Chapter 15 – ‘…And which of you is the senior?…”

During the month of May, which is especially dedicated to the Madonna, the evening prayers at the Lucarelli were supplemented by additional readings, conducted by Ernesto, who droned his way laboriously through the text of the day.    Sometimes this was quite long and a pause would be necessary to wake up his mother who was understandably liable to nod off. I think that I must often have nodded off too but, charitably, was allowed to do so.

It was not a particularly busy time for work in the fields; this was a time for things to grow rather than for sowing or harvesting. There were two pairs of oxen but I do not remember them as being used much. More fully employed was a stud boar who received visitors at least once a week. Many of the sows had been walked quite a long way with a cord tied to one leg and, on arrival, often both the animal and the owner were showing signs of exasperation. The actual mating took place in the privacy of the boar’s sty under the supervision of Assunta, who showed some signs of regarding this job as rather an ungenteel one for a well-bred lady.

Although such a tiny person – she cannot have been much more than four feet six – Assunta was quite strong and had no trouble with that traditional role of woman as a water carrier.   The graceful art of carrying on the head was something learned in childhood and every woman had a kerchief which could be rolled and then coiled and twisted to make a pad for the top of the head. Although the knack of it involved balance and movement, the water jugs, when full, were also very heavy and help was needed to lift them on to the head. The traditional shape was important; without the narrow neck they could not have been carried, as a large surface of water slopping about would have unbalanced them. For this reason it was impossible to carry them when half full.

I mentioned earlier that there had previously been another Englishman staying with the Lucarelli. He was called Jimmy, and was unknown to me, but the family often spoke of him. He had gone off one day on a visit and Ernesto had loaned him his best suit for the occasion. Jimmy never returned and they were sure that he must have been taken by the Germans. In fact, Laurence had learned that this was not the case and that he was living somewhere else. We kept this information to ourselves, not wishing to compromise an Englishman’s reputation for honesty.

During this period I kept in touch with Hoop and we sometimes exchanged visits with Alec on Sundays.    Freddy and Norman came over once or twice but I do not remember visiting them at Picacchi. All the news on the radio was now becoming much more encouraging and by the end of May the front had moved northwards to join with the beach-head at Anzio. The Germans evacuated Rome on 5 June and on the following day we learned of the landings in Normandy. After this our spirits were raised almost daily. Everything seemed to suggest that, on our Adriatic side of Italy, the Germans were retreating without putting up much resistance and the activity which could be seen on the National road confirmed this. There was now more traffic, all moving northwards and mostly at night. Those few trucks which did travel by day were always in danger from air attack. RAF Hurricanes patrolled over the road almost daily: the long straight stretch afforded no cover for vehicles and from a vantage point just above our house we were able to see several trucks shot up and reduced to burning wrecks.

Locally, everyone now became aware that the retreating enemy might loot and destroy as they went. I think that our immediate area was fortunate in that the main road had little woodland cover beside it and there were no suitable places for convoys to pull off and lay up during the day. It was a section that they must have thought it prudent to get through as quickly as possible. Some precautions, however were taken by the local people; cattle were hidden, including ours which were moved down and tethered in a patch of woodland away from the house. Families living nearer the main road, drove the animals further away from it, in some cases miles, to the farms of relatives or friends.    The unmarried daughter of Laurence’s family buried her chest of linen, that important collection made by all girls in preparation for marriage; when eventually dug up again it was badly damaged.

The speed of the withdrawal now seemed to be increasing.    Pescara was reported as having been evacuated on 11 June and by the 15th, Teramo, only about fifty miles south of us. Over the mountains, Terni and Foligno had fallen on successive days. Laurence and I had become increasingly excited and one evening at dusk, we crept down close to the National road, hiding in a ditch to watch the German army in retreat. They were going by in ox-carts and there was an uncanny silence, just the creaking of the carts; had they been driven by Italians there would have been continual exhortation and abuse.   It was with some satisfaction that we saw the Wehrmacht reduced to this humiliation.By 19 June the last Germans had passed by, blowing up bridges on all the roads as they went. I must now plead a complete memory breakdown about the next day: I am told, and a three-word entry in my rudimentary diary confirms, that Hoop, Alec, and I met up with Norman and Freddy and that we all went into Sarnano for lunch but I have absolutely no recollection of this at all. On the other hand, I have a very clear picture of the day following that, when Laurence and I went into San Ginesio with the Yugoslav couple who wished to fulfil a promise made earlier, that they would take us for a meal when the Germans left. San Ginesio was full of young men who were playing the game of partisans – or patriots as they were now required to be called – and they carried guns and were festooned with belts of cartridges. Tulli ordered the meal and while it was being prepared we went into a nearby bar in the town square. We had been sitting at a table drinking but when I went up again to the bar, one of the partisans said that he would like to buy us all drinks. I relayed this offer to those at the table, to get a reply from Ilsa, somewhat haughtily, that she would on no account drink with him as, she said, he was known to her as a former member of the fascist SS.   I reported this back to the young man, who then came across to us very aggressively and pointed a sten gun in my stomach.   I stood my ground bravely at this – we had all been drinking – and said something like ‘bravo, well done’. I doubt if I would have been as calm if I had known something about sten guns and how prone they were to accidental discharge. Laurence then drew himself up and made a fine grandiloquent speech on the lines that whosoever that day, of all days, should touch the hair of an Englishman was as good as dead, etc. Ilsa and Tulli remained seated, saying nothing. The partisan was showing signs of backing down when there was a commotion in the square outside and a burst of gunfire. Someone ran in to say that a German armoured car was approaching the town but had halted at a destroyed bridge. The burst of fire had been caused by someone excitedly cocking a sten gun. A small boy had been hit in the leg.   The vehicle was next reported as having turned and gone away, at which some calm was restored.   By tacit agreement our confrontation with the partisan was not renewed and as our meal was now ready we went across the square and upstairs to the dining room.

I expect we had a good lunch but I remember little of it except that, near the end, it was interrupted by more commotion and then the ringing of church bells.     We went to the window and leaned out to see, standing outside the town hall, a vehicle which I had not previously known: it was a jeep. We went down and after pushing our way through an enthusiastic crowd, talked to the driver. The officer was in the town hall, telling the mayor that he was now subject to the rule of the Allied Military Government. The jeep apparently was the ‘German armoured car’ which had found its way into the town by a different route. So we were liberated, and like the people of the district were fortunate in that the final stages were so smoothly and peaceably accomplished.

The following day, with Hoop, I went back to Picacchi to say goodbye to the Cardarelli and the Di Luca. It was then arranged with Norman and Freddy that we should all meet in the morning at Alec’s and from there go into Sarnano together to re-join the army officially. By now our thoughts were all of home and I expect that, to the Italians, our farewells seemed perfunctory but I am sure that there was some genuine sorrow on both sides.

“Which of you,” asked the British captain, looking at the five of us in Sarnano, “is the senior?”  We looked at each other in surprise, it not being something we had ever thought of; but of course in the army, if there is more than one of you, someone must be in charge. Norman and Hoop, each of whom had had a stripe, turned to each other interrogatively. “Well,” said the latter after a long pause, “I suppose I am.”

Nothing could have made it more clear to us that our little adventure was at an end.

Chapter 15 Supplement – November 1990

It is with the events immediately following the withdrawal of the Germans from the district on 19 June and our consequent liberation, where the recollections of Hoop, Freddy and myself are so much at variance. This seems odd as it might be expected to be one of the most memorable occasions of our lives. As I said, I have no memory at all of our going to Sarnano on the next day in spite of an entry in my diary, written at the time, which says simply, “20 June: lunch in Sarnano”. Hoop agrees that we all went to Sarnano but does not remember a meal and doubts if we could have had the money for one. He also says that there was a group of armed patriots in the town and that a couple of jeeps with Polish soldiers arrived. Freddy has a more elaborate story in which he met a group of Popski’s Private Army, visited a wounded British officer in a Convent Hospital, where a sergeant was looking after him, and finally spent the night at the home of an Italian count. I think most of this must have happened after I left: if my diary is correct I cannot have stayed the night as it was the next morning that I went to San Ginesio.

Both Hoop and Freddy recall that when we went back to Picacchi to say our farewells, Maria Di Luca’s husband Gino had returned. Presumably he had escaped or deserted in the South and had followed up behind the advancing troops. I suppose he might well have regarded us with some suspicion but he was in fact extremely friendly, even affectionate, and went round the district with us when we were making our goodbye visits, as Hoop says, “matching his hails with our farewells.”

Of his last day in Picacchi, Freddy says:
“I remember clearly there was crying all round and Giuseppe gave Norman and me some money each. It was a sad parting. As we left they were threshing the corn; we had now seen the full cycle from seedtime to harvest. Gino accompanied us as far as the well, kissing us both before we parted.”

Link to chapter 16 – Epilogue