Authors: Eric Newby
To all those Italians who helped
me, and thousands like me, at
the risk of their lives, I dedicate
Anyone who reads this book is entitled to ask how anyone can remember events which happened twenty-eight years ago and, what is even more extraordinary and unbelievable, what happened on a particular day. It is, of course, impossible, except for some rare people who have the gift of total recall, which I do not possess.
The events described fall into three distinct periods: the one in which I was captured; the time I spent as a prisoner of war; and the third period when I was free after the Italian Armistice. I find no difficulty in remembering being captured. It is something, as most people who have been captured would agree, that is such a disagreeable experience that one remembers the circumstances for the rest of one’s life. Neither does one forget what it was like to be a prisoner, although it is impossible to separate one day from another unless one keeps a journal, which I didn’t.
The third period was the one which I really needed to remember in order to write this book, and I was able to do so because I kept a skeletal day-by-day diary, without naming people or places, and I used this record to write a detailed account of what happened while I was in a prison camp in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1944 soon after I was recaptured. This, although I didn’t think of it as such, was the first draft of the present book.
The reader may also ask another, equally sensible question. Why have I allowed such a long time to pass before writing it?
Not long after the war finished a minor flood of books about prison camps, escapes and life with the Resistance appeared. Some of them were so good – George Millar’s
for instance – that I felt that a book about an escape that was nothing but a mass walk-out from a camp and my subsequent experiences, did not seem exciting enough to write about – I myself didn’t even succeed in getting through the enemy line as so many people did. In fact I did not even attempt to. Nor did I join the Partisans. There were none to join at that time in the particular part of the Apennines in which I was hiding, anyway. Scarcely a help in producing an exciting book. I let the whole thing drop.
I finally decided to write the book because I felt that comparatively little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart. The sort of people one can still see today working in the fields as one whizzes down the Autostrada del Sole and on any mountain road in the Apennines. If only I had been able to speak the language better at that time perhaps their qualities would have emerged more clearly than they do now.
There are certain omissions and additions. In the Autumn of 1943 there were more prisoners of war in the part of the Apennines described in this book than actually appear in it. There have also been widespread changes in the names of people and places, and many characters are composite. As Belloc wrote in
Cautionary Tales for Children
And is it true?
It is not true.
And if it were it wouldn’t do.
If I have only succeeded in producing an inferior version of ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’, without the music and the song, then I can only apologise. I can’t give the reader his money back. Those who are bored by descriptions of abortive cloak and dagger operations should skip the first chapter.
The peasants are the great sanctuary of sanity, the country the last stronghold of happiness. When they disappear there is no hope for the race.
We were captured off the east coast of Sicily on the morning of the twelfth of August, 1942, about four miles out in the Bay of Catania. It was a beautiful morning. As the sun rose I could see Etna, a truncated cone with a plume of smoke over it like the quill of a pen stuck in a pewter inkpot, rising out of the haze to the north of where I was treading water.
There were five of us. Originally there had been seven, but one, a marine, had had to be left behind on the submarine and another, Sergeant Dunbar of the Argylls was missing, killed, wounded or captured, we none of us knew, lost among the coast defences in the dunes. We were all that remained of M Detachment of the Special Boat Section. Three officers, of whom I was one, Corporal Butler of the South Lancashire Regiment and Guardsman Duffy of the Coldstream, one of the smallest sub-units in the British Army, now about to be wiped out completely.
About eight o’clock we were picked up by some Sicilian fishermen who hauled us into their boat like a lot of half-dead fish. They were surprised. We were thankful, although we knew that we would now never make the rendezvous off Capo Campolato which had been fixed for the following night if we failed to reach the submarine by one o’clock on the morning of the twelfth.
I remember lying among the freshly caught fish in the bottom of the boat, some of them exotic, all displaying considerably greater liveliness than we did, and discussing with the others the possibility of taking it over and forcing the fishermen to head for Malta, 120 miles to the south, for the boat had a sail, as well as an engine. And if we had been in a war film made twenty years later this is what we undoubtedly would have done, but we had been in the water for nearly five hours and were very cold and could hardly stand.
Besides, the fishermen were kindly men. They thought that we were survivors from a torpedoed ship and they gave us what little wine and bread they had with them which amounted to a mouthful each. To them the war, as they made clear by various unequivocal gestures, was a misfortune which had brought misery to everyone and, as far as they were concerned, had seriously restricted their fishing. The idea of using violence against such people was unthinkable. And even if we had decided to try and take over the boat it would have been impossible to get away. It was one of a fleet of a dozen or so whose crews now brought them alongside so that they, too, could view this extraordinary haul. We were prisoners without, as yet, having admitted the fact to ourselves. It was too soon. Everything had happened too quickly.
On the afternoon of the tenth, immediately before we sailed from Malta, we had been given the bare, gruesome bones of what had been christened
For the flesh we would have to rely on some last-minute aerial photographs of the target which were still in the darkroom and which we would have to study when we were submerged.
We were told that we were going to attack a German bomber airfield four miles south of Catania in Sicily which was expected to have between fifty and sixty J.U.88s on it on the night of the eleventh, and destroy as many of them as we could so that they
would be out of action on the twelfth and thirteenth when a British convoy essential to Malta’s survival would be within a hundred miles of the island but still beyond effective fighter cover from it. There would be no time for a preliminary reconnaissance. We had to land and go straight in and come out if we could. The beach was heavily defended and there was a lot of wire. It was not known if it was mined but it was thought highly probable. The whole thing sounded awful but at least it seemed important and worth doing. Irregular forces such as ours were not always employed in such ostensibly useful roles.
We travelled to Sicily in
, one of the smaller submarines. Her commander, Pat Norman, was a charming and cheerful lieutenant of our own age.
I was already in the conning tower and we were just about to sail when a steward came running down the mole brandishing a piece of paper which, after having received permission to climb into the conning tower, he presented to me. It was a bill for an infinitesimal sum for drinks which I had ordered in the wardroom (our hosts, the Tenth Submarine Flotilla were so generous that it was almost impossible to buy them any). Apparently the others had already been presented with theirs while I was elsewhere. Actually, I had been attempting to dig down to my kit which had been buried when a large bomb had fallen that morning on the great impregnable-looking Vaubanesque fort in which we were billeted and destroyed my room.
No one, including Norman, had any money on them. Like me, none of them had thought that they might conceivably need money underwater.
‘I’ll pay you when I get back,’ I said, airily. ‘There’s nothing to worry about. I’m attached to the Tenth Submarine Flotilla.’
‘That’s what they all say, sir,’ he said, gloomily. ‘Military officers attached to the Tenth Submarine Flotilla. And then we never see
them again, more often than not. I’m afraid I must ask you to give me a cheque, sir.’
I told him with some relish that, if he wanted a cheque from me, he would have to shift some tons of masonry in order to find one.