PRISONER OF WAR – AFRICA & ITALY – 1942/1943
The three days following my capture seemed endless as I, like all my pals, was unable to fully comprehend the enormity of the tragedy which had befallen me. I felt as though I was in a vacuum, unable to think clearly or to contemplate the future. My destiny was no longer in my own hands. As with the rest of the thousands of POW, I was hungry, thirsty, dusty and dirty and sought what shelter I could from the sun by day and the cold by night under the meagre cover of a now grubby army blanket. I recalled, with some humility, the plight of the tens of thousands of Italian POW we had taken in Abyssinia and could understand the reason for their downcast and despairing demeanour.
I spent some time each day wandering around among the sprawling mob looking for army and family friends. It was good to find fellows, who had been in the thick of the fighting, amongst the crowds and to catch up on the latest news of Home from family friends. The main topic of conversation inevitably returned to our present predicament and many were the arguments and pros and cons regarding the failure to hold Tobruk, responsibilty for the failure and the bleakness of our future. (See extracts from “The Story of a Siege” by A.Heckstall-Smith).
Rumours were rife and,in most cases,wildly optimistic. Gen.Gott was counter-attacking with a strong relief force and we’d be out in two days!!! Hope springs eternal but I am quite sure that most of us, who had been in and seen the final attacks of the Germans and the withdrawal of the 1st SA Division and the 50th Division in the “Gazala Gallop”, realised how great had been the defeat of the 8th Army in the desert. Deep inside we knew that there was no way that Rommel’s Afrika Korps would be stopped until a line could be consolidated at the frontier or Mersa Matruh or even as far east as the fortifications at Alamein (Ironically built by the 2nd SA Division). We were all concerned too for the folks at home who would be worrying about our safety in such chaotic conditions.
Some semblance of order out of the chaos gradually took effect as Sgts.Major and Senior NCO’s formed us into groups for the issue of water and the odd tin of Bully Beef or biscuit. Water tankers brought water to an endless line of thirsty men who quaffed the brak water with parched tongues, but with little real relief.
On the 23rd June an event occurred which stirred our hearts and gave a lift to our depression. We heard the “skirl” of pipes in the distance and, then, over the hills marched the Scottish Regiment – “The Cameroons” – in column of three and with fixed bayonets. I was extremely moved by this incident as the sound of pipes always affected me dramatically. They had held their sector and had fought on, refusing to surrender to the Italians.The Germans finally accepted their surrender and, in honour of their resistance, allowed them to march in full regalia under their own officers.
The memory of this event remained clear in my mind over the intervening years and, during a visit to the Isle of Skye in 1975, a remarkable coincidence occurred. Enid and I were visiting cousins of Pat and Colin Nicolson (friends of ours from Fish Hoek) – Maggie and Murdo Beaton. With good Scottish hospitality we were offered a “Wee Dram” and stayed for supper. During the conversation I discovered that Murdo had been a POW and had also been captured at Tobruk. I then recounted the above story and, to my surprise, Murdo, who was also astonished to hear the story in such detail, said, “Och! I was in the front rank carrying the Piper’s bag!!”
We soon realised that there would be no magical advance by our desert force and no early release. Most of our Regiment had gathered together and gun crews and other friends formed small groups for companionship. Several of our Sgts.Major and Sergeants were soon forming some semblance of order out of chaos. Several fellows made desperate efforts to escape. Some only reached the perimeter fence and were unceremoniously returned to “the cage”. Others hiked along the coast, hiding up in wadis at night, and pressing on when the way seemed clear. Most were caught before they reached the border but some, who broke out in vehicles,were successful and reached our forces by going South into the desert and then heading Eastwards.
There was a constant movement of troops and supplies through Tobruk towards the Frontier and Stukas, ME 109’s and Junker 88 bombers continuously flew over on raids. The Italians were left in charge of Tobruk and took some days to organise the handling of the prisoners. Finally we were told that convoys of trucks would be transporting us to Derna and Benghasi. Now there were divergent views as to whether one should try to stay in Tobruk for as long as possible or to try to move on to a more permanent camp and better conditions. Our little group decided to move and, on the 25th June, we boarded huge Italian 10-ton Diesel trucks. Crammed in like cattle, it was standing room only and our optimistic view soon changed to total despondancy once more. The diesel fumes made us nauseous and the attitude of the Italian guards soon “browned us off”.
Every so often the convoy would stop and we would be allowed to get off to stretch our legs and have a “piddle”. The Italians were unfriendly and obviously felt unsure of themselves as they threatened and shouted at us continuously. We had been given one small tin of Italian bully beef and two small biscuits for our day’s ration and THAT didn’t last long and soon the pangs of hunger and thirst started to gnaw at our innards. We travelled along the familiar coast road to Gazala and then on towards Temimi and Derna. Here the terrain changed from the uninteresting desert to the greener and more mountainous region of the Jebel el Akbar. Derna was no different from all the other Western Desert coastal towns and, like Mersa Matruh, Bardia and Tobruk now lay in ruins. Here our day’s journey ended and we thankfully jumped down to stretch our legs and ease our aching bodies.
Our “Joy” was short-lived as we were unceremoniously herded into an exceedingly small, and already overcrowded, barbed-wire pen. We were prodded, shoved and screamed at until we managed to squeeze into a tiny unoccupied spot and then assessed the situation.Sanitary arrangements were basic and down in one corner of the enclosure there was a totally inadequate,open-trench latrine.Already many fellows were succumbing to the terrible conditions and deprivations of food and the bad water.We had been prisoners for little more than a week and Dysentary and Malaria had already appeared. Desert sores flared up and were exacerbated by the dust and flies.
Italian organisation was practically non est and we waited interminable hours for water and a small ration of bully and biscuits – no cooked food nor any hot drink. Hunger gnawed at our empty stomachs and faces became gaunt with dust sweat and exhaustion. Our little group now consisted of Denis and Pierre de Villiers, Harry Rose-Innes,”Spot” Stanford, Cliff Brown, Keith Muggleston and myself.
We remained in these ghastly conditions for six days, in the compound which became known as the “cemetry”. We were quite sure that the many mounds on which we sat were unmarked graves. The Italian guards were particularly mean and hostile and anyone getting too near the trip-wire at the fence were screamed at and threatened. Two prisoners were actually shot at and wounded by the trigger-happy guards. At last, after much negotiating with the Italian Commander, we were marched down to the sea in groups and allowed to have a swim. Unshaven and unwashed since my capture I lay in the water and let it flow over me like a balm on my tired and aching body. I scrubbed and rubbed the dust and grime out of my hair and beard and my sweaty odour faded away with each salty dive. After our swim we collected our few belongings and were marched off to another compound on the hillside where conditions were somewhat better and less crowded. Here my small group of friends was increased by the arrival of Dick Came, duÂ Plessis, Moir and Reg Edgecombe.(Reg was a friend of my brother Arthur in the 1st Wynberg and Plumstead Scout Group.)
Our move to the Hillside camp was only temporary and, on the 1st July, we were on the move again. The 10 Ton Diesels arrived and we were loaded on as before. Standing room only! Benghazi was our destination. The good coastal road took us through some rolling, green country with cultivated lands and some small homesteads. Inland, the mountains of the Jebel el Akbar rose majestically – much like parts of Abyssinia – but, in our hungry condition and jaundiced outlook, we failed to appreciate their rugged grandeur.Â Late in the afternoon we passed an Italian Aerodrome and could see Caproni and Savoia bombers ready for their night raid. Eventually, after an interminable 12-hour journey, we arrived at another over-crowded, dusty, fly-ridden camp. We were so exhausted that we did not notice just how bad the conditions in the camp were. All the tents were full so, once more, we had no shelter from the blazing sun and, sitting out in the open, we suffered from hunger, the heat, the dust and the myriad disease-ridden flies.
We settled down near the Medical tent and were astounded to see so many sick fellows shuffling in or being brought in by their mates. Food and water were in short supply and, although it was less than two weeks since my capture, hunger, thirst and stress were having a devastating effect and, already, I could feel a growing weakness and lassitude. I noticed the same general decline in my companions and I realised that we were facing a desperate struggle for survival. Bartering of watches and valuables began as prisoners tried to obtain extra “pani” (bread) from the guards. This was, of course, of minimal value as it gave only
temporary relief and the next day the situation was as bad as ever.Cigarettes and tobacco became extremely valuable as the heavy smokers became desperate for a smoke. I did not smoke very much and stopped immediately in order to use the cigarettes I had to procure extra bread.My supply soon ran out and so the brief period of relief was short-lived.
The latrines were basic open trenches around which myriads of flies buzzed thus transporting disease. Dysentery was already rife and some poor fellows were too ill to move away and had to stay close to the latrines in case of accidents. One poor chap was so weak that he slipped and fell in. He was dragged out in a most appalling state – what a mess! There was so little water for cleaning him up and for washing his clothes and minimal medical supplies of disinfectant to wash him with.
Our meagre daily ration was still one bottle of water, one tin of Italian bully and two biscuits – no hot food – and so our condition continued to deteriorate. There were several adjoining compounds, each holding some two or three thousand POW and the one next door actually had some rudimentary showers with a meagre supply of water. Small groups were organised to have a quick shower but we were not so fortunate and missed out on the deal.
The days and nights seemed endless and restless as we tossed and turned in the dust and discomfort. More days slipped by and we were first moved to a nearby compound and then, again, this time by truck, to a camp of Palm trees in a wadi. What a relief to have shade from the sun. Our daily ration was altered from the two biscuits to one small round “pani” which was about half the size of the average bun back home. It was less bulky than the biscuits so our situation was worse and the uppermost thought on our minds was food – food – FOOD.Our small group was joined by Johnnie Sullivan, Alec Gird and Olsen who told us that Reg Oldridge had been in a group who had been shipped to Italy the previous day.
During the following week the Benghazi harbour, aerodromes and supply dumps were heavily bombed by our air-force. Our spirits and morale lifted remarkably as we watched the searchlights at night and realised that our forces had managed to stabilise a front in Egypt. They were, no doubt, consolidating their positions and building up forces and supplies for another attack and advance into Libya.Once more the question was posed. Should we attempt to remain in Africa and hope for a rapid advance up the desert by our forces and an early release or not? As it happened the Italians decided for us and prepared us for embarkation to Italy.
In the meantime, the shade of the palms helped considerably in restoring some of our strength and made life a little more comfortable. The Italian organisation was improving and the transfer of POW to Italy was accelerating as they prepared more camps in Italy. As their cargo ships arrived with supplies so they filled them with prisoners for the return journey. I realised that it would not be long before our group was shipped out. We received small pink cards to fill in for the Red Cross. They only gave our names and stated that we were well and would ultimately be forwarded to our families by the International Red Cross.
I must say that we were a little apprehensive about boarding a ship in the harbour after all the bombing activity we had seen and, having to dodge the British Navy in the Med.The move was inevitable and, on the 11th July we were transported to the docks where we boarded the “Nino Bixio”. The empty holds were dark, dank and smelly and, being among the first to board, I had to go right to the bottom hold where conditions were ghastly. The atmosphere and stench of the bilges made me feel ill and claustrophobic. With several others I climbed up a forward companionway and sneaked up to the top forward hold where conditions were amuch better. Denis de Villiers was not able to follow and I could only hope that we would link up again at the end of the journey. At last, fully laden with its human cargo, the ship moved away from the quay and hove-to until late afternoon. Crammed in, with little space to lie down, I was reminded of those human cargoes of slaves shipped from Africa to America in those bygone days and felt a little better for, at least, we weren’t shackled and were given food even though it was minimal. Toilet facilities were elementary and were rigged up along the side of the ship. There was a constant stream of men climbing up out of the depths, blinking at the brightness of the sun after the darkness below.
I went up on deck about sunset and watched, with a heavy heart and a pent-up feeling of frustration, the fading outline of Benghazi and the hazy African coast-line. The convoy consisted of two cargo ships and an escort of six naval ships. On our ship Ack-Ack and Anti-Sub guns were mounted fore and aft and were maned by Germans.The following day I went up again and stayed for quite a while. A German gunner was tossing slices of bread down to the prisoners on the deck below and gloating and sneering at the degrading scramble by the hungry hoard. I was disgusted at the behaviour of the men as they fought for a morsel. I suddenly realised that under such conditions civilisation was only skin deep. I was, however, soon involved myself when the gunner tossed a full packet of German rye bread, wrapped in tinfoil, into the crowd. It hit me on the chest and, in an instant, in this milling mob, I thrust it up my bunny-jacket and headed for the safety of my gang as fast as I could. Great was their elation when I hauled out my treasure. Although there was only enough for about one slice each, we savoured every morsel of that delicious German bread. I remember meeting Syd Damsel, who was a great friend of my brother Arthur, in that hold and we were able to exchange a lot of news of home and stories of our own adventures in the desert.
I also experienced another strange coincidence in that hold. I met a “Tommy” by the name of Harold Pipes and he came from Melbourne, Derbyshire, my father’s hometown, and he knew my Aunt, Jenny Walker who lived at 18 Ashby Road, Melbourne. The name stirred my memory and I recalled my visit to England when I was six years old. My mother had taken me to visit our relations and, during my stay at Melbourne, we went to a large manor house for afternoon tea. I spent the afternoon in the attic with a little boy playing with his Hornby train. Every time I touched the train he said to me, “Don’t ‘ee pick ‘un abroad.” That boy was Harold Pipes!
The convoy sailed eastward along the African coast and then headed north on the shortest route for the Greek coast and, then finally, westward across the Adriatic to the heel of Italy and the port of Brindisi.Only once did we sight some JU88 bombers and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Obviously the route chosen had ensured the maximum protection for the convoy but, nevertheless, it was with a sense of relief that we sighted Brindisi, which we entered on the evening of the third day from Benghazi.
We spent the night on board and the following morning, the 14th July, we gathered our few belongings and climbed down into large barges. This was a tedious and laborious procedure as we were all tired and many of the prisoners were ill. Once ashore, we were marched to a nearby transit camp where we were joined by Denis, Harry, Dupie and Mick Moir. Our spirits were at very low ebb as, hungry and tired, we realised that we were no longer in Africa and that there was little hope of repatriation until the end of the war.
Brindisi was a large port and naval base on the heel of Italy, on the Adriatic coast. Taranto was another huge naval base on the inner side of the heel opposite Brindisi. During the march from the ship to our first camp I noticed a large sea-plane base and a very large aerodrome nearby. At the camp we were made to empty all our belongings on to tressle tables where the Italian guards made a thorough search and confiscated all the “dangerous” weapons they could find knives, scissors, razors and anything else they fancied. Despite the search, the news soon filtered down the queue, giving those chaps time to hide forbidden articles and so defeat the search. I was fortunate to retain my watch and pocket knife that I had pushed into the seams of my great-coat. Thereafter, groups were taken through showers and their clothes steamed in boilers to de-louse them. Our little group only made the showers the next day and were then allocated to a tent. We were now “Prigionieri di Guerra” and soon realised that the Italian temperament was one of time wasting and procrastination. Every request was greeted with the inevitable “Si, Si, – Domani”. (Yes, Yes, To-morrow). It took until 1500hrs.to complete our showers but we cheered up visibly when food in the form of one pani and two ladles of thin, but hot, soup was issued. The soup contained celery, cabbage, carrot tops and olive oil. Not very filling, but hot. The first hot meal since our capture 35 days earlier. What an age it had been.
We were still savouring the pleasure of the hot soup when we were told to assemble with all our “clobber” and we realised that we were on the move once more. We were now marched from the transit camp right through the centre of Brindisi and were at the receiving end of taunts and jeers from the local inhabitants. The march seemed to continue for miles and miles until we were out in the countryside and, what little effect the hot soup had had soon faded away and the gnawing hunger pains were back again.
We trudged on into the failing light and, at last, the lights of the Camp appeared and it was a weary, dishevelled bunch of POW that staggered through the main gate. The Italians had prepared a long line of tables and another search was carried out. This time all our good, thick army blankets were confiscated and replaced with two thin, small Italian blankets. Complaining and grumbling was of no avail and only caused the Iti’s to become excitable and to start shouting and gesticulating at us. We would have to learn to adopt a more philosophical outlook to our difficulties and the lack of organisation and pettiness of the Italians. Morale was rock-bottom by now and, past caring, we were only too happy to bed down for the night and rest our weary, aching bodies.
The days in the camp slipped monotonously. The diet had improved slightly and there was one hot meal a day. Usually vegetable soup or macaroni with tomato puree, olive oil and cheese, and one small loaf of bread (pani). The improvement was minimal and we were still losing weight and were perpetually hungry. Everyone was starting to experience dizzy spells and it was fatal to stand up too quickly as there was a tendancy to fall over.
We were now in camp CC 85 at Tuturano some 13 miles from Brindisi and were divided into groups of 100 for the issue of food and to facilitate the daily count. The daily count took place on the parade ground and was carried out by numerous guards. It appeared that their numbers seldom tallied and so the operation was repeated until agreement was reached. Of course, we suffered a great deal of discomfort and irritation during the delay.
As the days passed we gradually settled into the routine of POW life. There were many frustations and, due mainly to the inadequate food, arguments and disagreements occurred. It was hateful to be enclosed inside a barbed-wire compound with high towers at intervals around the perimeter and patrolled by foot guards. At night searchlights continuously swept across the whole camp and guards called from one to the other to report on the situation.
Latrinograms (rumours) covering all kinds of news swept through the camp and the International Red Cross soon featured in many of them. Red Cross parcels were on their way – then they were in the camp store – then the train had been delayed – and they never arrived. The Italian answer to all queries was always the same. “Domani”. I later collected several poems, apt sayings and articles written by various fellows during our incarceration and the following was written by Trooper Webster in the camp at
Lucca. I think it portrays “Domani” adequately.
Though we feel inclined to cuss
No use at all to make a fuss
What do the Iti’s say to us? – DOMANI!
On Monday, say we order matches
Tuesday, they have formed catches
Wednesday, we hear, with nerves in patches -DOMANI!
Canadian parcels by the score
They started lobbing, half-past four.
Then it grew dark, we heard the roar – DOMANI!
When Iti fags were overdue
They lobbed tobacco out in lieu,
And said, we’ll give you papers too – DOMANI!
Tonight, content, well smoked, well fed,
This lovely thought goes through our head.
No roll call drags us from our bed – DOMANI!
If, after this, some Iti rash
Should start in Blighty, Icecream shops flash.
We’ll answer, when he asks for cash – DOMANI!
Finally, Red Cross parcels did arrive and the first issue was one parcel to ten men. Each day, for a week, parcels were handed out and we were astounded at the wonderful articles they contained.Â What excitement and joy those first parcels brought to us all. To savour decent tea, coffee, jam, chocolate, meats, butter and milk was absolutely delicious and, there was also an issue of cigarettes. Balm for the smokers. I was not an inveterate smoker but those first puffs of an English Senior Service or Players was absolute bliss. Morale soared as the hunger pains were stemmed and life became a little more bearable.Â After a week, the parcel supply petered out and the morale barometer dropped significantly. Ten days passed and, unexpectedly, the Italians announced that many of us would be moved to another camp. Instead of taking whole platoons we were selected, at random, from the camp lists and, consequently, our “Ten little Indian Group” was split up. Denis and Pierre de Villiers, Dupie, Cliff Brown, Harry Rose-Innes and myself had to pack up and, it was a sad parting as we said “Tot Siens” to Muggleston, Dick Came and Mick Moir.
We marched out of the camp at dusk and headed for the station, which was about 4km away. There we were loaded into cattle trucks – about 60 prisoners being squeezed into a truck. We were cramped, overcrowded and uncomfortable on the bare boards. The train travelled northwards all night and we passed the towns of Bari and Foggia, which was a large junction and main rail centre. In the morning the route changed and the train began the long, tortuous climb over the massive Appenine mountains.
Long tunnels pierced the mountainside and majestic viaducts stretched across deep gorges. Away from the watchful eye of their camp officials, the guards relaxed a little and we were allowed to open the truck doors and appreciate the fresh air and the superb scenery. I was amazed at the way the mountainsides were terraced and every available space utilised. It was a patchwork of Olive groves, vineyards, orchards and meadows with all the space in between filled with vegetable crops and wheat. The curious Italian peasant farm workers straightened bent backs as we passed and shouted out greetings to the guards, who returned the compliment, as they bent to their tasks once more. We had been issued with rations for the trip – the inevitable bully and biscuits – but some of us were fortunate to have saved some items from our parcels, which helped to satisfy our hunger temporarily.
By evening the train had crossed Italy from East to West and was now heading towards Rome.The truck doors were closed and locked for the night so we saw little of the City except the huge goods yards and trains as we passed through. As the train chugged onward the trucks became stuffy, hot and humid and we spent another cramped, restless, sleepless night. Finally, at about 10am on the 26th July we arrived at our destination – the small town of LUCCA. The camp was about three or four kilometers from the station and was surrounded by many fruit farms. It was beautifully situated and the valley was surrounded by large mountains on three sides, opening out on to the plains to the south. The march seemed longer than we had expected and we were weary by the time the camp appeared. We were dismayed to see that there were no permanent buildings, only long lines of Italian Bivvy tents. Only the small Administration block and infirmary and cookhouse were permanent buildings. While we waited to be allocated to our tents we raided an adjacent field of watermelons – no matter that they were not quite ripe – anything helped to fill the hollow, empty stomach.
The soggy, damp, muddy ground turned out to be peat and sloped away to the bottom of the camp where the latrines were situated. The now familiar search was carried out before we were allocated to the tents. The Italian organisation, or lack of it, lived up to its reputation as our Camp Leaders attempted to obtain rations for the cooks to prepare a meal. The dreary day moved inexorably on until the long-awaited meal was served at 9pm!! Meals were cooked in large square dixies and, with 100 men in each platoon or tent, the dishing out of food took a long, long time. We ravenously devoured the inadequate fare and immediately put down our blankets and tried to settle down for a long-desired sleep.Â Conditions were extremely difficult and the days dragged by as the Italians and Camp Leaders gradually improved the organisation and set out the camp rules. Red Cross parcels had not appeared since those first few at Tuturano and, although the food had improved in quantity and quality, we were perpetually hungry. I had lost a lot of weight but kept well while several of my pals were suffering from dysentery, malaria, coughs and colds.
A camp canteen was opened and we received Camp money with which we were able to buy fruit, vegetables and small sweets. I decided to buy four exercise books and start a diary. My idea was to set down all the events that had befallen me since joining up and then, to continue throughout my imprisonment, on to the end of the war and my ultimate release.Â In the meantime, on the 30th July we received the long-awaited Red Cross parcels and an issue of cigarettes. One parcel per man – it required a great deal of determination to refrain from eating the whole lot in one go. The first puff of a Players cigarette was a delight and a meal of meat loaf, biscuits and cheese followed by a brew of good tea was sheer ecstacy. Some guys could not resist the temptation to guzzle the whole parcel in one sitting and paid the inevitable price by becoming violently ill. Others, at the other extreme, became “Hoarders” and only ate one square of chocolate a day and made a meat loaf last three days. This led to another complication as a spate of thefts occurred as hoarders lost their carefully saved parcels. Fights flared up and I recall one occurence when the thief was caught red-handed and was unceremoniously dumped into the open latrine. This was an instant cure and thieving dropped dramatically. Â Â Â FOOD! The main daily topic! The Italian rations were meagre and insufficient to keep body and soul together. Red Cross parcels were supposed to be issued at the rate of one per man per week but their arrival was erratic and the gaps in the issue only served to remind us just how tenuous our survival was. We all continued to lose weight and were hagard and thin. Standing up too quickly left one dizzy and black-outs were frequent. I had started writing my diary and noted on the 12th August that we had been issued with two letter-cards. At last we could communicate with our families and I wrote to my father and my brother, Arthur. Of course, they were to the whole family but we had to be careful what we wrote. Nothing detrimental about the Italians, but, by innuendo, I think we were able to convey a general idea of the conditions by stressing the need for nourishing food and clothing.Â By the 24th August the errant parcels had been astray for over two weeks and repeated requests by the camp leaders only met with the usual Iti reply – Domani. General conditions were still bad. The latrines and sanitary arrangements had not been improved and water was still in short supply, although a few showers had been erected. Throughout July and August the summer days were hot and humid and the tents were airless and stuffy. Sometimes, during the full-moon periods, we heard the sound of distant bombing which, according to information obtained from talkative guards, was at Spezia, an Italian naval base.
As we became accustomed to the routine of daily counts, camp fatigues and cookhouse duty (a much sought-after chore because of the extra ration available) many other activities were arranged. Lectures were given in German, Italian and French and Maths, Science, Shorthand and Contract Bridge were taught.
Inter-platoon competitions were arranged for debates, bridge drives and spelling-bees. Church services were also arranged for the various denominations and, for the “Keep-fit” guys physical training courses were started. Many of us played bridge to pass the time and I often spent an afternoon playing with Lex Brink and Paul Bisset who had been with my section and gun-crew in the desert. Pierre de Villiers and I went to some of the gym classes and started early morning walks around the camp perimeter in an effort to regain some semblance of fitness. We did not extend ourselves too much as we were still prone to dizzy spells. The extent to which my condition had deteriorated was apparent when I managed to weigh myself on the canteen scale. When I last weighed in Cairo I was 178lbs. and now, only six months later, my weight was down to under 120lbs. No wonder the lack of parcels brought such a feeling of gloom and despondancy to everyone. The privations were taking their toll and the Sick-bay was overflowing with patients suffering from Dysentary, Malaria, malnutrition, sores and a host of minor ailments.
The harvest of fruit and vegetables was in full swing and the local farmers started supplying the canteen with a variety of items. Our few Camp lire were immediately used to purchase carrots, onions, tomatoes, apples, pears and figs. Many of the items supplied were wind-blown, over-ripe, full of worms or old, but they all went into our own concoctions and,”what didn’t kill, fattened.” The poem “Canteen fruit” was another of Tpr.Webster’s contributions.
Tomatoes, carrots, onions, pears
Apples and, of course, the figs
Windblown, dirty, full of grubs
Most of it not fit for pigs.
Lash it in, Bash it in, do we go to town?
Fairly keeps our Spirits up and our trousers down.
Carrots, onions grated up
Help to thicken our thin rices.
Tomatoes make a swell “banjo”
Never mind the fancy prices.
Stacks of it, Lakhs of it, the war’s not over yet.
Finish all the chitties up, let’s get into debt.
Fortunes for the farmers round,
Let the prisoners pay
Lire, lire and somemore
For stuff they couldn’t give away.
Sling it in, bring it in, anything will suit.
Keeps you fit, makes more grit, Good old Canteen
All this was supplied just before my birthday on the 28th August and helped to augment the meagre rations and I was able to have quite a feast.Â For breakfast, I had Pani, with cheese, onion and tomato. At lunch, in addition to the very thin rice soup issue, I made fruit salad with peaches (bad), pears (wormy) and some sweet melon. Supper was soup, veg and rice and some more fruit salad. A gargantuan feast by POW standards which made my 3rd birthday away from home a rather memorable one. I had to recall the other two – the first at Potchefstroom and, the second, at Asmara, in Abyssinia and I asked myself, “Where would the next one be?”
At this point I must include a comparison between the total Italian ration list for a week and the contents of the Canadian, English and New Zealand Red Cross parcels.
Weekly ration at Lucca CC 60.
Macaroni – Â Â Â 66grams. Â Â Â Olive oil – 13grams. Peas – 30grams.
Meat -Â Â Â Â Â Â 120 —-. Â Â Â Coffee -Â Â Â Â 7 —-. Cheese-40 —-.
Puree -Â Â Â Â Â Â 10 — . Â Â Â Â Â Â SugarÂ -Â Â Â 15 —-. Bread -200 —.
Rice -Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 66 — . Â Â Â Â Â Â Cheese(cooking)-10grams.
TOTAL 2897 gms.
12 Biscuits, pkt. Raisins, pkt. Prunes, 1/4lb.Tea, 1/4lb.Sugar, Salt,
Soap, Tin Bully Beef, Meat roll, Tin Salmon, tin Sardines, Jam, Butter
Klim milk, Chocolate and1/4lb. Cheese.
English and New Zealand parcels were similar :-
Tin Biscuits, Meat roll, 2 meats (bacon, steak, beef or sausage), Sugar
Tomatoes, Cheese, 1 pudding, Raisins, Chocolate, Soap, Tea or Cocoa or
Ovaltine, Jam, Fish paste, Curry, pepper or mustard.
After my birthday, the next important date was the 3rd September which was the 3rd anniversary of the start of the war. A special Church parade was held at 1130hrs. It was not a good day and we were all especially despondent as two “Tommies” had tried to escape during the night and one of them had been killed. The gloom lifted somewhat in the afternoon when, during the count, the Italians announced the arrival of parcels. This was greeted with loud and prolonged cheers and the barometer of camp morale rose dramatically. It was spoiled by the Iti’s when they insisted on puncturing all the tins in order to stop stockpiling for a possible escape.
The following day “Rosie”, Harry Rose-Innes, who had been ill for a week or two, finally collapsed and was despatched to Lucca Hospital with severe Dysentary. Denis was also feeling ill and went to the infirmary every day for examination, as his Dysentary was very persistent. I, too, had also had some stomach trouble but carried on and I was fortunate to recover. Another issue of parcels arrived, this time one between two, and Denis planned it out over five days. Our whole life revolved around “Parcels” and, throughout the whole of our POW existence, they provided us with an essential boost to the poor food supplied by our captors. As the years passed all POW became eternally grateful to the Red Cross for food, clothing, books etc. that eased the daily round.
Letter-cards were being issued regularly and I was able to correspond with all the family and various friends. Both space and subject matter were limited so I had to stick to basic news about myself, my health, my friends and how “well’ we were being treated.
The Dieppe raid took place at this time and the Italians were very quick to inform us of its failure. Other snippets of news filtered through, however, as we became more conversant with the language. Bartering with the guards began as the good English Cigarettes issued to us became the currency, and extra pani could be bought over the fence.”Traders” around the perimeter fence were a familiar sight and the shouts of “Uno pani. Quanto costa” were heard throughout the day. “Trader” Horn was one of the main barterers and would undertake business for anyone for a fee. The going rate was about 10 cigarettes a transaction.
The following poem was written at Lucca and, I think, it is a good description of Camp life.
AFTER A FEW WEEKS AT CC 60 – LUCCA.
Now it really is a pity that we’ve landed in the “Kitty”.
It’s really very lowering to our honour.
Still, honour isn’t much when your guts and backbone touch,
For what we miss the most of all is “dinner”.
In the morning coffee’s up, and that’s nice and hot to sup
But the sugar boat was torpedoed once or twice.
Now they’ve got the brilliant stunt, from some brainy kind of runt
Of keeping out the sugar for sweet rice.
When the time rolls round to One, they dish out our “hot X bun”
Along with bits of rind that they call cheese.
Then some rice in cabbage juice, after that all Hell breaks loose
Lobbing out the Thicks and Thins and then “Bakshees”.
In the afternoon, a peach, or pear to fill the breach
Until the next “goo” comes along at five.
And now they’ve started sellin’ that Lira’s worth of melon
We’ll, maybe somehow, manage to survive.
But there’ll come a sunny day
When the clouds will roll away
And the lads will be so gay.
When that happy day we reach
And they’re lobbing one each
Of those weary-waited, long-lost Red Cross Parcels.
Throughout September camplife continued in the same monotonous way. The late summer days were hot and humid and thunderstorms became an almost daily occurence. Fortunately we moved many of the tents to higher, drier ground before the rains turned the whole camp into a quagmire. The thick peat mud stuck to our boots until it was several inches thick and we slithered and tottered along with many a fall. The supply of parcels became erratic again and, to make matters worse, the Iti’s started puncturing all the tins in the parcels once again. This was to stop hoarding a supply in preparation for escaping. Our Camp leaders protested most strongly and conveyed this and many other complaints to two Red Cross representatives during their visit.Â The representatives were very unhappy about the Camp conditions and promised that improvements would be made as quickly as possible. Two Padres and two Doctors arrived shortly afterwards and an accordeon, two guitars and a violin were sent to the camp to alleviate the lack of entertainment. The doctors soon improved conditions in the infirmary which, up to then,had been run by Medical Orderlies and a few First Aiders.
On the 20th September – the third month since the battle for Tobruk – Denis and I went to a Communion Service at 0800hrs.and recalled the trials which we had been through since then. Despite the terrible deprivations and conditions we could still be thankful for many small mercies. At least we had survived. I remembered that it was my sister Mary’s birthday and wondered what she would be doing.
Two of our gang were on kitchen duty one day, which enabled Cliff Brown and myself to draw an extra dixie of food each in their place – a luxury which we enjoyed to the full. The Iti’s made a “magnanimous” issue of one-and-a-half Iti cigarettes per man! Concerts were held in the evenings and the first appearance of the musical instruments made a vast improvement on the previous shows. The continuing thunderstorms still made walking a hazardous affair but we learned to cope with the discomfort. The supply of Red Cross parcels was arriving regularly since the visit of the Red Cross reps and a new craze swept through the camp, as would be chefs concocted the most elaborate recipes. The Notice board was soon festooned with all kinds of recipes and this new interest served to indicate how our minds were always focussed on “FOOD”. A payout of camp Lira (10 Lira) caused a stampede on the canteen and I felt like a millionaire as I bought some fruit and a few sweets.
Towards the end of September a new batch of prisoners arrived from Bari. They described their journey across the Med aboard the “Nino Bixio” – the ship I had come across in – when it was torpedoed off the coast of Greece. Several men had been killed, drowned or injured in the disaster and they were still visibly affected by their harrowing ordeal.
Summer was drawing to an end as October slipped by and the nights were becoming a little cooler. I began to appreciate the warmer clothing I had managed to bring with me and which I had been determined to keep and not sell for food. Denis had, finally been forced to report sick and was despatched to the Lucca hospital. There he met up with Harry Rose-Innes again and I did not see either of them again until after the war. Our small group now consisted of Pierre de Villiers, Cliff Brown, du Plessis, Lex Brink, Paul Bisset and myself. Â Â Â A camp News sheet appeared – “The Ripley News”. It was a translation of items from Italian papers and was mostly propaganda, which was greeted with much derision. Nevertheless, we were able to gather that there was a big build up in North Africa and, towards the end of October, we knew that the battle at Alamein was going well for our forces. During August the Italians issued a newssheet called POW NEWS. It was all propaganda and was treated with much contempt, but we continued to read it in order to glean any information. At night we were still able to see the distant flashes of Ack-Ack to the North of the camp.Â Food! Food! Always food.Dupie went on a work party to the station and returned with a large bundle of “Brew” wood and,as we had also constructed a very good stove from Klim tins,we were now into cooking in a big way.An entry in my diary referred to piping hot porridge made from Canadian biscuits and even a cake.So,Â despite the rain and mud and the difficult conditions,which forced us to cook inside the tent and which reminded me of smoky African huts,we were adapting to our POW existence and were begining to find “Life” just a little more bearable.
“Trouble Brewing” was another poem written by Tpr.Webster.
Out through the door from the warm air
Ã„.Â¤Â¤Ã„â€žComes a youth,who would nature dare
For his comrades sake – what do they care,
That it’s cold and the moon has gone.
Out in the night where the clouds hang low
Thick with the threat of impending snow.
It’s his turn tonight,this youth must go.
The BREW has got to go on.
Down he squats in a vacant place.
Gusts of wind swirl up in his face.
Then around his back up a different place
And chill to the very bone.
Side by side he plants two bricks
Paper,Cardboard and a few thin sticks.
Pinched,I suppose,but still that’s nix.
The BREW has got to go on.
Two Klim tins on top he sets.
Will they topple? – Who’s taking bets?
Down on his belly the poor lad gets
And utters a stifled groan.
Using a wafter – that’s just the stunt
See him puff and blow and grunt.
Muttering something while he lies prone.
The BREW has got to go on.
It’s burning now with a cheerful glare,
Now she’s singing – Yes! Now she’s there.
A spoonful each – watch – have a care
And his turn at duty is done.
Back he goes with a spanking brew,
Easy there chum,and don’t barge through
Or else – Yes!That’s what I thought you’d do.
And another BREW has got to on.
During the evening “Concerts” many sayings and camp jokes
were told :- Topical Tags were an example.
“Tempt not a desperate man – put away the jam.”
“Don’t put off till to-morrow what you can brew to-day.”
86ÃœjÃœÅ’”Work is the cause of all the trouble in the drinking classes.”
“Eat,drink and be merry for to-morrow we may diet.”
Camp Lire was paper money issued by the Italians for use in
the “Canteen”.We bought fruit,onions,carrots and tomatoes and
sweets.See Poem “Canteen Fruit”.
IntoÂ Â Â November the heavy rain still continued to make our
days damp and uncomfortable.Autumn was definitely with us and the
days were shorter and the nights colder.The water supply failed
for three days which made the preparation of the camp meals
extremely difficult.Parcels kept us going and,at last,the first
few letters from Home trickled in.I was not one of the lucky
ones.News of the battle of El Alamein trickled in and morale rose
when we were able to confirm that Gen.Montgomery had pushed into
Libya.Rumour had it that the “Yanks” had landed in French North
Africa and were pushing Eastwards.Our main hope was that all
enemy forces would be defeated in N.Africa and that,perhaps,
there would be an invasion of Italy which would lead to our
release.Rumours were also rife that CC60 was to be closed and,on
the 12th.November 285 of us were told that we were being sent to
CC53 at Macerata.The Iti’s now issued us with Italian army
uniforms with large red patches sewn into the legs and on the
back of the jacket to prevent us from escaping.Groups were being
sent to various camps and I realised that I would not be seeing
Denis and “Rosie” again.Paul Bisset,Lex Brink,Spot
Stanford,Brashaw and several other army pals were off to other
camps and so my companions were reduced to Cliff Brown and Du
Plessis from our Regiment.
I used up my Camp money to buy Chestnuts and Nougat from the
canteen and had a hearty supper and breakfast from my parcel to
lighten the load which I would have to carry to the station.The
Italians also gave us rations for the trip. – 1 slice polony,1
pani,2 small chocolates and a piece of cheese.On the morning of
the 13th.November our contingent marched out of Lucca.We raised a
cheer,happy to be leaving behind a most uncomfortable and badly
organised camp.All of us felt the strain of marching and realised
how much the deprivations of the last five months had affected
us.This was borne out when one poor fellow collapsed and died on
the way to station.Once again we boarded the now familiar cattle
trucks and eventually left Lucca station at 4.40 pm.Travelling
Eastwards our route took us through Florence and up over the
Appenines towards the Adriatic coast.Sleep was out of the
question as the bitter wind blew through the open gaps in the
trucks and we sat and smoked and talked the night away.
87ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â We arrived at our destination at 10am.on the 14th.Nov.and
marched through the small town of Macerata to the camp,CC53.On
reaching the camp the inevitable search took place.To impose a
further indignity on us the Iti’s took great pleasure in
puncturing all of the tins in our parcels.We were furious.
The camp consisted of four compounds with large brick
warehouses which were the barracks.Here,for the first time,we
were allocated to three-tier bunks with straw mattresses on bed
boards.We were demarcated into groups of 100,which were then
split into sections of ten.This facilitated the easy distribution
of the daily rations of Pani and cheese.The main kitchen for our
compound was incomplete and I went on a fatigue to build a
temporary fire place to enable the cooks to prepare a very
welcome evening meal.In addition I ate some of the food from the
punctured tins of my parcel and ended up the day with a brew of
hot cocoa,biscuits and cheese.What a Joy to turn in into a good
bed again and to have the added pleasure of electric lights.It
was lights out at 9pm.in more ways than one.I literally died and
woke early and refreshed to enjoy a good breakfast of Bully Beef,
Meat roll and Coffee from my parcel.
Roll-call and count was held at 8am.after which I had a good
wash before wandering around the camp with Cliff and Dupie.There
was a large parade ground which gave ample facilities for sport
and exercise.There were many more books in circulation from a
central library for the whole camp and it was heaven being able
to read with electric lighting.Parcels were being issued on a
daily basis – one parcel between seven – but all tins were
punctured to stop hoarding for an escape.Daily fatigue parties
were organised to clean out empty bungalows and erect three-tier
bunks to alleviate the over-crowding in one barrack and to
prepare for the arrival of a new batch of POW.
When the 1300 prisoners arrived we were all appalled at
their ghastly condition.Most of them had been prisoners since
Gazala and Tobruk and had been kept in the desert near Tripoli
under extreme conditions and many of their comrades had died from
Dysetary and Malaria.They were in threadbare summer rig and were
desperate for warmer clothing to protect them from the already
colder weather of the mountains and the approaching winter.
Even we were feeling the cold as the gray rainy days
continued and,already,the surrounding mountain peaks were snow
capped.I think that we all felt more settled now and the Iti’s
were better organised.Their food was better prepared and the
regular parcel issue assured us of greater resistance to the
cold.In order to stop the “Moaners” food was issued in Sections
on a rotating basis.The morning Cheese and Pani were issued to
sections in rotation and it was then taken to the section and
arranged from the largest to the smallest.Each day the chaps
moved up by one so that everyone had a first choice.The same
arrangements were made for the issue of the main meal which
eliminated any gripe about thick and thin food.
Rome wasn’t built in a day – nor CC53 apparently.
88ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Generally,conditions were improving as more equipment
arrived from the Red Cross.Sports gear, musical instruments and
more books and playing cards helped to ease the monotony of our
daily round.A very good band was formed under the leadership of
Dave Platter who,with other talented actors and performers,
produced an excellent concert called “The 53 Follies”,which
visited each of the compounds in turn and enabled all of us to
pass many a happy hour singing and enjoying some fun and lightÂªhearted banter.
Another innovation was the daily,hand-printed news sheet
called “The Griff”.It was edited by some of the English POW and
was soon followed by a Springbok version produced by John Wilson.
All the articles were contributed by anyone who had a story to
tell or a poem or topical item to relate.(See the two examples).
I collected all the verses included in this story,some of which
were my own,from that news-sheet.News of the war filtered through
and,by the end of November,we knew that the North African
campaign was nearing it’s end as our forces advancing from East
and West were only about 300 miles apart.15 Japanese ships had
been sunk in the Pacific and the Russians had made advances in
the Don river basin.
There’s a one-eyed railway station to the north of Italy.
There’s a POW camp below the town,
Where the stouter hearted squaddies walk around in two’s or
And the mud around their ankles weighs them down.
The camp is known as “Fifty Three”
By the Sahibs and the powers that be
And we’re colder than we feel inclined to tell.
But,for all our frozen flanks,
We can still stand in the ranks
When the Sergeant-Major gives the Roll-call yell.
Now at night we’re led a dance
When the boys wake from a trance
And dart away to answer Nature’s call.
But when “Any Sick” is called
We’re the first to reach the board
For the news in “Griff” will sure concern us all.
When the sun is at it’s height
We are shivering and white
And we turn away and hasten to our cot.
Soon an ugly knife is buried
In the Bully and the Bread
And,it’s sharing out the good old Red Cross box.
There’s a one-eyed railway station in the north of Italy
There’s a POW camp below the town.
Don’t let it get you down,for soon we all shall be
Drinking our “health” inside “The Rose and Crown.
89Â Â Â Â Â Â ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Our daily round continued on it’s unhurried way.Breakfast,
the morning count,a few turns around the parade ground,a brew,
read or write home,lunch,play cards,another brew,supper and so on
until lights out.We were then told that,in future,parcels would
be issued once a fortnight due to winter railway difficulties.
Cliff was ill and had no appetite and I thought that he had
jaundice.Pierre was also not too well and many of us had colds
and coughs.The Italians ordered a “gargling” parade to combat the
epidemic.The scourge of all POW was next to rear it’s ugly head Âª”LICE”!.The cold weather was not conducive to cleanliness and
many of the fellows failed to keep themselves or their clothes
clean.Consequently,the lice spread rapidly and it required a real
effort to keep them at bay.A familiar sight around the camp was
chaps sitting out in the sun (when it shone) working along the
seams of shirts,vests and trousers and crushing the pests between
their finger nails.Most of us managed to keep them at bay,but
there were many who simply gave up and were so unclean that they
were unceremoneously stripped and dumped in the icy showers and
their clothes dumped in the “delousing” machine.
Coughs and colds were aggravated by having to go out of the
barracks,across an open passageway to reach the “Loos”.At night
there was a constant stream of shivering figures clomping out in
their army boots and great coat to “wee”.The inadequate sewerage
system was another problem and soon became blocked.It was the
Continental type – no seat,just a hole in the ground – and a
visit during the night was extremely hazardous.Cleaning up was
not a pleasant job for the Latrine fatigue the following morning.
A POW named Targett was a magician who went under the stage
name of “Leon”.He gave lectures on magic and magicians and put on
one or two shows.Arts and Crafts occupied a great deal of our
time as chaps whittled designs on pipes and made all sorts of
gadgets from materials obtained from the Parcels.One chap
constructed a Grandfather clock and the mechanism actually worked
and kept time.It was from the tins of Red Cross parcels that the
“Blower” was made.This was a blast furnace which could “brew up”
water on a minimal amount of wood and every group of four or five
chaps had one.It was the most important piece of equipment that
we possessed and was perfected until a litre of water could be
boiled in under two minutes.
Into December and Mid-winter.The days were short and the
long evenings were occupied with concerts,Contract bridge drives,
letter writing and reading.I wrote some articles and poems for
the news sheet “The Griff”.Letters and individual parcels were
trickling in from home but,at that time,I had not received any.
The cooks decided to try out a new menu.No more soup!.The
ingredients rice,pumpkin and meat were kept seperate and served
as meat and vegetables and proved to be a great success.We were
still receiving Camp lire and could purchase a limited variety of
goods.Through trial and error many of us were becoming very
proficient in the art of cooking and baking quite a variety of
succulent dishes from items in the parcels.With Chestnuts bought
from the Canteen some delicious pies were concocted.
90Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Two extracts from The Griff are relevant here.
Ãƒ* Ãƒï¾”Prisoners LICE boundÆ’
â€¢Å“Â Â Â Fumigator Non Bono — Shirts still swarming.
We notice all around the camp squaddies sitting seeking
insect pests.Complaints reach us from platoons 1 – 9 that the
“delousing” was not good enough.That the disinfectant,if any,not
sufficiently strong enough to kill.Temperature inside the
infernal machine only succeeded in hatching out the eggs.
Complaints too from other platoons – those whose clothes &
bedding have not been done want to know – Where has the “Rocket”
gone and when will it return?.Dozens of eager volunteers wait to
chop wood and stoke the fire and assist generally.Our clothes
ought to be done once a week until every man is freed from the
torture of restless nights.Why,Oh Why,were we born to suffer so?
Ãƒ*Ãƒ”When Roll Call is called up yonder Æ’
Ãƒ*Ãƒâ€¢”The “Chai” is “cauld” as well.â€¢Æ’
A whistle blows – the hammers drop
In this confounded knocking shop.
Klim bashers too,they even stop.
A hush falls on the pen.
And then a voice bawls from the top
It’s Roll Call once again.
Now see the brewers trooping in,
Each holding fast to his own tin.
Some wear a frown,some wear a grin
And some just let it stew.
For just as “it” should go with “gin”
So Roll Call goes with Brew.
We get in groups – Eye’s front – ‘Tenshun’,
And then the counters have their fun.
Of course,they’re always short by one.
You know the cause of that.
The missing man – you bet your bun
Is hiding in the “Lat”.
Then,when with the figures they have toyed,
It’s done at last,and overjoyed
We hear from Sergeant-Major Lloyd
“Dismiss” – How it resounds.
Then to the door to find,annoyed,
Latrines are out of bounds.
The daily “Count” seemed to take longer the colder the
weather became.The main problem was the inability of the Iti’s to
get their figures to tally.There were always chaps in the
infirmary,kitchens or on fatigues and,as time passed,the Iti’s
grew more excitable,gesticulating and shouting.At last they would
find the missing man and we could “Fall Out”.
91ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â I visited the notice board everyday to read the latest
“Griff” and wrote down all the poems,quips and other items of
interest,some,of which,I had contributed.Two relevant poems give
a vivid picture of “Camp Life”,the irrepresible humour of the
English “Tommy”ï¾Å“ and our ability to adapt to adverse conditions.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”A to ZÂ – Tpr.Webster.Æ’
They marched us out on to the field,
But not for sport – Oh no! Alas!
Nominal Roll Call was the job
And time did pass and pass and pass.
They called the names out one by one.
The A’s were first,for them ’twas grand.
But just you think what my name is,
And think how long I had to stand.
For hours and hours and hours and hours
I stood the strain.It was some effort.
But then I thought it not so bad.
There’s some guy here whose name is Zephart.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”Lice (with acknowledgments to Rudyard Kipling)Æ’
Å“You may talk of fleas and lice
That you’ve seen as big as mice,
But you’ve never seen them quite as big as we did.
They large and coloured red
For on British blood they’d fed
And to drive us all half crazy,they succeeded.
Chorus:-For they were lice,real lice.
The smallest ones were quite as big as mice.
And,though we belted them and flayed them,
By the living God that made them,
There were very few that paid the proper price.
‘Twas in Libya’s sunny clime
Where for some considerable time
We were tortured by these beasts,behind the wire.
There are marks that ne’er will leave me
And the memory e’er will grieve me
For the birthrate of these pests kept growing higher.
The uniforms we wore
Were filled with lice galore
In spite of efforts made to keep them out.
Brute force made no improvement,
Still they worked a pincer movement
And they’d get into the seams,without a doubt.
Continued on next page.
92ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â They would bite all through the day
Try to slay them as we may.
And they didn’t seem to know the use of fear.
Then,as day turned into night
They would muster for the fight
And attack us from the flanks,the front and rear.
After months of heavy fighting,
For the lice still kept on biting
And were strongly reinforced by jumping fleas.
The wounds upon our backs
From those constant night attacks
Brought the strongest of us all down to our knees.
Now I will close with some advice
With regard to fleas and lice.
De-louse at every moment you desire.
It’s no sin,so do not shame,
The R.S.M.just does the same
And,if he says he don’t – then he’s a liar.
On the 9th.December “The Griff” announced that 12000 English
cigarettes and 4500 Canadian parcels had arrived and that,on the
24th.Dec.,there would be a Christmas issue of one parcel per man.
Wow! Christmas feast ahead!.Morale reached new heights.We
received our back pay of POW lire from Lucca (14.50 lire) and 10
lire from this camp.I immediately bought more chestnuts with
which to bake a delicious pie.
Daily fatigues and camp duties occupied much of the morning
and Roll Calls often took hours,especially when we all had to
have a throat gargle as well.The bitter Winter weather did not
help in combating the flu’,coughs and colds and there were many
recurrences of malaria and dysentery and the infirmary was always
full.The rest of our time was occupied with reading,walking,
sport,card playing,washing clothes (using the non-lather,hard
Italian soap) and writing the weekly letter cards to the folk at
home.There was also our constant enthusiasm for any kind of food
preparation.As the chaps lay in their bunks they often recalled
“Mother’s” recipes and,many of these were put up on the notice
board.I collected 88 such recipes – most of which could never be
made under POW conditions.Anything to pass the time and keep the
How necessary it was to keep clean.Cold showers in December
in the draughty toilet area with soap that wouldn’t lather was a
test of utter guts and determination.Once the ordeal was over,
however,a good rub down and a brisk couple of laps around the
field sent the blood coursing through the veins and,with a change
into clean clothes,gave one a wonderfully,exhilirating feeling.
Apt saying:- (POW’s thoughts of home).
Confucius say:- “The farther off – The more desired”.
93ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â 16th.December 1942 (Dingaan’s day ).My thoughts turn to home
– Capetown in the Summer with all the attractions of the sea and
the mountains.I wrote two poems – “On the Inside” and “Always”.I
think that this would be an opportune moment to include these and
other nostalgic poems written by other POW.
Ãƒ*$Ãƒ”ï¾â€¢”On the InsideÆ’
â€¢Å“Â Â Â We’re all upon the inside
On the inside ever looking out.
We’ve taken knocks,but still have our pride.
Our hopes are still high,we can still sing and shout.
We’re all upon the inside
And the Iti’s have all the blinkin’ say,
But someday we’ll be on the outside.
Our luck’ll turn “Boys” – That’ll be the day.
We’re all upon the inside
And,while the outlook’s rather grey,
We’ve got “The Griff” to cheer and to guide.
The band is darn good so let’s cheer up and say,
Though we’re all upon the inside
And the Iti’s have all the blinkin’ say
Someday we’ll be on the outside
And things’ll be round the other way.
â€¢Å“Â Â Â I want you to know that somebody cares
That always there’s someone who happily shares
In each little thing that you hope for or do.
In sunshine or clouds or the rainbow for you.
Just someone who’s with you each step of the way
Someone who cares for you more every day.
Ãƒ*-Ãƒï¾”POW Day. – Cpl.BristowÆ’
â€¢Å“Â Â Â Another dismal,damp’ning day
Succeeded a slatey,pattering dawn
In November’s never failing way.
A little later,strange to say
The sun,looking pale and worn,
With golden locks so sadly shorn,
Loosed one lack-lustre hurried ray
And,with that furtive,cowardly peek
Sought fresh fields of fairer mien
And thus lived on to shine again.
Left deserted in a world so bleak
We stayed indoors and there unseen
Watched and listened to the slating rain.
Note:- I have never lived on a grocer’s shelf;nor slept in a
rabbit hutch;nor have I eaten a meal standing in a rush-hour
train,and I have yet to try writing a letter in a dog kennel.But
I have no doubt that these will be simplicity itself after this.
94ÃœjÃœÅ’ Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”After the War is over.Æ’
â€¢Å“Â Â Â Now when all this over and back home we go
We are bound to drop “ghoolies” in style.
For there’s habits we’ve learned in the army and here
That will linger for quite a long while.
I don’t mean forgetting to “Thank you” or “Please”
Nor “Sorry” nor “I beg your pardon”.
But what are the old folks at home going to say
When you dig a slit trench in the garden?.
Perhaps in the morning you’ll hear whistles sound,
I’m afraid it will cause quite a tiff
If you waken from dreamland,give the Missus a nudge
And shout “Group Commanders for “Griff”.
And then when the wifie has breakfast in hand
It will give her a fit of the jitters
To be told to get cracking on lashings of “Char”,
“Spratts ovals” and a few “Bully fritters”.
Remember as well that when dinner is laid
In best circles it’s really not nice
To tear the inside from a whole blooming loaf
And stuff it with onions and rice.
And if you are lucky enough to have joint
Of good manners it’s really a breach
To shout to the neighbours,at the top of your voice,
“Who’ll swop me two tabs for a peach”?
Another thing,too,if you’ve company for tea
And perhaps you have lovely cream cakes,
It will cause quite a stir if you bring out the cards
Shouting “Cut for it – Ace high – low takes”.
Finally,if sonny should ask for more bread
The situation will greatly intrigue
If you tell him he can’t have an extra bit loaf
Since he’s not on a cook-house fatigue.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”Just a Thought – Distance.Æ’
â€¢Å“If those that are parted can feel someone’s caring
Can know someone’s wondering how they are faring,
Yes!Thinking and praying and feeling concern
And longing and waiting ’til their return.
If those that the land and the sea seperate
Feel secure in the warmth of the welcome that waits.
Can know they’re loved and are missed night and morn,
The pain of the parting is easier borne.
For Love travels quickly when hearts correspond
And distance is nothing to those that are fond.
Quip:- Aunt Fanny’s mailbag:-
Question:-I have managed to save a tin of Boiled Beef &
Carrots from my last Parcel.Would you advise adding it to my
Answer:-You’re a better man than I am.- Bung it in!.
95ÃœjÃœÅ’Ãƒ*Â§Ãƒï¾”After the War is over.No.2Â by Pte.PhillipsÆ’
â€¢Å“After the war is over,after the strife is done
We will go home in clover,back to our towns and fun.
We’ll sail the mighty ocean,back to the land we adore
Back to our homes and loved ones,to stay there for evermore.
We’re leaving the empty spaces,leaving our comrades that fell.
Always remembering their faces,as their lives they bravely did
Freedom will reign forever,men will be saved from Hell.
Bells will be ringing and singing,the world their joy to tell.
After the War is over,after the strife is done.
We will go home in clover,back to our homes and fun.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”Someone – Tpr.Webster.Æ’
â€¢Å“Â Â Â In bygone days when up the blue,
Midst sand and flies and scorpions too,
We stuck it then because we knew
Someone was waiting at home.
When hostile planes above held sway,
With hellish crumps – machine gun spray,
We held the thought throughout the day,
Someone is waiting at home.
And then Tobruk – no longer free,
Hungry and thirsty we used to be.
It was with us still – with you and me
Someone is waiting at home.
Now life is better – though still barbed wire,
These same thoughts still do our hearts inspire,
That,back in Blighty,our hearts desire.
Someone is waiting at home.
And in time to come,with an end to war,
We look ahead and,we hope not far
To the day when we’re back where our loved ones are
To the “Someone” who waited at home.
Mary had a little dress – a dainty bit and airy
It didn’t show the dirt a bit – but Phew! It did show Mary.
I wonder if,when we should die and meet St.Peter up on high
He mentions harps,the lads will cry,”Lob ’em out,one per man
Christmas was almost upon us and,despite our incarceration
and difficult conditions an air of Joy and Hope crept in.I went
to church services,held by Padre Wrigley quite often and every
evening there was music and entertainment of some sort.
96ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â December 21st.- Six months since my capture at Tobruk – what
an age it seemed.In celebration I had a haircut and had my beard
shaved off.I had been without a razor and blades for five of
those months and it was a relief to feel a smooth face again.I
felt quite strange and all my mates wondered who this newcomer
was.It turned out to be a red-letter day as we were informed that
we would receive a special Christmas issue of a Canadian and a
Red Cross Christmas parcel between two men.These were issued on
the 23rd.Dec.and,with cigarettes and a promise of “Vino”,it was
going to be a bumper Christmas.The Christmas parcel contained:-
2 tins meat,1 cake (see wrapper and proposed menu),1 Xmas pudding
1 tin sweets,1 bar chocolate,3 slabs sugar,1 jam,1 butter,1 pkt.
Choc.biscuits,soup,cheese,tea and milk.WOW!
Preparations began immediately as the seven of us who formed
a small group planned the day’s menu.On Christmas Eve we went to
see Dave Platter’s show “The 53 Follies Revue”.It was superb with
humourous comedy items,good songs and some foot-tapping Jazz
music.After the show we had a “brew” with Yorkshire pudding and
Honey,raisins,prunes and chestnuts,while Padre Wrigley and his
Choristers went from hut to hut singing carols.They ended with
“Silent night,Holy night” just before “Lights out” and left us
lying in our bunks,thinking longingly and a little sadly of
Christmas Day 1942.- The cooks gave us a surprise by
shouting “Coffee up” at 7am.and “A Merry Christmas to you all”.
Everyone jumped up and,for a while,the hut was filled with the
noise of cheerful greetings.I had my morning wash and then went
off to a Communion service.Breakfast was ready on my return after
which we all went off to read “The Griff” and visit the Arts &
Crafts exhibition in Sector One.This was proving to be my best
POW day to date and for Cliff and Pierre it was even better as
they received their first letters from home.We excitedly
discussed their news while having a mid-morning brew.Off we all
went for a long walk around the Parade ground to work up an
appetite for a grand lunch.The Camp meal was very good and there
was even “Baksheesh”.We then had our pudding which had been
heated in the kitchen and finished off with the traditional
nuts,raisins and sweets.What a feast!.With our “Vino” issue we
toasted – The King -The Fallen – Our Dear Ones and “The Red
Cross”.After that we all collapsed onto our bunks with bloated
stomachs for the first time in six months.
We managed an afternoon brew but couldn’t partake of the
cake and spent the rest of the afternoon on the field exercising
and watching some soccer matches.Supper and a late brew were mere
snacks and the remainder of our planned menu was held over for
another day.It had certainly been the most memorable day since
I had been reading a biography of Captain Scott’s epic
journey in the Antarctic by Stephen Gwynne and made an extract of
his words in his diary for Christmas day 1902.I submitted this to
“The Griff” and it was published in the issue for the 1st.January
Boxing day 26th.December dawned with heavy rain and drizzle
97ÃœjÃœÅ’which continued throughout the day.Despite this the Italians
called us out for a count much to our discomfort and displeasure.
The rest of the day was spent indoors recovering from the
tremendous Christmas feast and we amused ourselves by reading and
playing cards.We also managed to finish off the left-overs from
the planned Xmas menu.The remaining days of December followed
much the same pattern.Very cold,rainy days kept us all indoors
except for the inevitable count and we passed the time playing
cards,reading,writing letters,brewing and making meals.There were
also the evening concerts in the various Sectors which we were a
allowed to visit.At midnight on the 31st.Dec.we all woke up and
saw the BAD OLD YEAR out at and wished each other a Happier Year
ahead,hoping,of course,that it would include our release and a
The first snow of the winter fell in the camp on New Year’s
day and the mountains above the town were heavily covered with
snow.Post from home was arriving more frequently and cigarette
and clothing parcels also started to trickle in.My own emotions
ran high when I received my first letters from home on the
18th.January.Red Cross parcel issues were erratic but War news
was considerably brighter as the North African campaign was
obviously nearing the end with the Allied forces closing in for
the final attack.I was very worried and saddened when both Cliff
Brown and Pierre de Villiers had to be admitted to the camp
infirmary.Cliff had collapsed after the Italians had taken our
Sector for a long walk in the country and the strain had been
just too much for him in his sick condition.Many POW were ill and
were receiving Anti-biotics in pill form.This was the first time
we had experienced this medication as prisoners and the side
effects were quite severe.
February started with a sunny spell and with it our spirits
brightened dramatically.After the erratic parcel supply of winter
the flow improved and I also received some letters and a clothing
parcel from home.My main worry at this time was the condition of
both Cliff and Pierre,who both had pneumonia and were not
responding to treatment in the infirmary.Both were finally
removed to the Macerata Hospital where Cliff had an operation and
had tubes inserted to drain his lungs.”Dupie” and I were very
upset as we were the last of our gun crew to be together.
Spring made it’s first appearance in March and we were now
getting more exercise and spent more time outside.Three fellows,
Arty Hartley,who will appear again later,a Canadian,Westwater and
another fellow made an escape one evening.They covered over the
red patches on their uniforms and went from our Sector into the
Infirmary and slipped into the kitchens.From there they timed
their movements to coincide with the guards going off duty.When
the guards left the camp the they joined in and passed through
with the crowd.Their escape was only discovered at the next day’s
count.The expected Italian reaction was immediate with the
Officers shouting and gesticulating and the guards counting and
re-counting.We,of course, were kept out on the parade ground for
hours.It was only a matter of time before the escapees were
98ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Camp control was immediately tightened up and the counts
were deliberately made longer and other little privileges
curtailed.Parcel supplies also suddenly became erratic until a
visit from a Red Cross Representative sorted things out and
supplies returned to normal.
There were many rumours of POW being sent out on work
parties to farms to assist with the harvest and so it came as no
surprise when Dupie and I were included in a group to go to camp
CC 75 at Bari in the south of Italy.We left on the 22nd.April and
boarded the now familiar cattle trucks and travelled down the
Adriatic coast past Ancona,Pescara and Foggia.On the way we noted
many German aerodromes and a great deal of military activity.
Bari town was on the coast but the camp was a few miles
inland and the march took us through Olive groves,vineyards and
orchards.Every space between the trees and vines was cultivated
with wheat,barley and vegetables.It was uphill all the way and we
were quite weary when we reached the camp.Bari was a clean,well
run transit camp for work parties.There were many nationalities
in the camp – Greek,Aussie,New Zealand,American,Slavs and
Montenegrans from Albania.A few days after we arrived there was a
heavy daylight Air-raid by 4-Engined bombers over the Bari
harbour and,after months of remoteness from the war,the violence
and noise of the Anti-Aircraft guns was somewhat devastating.
There was plenty of activity in the camp with Soccer and
Baseball,good concerts and music and the regular “Crown & Anchor”
and “Housey,Housey” gambling spots – the currency being
cigarettes.Bari was also a repatriation camp and while I was
there several groups of disabled and very ill POW were sent home
via Switzerland.I noted 100 S.Africans and 100 New Zealanders
being sent off plus some Greeks.I came across Reg Leverton,an
ex-Wynberg Boys’High school class mate,who had been at Lucca
Hospital and was able to give me news of Denis de Villiers and
Harry Rose-Innes.Both had recovered and Harry was entertaining
the patients with his accordeon playing.
Meanwhile,the RAF air-raids were now almost a daily
occurrence and we watched the flights of hundreds of planes
flying over on their way to Foggia where they bombed the railway
yards and the nearby aerodromes.Libya and Tunisia were “Finito”.
A group of Montenegrans were brought back from a work party in
chains and four of their mates had been shot for refusing to
work.Our party left on the 20th.May for the farm and I was glad
that Dupie,who had been ill,had recovered and would be coming
with me.We were up at 5am.and left camp at 6.30am.The downhill
hike to the station was somewhat easier than our march to the
camp.On arrival at the station we were thrilled to see that,this
time,we were travelling in a 2nd.class passenger coach.What
On the way we noted all the damage caused by the raids and
were very worried when we were left on a siding in the huge
Foggia railway yards for an hour or two.Mid-day was air raid time
and we prayed that we would be out of there before that.I think
that we were fortunate to have been attached to a small train and
sent off on a branch line to Manfredonia.
99ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Before I continue with the story of my experiences on the
farm I want to include some poems written by POW over the
Christmas period in CC 53 at Macerata.
Ãƒ*!Ãƒï¾”A Prisoner’s Dream.â€¢Å“Æ’
How little we appreciate the little things of life.
The things that make this life of ours worth while.
How true is that old saying,that we never reason why,
We never miss the water till the well runs dry.
And now our well is empty,and we stop to realise
How much we miss our Sunday tea and Mother’s Apple pies.
How much we’d like to read a book in the armchair by the fire,
Or twiddle with the Radio for the programme we desire.
To make a run for shelter from an English April shower.
To walk along the beach,or sit in a country bower.
And how we all would love to sit in the “Rose & Crown again.
To order Mild & Bitter from the barmaid,Mary Jane.
But though these things are far away we can afford to smile.
So let’s make the best of Christmas,lad’s in the good old Blighty
As oft I lie awake at night,
My thoughts just wander where they might.
Down leafy lanes,by rippling streams
Down shady glens,such lovely dreams.
I live again the days gone by
Hearing sweet Nature’s lullaby.
Calling me back to enjoy the thrill
Of enchanted hours beside the Mill.
The bubbling brook,running along
Through wood and valley,filled with song.
The Thrush,the Wren,the Jackdaw too
All come plainly into view.
A sweet aroma fills the air,
Of Hawthorn,Briars,flowers rare.
Mingled with the scent of pines.
Intoxicating,sweet Nature’s wine.
The soft wind soughing through the boughs
Of giant Elms,I do allow,
Would tell grand tales,if they could speak,
Or I could fathom all their creaks.
In every corner where I look
Nature holds me like a book
Well written.So I will return
To spend more hours by the burn.
It fills my humble soul with pride
To gaze out o’er the countryside.
To know the beauty close at hand
Encompassed by my own fair land.Â —- Continued
100ÃœjÃœÅ’Â Â Â Recollections :- Continued
Nature holds the charm so rare
Her beauty unsurpassed,so fair.
I know too,should you hear the call,
To her sweet charm you too would fall.
When I return across the sea,
To all that’s waiting there for me.
Nature will have me for her slave.
My Wanderlust has found it’s grave.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”Dave Platter’sÂ “53 Follies Revue”â€¢Å“Æ’
There’s a lot of chatter about Platter
Getting fatter on Italian stew.
But he isn’t lazy,nor crazy
Perhaps hazy,but never blue.
He’s been romancing about dancing,
Singing and prancing in a Revue.
He’s got ambitions,holds auditions
And renditions,tries quite a few.
His merry Swingers and Humdingers
And his singers are artists true.
Should the war not end by Christmas weekend
We will attend Dave’s grand Revue.
To the “Griff” reporter one December day,
A Warrant Officer was heard to say,
“As Canteen Manager I can supply
All the goods you wish to buy.”
There’s ample stock in the Camp Canteen.
Figs,Sweets and Chestnuts I have seen.
I’ll take your order without the lire
And then the money when the goods arrive.
He tried his best and did intend
To co-operate a dividend.
With the first order this plan,it ceases.
The stuff came in in bits and pieces.
To improve the Canteen he did his best,
But,in it’s present state,it will have to rest.
Ãƒ*Ãƒï¾”Wasn’tÂ AÂ Dream – Tpr.Webster.â€¢Å“Æ’
It was Christmas Day in the compound
And people were really most kind.
Of course, we’d a Nominal Roll Call
But we only went on if inclined.
We naturally hung up our stockings
And,next morning at seven o’clock,
We knew Santa Claus had been round in the night.
A Red Cross Parcel was stuck in each sock.
Wasn’t a Dream – Continued:-
‘Twas a special meat day being Yuletide
There were lumps of it – Lord,such a lot.
Each man got his share in a blanket
It was too big to go in his pot.
We had a nice stew as well – Mark 4 thickness
And just think what the nice folk had done.
Instead of just having one bowl full at four
They lobbed out four bowls full at one.
Then the puddings,as once was suggested,
Each man had two jolly good chunks
(Though it was a bit hard on the woodstakes
For they burnt half of B sections bunks).
And when we praised the cooks on the puddings
They said it was one thousand pities
That we hadn’t some threepenny bits to put in,
Still we shoved in a few canteen chitties.
And then we got blind drunk in the evening
For after that marvellous “Duff”
Each group got one bottle of Vino,
And a smell of the cork was enough.
You’ll notice Tea hasn’t been mentioned
But brewing that day didn’t matter,
For they made a few special arrangements
And “Chai” was laid on like hot water.
But one point I’ve almost forgotten.
The main bit of all,that’s the “Pani”,
For we all got one loaf,just as usual
And one extra – Sorry,that was “Domani”.
‘Twas a pity we didn’t have crackers,
But on lira we had to go steady.
Still,if “Griff” should grant this publication
You’ll know one guy’s crackers already.
Ãƒ*#Ãƒ”The Red Cross.Æ’
â€¢ï¾Red Cross we thank you for all that you do.
Everyday you are helping us through.
Delicious hot tea we can frequently brew.
Coffee,cocoa,we thought we’d not get
Remember the joy of that first cigarette
Oh! For some chocolate was once the cry.
Seems that the Red Cross has heard our cry.
Sincerely we thank them for all that they do.
Sometimes we’re “browned off” and feel rather blue
Or even be feeling quite sad.
Come what mood may,there’s one thing that’s true
In Red Cross we’ll always be glad.
Each parcel we have the luck to receive
Tom,Dick or Harry it’s bound to relieve.
You’ll join with me and say that it’s true.
RED CROSS – We thank you for all that you do.
Back to the story:-
The line turned towards the coast after leaving Foggia and
wound it’s way through farms of wheat.We de-trained at a small
station,miles from anywhere and had to tramp across country with
all our gear.Eventually we met a cart which had been sent to meet
us and to carry all the gear and we finally reached the farm late
in the afternoon.No preparations had been made for us.There were
no barracks and no bunks for us to sleep on.We were directed to
an evil smelling,fly-infested stable where we had to bed down on
the hard concrete floor.Despite the discomfort I slept like a log
as I was very weary from the march and I realised how out of
condition I was.
The “Padrone” made excuses for the poor arrangements
but,nevertheless,we had to endure these slummy conditions for
three days while we fixed up our own quarters in another
outbuilding and constructed our own latrines and cookhouse.
We were also horrified with the ghastly conditions under which
the Italian peasant workers lived.The sewerage was septic tanks
and the water supply was from a well in the middle of the
farmyard.Flies were an absolute plague and were worse than Egypt.
A desert sore that I had had in the desert suddenly flared
up again on my left shin.The Padrone,who was an Italian Count,
held so-called sick parades in his “Casa” in the evenings.Thus he
avoided sending us into Foggia for treatment.His treatment for my
desert sore was kill or cure for he prepared a boiling hot
poulticeÂ – I cannot remember the ingredients – and slapped it
straight onto the open wound.The pain was excruciating and,
although it drew out all the puss,the following applications
merely aggravated the wound and it took several weeks for the
sore to heal.
The first task was to harvest a huge field of Broad beans
which took three days and left us crippled with aching backs and
blistered hands.For working on the farm we received double
rations and a litre of raw,dry,red “Vino” per day.Once the aches
and pains of the first hard work subsided we began to feel much
more relaxed.The hours of work were from 6am.to 11am.and,then
from 3pm.to 6pm.Thus we had a four hour Siesta to escape the heat
of Italian summer.Sunday was a “Reposo” day.
To assist with the harvest,a large group of children were
brought out from Foggia to work.They lived in squalor,never
washed and their food was minimal.The Foreman,whom we nicknamed
“Lavorari” was a mean character and a brute.He rode around the
fields on a huge white horse,carrying a leather sjambok with
which he beat the poor kids while they were stacking the wheat.
During the harvest everyone on the farm had to work,even
Lavorari’s daughters.Their home conditions were also appalling
and throughout the harvesting months none of them washed.They in
turn,told us that we would all get sick because we washed every
day and,I doubt,whether they had ever seen anyone clean their
teeth.We were quite undeterred by their stares when we stripped
at the well and had a good wash down everyday.The Summer heat
beat down on us in the fields and we were exhausted at the day’s
A harvester was used to reap the wheat,barley and oats and
we followed it and bound and forked up the sheaves which were
brought to the farm with a tractor and trailer and stacked.From
the middle of June we had to work a 10 hour day – 5am. to 11am.
and 3pm. to 7pm.Each day 7 of us would be rested but the Sunday
“Reposo” was stopped and work continued non-stop.I was exhausted
and,in my weary state,went down with a severe bout of Malaria.It
was,no doubt,a recurrence of the Abyssinian and desert bouts
which I had had.Smithy,a Cape Town Tramway Conductor,was also
very ill and we were cared for by Artie Hartley.He was our
saviour for he bathed us and brought water and our daily doses of
medicine.The humidity and airlessness of our quarters made our
condition even worse as our temperatures were often up to 102 to
104 degrees and made us both delirious.His careful attention
saved our lives,I am sure,and both of us were eternally grateful
for his efforts.(After the war,when I married and moved to Fish
Hoek,I discovered that he also married and lived there and we
have been great friends ever since).I was extremely grateful to
him and his efforts certainly paid off for Smithy and I as we
both made rapid recoveries and were soon back in the fields.
The Italian Officer in charge of the guards was a horrid
little man whom we called “The Nipponese” as he had a sallow
complexion and eyes like a Jap.He caused a lot of trouble and,in
fact,was the cause of a split amongst our own chaps.He wanted us
to work harder and,while some of our fellows were prepared to coÂªoperate,most of us were determined to only do as much as we were
forced to.Sgt.Roodman of the S.A.P.was our senior N.C.O.and
leader and his fellow policemen were the ones who wanted to coÂªoperate and a great argument followed.A vote was taken and John
Wilson was chosen as the new leader.After some days of
disagreement,during which time 14 fellows requested to be sent
back to camp,we were told that work was compulsory and return to
camp impossible.The situation finally settled down but,for quite
a while there was an unpleasant undercurrent.
By early July all the fields had been harvested and we spent
a few days threshing the Broad beans before starting on the
wheat.One day a grass fire almost reached the stacks but we were
able to extinguish it in time and save the crops.On another
occasion another fire started in one of the winter fodder stacks
and it took us several hours to extinguish it.The Padrone
supplied us with an extra ration of vino and cheese for saving
his winter stock food.
One afternoon we watched,in amazement,as an ME 109 (the
German fighter plane) flying very low,just missed the top of one
of the farm buildings near by.The pilot seemed to over-correct
and the plane shot straight up into the sky,stalled and then
nose-dived into the ground in a great ball of fire.The pilot was
unable to bale out and died in the inferno.Later in the afternoon
the Italians told us that the Allies had landed in Sicily.Heavy
daylight raids by the RAF on Foggia and the surrounding German
airfields were now a daily occurrence and we watched,in awe,as
the large flights,glistening like silver fish in the sun,dropped
their devastating loads on the targets below.
With the harvest complete the threshing of the wheat,oats
and barley continued apace.As it was all threshed the Padrone
made us take it to the storerooms and stables under his house.The
windows were sealed up and the wheat was piled in until the rooms
were full to the brim and,then,the doors were locked and sealed.I
am sure that he realised that Italy would be invaded and he was
stockpiling his crop and keeping it for the time when the Allied
forces were in control and he would obtain a high price for it.
The “Nipponese” was transferred and replaced by a much nicer
Officer.When he left,however, he took all our camp lire and we
hated him all the more.Then came the momentous news that
Mussolini had been ousted from power and Marshall Badoglio
appointed as leader of the Ministry by King Victor Emmanuel.There
was great rejoicing by the local peasant population as they
prayed for “Peace”.We,too,were hoping to remain on the farm until
our forces were able to establish a solid front in the south
which would lead to our release.We wanted “Bruno”,the Padrone,to
keep us on the farm and let us continue our work there but,this
was not to be.
By the middle of August all our work for the harvest was
complete and the Padrone allowed the whole farm community to have
a Harvest Festival.For the first since the commencment of the
harvesting,the Italians had a total clean-up.All were washed and
dressed in their best clothes and their hair combed and,for the
first time the girls looked quite pretty.”Lavorari” came out in a
bright,white shirt and a very smart jacket.The Officer and guards
were also invited and we were allowed to join in as the party
progressed.Singing and dancing to the strains of an accordion we
had a jolly good time.We sang some of our army songs for them
and,for a time,almost forgot that we were prisoners.I suppose it
was the effect of the vino and the clear bright full moon that
made us forget the barbed wire.The party ended at about 2am.in
That party literally signalled the end of our stay on the
farm.The daylight raids on Foggia continued and now night raids
started too.Hundreds of flares were dropped which lit up the
whole countryside and even on the farm,which was miles from
Foggia,we were bathed in light.Finally,on the 24th.August,
vehicles arrived to transport us to Foggia where we were to board
a train for camp.We left the farm at 7pm.and all the farm folk
came to say good-bye,for I think they had become quite attached
to us.Driving through Foggia was somewhat scary as there was so
much devastation and it was almost deserted.The roads were
blocked with rubble and our route twisted and turned as the
convoy tried to find a safe way through.Trains were non-existant
and eventually we drove out into the country on the other side of
Foggia and went to a small station a few miles further on.Here we
bedded down for the night in the lee of a low wall for shelter.
After the comfort of a bunk the hard ground made sleep difficult
and I was rather tired when morning came.We now noticed that the
station building had been bombed and that the whole area was
surrounded by German aerodromes and we hoped that we would not be
staying there too long.
Arty and I had a scratch meal from our parcels and,as the
dawn grew lighter we noticed many more POW arriving,including a
group of some 200/300 South African Cape Corps,who had been
constructing aerodromes in the south of Italy.
At about 0930 we heard explosions and gun fire at an
aerodrome nearby and could see about 30 planes circling the area.
Then,to our horror,we heard the roar of their engines and saw
several American Lockheed Lighting fighter-bombers flying
straight down the railway-line heading for the station.Arty and I
crouched and huddled down next to the low wall for shelter amidst
the crack and explosion of cannon shells as they hit the other
side of the wall.The wall was only six inches (150mm)thick and we
were extremely lucky to have escaped unhurt.Turmoil followed as
the guards lost their nerve and scattered,closely followed by the
prisoners.I took shelter behind the station buildings as another
wave came screaming in for the kill.Many of the POW were now
standing up waving white towels,shirts,vests etc.and the pilots
must have realised that we were not troops but “prigionieri” and
waggled their wings in recognition.We saw one plane receive a
direct hit,but the pilot was able to bale out and land safely
with his parachute.I was totally shattered to see some of the POW
killed and many wounded and I was even more horrified to see that
someone had already stolen the boots from the dead.
It was a ghastly,tragic experience and,as the raids
continued into the afternoon,it was obvious that there would not
be any trains that day.Eventually the Italian Officer in charge
decided to march to San Servera,a station about 15 miles to the
north.What a nightmare hike it was.We had had no issue of food,
the guards were extremely nervous and we were all suffering from
the tension of the raid.Feet became blistered,bones ached and
many of the chaps fell out and straggled behind.These were rifle
bashed and screamed at by the weary,excitable guards and it was a
devastated,dishevelled and utterly exhausted mob that staggered
into the cobbled,Town Square at 0200hrs.the next morning.No
TRAIN!.I fell down onto the cobbles,took off my boots to ease my
blistered,aching feet and,with my pack as a pillow,I collapsed
into an exhausted sleep.
Four hours later a train arrived and we were hurriedly
hustled aboard.Wasting no time the train puffed it’s way
northwards along the Adriatic coast.I think we all slept most of
the day,but there were many stops and we found that the Italian
civilians were much more friendly now and we were given food and
fruit at some of the stations.
Friday morning,27th.August,we reached our destination and
marched about 2.5 miles (4Km)to the camp.Laterina CC 82.I
discovered many of my Regimental pals in the camp and was
delighted to find Dick Came,Keith Muggleston,Sparks,Reg Oldridge
and Johnnie Sullivan in the next sector.The next day,the 28th.
August,was my birthday and was my second as a prisoner.The first
had been at Lucca CC 60 when I was still devastated and very
hungry.Now another year,in which I had experienced many boring,
weary,wasted hours,a year of friendships formed under adversity
and a year of many experiences,had passed.
Laterina was a well organised camp from which many work
parties had operated and now,as the Summer was almost over and
the harvests completed,they were all returning to camp.Like my
work party,many others were arriving from the south of Italy
where the Germans were preparing for an invasion by the Allies.
Optimism grew as the rumours spread and we were all sure that it
would not be long before the Iti’s collapsed and we would be
freed by our own forces.
Parcels were issued – one to two men and I was especially
thrilled to receive a pair of thick,British Army battledress
trousers as mine were quite threadbare.Cigarettes were plentiful
and I used some of my issue to pay for a haircut – the barbers
were very professional and I looked smart for the first time in
months.Showers,washing facilities and the cook-house meals were
the best I had encountered as a prisoner and,like so many others,
I was in high spirits.Camp entertainment was of a high standard
with a very good band.(Les Bowles,who was one of the singers,
later became a mate of mine in Germany on Kommando 10001).I had
also heard that Garth MacIntosh and Harry Roberts,both from my
class at Wynberg Boys’ High school were in the camp but I was
unable to find them.This was understandable in Harry’s case as he
had escaped while being brought back to Laterina from a workÂªparty and made his way to the south towards the advancing allied
forces and finally spent some time with an Italian family near
Rome.He was ultimately re-captured and taken to Germany.(I have
included photographs taken in 1986 when he revisited Laterina.)
The 3rd.September 1943,the 4th.anniversary of the start of
the war,brought news of the invasion of Sicily and our spirits
and optimism reached new heights.Soon there was news of landings
in Calabria,in the toe of Italy.Two Free-French Legionaires
climbed over the fence and escaped with the assistance of one of
the guards and many of us were discussing plans for escaping when
the moment was opportune.
On the 8th.Sept.the peace and quiet of our afternoon siesta
was broken by a sudden uproar as the French Legionaires raced
down from the gates shouting that the Italians had called for an
Armistice.Was this just another “Rumour”? No! “Snakebite” R.S.M.
Cockcroft confirmed the news and the whole camp erupted with
expectation and joy.The following day parcels were issued and a
cigarette and “bulk” issue was promised for “Domani”.
Meanwhile we heard and saw German troops and flights of
Junker 88’s moving northwards and our hopes rose as we thought
that we would be left to await the arrival of our own troops.It
was a period of uncertainty and the French Legionaires decided to
get out while they had the chance.Assisted by the guards,who were
now totally demoralised,they calmly walked up to the “wire” en
masse,broke it down plus the outer wire and hared off into the
country.Unfortunately the Carabiniere,drawn by the hullabaloo,
appeared on the scene and opened fire on the fleeing prisoners.
Some were killed or wounded and several were re-captured but the
bulk of them got clean away.That evening many others left the
camp after the “Iti” Officers and guards packed up and drove off.
Our camp leader, RSM “Snakebite” Cockcroft, 2nd Transvaal Scottish, appealed for calm in the camp as some of the chaps looted the Italian quarters. A radio was brought into camp and we heard that a curfew was to be enforced by the Germans. Despite the curfew, many chaps were moving out and I decided to go with Jamie Jardine, Charlie Mason, John Wilson, Paddy and van Niekerk. I was loathe to leave Dupie du Plessis behind but he decided to stay put and I had to respect his decision.
It was a bright moonlight night and, away in the distance we could hear the chatter of automatic weapons. Our little group crept out through the wire and made our way down a river bed and, I must say, I think we were all rather apprehensive of what might lie ahead. I suppose we should have split up and gone off in pairs to make a smaller target, but, when the firing came much closer and flares were fired, we decided to have a re-think of our position. We stopped to consider the situation – to carry on or return to the camp? Finally it was agreed that we return to camp and to re-assess the position the following day. Dupie was thrilled to see me again and the die was cast.
Two German officers visited the camp after lunch, confirmed that there was a curfew, and told us to stay where we were. They told us that they were pulling out and that all roads had to be kept clear and that anyone getting in the way would be shot. So I stayed but many of the chaps got out and headed for the hills where they linked up with Partisans or were cared for by Italian farmers. Many spent the next fifteen to eighteen months on the loose in Italy. For them the coming winter was to be a desperate experience. Many were re-captured and sent to Germany. Some reached the Allied lines and many remained on the run until the end of the war. For those of us who stayed the hopes of a return home for Christmas plumetted when a contingent of German guards arrived. We had waited too long and, on Thursday 16th September, the bombshell dropped.
WE WERE TO BE MOVED TO GERMANY!!!!
To close my Italian experience I want to include the remainder of the poems which I collected from various sources in the camps that I was in.
Outrage in the Desert
He grabbed me by my slender neck
I could not call or scream
He dragged to his darkened tent
Where we could not be seen.
From me he took my flimsy wrap
He gazed upon my form
I felt so scared and cold and damp
And he so very warm.
His fevered lips to mine he pressed
I gave him every drop.
He took my very soul away
I could not make him stop.
He made me what I am today
And that is why I’m here.
A broken bottle thrown away
That once was full of beer
GHOSTS OF THE DESERT
You can see their forms in the moonlight
Pale Ghosts from Spirit land
Sitting brooding in the desert sand.
Gone the strength of their bodies,
Sucked by the maws of War
Gone their power and usefulness
With the winds for evermore.
And when the night-wind rises,
With it’s engulfing dry dust streams,
They move about the desert
Giving the living,haunting dreams.
They moan and howl down the Wadis,
Like demons out of Hell.
Tolling their own Death knell.
You can hear their lone sad voices,
Hammering out their ghostly chorus,
Beating time upon the stones.
Then when the dust curtain rises,
Changing scenes in ghostly play.
When the visions of gloomy shadows
And the winds have died away.
You can see their dead forms in the sunlight
Mute cause of the fearful dins,
Lying still and quiet and lifeless,
Those empty,Motor Spirit tins.
AMONGST THOSE PRESENT
Oh!Them chaps wot write in papers ‘as a mighty lot to tell
Of the Aussies and New Zealanders and Indian troops as well
And them youngsters from South Africa wot’s givin’us a hand
And mind yer,don’t mistake me now,I’ll say they’re doin,grandï¾
But it somehow seems to happen,when they’re making such a fuss
Of ‘oo took this,and ‘oo held that yer don’t hear much of us.
But if yer counts the heads yer’ll find there’s five in every
A-servin’ in a good old English Regiment of the Line.
Yus ’tis English lads wot carries on the good old tale today,
Wot takes yer back to Charles’s time and further,so they say.
That marched with Marlborough,cursin’,fightin’,chaffin’,dying
At Blenheim on the Danube,Malplaquet and Oudenarde.
Wot beat the French at Minden and at Saragossa too.
Wot held in India for the Empire and stood firm at Waterloo.
‘Twas the lads from Bath & Birmingham,from Thames & Tees & Tyne
In the sweatin’,singin’,fightin’,English Regiments of the Line.
Oh!The Scots were there,God Bless ’em and the Welsh and Irish too
And no one’s going to say as ‘ow we don’t give them their due,
‘Cos there wasn’t nothin’ in it when it comes to facing Hell
But if yer counts the Regiments up,’tis numbers wot will tell.
So when yer reads of gallant deeds and sturdy British grit,
And chargin’ with the bayonet,just stop and think a bit,
That whoever else was there(and no one’s sayin’ they aint fine)
You can bet yer blinkin’ vest
We was up with all the rest.
The bluff old,tough old,rough old,sluggin’,pluggin’,good enough
Stick-it-lads-and-beat-’em-to-it English Regiments of the Line.
The last pale roses droop and die beneath the Autumn rain.
I wonder will you be with me before they bloom again?
The birds have left the cottage eaves for skies of brighter hue,
But they’ll return,remembering – Oh! will you come back too.
The air is thick with flying leaves,the year is growing old.
I pray that you’ll be with me to see the new green buds unfold.
The Apple boughs now red with fruit will soon be white with rime.
God grant that you’ll be home again before it’s blossom time.
I THINK OF YOU
I think of you – I know not where you are
But you are in my mind the whole long day.
I know you wish that I should carry on
And do my best while you are far away.
And Oh!I send you special love each night
Wherever in the darkness you may be.
And,somehow,when I whisper my ‘Goodnight’
I feel your loving thoughts come back to me.
A WORMS ALPHABET
A is for Army to which we belong
Now POW we hope not for long
B is the Brew,at least twice a day
Varies with Cocoa,Coffee or “Tay”.
C is the Canteen,co-operative and cheap.
It’s also for Coffee,Chestnuts and Cheese.
D is Domani which we’d like to see dawn
With the parcels and cigs we ever will mourn.
E is Entertainment we get now and then.
Served out by Platter & his musical men.
F is the food we await with delight.
For there’s never enough for our appetite.
G is “The Griff” we assiduously read.
Giving the “Gen” in a six page screed.
H is the Hope we ever keep high
That the day of release is at last nigh.
I is the Interest we show all the time
In the meals,in the bread and cheese ends prime.
J is the Jokes told us by so many.
Some full of humour,some without any.
K is for Kindness and also for Klim.
That Canada sends us to keep us in trim.
L is for Lucca we left sans regret.
It’s also for Lice which trouble us yet.
M is the Macaroni heaped in the “stew”
On Mondays and Fridays we get some meat too.
N is the News we’d like to obtain.
Our’s is all rumour – not nearly the same.
O is for Officers,Orderly and other.
Some are tyrants,some are like brothers.
P is for Parcels which make life a treat.
It’s also for Pleasure,the contents we eat.
Q is the query of when,why and what.
Of answers,some satisfy,others do not.
R is Reveille,Routine and Roll-call,
Adhered to by us,abhorred by us all.
S is the sleep that comes every night.
Except Platoon 1 who get no respite.
T is the trouble we must go to for Tea.
But it’s worth every bit – you’re telling me.
U is the Unanimity that is daily said.
“Lob-’em-out,one-a-man,up comes the bread.
V is the Victory,we hope ‘Forty Three’
Will bring quick release for you and for me.
W is for Wafters and also for Wrist.
The two,a complaint contracted in bliss.
X is the sign of affection and bliss.
For prisoners – Parcels,for lovers – a kiss.
Y is for you who come here every day
To read what news “The Griff” has to say.
Z is for Zero which means Nil
If this bored you,I’m sorry,I meant no ill.
I’ll tell you a tale of Martuba
Of Gunners from old Blighty’s shores.
Of Stikas and bombs and Machine-guns
Of Me’s and Macchi’s and more.
On through the night,with never a light,
We crept till the break of day.
With sand in our eyes,we were searching the skies
For “The Birds” that in Martuba lay.
A roar in the air means an “ME” is there
And he’s out to settle a score.
As the rounds from our gun saw the start of the
And the Stukas came out for lots more.
And then comes the crack of the Bofors Ack-Ack
And the Bren guns,they also let drive.
One Stuka,his tricks just end with two kicks,
He comes down in a desert bound dive.
We load our rounds and Martuba we pound
And so on for six weary hours.
Till at night,after dark,we are quit of the mark,
With the dead on the ground,theirs and ours.
Aye,we’re the Boys,Old Englands sons,
Just some of the lads in the racket.
With our Quads,and our guns,and our darned No 1’s
You betcha,we gave ’em a packet.
Rich perfume of tropic flowers
Star-pierced,velvet skies above.
Careless moments – Happy hours,
Nights of magic – made for Love.
Dusky maids in Hulas,swaying
Paddles stir a still lagoon.
Sweet guitars are softly playing
‘Neath the yellow,Southern moon.
Nature’s gem in verdant setting.
Golden sands – a turquoise sea.
Gentle breezes,palm trees fretting
Island Heaven – Waikiki.
THOSE WHO LOVE YOU
Though your road be hard and lonely as you battle with the foe
And your task seems overwhelming,yet within your heart you know
There are hearts that prize your welfare like a jewel set in Life
There are lips forever praying for your safety through the night.
There are letters loved ones write you through a screen of
But those words of homely tiding give no sign of doubts or fears.
Though their hands and lips may tremble ‘ere they reach the
Of their messages so sacred which their souls to your soul send.
So,whenever you are weary,as so often you must be.
Think of those who dearly love you,whose prayers guard your
Think of all the million wishes speeding to you day and night,
Think of them while you are waiting for the time when things come
Maybe you are ill or wounded or in some prison camp
Where the cold seeps through your body and despair your courage
seems to clamp.
Well,just remember this my friend,
That God made you for a purpose and he’ll be with you to the end.
Now Mary,this Egypt’s a terrible land
For there’s one blade of grass to ten acres of sand.
And as for the climate,I’d give it away
For you’re frozen by night and you’re roasted by day.
And as for the people,’tis my firm belief
Their common ancestor’s the penitent thief.
But Mary,with you I’d far rather be
Where the blue hills of Scotland stand up from the sea.
Believe me,this Egypt’s a very queer place,
Where the men wear long shirts and the girls hide their face
But,in my opinion,it would far better please,
If the men hid their faces and the girls showed their knees.
Old Hassan,with three wives,is easily vexed
He gets Hell in this world – and the same in the next.
But,for all that I’ve seen I would far rather be
Where the blue hills of Scotland stand up to the sea.
Now the language they use is entirely absurd.
They do all their talking with only one word.
From Suez to Cairo and far El Arish
They gabble one word and that word is “Baksheesh”.
Baksheesh when you drink,Baksheesh when you eat,
Baksheesh at each corner you pass on the street.
But I’d let all the Baksheesh in Egypt go free
For the blue hills of Scotland that stand up to the sea.
If I thought,as I ought,of England,Home and beauty
I think I could be really good and not scoff all my “rooty”
But I find that my mind runs only on one topic.
Large and crude,chunks of FOOD (— censored by Italians).
So,heavenly Muse,please excuse this venture into rhyme.
I must be off,my stodge to scoff for it’s nearly conner time
IN TIME OF TRIAL
It’s easy enough to be pleasant when Life flows along like a song
But the man worth while is the man who can smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
For the test of the heart is trouble and it always comes with the
But the man who is worth the praises of Earth
Is the man who can smile through the tears.
It is easy enough to be virtuous when nothing tempts you to stray
When without or within,no voice of Sin
Is luring your soul away.
But ’tis only a negative virtue until it’s tried by the fire
And the man who is worth the Honour of Earth
Is the man who resists Desire.
Translation of Pamphlet dropped RAF over Rome four days before Mussolini and the Fascists fell from power.
In this moment the forces of USA, Great Britain and Canada, under the command of General Eisenhower and his Vice-Command Gen. Alexander,carry the war into the heart of your country.This is the direct result of the policy that Mussolini and his Fascist Regime have used.Mussolini has been in this war as a satelite of Germany and the brutal destruction of the people and of Liberty. The adhesion of Italy to the plans of Nazi Germany was against the old traditions of liberty and culture of the Italian people. Traditions which are the same as those of Great Britain and America.
Your soldiers have not fought for the interests of Italy but solely for those of Nazi Germany.They have fought with courage, but have been betrayed and abandoned by the Germans on the Russian front and on every field of battle in Africa from El Alamein to Cape Bon.The hope that Germany had of dominating the world has been frustrated on all fronts. The skies of Italy are dominated by the vast Airfleets of USA and Great Britain. The coasts of Italy are menaced by the greatest concentration of Naval forces that Great Britain and the Allies have ever brought into the Mediterranean sea.
The forces now used are employed to destroy the power of Nazi Germany which inflicted misery, destruction and death to all those who refused to bow to the German regime. The one hope that Italy has of stopping a dishonourable capitulation is impossible against the forces employed by the Allied nations,if you continue to sustain the Fascist Regime which isÂ servile to the criminal power of the Nazis.
You must suffer the consequences of your guilt. To us it is not pleasant to invade the soil of Italy, and to bring tragic destruction to the homes of the Italian people, but we have decided to eliminate the false leaders and their doctrines which have reduced Italy to it’s present state.Â Â Â Every moment you resist the combined forces of the Allied Nations, every drop of blood you shed cannot help one bit, but gives to the leaders of the Fascists and Nazis a little more time to flee from the consequences of their guilt. All your interests and all your traditions have been betrayed by Germany and your false and corrupt leaders.
Only by abandoning the Germans and the Fascists can Italy again take a place of honour in the family of Europe.The moment has come for you Italians to consider your dignity, your interests and your desire to restore the National Decorum to a secure place. The moment has come for you to decide whether to die for Mussolini and Hitler or to live for Italy and Liberty.
Signed:- Franklin D.Roosevelt
Thus ended my Italian experience. All personal parcels which were not claimed were shared out and all the Red Cross parcels in the store plus four days rations were issued. Orders were given to fall in at 1800hrs.with all our possessions. In the gathering dusk we marched out through the gates of Laterina en route to the station and Germany.