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Len Dann

Gunner Len Dann

 

Unit : 68th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.

Served : North Africa (captured).

 

Len Dann was captured at Tobruk in 1942 and spent the next year as a Prisoner of War in Italy. The following are extracts from his book, "Laughing - We Ran". Details of how to buy this, the story of his escape and his subsequent adventures, containing far more than has been included below, can be found in the Shop. The story begins at the time when Italy surrendered and there loomed the possibility of the prisoners not being liberated, but removed to Germany.

 

"All the talk was of spies and several raids had been made in the area to round up young Italians for forced labour and at the same time to collect any British Prisoner who got caught in the net. I myself, like thousands of other POW's had fled from a prison camp, when Italy tried to make a separate peace and now were scattered the length and breadth of the country, or rather those of us who still remained at large, for many had been taken either within a few hours, or collected one by one as the Germans came across them in the ensuing months. I, with many others, had come from the "Campo di Coneetramento P.G. 53" at Maracerata, slipping away in the early evening with a friend, and managing to get some five or six miles before the sound of a machine gun, told us the enemy had arrived at the camp we had so recently left."

 

"I remember that day clearly, we had been paraded in the recreation field and the Senior British Officer spoke to us of the separate peace, then told us the Allied Forces should be with us in a matter of days and he didn't want any "Bloody silly heroics", at this stage. Any man disobeying the order would find a court martial waiting for him, should he ever reach the Allies... In an hour or so it was noticed that the Italian sentries had gone and this fact alone worried me. Perhaps they had heard more than we had. I talked it over with my friend John and he agreed to leave the camp with me after the evening meal. I suggested we wait for this, for we would have no idea how long it might be before a cooked one came our way again. Of the seven thousand men in the camp six thousand chose to stay put, while the remainder, grabbing what kit they could, ran out through the gates, holes in the wire and over the walls. This before the exits were sealed and the sentry boxes manned again, but this time by our own men, who in the traditions of the regiments from which they came, carried out their orders without imagination. John and I crept out by a small semi-hidden gate, thirty seconds ahead of the party bent on closing it."

 

"Being a country chap, I was no sooner out of the gates than I had insisted on striking inland towards the mountain range, some thirty miles west. John was at first against the climbing and cross country going, but soon saw the wisdom of my choice. I said "What if it does taken an effort to get up into the mountain, we can look down on anything on the roads below, and come down again in a few days when our army arrives". So together with Ginger, another escapee from the camp, we made our way slowly westward deeper into the foothills, walking by day and spending each night with Italian families, who without exception welcomed us with open arms. Never did we go to sleep without a hot meal, or leave the next morning without a loaf of bread and directions on how to avoid the roads. We received many requests to stay and wait for the Allies to come, but stay I would not, refusing flatly to even consider the idea, until I could look down on the countryside, and know I had time to get away across the "campi" before any approaching vehicle could reach our level."

 

"After a year inside none of us was as strong as we thought we were and three days march, either up a hill, or down, never on the level had taken what little strength we had. In the farm house of "Francesco Biagoli" we stayed for a few weeks, then split up into three different houses as the burden of keeping us had become too great for the family. I stayed with Frank a while longer in Poggio, then finally moved to a house in San Costenzo. In my walks around the area (I liked to know the lines of retreat) I had met an Officer from the Italian Air Force, who at the time of capitulation had fled back to his native countryside to avoid transportation to Germany and he asked me to join him in his house. A typical farmhouse and farm now being run by his mother, sister and sister in law. All the work was done by the women, who carried immense loads on their heads, toiling from dawn till dusk to get the farm chores done. With the coming of myself to join "Toni" some of the heavy jobs were taken off their hands, mucking out the oxen, hoeing the fields, carrying fodder, anything to repay for the food, warmth and shelter provided by these kindly people... This was to be my home for the next nine months."

 

"The life of the average Italian Contadino or peasant, is to put it mildly - bloody hard. How would our Trade Unionists of Britain feel if they had to rise at 2am to feed the oxen, and then at first light harness his two beasts to plough and start his seemingly endless plod up and down the field. This is the time of day the Contadino starts, if he does not start, then the work is not done. If the work is not done then he and his family will face a hungry year. No question of double time, extra time, strikes over silly things. You work or you don't eat, that's the life of a peasant. When I say work, I mean work."

 

"After two or three hours of hard ploughing, Francesco would stop for breakfast around 7am. This would consist of a handful of grapes, a crust of bread, maybe an apple and the inevitable bottle of vino. Ploughing would then continue up to around midday, when the midday meal would be taken, the oxen put away and he would retire to bed to get his strength back, before the evening session, starting around 5pm and going on till dark. After which the oxen had to be watered and fed and he had to have supper. He was lucky if he got to bed by eleven, as his wife insisted on a marathon prayer meeting every night, and the poor old sod had to be up again at two. No wonder he looked as thin as a bean pole and took every opportunity to forget his labours by looking upon the wine to excess."

 

"Around this time I started to develop a few boils. I think this may have been something to do with the change of diet, or drinking far too much wine without being used to it. Whatever it was, I experienced several of these on my legs and one became persistent, turning into a gaping hole just below the knee of my left leg and from which the green and yellow matter oozed continuously. This made it difficult, to get far, so my activities were confined to the general area of the farm, doing odd jobs and helping to press the grapes, the harvesting of which had just begun in the neighbourhood."

 

"What started off in the morning as a novelty, became as agony as the day wore on. No sooner was the tank emptied of pulp, than the girls would be filling it with grapes again and by the time I had pressed out the pile of pulp, another pile would be brought over. The Italian day for picking grapes started as soon as the dew was off the fruit and we were still at it until it became too dark to see. Apart from a small snack at midday, everyone kept on the go and then ate in the evening. Ate is an understatement, stuffed is more like it although considering the amount of energy expended in the course of the day, I suppose the amount was reasonable. Reasonable to them but not reasonable to me, who faced with a second plate of pasta, found myself full, with the meat course still to come. This followed cheese, bread and fruit all washed down with many glasses of wine. After a week of this I found I could now press all day and stuff with the best of them at night, but my leg was getting worse and I could not travel far without the aid of a stick."

 

"Our alarm system was very good, but in these days our Italian friends would panic for the least thing. Poggio situated on a hill like the majority of Italian villages, was some five miles and several thousand feet higher than the town of Sanarno, through which the nearest road passed. Any vehicle starting to come up the road to Poggio did not stand a chance of getting there quicker than a message could be shouted up from farm to farm in the mountain air. At the first sign of movement in the town below, we knew in minutes."

 

"One night when I was woken at midnight, told to grab my belongings and come quick. The "Tedesci" were coming. I descended quickly into the yard and was led off together with two or three local lads of military age and some half dozen escapees from the area including John and Ginger. Everyone was told not to speak and to keep close to the man in front. We had our hearts in our mouths, we thought, "This is it and freedom was just beginning to taste nice, typical Jerry trick to round us up in the middle of the night"... The following day we learned that two Germans, travelling through the town at night, had decided to knock up the local wine shop and buy a few for the road. This had set off the alarm system, someone running from farm to farm with the news ended up with every escapee and Italian youth for miles being awakened and rushed into hiding."

 

"I could stick most things but when she {Francesco's wife} had a bout of religious fervour under the oak tree's and didn't let up for a couple of hours it was more than I could stand. My leg was getting worse, she would not or could not even give me a piece of clean material to bind it and I could only rinse the matted bandage in cold water, clean the suppurating hole as best I could, then re-tie the dripping rag around it. I decided I must move on."

 

"Antonio Luciani an ex Italian Air Force Officer who I had met in my travel's to the neighbouring farms has asked me to join him on his mothers farm. The farm was run by his mother, his sister, his sister-in-law, who had a small son of four named Lino. Toni's brother was missing and his father dead, so the extra man-power supplied by two men was very welcome. His sister Emilia, who was about my age, immediately took me in hand. My dirty ragged bandages were burnt, the cauldron was put on over the fire and very soon I was in the first hot bath I had had for many months. My leg was bathed in brine and new bandages applied, some of Toni's wardrobe was raided to find me clothes and although a bit short in the leg, the nice clean trousers were something I had not had since being taken prisoner. A neighbour cut my hair and that night for the first time I slept in a bed with sheets. Under the kind treatment of the family I rapidly made progress. With the constant application of brine, the poison in my leg dispersed and I began to make myself useful. (The scars marking the place, from which the matter used to pour are still visible today.)"

 

"I would have my bread and wine in the morning, then set to and clean out the stable, cut chaff from the stack and feed the oxen, then take the oxen to running water for their morning drink... I settled into a comfortable existence. Comfortable that is compared to the misery of the prison camp, with its overcrowding, lice and loss of freedom. I could come and go as I pleased, was well fed and apart from doing some of the routine farm chores, had no responsibilities to anyone... John and I used to meet every day, he would pass on news of other escapee's and I would give him news of the other direction... These were happy days, the Italian families had no radio for entertainment... Nearly everyone in the community was visited by everyone else at some time or other and heavy inroads made on the years supply of vino. I think this is something missing from the British way of life, you can live in a street for ten years and not know who lives three doors away, sitting glued every night to the goggle box, each family in its own cell, boasting to the neighbours, "We keep ourselves to ourselves you know, after all there is George's position at the bank to think of." In the countryside in Italy everyone knows the neighbours for miles, no one suffers if the crops are to be harvested with perhaps the man of the house sick. Everyone comes in. The crops are harvested in time. The family are cared for, no one goes without food."

 

"A 'capo di partisani', that it was Toni was arranging, when everyone thought he was having a good time round the countryside and skimping the work. He often walked twenty or thirty miles a day, meeting other interesting people, visiting bands already established deep in the mountain range ten miles to the west, gathering and collating information and telling us nothing. I remember one morning he told me he was now a 'Capo di Partisani', and swore me to secrecy, as he produced two automatic pistols from under his pillow, passed one over to me and told me I was now a member of his section, but must not disclose this even to my other escapee friends... Soon we began to have visits from other leaders of partisans from the mountain area, Pubico above Sanarno and Monastero deep in the gorge's to the north. Armed with a motley collection of weapons they would call, have a meal, a drink, chat with Toni, then disappear into the night, bound to goodness know's where."

 

"By the time we had settled down for the winter, Toni had got his cell well organised. Contacts in every village no matter how small. An alarm system that would tell us what was going to happen, in most cases at least twenty four hours ahead and a trusty band of followers who trusted him to the hilt. We no longer felt isolated... We had by this time begun to get a few arms. Toni had been going off at night on raids with another band to get the feel of it and would return with the occasional firearm, pinched from some Italian Fascist post, because there were still some who remained loyal to the Axis cause. I remember one day he brought in a couple of the ancient Italian rifles and thought he would give a bit of a show-off performance of his marksmanship to some of his recruits. A board about some four feet square was placed against the nearest hay stack and Toni withdrew to a distance of perhaps forty yards and let fly. I checked the board after the shot and signalled no hit... I laughed and said he could not hit a barn if he was inside with the door shut. "You thinka you do better eh? Takea the bloody thing thena, I betta you, you no itter it either." I said rubbish, I had always been a fairly good shot... I fired high, I fired low. To the left, to the right, but not a mark could I put on it. Unless the bullets were going straight up, which was impossible, then I must have in my hands the most wildly inaccurate rifle ever made."

 

"An ancient revolver also turned up, but it just would not fire. I made a repair with a very stout safety pin cut to size and yet another partisan went away happy. Toni gave me a beautiful Italian 38mm automatic and I was very proud of this until one day I decided to test it. To my horror it would not work and closer inspection showed that part of the mechanism was broken. I remember I made a new piece, filing away for hours on a bit of steel to get it to the right size and shape. When I tried it in the yard and it went off it scared me and panicked half the neighbourhood. We used to hide our weapons in the bier with the oxen and the next time I went for mine it had gone, presumably the oxen didn't like it either and had knocked it from its hiding place and stamped it in with the manure, where it had escaped notice on mucking out and now lie beneath several feet of muck on the heap. I did not look for it."

 

"Later on we were better organised, Toni had made good contacts in the mountain and they were in turn tough with the Allies and drops of clothing, demolitions and Sten guns were made. This lead to more organised raids on German transport and began to attract attention to the area. One evening a column of partisans began to pass through... These were the real partisans of the mountains, armed to the teeth, living mostly high up in the remote shepherds huts and small mountain caves... Their leader, riding a mule and looking for all the world like something from a movie, dismounted and came in for a drink. This was the only time I ever met him. A week later he was dead. Outraged by the raids, this man and his followers, the Germans knowing they could never catch him in the mountain peaks, surrounded the town of Sanerno and issued and ultimatum. Either he came down and gave himself up, or they would raze the town to the ground and kill all the inhabitants. Apparently he came down the mountainside alone to meet the Germans. They hung him on the nearest tree. He was without doubt the bravest Italian I ever had the honour to meet."

 

"We made a rough tally of escapees in the spring, no one had moved on during the winter and our number and location was roughly as follows :-

Me, with Antonio Luciani

John, with one of the Biagi's in Poggio

Ginger, with a widow in Poggio (This made us raise our eyebrows)

Dido, with Biagoli Secondo

George, with Don Quirino the priest

John and Fred, in Cherato

Two Scotchmen in Poggio, we didn't see much of them. They were a bit on the quarrelsome side and after referring to us as "bloody Sacchenachs", took exception to being called "Haggis eating bastards" and wanted to fight. One tried to butt me in the face, but my companion at the time was George, who was a commando, so they decided it wasn't worth the try. That gave nine of us in the immediate area and we kept very much in touch, that is except Ginger who never seemed to be able to get away from the house and when he did didn't seem very strong. Said he wasn't getting enough food and couldn't sleep at night. We didn't ask why. The warmer weather was leading to rumours of German and Fascist raids in different parts of the country, we had a little council of war, and Dido, Joe, Fred and I decided that we must have a bolt hole in case of emergency, careful perusal of the district led us to believe that we could be surrounded if the Germans decided to comb an area some ten miles square, so we had to find somewhere in the area in which four men could crawl away and not be seen."

 

"We finally decided on the end of a gully on Secondo's property, by putting a roof on the end of the sunken part, we could make a damp but hidden cave, impossible to see unless one stood nearly on it. Trees were cut and carried a quarter of a mile to the site, then placed across the gully as main bracers. Smaller trees were then interlaced until the roof was pretty solid, then over this a layer of twigs, reeds etc. Then to finish off the roof, earth was evenly spread and a final layer of growing turf, cut in ones and two's from a distant part of the farm planted on top. The entrance was just big enough for a man to crawl in. By creeping along the side of the drop on to which the gully faced, and pulling on a piece of rope that moved the limbs of a bush once he had passed inside, the entrance was completely concealed. Fortunately we never had to use it and probably just as well. Later it seemed everyone in the district knew about it. Although few if any, but those close to us, ever actually found it. From six feet away it was quite invisible, the only risk being that some clot might jump on the roof thinking it was solid ground and feel the difference beneath his feet."

 

"The tension throughout the area began to get more tense as the weeks passed by, fresh face's appeared in the villages, stayed a day or two then left heading south. Rumours were rife, the Germans were doing this, or that, or had captured some of our lads, in one instance which was true they had caught four partisans, hung them to the nearest tree and left them there for a week. All things calculated to throw terror into the population and make it difficult to get aid. For us who were already static it was not so bad, being well off the main roads and with our alarm system working, we calculated that everyone in the area would be able to get away before the enemy arrived... For escapees who decided to try and move south it was not so good. Used to the kindness of the Contadini away from the front line, they found that once they were some thirty miles south of us it became very tricky. Afraid to have British escapees in their houses, and not even willing in many cases to speak and give directions, the Contadini were playing it safe. George from the Church, the one who was a commando decided to have a try, but was back after three days, having been sleeping rough, unable to get any help or shelter as he got nearer to the front line, which was now about sixty miles away... We all decided that the best thing to do was to sit tight until the allies worked their way up to us."

 

"I had some long chats with Bill and George, I was getting restless, but did not know why, I only knew for some reason I had to get out if only for a few days and they seemed the most likely two to come with me. Everyone else being nicely billeted in, was content to remain and see what would happen. One morning I said to the two lads, "How about you two joining me, I was get the O.K from Toni and we can go into the mountain for a few days and stay with the Partisan group up high in the caves." Bill said yes, and George said he would not be split from Bill, so I approached Toni on the subject... I told him of my restlessness and said I could not explain it, and Toni himself then admitted that he was uneasy, but did not know why, but it would be a good thing perhaps if I did go as I could make contact, and deliver some messages for him."

 

"On the following morning we set out on a fifteen mile journey to the village of Monastero high up in the central mountain range that runs like a spine down the centre of the country... We crossed the Strada Nationale, running up from Sanarno, on past San Ginesio and on to Macerata, without incident. Waiting at the side of the road until no sound of engine could be heard, then nipping smartly across the cover. From the road on, the ground began to get rough, but we toiled on upwards, following only in the general directions given me by Toni before leaving that morning... I expect to the observant Italian we stuck out like a sore thumb, not because of the size or dress, but because of our walk... I think in spite of months of imprisonment, part of the barrack square training would come through and automatically two or three chaps together would start walking along in step, a movement guaranteed to make them look conspicuous."

 

"After some hours of toiling up and down the slopes we eventually came to the village of Monastero, a poverty stricken place, high on the mountain side, only women and children in sight all the men having taken evasive action until all the strangers could be identified. I said "Noi siamo Inglese". All I got in return was "Si" and suspicious looks. I tried "Dove il capo di Partisani," but received only blank looks. "They don't understand you," Bill said. "They understand me alright, but are still playing cagey, I'll try something else." "Sono, amico dello capo di partisani Luciani." At the mention of Toni's name a woman gave a shout and within a minute from behind one of the buildings came a man armed to the teeth, a bayonet at his waist, grenades hanging from various points on his body and with a rifle that was pointed in our direction. "Friendly looking bugger isn't he?" remarked George, "I hope that rifle hasn't got a hair trigger." Bill slid to the left so that he couldn't cover all three of us at once. The man approached, "Youa the Inglese prigionere, Jesus Christ I thinka it esa the Tedesci coming." We satisfied him to our nationality. Someone produced a bottle and within five minutes we were being treated as if he had known us for a long time."

 

"When the leader came down he was quite nice about it all and arranged on the spot from which house we would draw our daily bread ration, and that we should go back for our gear and return in three days. Pointing out that rations were low and any additional stuff we could bring would be welcome. We set off back with an easy mind and being mainly downhill the going was not so bad, especially as he pointed out a track that would take us nearly to the Strada Nationale without any cross country work... The next day we did the rounds of our friends and drank many drinks. Every house was sorry to see us leave and contributed something towards a stock of food to take with us. We finished up with half a dozen cheese's about a kilo in weight, five dozen eggs and a sack of bread."

 

"The following morning Toni shook me by the hand and bid me to look after myself, I told him to look out too. We knew the Germans had a rough idea of his whereabouts and it would only be a matter of time before someone gave him away. He gave me the flying coat for keeps and it was very welcome. We headed for the hills with a sense of adventure in our hearts."

 

"High on the slopes of the Sibilline mountains we stood at dawn and gazed down on the winding valley eight hundred feet below. I say valley, but we were really in the mouth of the gorge through which a mountain stream raced... "Christ, fancy having to storm a place like this, you can be seen for bloody miles," said Bill. "I should think two machine guns could hold this place against an army," replied George. "Placed down on the ledge with another on top here you cover tracks for miles." This was the first real look we had of our new home. The previous evening it had already been getting dusk when one of the band had taken us to our cave. Three hundred feet above the main positions it was gained by scaling a long climb over loose rubble, that slid and bounced away to the valley with every step we took. We had made a fair in our cave, roasted our chicken, then lain down to sleep, huddled together in one heap to maintain as much heat as possible in our thinly covered bodies. We soon found out why this high cave had been left empty as long as possible, with the snows but shortly gone, the chill at five thousand feet above sea level was quite something in the early hours of the morning and we welcomed the dawn, so we could move and get some life into our frozen limbs."

 

"About nine o'clock our guide came back and brought with him three Italian rifles and about twenty rounds apiece. I was not impressed, they were of the type I had practiced with in Toni's yard and from this experience had no faith in the weapons... I did manage to scrounge two more blankets from the partisani, and with some dried scrub under us, we slept warmer on future nights. Nothing disturbed our sanctuary, we loafed about all day and at five in the evening went down to the lower level where a hot meal was always provided. The rest of the time we lived on bread and cheese and the remainder of our eggs. We were pleased we had managed to bring so much. The leader of the group was a military man, I never knew his proper rank, he was always referred to as "Il Capitano" and the Germans had put a price on his head."

 

"After four days our bread ran out and it was my lot to make my way down to Monastero to collect more from "our" baker. The villagers were told who and how many they had to bake for, but the grain had been obtained by opening the government grain stores and distributing it back at the Contadini, so it only cost them the labour, not their food supply. I was to go and collect enough for the next ten days, so picked up an empty sack from the main cave and prepared to start. The Capitano gave me a shout, "Youa takea mio mulo bacca ro Monastero." "I can't ride a mule." "Youa takea im, eet is O.K, youa getta one e go solo righta to Casa." I thought right mate, if you say so it must be all right, so started to thread my way down the river."

 

"They say mule's are stubborn creatures. I don't know, I have only ever come into contact with the one and that was enough. He had got a one track mind, get down that trail as fast as possible and to hell with the passengers. We tore along, missing rocks and pot holes by inches. I tried to slow him down when we came to the tricky bits, but we tore on clinging to little ledges a couple of feet wide, fifty feet above the river, a sheer drop on one side and my right leg brushing the rock wall on the other. Under overhanging branches, through gulleys, never pausing until we came to the next stream to cross. I wanted to get off and go over the bridge, while the mule went through the water, but he was not having any of that fancy stuff. Straight into the water he tore, out until the water was up to his tummy and then stopped. If the trouble before had been to get him to stop, now it was to get him to start. I sat patient for a few minutes to get him cooled down, then stuck my heels in. Nothing happened. During the next ten minutes I swore at him, talked nicely to him, clumped him with my hand, but that only hurt me and called him every foul name I could think of in three languages. The mule stood perfectly still through all this, the only sign of life being an occasional twitching of the ears. I bet if I could have seen his face the sod was laughing. At last in despair I dropped off into the river, prepared to pull him out, or go on and leave him behind. No sooner had my weight gone from the saddle than the bastard walked out ahead of me and stood waiting for me on the bank. I was stunned. Dripping wet I mounted, thinking the animal would now be calmer, but no, off we went again, hell for leather, into the village, down the street lickety spit and straight into the open stable door, nearly braining me in the process. I've never ridden any sort of four legged animal since. I could hardly sit down for a week and George and Bill kept referring to the incident and asking if the "Sheriff" was prepared to fetch the bread every week."

 

"We stayed up in the caves for another week and then I began to get that funny feeling of mine again. I couldn't settle, kept walking about, until at last I could bear it no longer and thought up some pretext to return to San Costenzo... I think my uneasiness stemmed from the fact that two or three days before we had three men arrive in the camp. Claiming to be escapees the Capitano arranged that they should sleep in our cave for the night and we should report on them in the morning. We were not happy with them, one was supposed to be an officer, but spoke like an ordinary soldier and seemed anything but what he claimed. The other two said very little and when asked from where they came gave the name of a camp way up in the north of Italy that we had never heard of... We told the Capo and the following morning he sent them on their way claiming that it was impossible to feed three more mouths. In the light of subsequent events it might have been better if we had let them stay, then no suspicion would have arisen as to who gave us away, but I'll come to that in a minute."

 

"I left and walked down to Monastero, then on down the rugged road towards the Strada Nationale. I paused as I turned a bend in the road. The faint rumble I had been hearing for the last few minutes was definitely nearer... Within minutes a large lorry appeared crawling slowly up the valley, as it passed by I could see it was full of young men in uniform and they started singing among themselves... Our German friends had arrived. There was nothing I could do, they were between me and the village and were in a vehicle and I was on foot.  I knew the early warning sentries would be aware of their coming and would shout the information back up the valleys in a matter of minutes. I prayed that Bill and George would come through all right and blessed that intuition of mine that had said move out. I moved with care on the rest of the journey, two more lorry loads of troops passed me, but each time I had to get off the road and hide in the Scrub. I had left the mountain for the last time."

 

"On reaching the farm I was greeted by the family as if I was the prodigal son returning and with a meal in front of me they told me what had happened. The very morning following my departure for the mountain they were awoken by the sound of strange voices and looking out saw the yard full of "Fascisti" who had left their transport a mile away and walked down over the fields, arriving at an early hour before any one was really moving... Toni had heard the voices, realised what they meant, stopped only long enough to don his trousers and shoes, then gone out of the bedroom window along the outhouse roof and dropped off at the back of the building while the enemy was still coming into the front yard. It was a very near go, only the fact that he was already awake, had heard the transport on the distant road stop, and became suspicious saved him from being caught in bed. The Fascisti knew who they were after, they asked for Toni by name... Finding nothing in the house, they commenced to comb the buildings, Emilia leaned against the pile of faggots hiding Toni's motor cycle and looked at them with disgust. They found nothing and withdrew."

 

"Alarmed by the arrival at our house, Dido had gone off down to the hide we had made and was soon joined by Joe and Fred from Cherato, who reported that troops were also coming from that direction and encircling the area as we had always feared they would. Toni, halfway to Cherato, to hide in the cellar of his fiancee's house, was between two fires, with no time to hide elsewhere, he ran down the sloping track, turned abruptly to the left and sprang as far as he could out into the adjoining field of growing corn. He lay there for two hours and was never discovered. A volley or two was fired in the general direction of Dido and co, with the instruction to "come out, we can see you", but it was all a bluff and eventually the whole raid was called off. The only casualty being George from the Church, the commando one, who was captured in the adjoining field, having had too short a warning to get out of sight. He was led off into captivity once again and as far as we know was taken to Germany, I hope he survived until the end of the hostilities."

 

"We had our meal and went to bed, it was considered that having had a raid only a week before, it would be most unlikely to have another so soon. I woke in the half light of dawn. As I lay listening wondering what had disturbed me the sound came again, the solid explosion of mortar fire and then the sound of small arms. I leapt from my bed and rushed to the window and gazed towards the mountains where star shells could be seen rising high into the air, then drifting slowly down and every now and then came the thump of the mortars and the bursts of small arms."

 

"I went down to the stable to have a pee, I had had a few drinks the night before. "Christ," nothing happened, just a severe pain as if the old man was going to burst at the end. I had to give up... By midday I was in agony, my bladder felt fit to burst and yet I could pass nothing. I had to tell the family... The doctor in the area, Dr Spagnoli from Gualdo, believed to be a Fascist and not to be trusted, pulled up outside and started to tinker with his car... "For God's sake get him," I told Emilia. "Tell him anything, say I came in here this morning near collapse and can't get any further..." He came in. I had the wind up, because I thought that being a Fascist doctor, he would either refuse to treat me or treat me then give me away to the authorities. He was a gentleman. I minutes I felt at home with him and told him my story... He reached into his bag and produced a long rubber tube, with a slightly upturned plastic end, then called for water to sterilize it with and olive oil to grease it. I sat terrified... I tensed as I felt the rubber tube slip into my penis, but found it did not hurt at all, then suddenly came the sound of water falling into the bowl, which had been placed at my side and the pressure began to fall."

 

"Dr Spagnoli sat with me and talked. He told me he had to keep in with the Fascists to enable him to get a few litres of petrol, to visit the outlying patients, but he was also obtaining information and passing it onto the Partisans. I found out later he was the chief source of news in Gualdo and Toni visited himself regularly, but believing that if you don't know you can't tell, Toni had kept it to himself. "You are a very lucky man, it is a good thing you are not still in the mountains, but you must never go back, sleeping on the cold rock has give you some sort of internal chill, causing inflammation and swelling." I asked what I should do if it re-occurred. "It may be impossible for you to get to me, or I to you. I will give you instructions on how to use this catheter and you must do it yourself, or you will die."

 

"The next morning we had news of the mountain and of what had occurred. It seemed that after I had seen them, the Germans must have halted just up the road before coming anywhere near the forward posts, that were manned in the day time. During the night they had made their way up or been led up (there seemed to be a feeling that this is what happened), because they had crossed the river and crept right up to within a couple of hundred yards before being challenged. When challenged they let loose with everything they had, pinning the partisans down in the caves. Bill and George in the top cave, and remember it was still dark, tried to climb the rock slide and get to the heavy "breda" but in the gloom got completely lost in the maze of tracks at the top... Because of this the partisans were forced to flee into the scrub, and work their way up and over the top of the peak's, descending on the other side into an area that for some reason the Germans had left unguarded. If the heavy "breda" could have been brought into action then I have no doubt it would have been a different result, at least the enemy would have got as good as he gave."

 

"One morning we heard firing from the direction of Sanarno and our grapevine told us that the partisan group from Monastero, the one whom I had stayed, were putting in a reprisal raid on the Fascist barracks in town. I went to the top of the hill, but could see nothing, only spasmodic outburst of firing, indicating that fighting was still taking place and gradually this fell off and finally died out altogether. By midday news reached me that George was dead. Leading the attack through a corn field he had been caught by a burst of machine gun fire and would never sing his song again... When, years later, I visited a war grave cemetery in Ancona, I would have liked to have found his grave, but you see I only knew him as George and I could not check without a surname."

 

"I came into the farmhouse once afternoon, no one was in sight. I hung my Sten on the wall, turned to the fireplace and there standing in the corner was a German rifle, a leather belt and pouches laying on the chair, with a uniform jacket thrown over the back. I nearly shit myself! I grabbed my Sten as footsteps ran up the stairs, but it was only Emilia. Would I go to the school, where there was a German soldier who appeared to have been wondering round on his own, and no one seemed to know what to do with him. I cocked the weapon, ran round the house and up the stairs, paused at the door for a moment, then pushed it open and entered with my gun at the ready. The school room was full of neighbours, Alfredo, Vincenco, their wives and children. Umberto standing just inside the door let off with a loud "Accidenti" as I entered and there sitting at a school bench was a young blonde lad about twenty years of age eagerly eating the food that Gran had provided. The old girl very cunningly had got him to leave his weapons in the house and come round to the school to eat so that there would not be any shooting when either Toni or I came home."

 

"I started to talk to him and found that he could speak some English having taken lessons at school and his relief at finding himself with an Englishman and finding that I was not going to shoot him out of hand was unbounded... He was an Austrian from Vienna and had been forced to join the Hitler Youth as soon as he was old enough, then found himself in the army and down in Italy, where he had had a much worse winter than I had. Disillusioned at last and realising that war in Italy must soon come to an end he had fled from the front line and headed for the mountains to seek shelter and wait for the allied forces. I didn't think much of his chances if he had blundered into the Pubico or Monastero groups, the sight of the uniform would have made them shoot first and ask questions afterwards. When I explained this time him he had the shock of his life, he had thought the partisans would have been glad to have him."

 

"He sowed me his ragged boots, his feet were a mass of festering sores and bound with rough cloth because his socks had gone months before and there was no replacements... "What shall we do with him?" said Gran. "Leave him with me," I answered, "I think with those feet he will give his word not to cause trouble." I explained that he was in my charge and that I wanted his word he would not do anything silly. He agreed. Our latest recruit had arrived... The following morning Toni came down and met Heinz. He took my word that the situation was under control, and left it all to me. Dido rolled Heinz a fag and Fred offered him another drink, we were all friends together. After our normal breakfast of wine, bread and a few apples, I took Heinz to Gualdo to see Dr Spagnoli... It caused quite a stir when I walked him through the town still in his uniform and no doubt my standing in the community went up quite a bit, but everyone was friendly and asked if we would like a drink to help us on our way. Dr Spagnoli was a man who treated friend and foe alike, if they wanted help they got it, if he could get medicine he did not mind who had it, as long as it went to someone in dire need. He had saved my life and now he set to and attended to the feet of Heinz as if he was the most important patient for that day, not one of the hated Tedesci. With the application of some soothing ointment and antiseptic Heinz's feet began to make rapid progress and in a few days he could run around with the rest of us, and we had accepted him as just another member of the group."

 

"With the coming of the Sten guns everyone began to feel a bit cocky, Toni who had a big Italian automatic sub-machine sort of firearm, was all over the place, arranging God knows what... He had an ambition to "Liberate" Gualdo before the arrival of the allied force, though how you liberate anything that is not occupied I can't work out, but nevertheless, "Liberated" it had to be. Should anything go wrong after the "Liberazione" and before the allied arrival he hit upon the ingenious scheme to stop the Germans getting to Gualdo and also made sure they had to stay on the Strada Nationale, where they could be shot up by aircraft. The town like most of the Italian towns in this area was set high on a hill, all approaches having to be made up long dusty winding roads, which the town folk could keep under observation for miles. Where these roads passed through cuttings, or were in any way sunk below the level of the surrounding ground. Toni arranged to have any oak trees bordering these spots to be felled, completely choking the road. This was done with great effectiveness, five or six oaks being dropped at intervals of only a few feet, making the roads totally impassable unless a lot of time and labour was spent on clearing."

 

"We had received some plastic explosive without any instructions, but in spite of this, Toni decided to go ahead and "blast a bridge". More I think for effect that any regard to the usefulness of the operation. He picked on one on the Gualdo-Penna road... Apparently the charges were duly laid, everyone drew back (because in true tradition half the town had come to watch). Toni set the detonator and ran. There was a slight bang, a piece of masonry the size of a man's fist flew in a gentle arc into the nearest field, leaving a pot hole in the ground. The structure of the bridge was unshaken. Toni was outraged and gave the rest of the explosive to me the following day without saying what occurred."

 

"The following day I went to the "Liberazione" in Gualdo that is to say, the one put on by the partisans, before the arrival of the allies. I took Heinz with me, first to visit Dr Spagnoli about his poor feet and secondly Toni thought it would look good if our "prisoner" came too. We stood in the little square, about a dozen partisans, surrounded by the town folk who were making a fiesta of the event and myself a bit to one side with Heinz... At a signal from Toni, someone hoisted the flag of Italy to the top of the pole jutting from the roof of the Podesta's office, there were several shouts of "Viva la Italia", a short burst of fire into the air and Toni's machine gun and the "Liberazione" ceremony was over... The civilians were most impressed. Heinz and myself sat and chuckled at the melodramatics of it all. We adjourned to a nearby Albergo that had been taken over for the occasion and all the people of importance were asked to join the meal that was being prepared. Somehow Toni got at the head of the table with me next to him and Heinz next to me. He was thoroughly enjoying himself chattering away in a mixture of German and broken English and not a bit deterred that after all he was one of the enemy. I had to make a speech, I can't remember a word of what I said, the wine had been flowing freely. It was probably to the valour of the partisan forces, and may the Allies get here bloody quick before Jerry has a snoop round to see what all the firing is about. At any rate it broke up quite quickly after my speech, so I must have said something. Heinz and I arrived home much the worse for wear and singing at the top of our voices. They told me he was carrying the Sten and supporting me at the same time."

 

"We had a favourite spot on the hill top at Cherato, a spot from which we could look down and see the enemy transport making its way back along the Strada Nationale towards Macereta and the north... Around the 18-19th June the trucks were going on and off, day and night, on the 20th it was much quieter and on the 21st we went up to our hill to see what was happening. For an hour nothing occurred, then we heard the sound of approaching engines along the road, coming up from Sanarno, but could only see a cloud of dust... A plane appeared in the sky, then swung down over the road, flew on a mile or two, turned and repeated the tactic, not firing a shot, but keeping close to the moving machines all the time. "You silly bastard, why don't you let em ave it," shouted Dido... I looked long and hard at the disappearing motorcyclists, an idea struck me, "You silly buggers, of course he won't shoot, that's a scouting patrol ahead of the allied army, or I'll eat my hat."

 

"It was too late to do anything that night, but on the following day we all got together, John, Dido, Fred, Joe and myself and set out on the seven kilometres walk to Sanarno... We sang as we walked along, we had a cheery "Buon Giorno" for everyone and stopping to take a glass of wine when requested, arriving a somewhat merry party in the town square around midday. Laughing we ran down the last hundred yards towards the familiar uniforms in the square. They were quite unimpressed... I asked an officer if we could be of any assistance, having lived in the area for the past ten months and knowing the local partisans and prevailing conditions. I was coldly refused. "Typical bloody clot head officer," said Dido, "full of piss and importance."

 

"There should be a town marshal," remarked John. We left Heinz with Dido, Fred and Joe sampling a bottle fro the local Albergo and John and I set out to find someone in authority. After following our noses and the goings and comings of the PPA we located him, and waited for a quiet moment before introducing ourselves. He didn't want to know us. "You've done alright for the last ten months, so I suggest you clear off back and come down again in a weeks time, then you can find your own way back down the line, I'm too bloody busy to see you blokes..." "Friendly little bastard," said Dido when in due course we had located them halfway through the second bottle. "You can tell he has never been in a concentration camp, or gone without his grub." We were quite pleased to be on the right side of the lines once again, but our reception had left a nasty taste, perhaps no one realised what some of the lads had been through or they might have been a bit more considerate."

 

"A few days later we all decided that the time had come to leave our Contadini families... Our farewells were said to the assembled families all who had a tear in their eye... Grandma stood as always, barefoot. Her four sheep patiently by her side, and the tears trickling down her face, Emilia was on the verge of bursting into tears also and I knew it was time to go, or we would stay here forever. I grasped Toni's hand, we didn't say much, after all what could be said, we understood each other and that quiet handshake meant more than a lot of words. I picked up my pack, laden with cheeses, bottles of wine and a bottle of mistra, a look at the lads, a nod and then we were off... We were going home."

 

Twenty years later, Len Dann returned to Italy and was reunited with Toni, Emilia, and those others who had sheltered him and his comrades. Heinz remained with the partisans after they had left but was eventually taken to a prisoner of war camp.

 

Thanks to Christine Hickmott-Arnold for this story.

 

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