Chapter 14 – Laurence Bains and other characters

Laurence Bains was something of a loner; in camp he had no close friends and certainly was not connected with what he would have regarded as the ‘left-wing riff-raff’ with which I had been associated.  He had always been properly shaved and he dressed in as soldierly a manner as circumstances permitted. There was a romantic element here, a vision of what was proper behaviour for an English gentleman, concerned not to let standards slip. Fortunately, although he was fundamentally serious about this, he had a sense of humour too, and must have been aware of something comic in the contrast between his ideals and his actual status as a slightly weedy lance-corporal in the Signal Corps.    This last was something of a let-down in that he had joined originally, as a volunteer, the rather grand-sounding City of London Yeomanry.

Lawrence had left camp on his own, and was now established with a family in Cerreto as a paying guest, although the paying part was only a promise for the future.     It says a lot for Laurence’s confidence in himself that he had been able to project his gentlemanly image well enough to convince the family that he would, when the war was over, compensate them for his keep. Consequently he led a life of leisure, unlike the rest of us who thought that the least we could do was to help with the work.

At the next house to Laurence, lived the lady who had spoken to me in English on the day I first arrived. She and her husband were also paying guests but in their case they had some access to actual money. Ilsa had been born a Czech, but with an English mother and was married to Tulli, a Yugoslav.   They were both about forty and had been trapped and interned in Italy by the outbreak of war but now seemed to be living in Cerreta officially, but under restriction as to place of residence. I suspect that their background was more complicated than this as there seemed to be some caution and inconsistency in the telling of their history. They were a pleasant enough couple who had obviously been fairly wealthy; they knew London quite well and their cosmopolitan background provided us with a more sophisticated level of conversation.

About half a mile away there was a house with a radio where we were always made welcome by the Giansanti family, the head of which spoke American quite well, having been there for some years and had even served in the US army during the first war. By early May, there was still no news from the radio to suggest that an offensive might begin soon in the south. The local fascist administration, increasingly confident, had issued a proclamation calling up those young men who were now due for military service.  Some of the youth from neighbouring parts went off to Macerata to report but many of these soon deserted and returned home again a few days later.

Early in the morning of 5 May, I was woken up by Ernesto to be told that there was a lot of firing going on in the direction of Gualdo.     I went up the hill and looked across the valley towards the town, from where there was still the sound of sporadic shooting.  A dozen or so of the youth of Gualdo could be seen streaming across the fields away from the town. What was going on, I learned later, was a not very well co-ordinated search to round up the youngsters who were avoiding conscription. This was the day of the ‘rastrellamento’ – literally a ‘raking­through’ – in this district and it was being done by Italian SS. Alec said later that at dawn a truckload of SS had gone by his house – which was on the Sarnano to Gualdo road – firing in the air as they went, presumably to keep their spirits up, or perhaps they just wanted to warn their quarry to escape. I did not return to the Lucarelli house until next day: it had seemed prudent to keep off the roads. This was the first of several such alarms during the next week or two, but on each occasion there was always plenty of warning and I was quickly out of the house, usually to return after having spent the night in some more remote outhouse. The Lucarelli did have a visit from the SS and later, which must have been even more frightening, from a German soldier. The latter had come up on foot from the main road, apparently his truck was parked down there, and had called at all the houses on the way. However the bush telegraph had sent warning that he was corning and by the time he reached the Lucarelli I had gone, but by then he was extremely drunk and Ernesto said it would not have mattered if I had been there. The family were splendid during this period; there was never the slightest hint or suggestion that I should leave permanently.

From Laurence I had acquired a pistol; I do not remember how he came by them but he had another one for himself. Mine was a tiny revolver, more suitable for a ladies’ handbag, and there was a doubt as to whether it would function, the hammer being slightly damaged. I had a few rounds of ammunition but did not test it. Not wishing to alarm the family, I had kept this a secret and was embarrassed when they produced it one day after it had been found under my bed by little Domenico. It was not loaded. Ernesto looked at me rather reproachfully but did not complain; I must have looked somewhat sheepish.

It was Laurence’s idea that we should make a visit to Monastero, a village up in the mountains which had a reputation as a base for the partisans. Having crossed the National road and passed near the ‘Molinaccio’ power station, we followed a mule-track which wiggled its way upwards on the side of the Fiastra valley for about five miles. We met a mule train coming down but the drivers were very suspicious of us and did not want to talk. The mules were heavily laden with lime; there was no agriculture in these rugged parts and the burning of limestone, using the available timber, was the local industry. At night the fires of lime kilns on the mountain sides could often be seen from down below. The village, when we reached it, turned out to be extremely poor and dilapidated, and the very few people who were about were very surly. We had not known that about a month earlier there had been a German expedition up this valley, the partisans were cleared out and there were some summary executions in the village. It was not surprising that the inhabitants were unforthcoming towards suspicious­looking strangers like ourselves. We returned home the way we had come; nothing had been achieved but it had been an interesting trip. That same day, 19 May, was an important one in the history of the Italian campaign: from the radio we learned that at last Cassino had been captured and the Spring offensive was now under way.

Chapter 14 Supplement – November 1990

Perhaps I have not said enough about the kindness of the Lucarelli who bad accepted me without reservation into their family. Assunta told me laughingly how a visitor to the house, observing me at a distance down in the fields, asked who I was. ‘Why,’ answered little Domenico, aged six, ‘that’s our Paolo!’

Hoop tells of an incident which he thinks happened to me, when I was at Ceretto, in which I met and talked to a German soldier who wanted to buy eggs. I think he is mistaken in this, it must have happened to someone else for surely I would remember such a frightening experience.

Freddy and Norman had continued to live at Picacchi with the Di Luca when, in the early part of May at the time of the ‘rastrellamento’, Germans were reported to have been seen on the track that led from the river Tenna to Sarnano. Freddy tells the story:

“Norman and I were told that we must leave the old house, hide all our belongings in a wood pile, and build a shelter in the wooded slope of the track leading down to the river. We decided that the best place for us to hide was by climbing down the steep dried up water course and then going some distance into the wood. We made a type of shelter by bending over branches to form a small hut; we hid there for some days, food being brought to us at night by Maria or Secondina. The Germans did come to the valley as far as the farm on the other side of the river.

“It was during the period of our stay in the shelter that an incident occurred that frightened the life out of Norman and myself. We were lying in the shelter about midday (the shelter being too low to stand up in or even kneel) when a large snake weaved its way through the branches over our heads. We lay absolutely still, the snake’s head coming down and almost touching us. As soon as it was gone we moved out of the shelter like a shot, Germans or no Germans. We never hid in the shelter again but slept on the rocks in the dry water course that night.

The next day Giuseppe informed us that the Germans had gone out of the valley. Freddy continues:

“Life returned to somewhat near normal again after this incident, and we made several visits to Alec’s house….We used a back way down a narrow track, passing a poo1 with more frogs in it than I have ever seen in my life, it later became known as ‘Frog corner’. This track brought us out on the Gualdo–Sarnano road some little distance from where Alec was staying. It was returning home from one of these visits that Norman and I met two German soldiers in a truck on their way to Gualdo. We had no possible time to hide so we just had to face it out, fortunately the truck was travelling fairly fast and the Germans took no notice of us but it gave us a terrific fright; we quickly sought cover and made our way back to the track. I remember by the time we reached ‘Frog corner’ we were both exhausted and lay down on the grass for a while to recover. We continued to visit Alec but always approached the Sarnano road with some apprehension.

“I cannot remember going to Paul’s or Hoop’s houses although I recall us meeting on several occasions. Norman, Alec and myself met up with a group of partisans on the road to Gualdo. We exchanged the raised fist communist salute. They told us there was a lot of activity on the National road, trucks moving northwards passing constantly through Sarnano. They advised us to keep well clear of the town.

“On one occasion when we visited Alec we heard of how a German soldier visited the Nello household. Alec was quickly evacuated, via a wheelbarrow, hidden under some straw, and then wheeled across the road to hide in some bushes until the German had gone. The purpose of the German’s visit was to buy eggs or a fowl and he soon left. It was, however, a very frightening experience for Alec.”

Link to chapter 15