The New Year began with some optimism about the progress of the war. The Italian bulletins admitted that Tripoli had been captured on 3 January, and it was now clear that the Allies were firmly established in Algeria. There was news too of a large-scale Winter offensive by the Russians which was to lead to the taking of Stalingrad at the end of the month. In the camp there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the Russians and for Stalin which made for a sympathetic hearing of the propaganda of our small communist group. However the rigours of dialectical materialism were only for the very few who attended the seminars conducted by Hoop and Frank. George Aaron organised a debating society which drew in people with wider interests and George himself was more extrovert and had something of the common touch. He was from a well-off Jewish family in West London, still a student when called up, and who had many interests outside politics, including an enthusiasm for French art and literature. At a time when we were still short of books he somehow had a copy of some de Maupassant short stories – in French – which he encouraged me to read. One of them was ‘le Rosier de Mme Husson’ which I then recognised as the basis of a Fernandel film which I had seen in England as ‘The Virtuous Isadore’.
In February, parcels of books began to arrive. The regulations allowed them only to be sent directly by booksellers, which restricted the choice to what was currently in print. Quite soon the camp became full of paperbacks, but this meant that there were many duplicates: there cannot have been anyone who did not read Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ or Adrian Bell’s ‘Corduroy’ which were in the current Penguin lists. I had requested some sterner stuff, but only one book ever reached me: Hogben’s ‘Mathematics for the Million’ in hardback and consequently only issued to me after the covers had been torn off lest they concealed something illicit. This book proved ideal for the situation: a subject of which I had been frightened at school now presented in a way which made it intelligible. During the next few months I worked my way steadily through it, even understanding for the first time what the calculus was about. Finally I passed the book on to Hoop who would not be parted from it and included it in his necessarily minimal luggage when we eventually escaped from the camp.
All prisoners began their captivity as equals; gradually however some became more equal than others. Much of this was no more than a small amount of fiddling – by cook-house staff, for instance – but there was one example which could serve as a textbook case on the development of monopoly-capitalism in a free market. All gambling, with the exception of ‘housey-housey’, was forbidden in the Army, but this ban was not enforced in the camp. With packets of cigarettes being used as currency, the popular game of ‘Crown and Anchor’ came under the control of one man who, since the odds in this dice-game are always in favour of the banker, became extremely rich, with thousands of cigarettes stored in Red-cross parcel boxes under his mattress. He was surrounded by a team of henchmen who ensured that there was no opposition. This they could do without any strong-arm tactics, using their wealth to break the bank of any competitor by placing large stakes and doubling-up the amount until they eventually broke them. One effect of this concentration of wealth was a distortion of the price of other commodities, to my disadvantage – as a non-smoker – in the cost of any food that was available for sale.
In the Winter it had become increasingly difficult to find fuel for tea-making and this had led to the invention and the development of brewing-up machines: hand-cranked blowers which forced air directly into an attached fire-box. Alec Burch was not the inventor of this device but his machine was much the most sophisticated; smaller, but also more efficient, it could boil a can of water very quickly from a few scraps of cardboard or other scrounged material. By now Alec was in my ‘parcel group’, so I was a direct beneficiary of his skill.
Our little left-wing group was now reinforced by a newcomer who had been transferred from a working camp in Southern Italy as part punishment for having tried to escape. This was Bert Ramelson, a Canadian lawyer and dedicated communist who had come to Europe to serve in Spain with the International Brigade and had later settled in England, married a journalist on the ‘Daily Worker’ and, extraordinarily, became manager of the Leeds branch of Marks and Spencer before being called up into the Army. Although a likeable man, with a sense of humour, Bert was very tough ideologically and he took to task his new-found comrades for what he regarded as some slackness of effort and even of deviation from the party line. With hindsight one might have recognised someone who some years later was to become a wellknown professional agitator, a member of the Central Committee, and the Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party. By now I had actually become a party member, won over by the persuasiveness of Frank Fish, and was even issued with a piece of paper to certify my membership of ‘Campo 53 Branch’. Of course all this now seems naive, even farcical, but at the time I shared with many others a belief that somehow Marxism would provide the key to a more just society. Our motives were idealistic rather than self-seeking, but then doubtless so are those of many others who join any political party.
There was an element of farce in the tragedy of George Aaron, who in February was shot dead by an Italian sentry. This happened in the exercise field where we had all been confined for an hour or so for the daily counting. This was quite normal, and it had become the custom during any waiting-about period that someone wishing to relieve themselves should do so by peeing over the trip wire. This was a wire, set about a foot high, parallel to the main fence and about eight feet from it, to mark an area that was out of bounds. I had just left the field at the time but it seems that George had actually stepped over the wire and had begun to pee, ignoring the sentry on the nearby watch-tower who first waved at him to go back, and then shot him down. By the time he was carried to the Infirmary he was dead. Of course this was just a piece of wanton killing; there had been no attempt at escape although George was technically in the wrong. Protests were made to the Italian authorities and, I believe, to the International Red Cross, but we never heard that any disciplinary action was taken against the sentry. This was quite a shock for everyone; George had been well liked and respected beyond his immediate circle of friends. I certainly missed him, he was a good companion, able to be relaxed and without overdoing the worthy earnestness of some Marxist comrades. Frank Fish undertook the unpleasant task of writing to his family.
It had not been a severe Winter and, although there had been some cold weather in January, there was no snow. By early March we were having some quite Spring-like days and were able to sit out in the sun again when making the daily search through the seams of our clothing.
INTERPOLATION 7: 21 March 1942
On the first day of Spring in the previous year I had gone with an artillery patrol to make a raid on an Italian airfield at Martuba, some forty miles into what was regarded as enemy territory.These sort of patrols went out quite regularly and I had been before, but this one was larger and more elaborate than usual. The term ‘patrol’ perhaps suggests soldiers with blackened faces crawling on their stomachs, even with knives between their teeth, but our patrols were not like that. This one consisted of eight ‘twenty-five pounder’ field guns and four Bofors anti-aircraft guns, with the support of mechanised infantry, engineers and a medical team with ambulance. Altogether about fifty vehicles moved out through the minefields, which protected our static positions, into the open desert and formed into three columns. With a space of a hundred yards between each vehicle, usually during daylight, the patrol was about a mile long. It was mid-afternoon and, as the visibility often became poor during the heat of the day, the hope was to get within about ten miles of our target before nightfall and without being spotted. I was in the truck which was doing the navigation, using the somewhat primitive methods which had been improvised in the absence of any reliable maps; this was made easier by a small party having already surveyed the route a few days earlier. All went well, and at dusk we were able to close up and then, shortly afterwards, laager for the night and post sentries.
We moved on just before dawn and, without any sign of having been detected, the guns were in position soon after daybreak and we opened fire. This must at least have caused the Italians a certain amount of surprise but it was impossible to know what damage if any was being caused, as the airfield was on a raised plateau which made it difficult to see. Knowing that this problem would exist, a tower of tubular scaffolding had been brought in sections on trucks and had been erected as an observation post. Even so I doubt if anyone had a very precise idea of where our shells were landing. It must have been an hour before there was much reaction from the Italians and we made use of this time to do some digging-in, although ‘digging’ was hardly the term for the scraping and chipping into what proved to be solid rock. The sound of aero engines being started up was the prelude to several hours of intense bombing, strafing and shelling, the Italians proving to have not only fighter planes but also a number of German Stuka dive-bombers. These ran a sort of shuttle service, being able to return to the airfield for re-loading after each sortie. Being attacked by low-level aircraft in this way, although frightening, had the advantage that one could watch them coming, and actually see the bombs being released from under the Stukas and also judge where a machine-gunning fighter was aiming; this gave me time to lie prone in my little slit-trench, never more than nine inches deep in spite of my intermittent efforts with pick and shovel. Our orders were that as far as possible our shelling was to continue for the rest of the day and that in any event no withdrawal was to be made until after dark.
I suppose that the only fortunate thing for us was that the ground defences of the airfield did not seem to include tanks, nor in fact was any move made against us except a small amount of shelling. We were however a comparatively soft target, on the open desert, for some eight hours of air attack. The Bofors A.A. guns, understandably, were made a particular target, and three of the four were knocked out. Only one plane was visibly shot down, although there may have been others damaged. At dusk those vehicles that were able to do so – less than half – assembled to move off; many others, including our command-post navigation truck, were in flames and five of the eight field guns had been lost. Surprisingly there were no more than a dozen casualties, but amongst those seriously wounded was our commandpost officer, with whom Harry Brown and I had been for most of the day. He was later awarded the Military Cross, really as a sort of compensation for injury rather for any act which went beyond what was required of anyone else. The column of now over-crowded trucks struggled their way back eastwards through the night, and soon after daybreak passed through the gaps in the minefield to the safety of our dug-in positions. What had seemed a somewhat pointless exercise was later explained to us as being one of a similar series of raids on that day at other parts of the front, intended to divert the attention of the Axis air forces at a time when a crucial sea-convoy was approaching Malta.
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