Chapter 1 – Finding our way

ch 1 the first day outThe week following the armistice of 8 September 1943 was one of confusion, rumour and farce. However a number of us, all with some connections to the camp communist group, had decided to get out of the camp at the first opportunity without regard to any official instruction by the Camp Commandant or by the Senior British Officer. By 15 September many of the Italian guards were beginning to desert and at about four o’clock in the afternoon we left by a back gate, ignoring a guard on a watch-tower who waved at us to return, but lacked the confidence to point his gun.

The prison camp at Sforzacosta was at a junction where the main road from the South joined that which came from Foligno with the railway, through the mountains following the valley of the Chienti. The provincial capital, Macerata, could be seen from the camp, on a hilltop about four miles to the North. There had been no official news of the war since the Italian announcement of the armistice and, partly because of this, we had not really planned a route before leaving camp. In deciding our general direction however we were influenced by the belief that by tomorrow all the remaining prisoners in the camp were likely to leave, and that most of them would choose either to go South or to make for the mountains in the West. If things were not to be too crowded we thought to start off by going Eastwards. We did not learn until later that no more prisoners did escape; during the night the Germans arrived, surrounded the camp and manned the watch-towers again. The great majority of prisoners had stayed in the camp and these were later taken to Germany, where they were to be held for another twenty months, until after VE day.

The back gate led down to a path along the river which we followed, crossing the main road and taking a minor dirt road going up the hill on the opposite side of the valley. We numbered about twenty and most of us had been prisoners for fifteen months. We must have made a motley-looking group, strangely clad in varied military garments: apart from remnants of British uniform, we had also been issued with clothing of somewhat arbitrary fit, much of it Yugoslav or Greek, and some with patches on the back. Some of our heads were closely cropped and we carried haversacks and improvised bundles and packs. It was a lovely evening and we were in good spirits, although I suppose a little apprehensive as to our reception by the people of the district.

Within the first half-hour we found that we need not have worried. Coming to a house, we were invited into the farm-yard, where there was already a slightly festive air with a big fire burning and a number of people, presumably family and friends. Over the fire a large iron pot was suspended, full of tomatoes being boiled down to make puree. We were made welcome with wine and food, our first experience of the hospitality which we were to find typical. Bert Ramelson, who spoke Italian fluently, was able to question them about the military situation and the whereabouts of any Germans. They did not know any more than we did about the former, but at least they seemed sure that no Germans had been seen along this little road. Pleasant as the reception had been, we did not stay long, as we were anxious to get as far as we could before dark. Soon we turned off the road on to a smaller track, down into the next valley and up the other side, zig-zagging towards a hill-top village, reaching it just before dusk as a few lights began to come on. We passed through the lower part of the village – it was Petriolo – without going into the centre. On our way down the far side we came to another farm where again we were offered food and drink. By now it was getting quite dark and it was decided to spend the night there; we dossed down where we could around the farm-yard.

As soon as it was light we were off again, and by mid-morning reached the next hill-top village, Mogliano. Here there was already considerable excitement, caused by scores of civilian internees who had been let out of a nearby camp the previous day. Most of them seemed to be Yugoslav students who had been caught up in Italy by the outbreak of war and some of them spoke English. All were helpful in organising some civilian clothing which the villagers found for us in exchange for our odd uniforms. I gave up my British Army greatcoat which I later regretted, but on the whole we probably got the better bargain as it certainly made us look a little less conspicuous. Even so, a group of twenty people roaming the countryside, even in civilian dress, was still going to look rather odd and it seemed obvious that we should split up. In addition to Bert Ramelson and Frank Fish, there was another Italian speaker and it was logical for us to divide into three parties. In our group there were to be seven: in addition to Frank as the Italian speaker, there were Alec, Hoop, Freddy, Norman, Jack Hulford and myself.

During the next week we moved slowly South, keeping mostly to small tracks and avoiding towns and main roads. The weather was fine, sleeping out was no problem, and food and wine were freely offered at almost every farm. Wild rumours were also freely offered, and these had some effect on our sense of urgency. Many of these seemed quite credible to us: the Allies, it seemed, were landing at various points up and down the coast, even as far North as Genoa; a German armoured division had been seen withdrawing up the main coastal road. Why not? Surely the Germans would not try to defend the whole Italian peninsular but would retreat at least to the river Po or even to the Alps. The important thing was for us to keep out of the way; the need for a hard march south seemed less important.

We were walking through a landscape of cultivated hillsides and steep river valleys, perhaps a little wilder than the idealised Tuscan landscapes of Florentine painting, but very like them in that there was always at least one hill-top town somewhere in view. These towns constantly re-arranged their positions and shapes as we wound our way below them, taking it in turn to appear and disappear. Sometimes one would fade away when the shadow of a cloud fell over it, to be revealed again a few moments later, as if by a searchlight, as the shadow moved around the hill and behind it. We progressed slowly; the going was not too easy and we were none of us very fit. Fortunately we did not have much luggage; rather stupidly I had even dumped my sketch-books at the camp after having brought them all the way from Egypt. Although Alec had partly dismantled the famous tin Klim-clock and packed it in a box, in the end he had left it behind. Hoop had been less rigorous: he carried what had originally been my copy of Hogben’s ‘Mathematics for the Million’. Frank, who was terrified of pneumonia – understandably so, in view of the numbers who had died of it in the camp during the previous winter – had a large jar of tablets of M & B, one of the then newly discovered sulfa drugs. Frank had been able to give consultations to various Italians on the way, one of which involved mashing up M & B tablets and using them as a dressing on a minor wound which had festered. At one house the family asked him to look at a young girl who had a chronic heart condition, about which of course he could do nothing. The girl was in fact Lina, the youngest daughter of the Cardarelli family, and that night we slept in a ruined house only a few hundred yards away from theirs.

In the evening we discussed the general situation; the more optimistic rumours now seemed unfounded and the possibility of Italy being liberated in a week or two most unlikely. We decided that a party of seven was too large and that our chances would be improved if we split up. Freddy proposed that he, Alec and I should form one group; we had after all known each other longest, and this was agreed. Conscious of the advantage of being with an Italian speaker, Norman, Hoop and Jack waited for Frank to suggest a partner for himself. To my surprise he chose Jack, whom he had not known very well in camp and who would not have been my first choice; he was an amusing, cynical and somewhat spivvy character who had a constant supply of anecdotes, mostly based on his success in various shady fiddles and womanising exploits. Later Hoop said that he too had been flabbergasted, particularly as this now paired him with Norman, between whom there was some sort of antipathy. Why this should have been I never quite understood; the rest of us found that we could get on quite well with either of them.

Next morning we made our farewells and set off in different directions. Alec, Freddy and I were in a rather sombre mood, aware that language was going to make it more difficult to get information about routes or possible dangers. We were by now just about capable of asking for food and drink and of saying thanks for it. Our intention was to go towards the mountains and we knew that this would involve crossing the main road. I suppose we were not very enterprising, but having looked at the road from a distance we could not make up our minds to cross it and, about mid-afternoon, we rather weakly decided to return and to stay for another night at the ruined house. We trailed our way back, our morale lower than it had been since we left camp. As we came within sight of the house, daylight was fading, but we saw two silhouetted figures away on our left, also making for the house. Of course they were Norman and Hoop, who had come to the same decision – or lack of – as we had. We were all pleased to be together and during the evening it was resolved that whatever happened we would try not to separate again.

[After these memoirs were duplicated, Paul sent a copy to his fellow-prisoners with whom he was still in touch, and two of these, Fred Denton and Arthur Hooper, sent him some further comments. Paul added these as a supplement to the book, conveniently referenced to each chapter, so I have added them as an end-piece to each chapter.]

The supplement, dated November 1990, begins as follows:

Both Freddy and Hoop have since sent me their recollections of our shared experiences and these, together with the consequent jogging of my memory, have made possible some additions – and corrections – to the story.     It is interesting that each of us remembers clearly events that the others had quite forgotten and which in some cases contradict each other. This should be a warning to historians.   I have tried to keep these new additions in roughly chronological order by taking each of the original chapters in turn.

Chapter 1 supplement

From the Michelin Green Guide to Italy, 6th Edition: “The inhabitants of the Marche have a reputation for friendliness, piety and diligence…”

 In making our arrangements for leaving the camp we had stolen a number of towels from the bath house. Having no money we intended to barter them and indeed we swapped them, and our uniforms, with the people of Mogliano when they gave us civilian clothes.

 Although most prisoners in the camp had been in Italy for more than a year, hardly any of us spoke any Italian. We had been a self­contained community and I cannot remember exchanging a word of any sort with an Italian guard during my time at Sforzacosta.   The Italian speakers were Frank Fish and Bert Ramelson. Frank, as medical officer, had worked in the camp hospital with Italian doctors; Bert bad previously spent some time in a working camp in Southern Italy mixing with civilian farm workers. There was a third Italian speaker but he was not previously known to me as he was from a different sector of the camp.

At the time I thought that one explanation for our friendly reception at the farm we came to on that first evening, might have been that the family were rather scared by the arrival of some twenty strange-looking foreigners and considered it best to placate us with food and drink.      It was later, after we had split up and could no longer be thought of as a threat, that we realised that this was not the explanation. Our treatment was a genuine expression of hospitality.

At one of the farms where we stopped during the first few days, all the women and girls spent every spare moment in plaiting straws to make continuous ribbons about half an inch wide, for the straw hat industry. For this they were paid a lire or so for each metre.

Link to chapter 2

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