Captain Dennis Bennett
Unit : 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Dennis Bennett was a Prisoner of War who escaped from a camp in Italy at around the time of their surrender to the Allies in September 1943. Like numerous others, he and his friend, Fred Fitzgerald, sought refuge amongst the isolated communities in the hills near Gubbio, Morena. In particular they sheltered with the Amantini family, at Valboscosa near the village of Pietralunga. Anna Maria Polidori is a journalist from Gubbio who is researching the lives of these two men and would dearly like to speak with either them or a family member. Both men were from New Zealand. If you can help, write to email@example.com
The following is a letter that Dennis Bennett wrote to his sister, Doreen, at around Christmas time 1943.
My Dear Doreen,
This Christmas finds us still in the mountains awaiting slow advance of the English American armies and enjoying the hospitality of the above family, as fine Christian people as you could find, this time our enjoyment was somewhat marred by Fred going down with malaria again, however a good fire and good food with a good Vigno helps things a lot and will still manage to find Cigarettes, this letter is mainly to record an Italian War Time and give you an idea of their life.
We picked this house at random, we are generally lucky, it is on the brow of a hill and fatiguing to climb to through fields of mud, honestly we would not run sheep on it, let alone grow wheat, oats, maize, etc, the bush plenty of it. Mountain Oak supplies the firewood etc and with straw and grass is the diet of their beasts of burden, mules & bullocks which are stabled most of the time, it being winter there is very little work to do except for inside, where truly a woman's work is never done, they make shawls, woolen clothing, all home spun by hand.
They greeted us with a friendly invitation to take a seat by the fire and followed the usual opening questions, who are you, how many sisters brothers, parents alive, and are you married, if not Fiancee the better both of us affirm as it is safer, at that we are still both free and very glad of it at the moment. If they show the few photographs left, which are eagerly scrutinized, they then learn our country is 12,000 miles away and accompanied with sympathetic remarks which we understand fully. We are invited to eat and stay for a while which winds up with the invitation to stay for the Festive Season, in fact if we suggest going we are promptly told there is plenty of time yet, so here we are with ? in time which may make interesting reading after the War. Marie, the daughter of the house, Brunette, vivacious and single of 20 yrs is posting this after the War and I will send her a box of Queen Anne's on receipt of this... We have made many friends and I certainly would like to do something for them, their life compared with ours is very hard, no roads, none of the ordinary conveniences of life we take so much for granted, at the moment clothes, boots and many other things can't be bought here through the Black Market and then of very poor quality and great risk.
We have been giving them a hand with odd jobs to fill in the time with odd visits to the Canteens for a pint of Vigno, we buy the first and having a certain interest the locals keep it filled, getting harder now as the hills are full of Refugees, principally Slavs from the Arezzo camps, good chaps to good comrades, share what they had with you if you needed it, one place it would pay to be a Catholic, their Religion and the interest of it plays first place in their lives, however they are quite tolerant and interested in ours, we sit and listen to them telling the Rosario and I think they are amused at us not knowing it, I tell them I pray to God and think of you all while they are carrying on.
Here it is, the thing for two or three families to live together, and we have the two old people, their two sons & wives with two, three children respectively, bright kids. We are teaching them a little English, counting etc, they remember well, good pupils.
On Thursday we visited friends at Morena and heard good news, which makes us optimistic this zone should be finished in January, of course we thought Christmas & now it is from one month to the other, still it must end sometime or I'll be taking a wife and selling up house. We came up back on Friday, driving with a Padrone of means who presented us with a hundred lira & half a pound of fresh sausages. The family had pastasciutta, chicken, Vigno for us but Fred had to go down with malaria, can never eat while it lasts. All the family were in a hurry to get away, those who were attending Midnight Mass at the Church some distance away along muddy tracks, believe me they are genuine to go to that trouble.
Christmas Day, Saturday, cold but without the usual snow. First meal at eleven of lamb & lamb ?, stomach and all. Nothing is wasted with dry bread and Vigno, it was really good but we can't get used to this idea of two meals a day, although we fare well enough on bread, potatoes. To fill in the time, got to ? for the spuds, the kids are in on it too. In the afternoon I went down to the local tavern Corniole all, bought Cigars, Cigarettes very rank stuff but one gets used to smoking it. ? it they generally want Ration Tickets at most places and they haven't put us on the strength yet, the Fascists only want us, L40 on our heads now. No one here wants their dirty money, its won't ? much now as there is sweet all to find worth while, guess they will be packing their bags for the Fatherland anytime now. We had rather a surprise in Vigno and sugar cakes from the families aunt next door, dear old soul. They like to do what they can to make things good for us, and after all this family have some sons in Greece doing the same as we are. One in Sardinia and the other P.O.W. India, so I hope theirs are doing as well as us. To finish the day we had lamb soup, thickened with a sort of Spaghetti paste, believe me we tasted most of their culinary efforts.
This year is, as many of the war years, hard on the kiddies. The customs of giving presents and hanging up the old stocking are as ours but they cannot buy things to give them. They do not worry much as they do not expect a great deal now, they make fair coffee from burnt Barley flavoured with beer sugar, but at the most it is a poor substitute.
Our system of walking from house to house like a pair of tramps is very successful, the people know us now and we play cards with them to pass the time, we have our clothes washed regularly wearing others... We may get our photo taken later, we have had them once in Venice but had to leave, however arrangements have been made to forward them with other mementoes of interest. Sometimes we sleep in beds, but generally in the stables where it is quite warm, sheets and coats make us comfortable. Naturally we wash frequently or to other noses we would smell having lost our sense where animals are concerned.
We meet some interesting people on the tramp, one Slav professed to speak seven languages, one English, which we cannot understand at all, consists mainly of reciting the names of about twenty film stars and doing the Lambeth Walk, Bumpsy Daisy and singing San Francisco and snatches of film hits. We had an interesting day at a ? pub. Two Tommies, four Slavs, Fred had to ? to me, for once I wasn't too happy, the Slavs were sick for days and the Tommies took a mud bath, I had a sore head and Fred had the longest spell of malaria for some time, this life would make a man take drink or religion and I think the middle curse is the best. The only English we have is the Bible and I should be well up with that by the time we finish this little holiday.
All types are on the road now, you'd be surprised, one day we had a real dinner with an Italian Bomber Pilot, one member of the family was the local Fascist Chief, one of these chaps was a Sergeant Major of the Black Shirts until recently, "misfortune makes strange bed fellows", a week ago we dined with two officers of the Carabinerie and discussed many of the happenings in this unhappy country. They, the population, have never had their hearts in the war, guess the Fascists sold their country when they joined up with Germany, let's hope they rehabilitate themselves quickly and help clean up this mess.
For the last two days, the air force have been giving the jerries a Christmas treat, hope it's the start of the disembarkation, guess their cities are not having their celebrations in peace, there have been few planes over lately but a month ago we saw a bit of action with one Liberator crashing nearby and heard of others. 12 Germans + 5 English down, the papers here would say 20 of ours and 4, that is the usual thing.
We are going to have a bit of fun when jerry starts going back if we don't watch ourselves, we intend to make for Rome and the Vatican City, have a look round and possibly finish up on a boat going to London, we are aware that our boys are here on the job but we have had enough, back home via the States will do us and a big reunion.
I'm always thinking of you all. But if I should not get back don't make any mistakes, marry the right chap. Do hope this finds you all well, we should be reading this together if everything pans out, anyway all my love to you all & regards to all good friends, we'll make things fly when this show is over, one big celebration.
Trusting this finds you all in the best of health as this leaves me.
Your loving Brother
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