Camps : P.G. 49.
The following are notes that were written by an unknown prisoner of war in exercise books, concerning the events at the time of Italy's surrender and the mass escape into the countryside of the 600 prisoners at P.G. 49. The notes were written in several exercise books, many pages of which are devoted to a summary of news reports obtained concerning the progress of the Allied armies around the world. The first names of the prisoners who eventually sought refuge with the Ponzi family are Robert, an Englishman, and Patrick, and Irishman. If you are able to help identify the author of this narrative, please write to email@example.com.
It happened on the evening of September 8th. I was seated on the wooden trestle table in our messroom of P.G. 49, sipping a bottle of iced orangeade, thinking of nothing in particular except perhaps that the evenings were beginning to be of a temperature rather more bearable than they had been throughout the summer months, & also perhaps, looking at the grubby table tops, that Griffiths wasn't worrying too much about maintaining their cleanliness, he having just taken the job from me. C.P.G. 49 was a converted orphanage situated on the outskirts of the "Paese di Fontanellato", a small but seemingly important centre for farmers living over a fair area around, judging by the crowds that always appeared on 'festa' days, & the truck & wagons that were always in & out through the working days. As I gazed through the window on this particular evening, just before 8 o'clock, the scene was much the same as on any other. People - mostly women & girls, strolled slowly, arm in arm, along the road by the camp, occasionally one of them just before rations behind the hut, risking a sly wave across, in response to the group of ladykillers, the same little group to be seen sitting outside against the wire every other night since the camp had opened six months before. One or two bicycles weaved their way slowly through those walking, as they always did, there being apparently no law to keep pedestrians on the side of the road to allow free passage for wheeled traffic. It had always amused me how, a heavy lorry or a bus (one bus passed the camp four times a day) invariably went through the village without reducing speed, & sounding its horn, without a break, starting a kilometre before the village finishing a kilometre after, the pedestrians parting slowly, without excitement or harsh word, before the onrushing vehicle. Much the same thing happens with a car but somehow was never as amusing to me.
Farther down the table to my right an argument was in progress between a group of would-be Generals on the where-a-bouts of the main German line of advance in Calabria. They paused and all bent over a map - cut from the "Caurier della Sera" - and then all began talking at once - just as they always did. At the table behind was another argument, somebody said "There is no reason why the war shouldn't end Tomorrow." & a dismal voice drawled back "No! Another two years at least." But you met them like that in prison camps too many of them. At the other end of the mess a disappointed winefly roared at the fellow selling wine, for selling it at all too early. Above the buzz of many conversations & argument through the door came alternately a squeak & croak resembling a cat & a porker - the cat having its toe trodden on & the porker being towed by its ears. The trumpet toying [?] a bit of a combination in preparation for Tomorrow's lunchtime ˝ hr of dance music by the camp orchestra. It was just after 8 o'clock.
Looking through the window an Italian soldier appeared at the door of the hut: with a grin which divided his face in two, his fists were clenched as he semi crouched in the doorway. Suddenly he was rudely catapulted from where he stood tense & out tumbled five or six more from behind him. Some of them looked in our direction & stuck two thumbs in the air, others ran in the direction of their sleeping quarters, shouting as they went, the rest kicked their steel helmets high in the air. Looking past the hut to the road, life was being speeded up: cyclists put on speed, those that had been strolling began to run, & in a very short time a cloud of dust lay over the road, stirred up by madly careering cyclists & others running as hard as they could go. Inside the messroom arguments eased up & one or two were larking out inquiringly. One of the lady killers also seeing that something was on risked jail & called to the sentry on the tower asking what all the excitement was about. He replied "Tutti finito." "What's that mean?" somebody asked, everybody thinking, but not daring to suggest that he might mean the war, for to be wrong about anything regarding the war news would bring endless rebukes & sneers from all directions.
The excitement spread. Somebody who had been speaking to the guard on the gate came in and said that the war was over. Immediately myself & some others went outside where we met two Carabinieri but they knew nothing & they passed out only to return very shortly to say that there was an armistice. I said, thinking of the Germans "Why the ______ don't they open the gates," but nobody replied.
I went upstairs to the room I shared with thirty others at the top of the building. I opened the door. It was quiet inside: everybody either reading sleeping or mending, talking softly. I said in a voice as normal as I could make it "Pack your gear Gents - going home." as if I was just reminding them "Porridge for breakfast in the morning." as I had often done before. The silence continued. One or two that had looked up when I spoke went on with what they were doing. "No Skylark" I continued. Someone who had been looking out of the window said "Something's on anyway, the It's have all gone barmy outside". Then everybody seemed to wake up together. Golden came in & said it was all balls. Everybody was talking. More came in. Some went to the windows & were waved back by the Italians some of whom pointed rifles up at the windows which they always did when they were excited.
I left the room again & went downstairs to the main hall expecting something to happen there (although I wasn't sure exactly what nature). Every night in this hall bridge is played & tonight they had began as usual after supper. But everybody had the same idea as myself & a regular stream flowed in through both doors. The bridge enthusiasts soon forgot their enthusiasm & the diehard's were forced to, by people pressing about the table & by the time the S.B.O. mounted the table to speak, it seemed that every one of the six hundred P.O.W.'s were wedged in the hall to listen to him. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was something about having seen this happen at a previous camp. This when Mussolini packed up. He had spoken of it to us before. Apparently a number of officers at this previous camp had started kissing Carabinieri thinking the war to be over. Of course he hadn't seen anything like it before actually he must have known this. He also said that an armistice meant absolutely nothing & that hostilities were likely to recommence at any moment. Well, a nation would be disappointed. Events lately proved this to be so. He finished by telling everybody to continue as usual as if nothing had happened which of course was asking rather a lot. He had only been in the bag a few months.
As I left the hall to go upstairs again, I heard somebody say that the 'gen' that the Gerries were pulling out & the via Imelia was choked with vehicles going north, that a Carabinieri had brought in that morning must have been correct. Events proved the first part to be entirely wrong & that the Carabinieri didn't know north from south. Later when the excitement had died down and & one was able to think more clearly, it seemed ridiculous to suppose that the Germans would retreat in this manner allowing the British Force to reach the threshold of Germany with only fighting a rearguard action. But I've no doubt it was, the excitement of the moment and this false gen, that drew my first doubts as to what the Germans would do about it.
Only a few days before the armistice, in reply to a question that an officer had asked me regarding when we would be going home, I said "it depends on what all these Gerries are doing here. If it is a military occupation, you can expect to be in Germany very soon." (After the resignation of Mussolini German troops poured into Italy & were to be seen up & down the road past the camp all day - every day on bicycles, horses & carts, two stroke m/cycle, cars & coaches, lorries, everything, whereas previously, in two & a half years I had seen only two German soldiers, in Piacenza, while en route from Rezzanello to Fontanellato). He had laughed & said that he didn't think so. And I went to bed that night & thought no more of Germans.
Talking to Les Woodward & John Rogers just before turning in I said "I feel as if something ought to happen. It's too quiet." When I saw John Rogers about a week later he reminded me of these words. He wasn't so happy then, after sleeping for three or four nights under the [?] on a very damp river bank without groundsheets, & only half a blanket.
I awoke on this morning, just as it was breaking daylight at about six o'clock. As I lay awake thinking of turning out I became conscious of many explosions taking place in the distance. Later we learned it was a battle between the Germans & Italians for Parma Railway Station. Everything went as usual until just after rollcall had been sounded.
While on my way down to the usual spot for rollcall I was turned back & told to form up as the back of the building instead of at the side. Everybody seemed to be making for the same spot & when we had eventually sorted ourselves out into threes, the S.B.O., mounted the steps & delivered his second speech in twelve hours. He started by telling us that the Italian Commandant had said that he would defend the camp should it be attacked. "My first inclination," he went on "was to ask if we could assist: but on second thought I decided that we were still at war with Italy & it was not up to us to interfere." After a pause he went on to say that the Italian Commandant was prepared to liberate us should the necessity arise. "Everybody must be prepared to leave at five minutes notice." & went on with his plan for the evacuation of the camp. "The alarm will be a series of "G's" sounded on the trumpet. Apart from haversack rations, which will be prepared you will go exactly as I'm dressed here now in Battledress." He finished with his plans for dividing the camp into Companies, Platoons & Sections emphasising the fact that discipline must be maintained at all times. When the alarm was sounded we were to march down & form up in our respective platoons - Companies etc in the field. We were given to understand that we would probably be back in the camp for supper. And so we all went & changed into Battledress.
I borrowed some Lira & tried without success to purchase a Dunhill pipe which I knew to be loafing in the canteen. There was a queue outside the Tobacco store of individuals drawing their hoarded tobacco & and another outside the officers food store drawing haversack rations. The Mess & kitchen staffs went about their task of preparing lunch which they completed & had nicely laid out on the tables but it was never eaten, at least by the P.O.W.'s.
By midday most of the rush & tear had died away again but not for long. Just after twelve I was in the room, looking down on to the road. I saw an Italian walking along the road away from Fontanellato. He stopped suddenly & looked down the road, shouted something to one of the Italian soldiers standing by the Interpreters office & then took a header over the hedge. The Soldier took one look down the road shouted something to the Guard Commander standing by the Guardroom & then turned & ran to his sleeping quarters. I saw him half an hour later in civilian clothes riding a bicycle away from the camp. I thought "That's the [?]", & without waiting for the "G's" went over to my bed picked up my haversack, which I had packed earlier with the rations provided, a spare pair of socks & shaving gear, completely forgetting my pipe and quarter lbs of Dunhill tobacco I had had given me during the morning, & went downstairs & stood on the top of the steps leading down to the yard. Then the alarm was sounded.
Only a few people had found their way outside when there was a roar & a Ju.52 appeared from behind the trees & flew low over the building. I looked up at it doubtfully, & was ready to jump in a small gap between the steps of the building, several more standing by, had the same idea apparently, for one or two edged over to the parapet wall. But nothing happened & in ten or fifteen minutes everybody was in threes in their respective sections, platoons, etc., & the roll called ready to march through the gap in the wire previously cut by the Italians.
It was about half past twelve when the first Company marched out through the gap with News hound [?]'s camera an' all, recording forever that great event. How the Germans didn't catch the whole batch that afternoon is something I don't suppose anybody will ever know. Six hundred marched in threes across a main road to a previously arranged rendezvous on a river bank three miles N.W. of the camp. And how they didn't catch them there is another mystery, for it was two days before the order was given to disperse, although many including myself pushed off on their own accord beforehand.
By the orders we received that afternoon one would imagine that we had the support of a couple of armoured divisions & ourselves armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. Sections were sent on patrols covering all the roads round about. But for some reason or other nobody saw any Germans, at least I never heard of anybody having seen any, which was lucky for us. Most of the information, in fact all of it, I think, came from Italians, among which was the news that back at the camp the Germans were selling our gear to the Italians. I decided after this that there was no point in returning to the camp, and looked about for a companion who was prepared to take a stroll south, but at this time nobody seemed to think it was necessary. This was about four in the afternoon. It will probably never go down in History, but it can truly be said I think, that six hundred Officers & O.R's took the commune of Fontanellato in the face of the German Army, without guns, ammunition, or loss to themselves.
The Italian civilians greeted us with great enthusiasm & many wanted to do something to help us. They produced slowly six hundred cut civilian suits of some sort & fed everybody. But there was far too many just hanging around for any comfort. They looked at us in awe as if we were animals of some rare species that had just escaped from the zoo. But I didn't mind that. It was the fact that they just stood in a crowd on a bank which if, in itself, didn't attract attention & give the game away, I thought it quite reasonable to suppose that there would be at least one black sheep among them who would "blow the gaff" to the Gerries.
When it began to get dark all the patrols were called in & we were told to make preparations as if to stay the night, but at nine o'clock we were to move on farther. This was an effort to evade the civilians a little. I had nothing to make a bed with - not even a Great Coat, & I didn't see much point in sleeping on a wet river bank when there was so many dry barns about, & I decided that after the move came off, I would climb into the nearest one. As things turned out I was in one quicker than I thought. It was almost dark when a lad of about twelve years rode a bicycle into the camp in a very excited condition & said that the Germans were a kilo away coming down the road in our direction. Quite a number decided then that it was time they went, & a crowd of about twenty, myself included went off down the river bank. Later I met S.S. somewhere near Bardi who said that he had given a youth some lira to come into our midst & start a panic to provide an excuse to go.
I soon decided that the crowd was too big so I nudged L.W. & went over the bank & L.W. followed. Shortly after larking around in the dark on the other side we saw a pair of white trousers walking across the field & a closer inspection proved them to belong to J.B. We three decided that the thing to do was to get our heads down somewhere. So we walk on a bit & after five or ten minutes saw a dim light through the grape vines. J.B. volunteered to investigate so L.W. & myself waited under the vines. After what seemed an hour but was only about ten minutes the pair of white trousers came walking out of the darkness once again. He reported that the light came from a cow stall inside of which three S. Africans. G.L. & V.G. Bros, were consulting maps torn from an ordinary school atlas. None of them turned out to be much good. We decided to go in & have a look, & it was here that I first regretted not having learned Italian. The S.A. G.L. seemed to manage all right, J.B. managed with a struggle to make himself understood but V.G. Bros, L.W. & myself were starting from scratch. We messed about in this stall for a time getting nowhere but when G.L. asked the contadino if we could sleep in his barn, he refused & said something about the Germans concentrating forty divisions in Italy & that it was too dangerous. We learned afterwards that he had been a big fascist.
However leaving him six of us crossed the river to try the other side. The first place we tried we were lucky. Five of us stayed at the house of G.P. & F.C. for three weeks. The sixth caused the remainder a certain amount of worry by pushing off the next morning dressed in G.P.'s Sunday suit, sunday shoes & his wife's bicycle & we never saw him again although after two weeks & much bother retrieved the clothes & bicycle. Both G.P. and F.C. agreed to let us stay & there & then produced bread & cheese & wine - white bread, the first we had seen in two & a half years.
G.P. told us he was Carabinieri & that when the armistice was arranged decided he didn't like the Carabinier any more & came home. F.C. was much older told us how when he heard the armistice he had drunk more than his ration of vino & on his way home had fallen from his bicycle & knocked his front teeth out. We sat up in this hayloft talking, eating & drinking until about eleven o'clock, of course G.L. doing most of the talking. So we spent our first night in the hay. It was the next morning that G.L. donned G.Ps Sunday suit & disappeared into Fontanellato.
For three weeks all but a day we stayed working in the fields trying to make up our minds whether to go south or wait.
The condition of the Italian people, by condition I mean principally their education and morale or general outlook, after twenty years of Fascism, is such as to constitute a menace to the prosperity & peace of Europe. To begin with the majority of Italians believe that the streets of London really are paved in 21 K gold blocks. This is due largely to Italians that emigrate to England & return after ten or fifteen years loaded down with money, and also possibly the fact that those Italians in Italy find it easy to part English tourists from their money. Although I am quite certain that very often in these cases the Italian could show far more money than the English tourist, although it would be difficult to convince the Italian of this.
When one tries to explain to an Italian that in England, to play games or to have a holiday of some sort from which only amusement and not money is derived, is something that nearly everybody has, from the poorest to the richest, he looks at you doubtfully & says "yes but Italy is a poor nation." which is quite right, but not in the sense that he means. The average Italian has no idea how to play games in spite of large stadiums built by Mussolini for the people in which to play. But this was all a part of the gloss to hide the dust & dirt underneath. Very impressive in photographs but Mussolini never made any attempt to teach the people how to use the sports stadium, in fact he made no attempt to teach the people anything except to have faith in him, in this he succeeded.
Where as in England the people believe in working a part of the time & then having some form of a hobby at which to amuse themselves, in Italy due probably due to the insecurity of life a large surplus of labour in the country a love for gold. An Italian is prepared to & does work all day & half the night for practically nothing, eating the very minimum of food value, & walking about in rags, having possibly one decent suit which he wears to church Sunday morning, changing back to his rags immediately on his return. He never spends a cent, & his house is barely furnished with primative benches & stools. It is easy to see how an Italian makes money in England, & without thinking of what he is doing to the living standard of English workers.
The Allied advance eventually overtook the area and the unknown prisoner of war returned home. He left the following note in one of his notebooks to ask that the family be compensated for the loss of their house and business in several bombing raids in 1944.
The payment of Italian civilians for maintenance of Ex P.O.W's in German occupied territory.
This is to certify that the undermentioned family, has, at great risk to themselves, provided me with a billet, food & clothing, maintaining me in every possible way from 15th November onwards.
This family, last November accepted me into their house at a period when all the communes in the mountains were garrisoned by very aggressive Fascist troops. Due to this the majority of the Italians were too terrified to have the ex-p.o.w's even near their house; also there was some disappointment in the progress of the Allies in Italy who were at this time just across the Volturno River.
This family accepted the risk & gave me a good suit of clothes & a bed.
On May 2nd, their house was flattened when Allied planes bombed Fidenza. Eleven days later on the 13th May their business was lost in a second Allied bombardment. In spite of this & many [?] by Fascist & German troops I have never been asked to leave the house.
Having no other means of living, it is vital that the business in Fidenza, the "Cafe Ballila" be opened again as soon as. Since the bombardment they have lived on capital it would be appreciated if a part or all of any payment forthcoming be made in stock for the café.
The following is a letter that he wrote to the family from England.
31, Union Road,
27th November 1946,
Dear Maria and Family,
Many thanks for all your cards, your letters and the photograph of Getto and Franca. I sincerely hope that Albertina is in better health. Give her my regards and tell her I hope that she will soon be well.
I am very sorry at not having written before, but so much has happened during the last few months, the most important being my demobilisation from the forces. I am now a civilian and working for my living(?), and do not particularly like it, however, one must live. In spite of a restless feeling I am managing to settle down and often when sitting in my stuffy office, I wish I were back on top of those mountains above Bardi.
Being of a naturally lazy disposition, lack of correspondence does not mean I do not think of you. My Italian is quickly leaving me: when recently I visited an Italian Restaurant, Genero's in Soho, London, I found it very difficult to understand the Italian waiters, who spoke too quickly for me now. I did enjoy my plate of pasta suita though.
Beniamino Gigli has been singing in London recently but I was unable to get seats for any performance. There is also the San Carlo Opera Company from Naples touring England and we saw I Pagliaci and Cavaliera Rusticana, which were both excellently performed.
I have not heard from Giuseppe, Patricio or Giovanni for some considerable time now, but I suspect they are still about somewhere, either in Europe or the Pacific.
Egito and Franca didn't seem to have altered much. In the photo Getto seems to be growing up - he will be too heavy for a ride "in gruppo" soon.
Sorry to hear that the price of everything is so high in Italy. In England too everything is getting more expensive everyday, although the price of food is maintained fairly steady, it is only because of rigid price controls and large sums of money being payed out by the government.
I am sorry I cannot send you Patrizio's address because I do not know it, but you could address a letter to:-
Major P. De Clermont,
The Cavalry Club,
I believe it would find him.
My parents send their kindest regards and sincerely hope this finds all my friends well, in Italy. Sorry that I was unable to visit you this year but will try again next year.
All good wishes,
Very sincerely yours,
My thanks to Ambrogio Ponzi ("Getto", as mentioned in the above letter) for this account.
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