Quiet as it had been during our time at Picacchi, we were not entirely without some of the sounds of war, and aircraft were often heard at night. Even during daylight, sometimes large formations of Mitchell bombers passed over, very high in the clear sky. They seemed to have come up the Adriatic and then crossed above us going westwards, with the sound of bombs being heard a few minutes later. We assumed that the road and railway were being bombed somewhere over the mountains towards Foligno. The activities at night were more varied; from the sound only, only a few planes were involved, but it seemed that they were aimed more directly at our district.
Leaflets were dropped, some of them around us, and these were quite good from our point of view, particularly one which promised rewards to Italians who helped Allied prisoners. We also learned that several drops of arms and ammunition had been made in the hope that they would find their way to anti-fascist partisans, which some did. This good propaganda was somewhat nullified by some random dropping of bombs. Some fell in a village only a few miles away, one of which fell in a cemetery, uncovering some corpses. Nazerena was particularly shocked at this barbarity in spite of an attempt by Hoop – who enjoyed a little theological exposition – to comfort her by explaining the unimportance of the body as contrasted with the soul. The seeming inconsistency of the aerial campaign, with its mixture of bombs, leaflets and weapons, was more puzzling to us then than it seems today. From Joseph Heller we now know that it was being run by the likes of such Catch 22 characters as General Dreedle and Milo Minderbinder.
Although they had said nothing to us about it, it seems that both the DiLuca and the Cardarelli families were a little concerned about whether their stores of grain were going to be sufficient to last through to the next harvest. Much of last year’s crop had been purchased compulsorily by the government in order to maintain the meagre bread ration in the towns. The growers had been allowed to retain a quantity based on the number in the family – I think it was two quintale per head – but with the return of the sons from the forces, and the addition of we prisoners, this was being consumed too quickly. This must have been the case with most families in the district.
Riccardo announced one day that Gualdo – still cut off by snow from the main National road – was now controlled by partisans. Moreover they were organising a distribution of grain, and we must all attend in person next day to claim our share. Hoop and I consulted our friends at the Di Luca and they too had been told the same story, although we all thought
it rather unlikely. However, with Vivenzio, Riccardo and Guerino, Hoop and I set off next morning. It was 20 January; the provincial road was now quite passable on foot, and we arrived to find that the town granary had indeed been opened up and that a distribution was being made under the supervision of a group of young men, some of whom had sten guns. It was all quite orderly and we were allowed a quintale of grain each. I suppose that we had brought our own sacks, but the grain had to be carried a little way out of town to the house of a friend of the family, where it was left to be collected later by ox-cart.
Since the armistice there had been virtually no effective local administration in the district. The Germans had not been bothered with these small towns and villages away from the main roads, while the fascist government, now re-established in the north, had not yet extended its influence to these parts. The idea of opening local granaries seems to have been part of a chain reaction and was going on in other places. The following week, Guerino asked me to go with him to a little town called Magli, where it was said there was to be a distribution. It was several miles away, by footpaths, and when we arrived we found considerable confusion. The store had been broken open and there were lots of people milling about, but there was also a solitary carabiniere who was trying to prevent any more grain being taken. While he was arguing with one group, Guerino and I slipped round behind him and got our sack reasonably full. As we carne out, the poor ineffectual carabiniere had become very excited and repeatedly threatened to ‘fire in the air’. ‘He is a Sicilian,’ said Guerino, as we made our way off out of the town.
During this same week, we heard news of the Allied landing at Anzio. This, corning after months of virtually static warfare in the south, raised our spirits. Perhaps it was the beginning of the breakthrough for which we were waiting. Nearer home however, things soon took a turn for the worse: we woke one morning to hear what sounded like shell-fire, and by midday the bush telegraph brought news that German mortars had been used on Sarnano, following which the town had been occupied and a number of alleged partisans executed in the town centre. The National road, the only main route on this side of the mountains other than the one along the coast, was important enough to need reopening now that the snow was clearing. Understandably, the partisans who had been active in the smaller towns and villages now disappeared. Some may have gone into the mountains, but I think most faded back into their families. We feared that the Germans might extend their operations into the countryside, and there was a general anxiety that showed itself in a greater suspicion of strangers. There had always been wanderers, of a variety of nationalities – even one who claimed to be a Russian – and these were still offered food and drink if they called at the house. However, the word had gone round the district that there were spies about. To us this seemed hardly likely, but the Cardarelli took it seriously; in particular a group of three Yugoslav students were considered very suspicious because they spoke the language ‘better than we Italians,’ said Guerino.
There were a few British who, although they remained in the district, were by choice leading a wandering life, moving around from place to place on a cyclical basis, and had thus become quite well known. A pair called Vic and Lew, an unlikely combination of a Glaswegian and a cockney, visited quite often. They were a cheerful couple and were popular with the natives; moreover, both of them – but more especially Vic, the Scottish one – had picked up the most fluent idiomatic Italian and used it with unselfconscious confidence.
By this time we were finding the Italian language less of a problem, although our abilities varied. This particular knack of learning did not seem to be related much to previous education. Hoop – who had even learned Latin at his choir school – was certainly the slowest,and Norman, who had less formal education, was the quickest, with the rest of us somewhere in between. Hoop did not let his lack of fluency prevent him from exchanging ideas with the Cardarelli, and they were clearly very fond of him. What he could not express in words he made up for in gesture and play acting. He also sang them various little English songs, which some of them also learned. Even now, Riccardo can sing something just recognisable as ‘One man and his dog’.
Chapter 10 Supplement – November 1990
One of the leaflets dropped at night by aircraft offered the sum of five thousand lire as a reward for helping Allied prisoners. Hoop remembers that, even assuming an optimistic rate of exchange, we worked out our value per kilo to be less than that of a pig.
The Di Luca family had a secret – and illicit – grain store, which Freddy says was in the ruins of an old house on their land further down towards the river. By removing some bricks from the outside of the chimney near the top, grain had been poured in until the chimney was nearly full.
Exactly what followed the German shelling and occupation of Sarnano is confused by Hoop, Freddy and myself having varying recollections. Freddy seems to place the incident as having happened after Hoop and I had left Picacchi but this I think cannot be so, and both Hoop and I believe it to have been earlier. Hoop’s story, which I too now half remember, is as follows:
“The most vivid example I recall of the cross-valley calling, was the message passed from Sarnano telling of the arrival of the Germans. Freddy, Norman, Alec and Amilcare came over at about three o’clock in the morning. Riccardo, Guerino, Federico, Paul and I joined them. I think there were other Italians also. We all had to go into hiding. The local lads went into scrubland around the Tenna, the five Englishmen to a secluded ledge a third of the way down a precipitous slope to the aforementioned river. It was a bitterly cold morning and Paul bemoaned the loss of his army greatcoat. At about half past four we saw a very healthy blaze in the scrubland area. Like us, the hiding Italians had felt the cold, and in response had built a king-sized bonfire that could be seen for miles around.”
The five of us were not too concerned about our personal appearance but we did shave fairly regularly and Vivenzio had bought razor blades for Hoop and me in Gualdo, although these were in short supply. Quite often I used Riccardo’s cut-throat razor and on one single occasion I shaved Hoop with it. This was never repeated as in making a preliminary flourish I neatly nicked the tip of Hoop’s nose. We also gave each other haircuts; I seem to remember Alec as being best at this, as indeed he was at almost anything practical.