quantity carefully so that only a small amount would be left after everyone had been served. There was one rota system to determine which bed-group would have the first turn for service and another for whichever group was due for any extra remaining at the end. Inevitably there was always someone who thought he had been hard done by, but Cyril was a conscientious and patient man – formerly a Norfolk farm worker – who knew that he had the support of the majority. Writing about this now, the routine seems very trivial, but at the time we had all been close enough to real hunger for it to seem important.At least once a day, and sometimes more than once, but at no fixed time, we were assembled and counted. This could take quite a long time. Usually we had to go into the recreation field where we waited until a count had been made, in situ, of all those people on such duties as in the cookhouse, on cleaning parties, or who were in the infirmary as patients or as orderlies. The Italian duty officer, with a clipboard and an escort of two or three soldiers, then came into the field where we were lined up in a more or less orderly manner, and counted his way along the ranks. A mis-count, sometimes more than one, was not uncommon, leading to the whole process being repeated, starting back in the cookhouse and so on. Some of the Italian officers were not very efficient at this simple task. As we found waiting about very tedious, there was one middle-aged captain who became quite a hero with us by being always capable and speedy, nicknamed ‘Busty’, an affectionate reference to his physique. A de-lousing session was a daily necessity for everyone. I found that the most satisfactory system was to wear only a greatcoat and to take the rest of my clothing into a good light by a window or better still, if the sun was shining, outdoors. Everything was then carefully inspected, with particular attention to the seams, as these provided shelter for the eggs. These were attached to the threads and, like the adults, needed to be destroyed by crushing between the thumbnails. Washing clothes seemed rarely to prevent them being re-colonised by the following day. Infrequently the Italians brought a de-lousing machine into the recreation field; this was a wood-burning steamer with iron wheels and a smoke stack, looking rather like an old-fashioned tar engine. Into this we could put bundles of clothing for an hour or two of treatment. On one or two occasions we were all banished to the field for most of the day while our billets ware sealed and fumigated. However the body-louse seemed to be a hardy species and no treatment ever provided more than a temporary respite.
Red Cross food parcels at first came very irregularly and there was great excitement whenever there was news of their arrival at the local station. They were in sealed goods wagons and a fatigue party would go, under guard, to unload them and move them by hand-cart to a store in the camp. We had sorted ourselves into what were called parcel-groups, an arrangement which was quite separate from bed-groups and was made by mutual agreement. The numbers in the parcel-groups varied according to the supply of parcels but eventually it stabilized at five people in each. With every parcel came an issue of fifty cigarettes; so this was a convenient number. At the worst period we had a parcel to share about once in ten days; at the best we sometimes had three in a week. Most of the parcels came from Britain; stamped on the outside of the box was the town name of the Red Cross local branch which had packed it, and also the number of items within. This gave us the feeling of a contact with home and, as the contents varied slightly, the parcels from some localities acquired a partisan reputation. “It’s a Shrewsbury thirteen!” someone would declare in triumph to his parcel-muckers as he bore the prize away; the implication being that this would be better than last week’s Kilmarnock twelve. Each parcel contained a piece of soap and a dozen or so items of food: biscuits, packets of tea and sugar, chocolate, tins of milk, margarine, jam or marmalade, meat roll, cheese, and pudding. The issue was supervised by the Italians, each parcel-box was opened and every tin was stabbed to prevent hoarding by a potential escapee. There were also parcels from Canada and these had items of better quality – butter rather than margarine, the meat roll more like spam, and a full-cream powdered milk called Klim which came in large very useful tins. They would have been even more popular had they included tea rather than coffee.
After each issue of parcels there was a certain amount of bargaining and swapping. Cries of “marmalade for jam!” were heard, and non-smokers, like me, ruthlessly exploited the smokers’ cravings by exchanging our Gold Flake or Players for tins of food. Even with the arrival of parcels we were still hungry most of the time: what we lacked was bulk; our bread ration was too small to accompany the cheese or to accommodate the jam, however thickly spread. Not everyone shared their parcels: some chose to have a whole one, but of course received it only once in every five issues. Mostly such people were loners who found it difficult to co-operate and were slightly outside the mainstream of society. Others, who became known as parcel-bashers, found it necessary to consume everything more or less straight away, even to the extent of spooning down the jam and condensed milk. This was in contrast to some who showed great restraint, spinning everything out until the next issue was due. When I had been at Capua there had lived opposite me a little Welshman whom I found to be infuriating: he made his bread roll last all day, keeping it in a piece of cloth from which he carefully unwrapped it about once an hour to cut a wafer-thin slice, then to wrap it up again and put it in his haversack.
A parcel group needed mutual tolerance, trust and the development of a sort of etiquette. There was a practical problem of dividing, say, a small circular cheese into five equal pieces and distributing them. An unspoken rule evolved whereby whoever had done the cutting-up waited to take the last piece. Decisions had to be made as to how and when there would be a brew-up of tea. A two-ounce packet did not go very far but the real problem was fuel to boil the water. Any scraps of combustible material were carefully collected and many people sacrificed their comfort by consuming one or more of the wooden slats from their beds. Officially, brewing-up indoors was not allowed and was supposed to be done only in an area next to the cookhouse. This rule was largely disregarded, although for a fire indoors it was necessary to use some sort of tin stove, and the poor quality of the fuel – mostly bits of cardboard – required that the feeble flame be continuously blown or fanned . At any time of day somewhere in the camp would be a couple of figures crouched over a recalcitrant fire, wafting furiously. Later on, as we shall see, the development of technology simplified this process.
The Italians gave us a weekly issue of cigarettes. Their quality, to British tastes, was such that we non-smokers found them valueless and had to give them away – even hardened addicts would not swap anything for them.We were also paid some pocket money, the equivalent of a few pence a day, in token lire notes only usable in the camp. It was not until years later that I learned that a similar sum was being deducted by the Army Paymaster from our accounts in England. With the token money we were able to buy a small variety of items from the camp shop which was organised in the Sergeants’ Mess, such things as razor blades, pencils, ink and paper. Of course, had it been possible, we would have spent all our money on food. On just one occasion a quantity of onions was available and I bought half a kilo. I remember eating them raw, on their own, with the tears streaming down my face. At another time we were able to buy wine which I found barely drinkable, perhaps because it had been necessary to put it into my tin water-bottle.
It seems surprising that when Harry and I arrived at Sforzacosta with nearly three thousand others, many from our Brigade, there was hardly anyone that we knew. I cannot remember at what point Bradley had disappeared and have no recollection of him even being at Capua; perhaps he had been sent to a different camp. When there were batches of new arrivals, quite a crowd would assemble to see them come in, hoping that there might be a friend amongst them. There never was, neither for us nor seemingly for anyone else as I never heard shouts of greeting. It did not seem to be the proverbial small world. Choice of companionship was now greater than it had been for most of the time in the Army proper where I had been in daily contact with a very limited number. Now there was quite a large cross-section of our generation from all parts of Britain and both for Harry and myself there was a widening of circles which resulted in our being less dependent on each other.
INTERPOLATION 6: October 1939
On the outbreak of war I had been in the first age group due for call up, and in October I was summoned before a medical board. After half a dozen doctors had in turn examined various parts of me, I was finally seen by the chairman of the board. “England will have to be in a pretty bad way for you to be called up,” he said cheerfully after examining the results of my tests. These were prophetic words, for by the following Summer, after Dunkirk and the fall of France, England was indeed in a pretty bad way. I was called again before the medical board and was duly found to be A1, the top grade.
On 25 July 1940, I went by train to Rhyl in North Wales where I was to join the Royal Artillery. On arrival a number of other chaps of about my age got down on to the platform – we were still in civilian clothes – and we looked at each other realising that we were fellow conscripts. One of them met my eye and, with mutual recognition, we realised that until a month ago we had been students together at the Royal College of Art. Joe Lee and I had only known each other by sight, we were in different departments and different years, but it was cheering to meet someone with whom I would have something in common.From the station we were taken by truck to what had been the Sunnyvale Holiday Camp where we were part of the weekly intake for training as artillery signallers. That evening Joe and I found that there was yet another former art student, Alan Childs from Manchester.For good measure there was a cellist who played with the Liverpool Philharmonic and several other students of various sorts. I began to think that perhaps a military life would be more congenial than I had supposed, although for a squad of twenty-five to include three art students might not be the usual proportion.In fact it was to be over two years before I met another one.
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