There now arrived a thousand or so prisoners transferred from another camp, and to accommodate them a second sector was opened, using an adjoining range of buildings. They brought with them a disgraceful tale of widespread corruption in their previous camp – not by the Italians but by their own WarrantOfficers and Sergeants, many of whom had contrived to live in luxury at the expense of the other ranks. There was a great deal of bitterness about this and talk of trying to get the worst of the culprits court-martialled eventually – although I never knew whether this was actually done. One of the villains was said to be my former Battery Sergeant-major and this would certainly not surprise me as he was an unpleasant man who had previously been suspected by us of dishonesty when in England.
The new prisoners also brought with them a welcome institution: the wall newspaper. This did not compete in any way with our monthly ‘Underground’, as it concerned itself only with camp affairs, and it was in any case subject to the scrutiny of the Italian censors, who officially stamped each sheet before display. The editors continued a format developed in their previous camp: several large sheets which were posted on the wall and changed weekly. These were quite professional, being well laid out and written in a popular style with some witty cartoons, one of which I remember as lampooning the plight of some of their former camp leaders who had been transferred here, and now found themselves no better off than anyone else.
Most prisoners who wanted to do so could by this time have found some activity to relieve the boredom of the daily routine. Those who complained most of the tedium would probably have done so in most other situations. The arts of tin-smithing continued to develop, b1owers proliferated, and someone at the other end of our billet was making another clock. There was even an Arts and Crafts exhibition which I rather snootily ignored except to write a critical review for ‘Underground’. This was quite properly rejected by the editors – i.e. Hoop and Frank – as being too elitist. The production of ‘Underground’ took up much of my time but I managed to do a little drawing and filled the sketch books which I had brought with me. No more were available but writing paper could be bought with camp money at the shop.
Life had become reasonably comfortable; I had moved up to a top bunk which sacrificed a little in privacy, but the light was better and there was a wider view of the world. Not everyone seemed concerned about material comfort; Hoop for instance, if not actually mortifying the flesh, seemed resigned to a degree of austerity, continuing to live in a bottom bunk which he found adequate for his almost exclusively intellectual interests. Making things was certainly not in his line and he cheerfully accepted his lack of manual dexterity. At one time he allowed his beard to grow, which added to his some1vhat ascetic image. Hoop was not alone in this, but most of us remained clean-shaven without going to the lengths of a few who made it a point of honour to be as smartly turned out as if going on parade. Such a one was Laurence Bains who I think regarded it as his patriotic duty, and somehow gave the permanent impression that not only had he just shaved but had pressed his shirt and trousers too. There had been a period in our early days at Capua when the Italians had insisted that all our heads be close-cropped, with villainous-looking results. Ostensibly this was cone as a deterrent to parasites but more likely it was thought of as an humiliation. This had not been enforced for very long and at Sforzacosta there was no such rule. There was however at one time a half-hearted attempt to have diamond-shaped patches on the backs of our jackets and for a while any new issues had them already sewn on. Most of the clothing distributed was surplus stuff which must have been captured from Greek or Yugoslav army stores, of a very odd cut and arbitrary fit. As my old clothes were in reasonable condition I never received any, except for an excellent pair of boots which later stood me in very good stead.
Our Italian guards were the opposite of smart, both officers and men being rather poor specimens who were I expect of low medical grades. Mostly dark and small, their appearance was not improved by their blue chins; with the exception of Sunday and Thursday mornings they were not required to shave. Our contact with these guards was minimal although, as well as the daily counting, there was usually a pair of soldiers on patrol roaming around the camp. I expect that they were forbidden to fraternise and certainly no one ever spoke to them. Sometimes searches seemed to have been carried out in the billets whilst we were in the field, but they could not have been very thorough; nor was anything ever missing on our return. For that matter, theft amongst the prisoners themselves was not a problem and I cannot recall any cases of pilfering.
As the weather became warmer our comfort was disturbed by a new affliction. Starting in one of the billets at the other end of the block, but in the course of several weeks reaching us, was an infestation of bed-bugs which became endemic. The situation was ideal for their nocturnal way of life; during the day they were able to hide undetected in the joints and crevices of our wooden bunks, to emerge at night for their supper. I had no prevDous experience of these unpleasant insects but I learned from those who had that they were commonly known as ‘mahogany flats’; a good descriptive name as they were exactly of that colour and, although almost a quarter inch in diameter, had practically no thickness. Not only was their bite extremely irritating but when squashed they had a disgusting smell, still for me their most characteristic memory. However, talking with Frank, he gave us his medical opinion of them as ‘healthy beasts’ as they were not thought to be involved in epidemics in the way that lice or fleas were in typhus or the plague.
About this time there was another new experience. Resting quietly on my top bunk one morning, there was an inexplicable rumbling sound and, above my head, the light fittings began to swing and the steel tie-bars of the roof vibrated like pianostrings. This lasted perhaps for less than half a minute and was over before I had time to realise that there had been a small earth-tremor.
During the Spring and into the Summer, all the news from the war zones continued to improve. The occupation of North Africa had been completed in May by the capture of Tunis, and spectacular Russian advances were reported almost daily. Following what had seemed to us to be a pause, Sicily was invaded in July, to be quickly followed by the overthrow of Mussolini. Within a few weeks the whole of Sicily was occupied. These extraordinary events seemed hardly real to me, I suppose because they were reported in such a bald and uninformative manner, in military communiques without comment or speculation. Nevertheless we realised that an invasion of the mainland must now be imminent; when it came, it was followed within a few days, on 8 September, by the declaration of an armistice. What surprises me now is that I cannot actually remember where or how I first heard this announcement. What was I doing at the time? Who was I with? This should surely be a dramatic moment in my story, yet it remains a blank.
INTERPOLATION 8: 3 September 1939
It is a commonplace that everyone of my generation recollects clearly the outbreak of war and where they were, and with whom, at 11am on that fateful Sunday morning. Certainly my memories of this are ordinary enough, but I recall one little irrelevancy: when listening to the wireless – as it was then called – to await Neville Chamberlain’s announcement, the previous programme included gramophone recordings of Lionel Tertis playing the viola.