Italy by Ted Bell

Italy by Ted Bell
After disembarking in Naples we were billeted in a handsome but rather shabby villa in the commune of Portici, a little along the bay, and I remember the delight I had on waking up the next morning and walking out into a garden where there were small oranges on trees, all ready to be picked and eaten. Later we were introduced to the delightful NAAFI which was, of all places, in the former Royal Palace (of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), where lunch could be had to the accompaniment of a small string orchestra. The next evening there was a procession to the church (Christmas 1944 was approaching) which was very impressive, and I tried to tune in to the many snatches of Italian conversation that I heard. But we could stay there no longer as we were taken to the local railway station and almost literally herded on to cattle trucks for a long and bitterly cold journey over the Appennines (Italy’s backbone) to a place called Foggia (not pronounced with a hard ‘g’; the ‘i’ makes it soft but is not itself pronounced, so: fodge-a), a place I had never heard of.

The pimple on the middle of Italy’s Adriatic coast (the eastern side of the country) is the Gargano Peninsula. Foggia is in the middle of a vast plain equidistant from the Gargano, usually clearly visible to the north, the Appennines in the west and the Adriatic Sea on the east. There Norman (“Curly”) Ellis and I found we had joined 70 Squadron, and I was to be the third occupant of a smallish bell-tent in a mass of such tents on a sea of mud. Curly’s tent was somewhere not far away.

The bombers of 70 and 37 Squadrons, which formed 231 Wing, within 205 Group, had since 1940 attacked a mainly German army in the deserts of North Africa, initially from Egypt, then progressively westwards in advance of the Eighth Army (the Desert Rats, as they came to be called) under General Montgomery, who with powerful US assistance under General Eisenhower, forced General Feld Marshall Rommel into constant retreat. Their increasingly successful campaign culminated in the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. By September the surrender of Italy led to the gradual withdrawal of German forces towards the north. In the earlier stages of that North African campaign the Germans had built a complex of airfields around Foggia from which to attack the Allied forces in North Africa, but they had themselves come under attack before retreating. Long before the time I appeared on the scene the allied armies had made sure these bases could be taken over by the RAF and the USAAF. And I was staggered when I learnt what these bombers were: they were Wellingtons! By no means were they obsolete. The first RAF Wing flying Wellingtons was formed in the Middle East in December 1940, and they were still very active having reached Italy.

The two people already in my tent were Corporal Bert Eager and LAC Gerry Furer. I must say they were very hospitable and there was no feeling of my having invaded their space, which I am sure I had. Gerry was a Cockney guitarist who spent most of his spare time with other musicians, and sometimes getting paid for it. Bert was a 40-year-old insurance agent from Ilkley in Yorkshire who I soon found had a wicked sense of humour and a great deal of patience. The individual tents were each heated by a potentially dangerous system involving a supply of aviation fuel, a piece of copper tubing ending in a little fan through which vapour could escape, all on stones and bare earth behind a grating. Gerry was the expert who alone could get the device burning properly and safely.

The mud dried up after a few weeks and gave way to bright spring flowers, though not before I suffered the only attack of deep depression that I ever recall in my life. It was my turn to collect two Jerri cans of fuel from the store on the airfield perimeter, which on a cold wet day over a track through sloshy ground made me wonder what was the point of it all, and as I rested for a moment I wondered what would happen if I simply lay down beside those wretched Jerri cans myself. I somehow snapped out of it.

The Wing Radar Section, a short walk from the tented area, was in charge of Sergeant Gordon Brown who seemed a very paternal Devonian, assisted by Corporal Rex Lambert, who had a more cultured Surrey accent. My experiences in the RAF had already led to my mentally cataloguing regional English accents; Scottish accents took rather longer to be distinguished. The section hut had benches and all the equipment and spares we might need for checking and servicing the sets, as well as for making tea and coffee. The most used tool was the AVO meter of which we had many more than I had seen in Stockport or Cosford. This measured current (Ampères), voltage (Volts) and resistance (Ohms). If one of us couldn’t get to the bottom of a fault and it also baffled one of the more experienced mechanics, then it was put aside and the whole set replaced. Every day Bert Eager drove the section’s Dodge 15cwt truck to visit every aircraft, usually about 24 in all, each on its dispersal area around the airfield perimeter, and carrying a passenger, a petrol-electric generator and some spare GEE sets.

The truck was always referred to as the gharri, which was one of several foreign words that were in regular use; we never took a look at a girl, we had a shufti at a bint, if we wanted to say we didn’t care one way or the other about something, we were marleesh. So for a lifetime I thought gharri was also Arabic, but my dictionary now tells me it is Hindi. As Kipling often reminds us, the services adopted a number of Indian expressions, some of which, such as char wallah, is also Hindi but our variant of this was chai wallah. 70 Squadron had a sort of greeting between veterans, which was Hod! Hod! but I have never discovered whether that was Arabic or Gibberish.

We each took our turn at the DI or Daily Inspection, which involved testing the signal on each set and, if there was any fault removing the set for testing in the section, and replacing it with one of our guaranteed specimens. I never remember any actual contact between the aircrew and the technicians in our field, though I know there was plenty of such contact with engine fitters and the like, but I fancy in our case Sergeant Brown would have been the man the air crew dealt with when and if necessary.

One member of the section had a constant and essential task, keeping one or preferably two of the generators always ready for use, since one had to be taken on every DI to plug in an electricity supply to each aircraft; we were not permitted to use the aircraft’s batteries. These generators, or PE (petrol-electric) sets were remarkable pieces of equipment, containing inside a 2-feet cube of tubular steel, by which they could be carried, a little JAP one-cylinder two-stroke engine (or ‘put-put’) and a dynamo driven by belt from the engine. Arthur Wright was the expert on the generators, and duly instructed us in the art of starting up by winding a stout cord on a pulley and pulling it; after half a turn the toggle on the end of the rope would (one hoped) come out of the pulley.

What did we do with the sets we couldn’t mend? When necessary, which seemed to be at least once a week, the recalcitrant equipment was taken by Bert Eager into Foggia, where 205 Group had its headquarters, and where another Gordon, whose surname escapes me but who had been the star pupil of our Cosford squad, could be relied on to solve the problem and would have a number of sets to return to us. Our routines continued even when, that spring, the two squadrons converted to Liberators (the B17 in US parlance), much larger than our old Wimpeys, with four instead of two engines and much easier access. The conversion was made because our bombers were now expected to carry a much bigger load. I was not myself aware of the work that must have been involved in making sure that the numbers of serviceable aircraft were kept up to scratch, especially during the change-over.

Our daily routines were somehow detached in our minds from the just as purposeful routines that the aircrews went through. I occasionally heard the take-off later in the day, but I was never conscious of the return before the end of the night. The destinations were by this stage of the war mostly beyond the borders of Italy, apart from the oil installations at Trieste, but I recall hearing of targets in Austria, southern Germany, Romania (oil refineries at Ploesti) and Yugoslavia. From time to time I found when going round the aircraft that there were still remnants of leaflets which had been dropped instead of bombs (I presume, but have never been able to confirm, that it was only some of the planes that had the alternative load). In consequence, I now still have a small collection of nine sheets varying from just over A5 to tabloid newspaper size and ranging from news for i patrioti (Italians operating on our side in the north of Italy) about such things as the Germans’ retreat from Piedmont, and the financial assistance being given by the USA to the provisional Italian government, to the blunt appeal addressed to the German soldier in Germany itself: “DU bist der grosse kriegsverlaengerer!” (that huge conglomerative noun ending the sentence makes its point much more effectively in German than it could ever be in the English, which would be something like: “YOU are the greatest reason why the war is still going on”. The dates of these leaflets range from October 1944 to April 1945. Such leaflets had served to keep our enemies and our friends in the enemy territories informed of the state of the war right from D-Day on 6 June 1944

When spring turned to summer – and that was quite early – the routine had become even more laidback; we started work at 6 am but finished at lunchtime. Then most afternoons Bert would take the gharri with as many people as could pack into it to Manfredonia on the southern edge of the Gargano where there was a tiny village and a glorious beach. Though I have since visited both sides of the Adriatic, I have not been back to Manfredonia and I don’t think I should like to see it now, as by all accounts it’s a very busy resort. I only hope it still has some glorious usable beach left empty; the greater part of it as far as I can see from the advertisements is now covered in geometrically ordered rows of sunshades. Just another instance (and there will be plenty more before I’m through) of Hutber’s Law which says that improvement means deterioration.

One improvement which I made in Tortorella, which met with universal (though I’m sure not official) approval, consisted of designing and painting a section shield on each of the doors of the gharri. I remember those afternoons on the beach at Manfredonia not just because of the sunbathing and the swimming that I was able to do for the first time in my life but because of the chat we youngsters were able to have with the older (anything up to two decades older) men we worked with. Sometimes our questions raised nothing but laughter. Sometimes there were some quite deep discussions. But I remember one occasion when Bert became really cross at the way one young man was carrying on about what was wrong with the world. “Look”, he said, twisting his wrist forward to see his watch, “I’ve got a couple of minutes to spare. Just tell me the story of your life.” There was no answer to that. I was glad I wasn’t the victim.

At some point during my time in Italy I enrolled in a postal study course on nineteenth-century poetry with Wolsey Hall, Oxford, which ensured that I did a certain amount of reading and essay writing regularly, but there was a fair amount of other cultural activity laid on. A cinema in town showed recent releases of films. The small opera house had concerts. An interesting feature of attendance there was that before and after the performance members of the audience were persuaded by small boys to buy (for quite small cash amounts) packets of almonds. Much to my surprise they were wrapped in scraps of stout off-white paper; these turned out to be manuscript legal documents of some antiquity; one of two I have saved to this day is dated May 1878, an affidavit of some kind in beautifully ornate handwriting on watermarked paper. Clearly 68 years later it was now simply waste paper, and no doubt less expensive than newly made paper. In the town, instead of the official currency (Italian lire issued as Allied Military Currency) in which we were paid, cigarettes (we had a free issue of 50 a week) and items of food could sometimes be used. We might get pre-war Banca d’Italia currency in change and that was generally usable.

I also enrolled in an Italian class lasting several weeks, offered at minimal cost by the Foggia education office in their Palazzo degli Studi which was indeed quite palatial, by a young lady whose English was extremely good. We had been issued at our disembarkation with a very well prepared booklet, Italian from Scratch which describes itself (I still have it) as No 6 of Modern Languages for the Services, one of a series prepared by the Services Committee for Modern Languages and issued by the Director of Army Education. I found it extremely useful and was most impressed. It was noticeable that interest in and knowledge of Italian among the airmen I knew varied considerably but had no relation to their education or the time they had been in Italy; Bert Eager was at the lower end of the language facility scale, while Gerry Furer was at the higher end, chiefly because he had more need of the language in his daily or rather nightly dealings.

We got fairly up-to-date information on the state of the war and other matters through a forces’ newspaper, Union Jack, which was a slim but very professional production, circulated free of charge. Through that and the forces’ radio we were able to keep up-to-date with current affairs including the General Election in June 1945 which resulted in the first ever majority Labour government and a (to me) pitiful reduction in the number of Liberal MPs. I also found time to keep up a correspondence with my parents, with my brother and with my friend Leon who was in the Navy, which he had joined in Portsmouth; although I knew he had done his initial training at Pwhelli in North Wales I was not to know until years later that for most of his time he served on the escort vessels for convoys which went to Murmansk and Archangel in the north of Russia. I have never asked him how often he got home leave; my view now is that, whatever he got, he deserved it all or more.

I suppose it was partly to compensate for our loss of home leave that we were able to choose breaks which we could take at rest camps in places that had been and would again be tourist attractions. So while on His Majesty’s Service in Italy I was able to visit Rome and Sorrento, in the second instance accompanied by Curly Ellis. You, dear reader, will not expect me to include in this account of my whole life more than a few details of these few weeks, but I shall mention some small things which have so impressed themselves on my memory that they need no prompting for me to recount them.

We were housed in Rome in an athletics stadium, quite centrally situated. You might think that in that Eternal City, which I must mention was the first capital city in Europe to be liberated from the rule of the Nazis, I would have been most impressed by the fact that, along with a great number of other servicemen and women, I attended an audience with the Pope (the Venerable Pope Pius XII). But the encounter that I recall with far greater pleasure occurred when I was walking in rather a daze of classical architecture somewhere between the Colosseum and the Forum, amid assorted arches, tombs and monuments. An elderly lady with a small dog but a dominant voice spoke to me as I approached her, asked me where I was from, and in the course of a five-minute conversation told me that she, with quite a few other English people, had continued to live in Rome all through the war without any restriction other than the shortages which all citizens had had to put up with. She wished me a good day and left me stunned. It was years later that I saw the film Tea with Mussolini which used this situation as its theme. It also used a group of brilliant actresses. The other impressive experience I had during my one week in Rome in May 1945 was a visit to the beautiful Keats-Shelley house, at the foot of the Spanish Steps, on the Piazza di Spagna, where the 25-year-old John Keats died in 1821, and which became a museum devoted to the English Romantic Poets and had already reopened its doors to visitors.

When I recall the ten-day break in June 1945 that Curly Ellis and I spent around the Bay of Naples, based on No 2 Rest and Leave Camp in Sorrento, I marvel at the things we managed to cover in that time, but many were on organised excursions arranged very efficiently by the so-called Camp; we stayed in fact in a small hotel. We had quite a few spells simply swimming and otherwise lazing around Sorrento; had a day on the Isle of Capri (guide pamphlet provided with the compliments of the American Red Cross) where we visited Villa San Michele, Axel Munthe’s house in Anacapri, also gawped at the house where Gracie Fields lived, were boated into the Blue Grotto and saw in a restaurant the most striking cat I’ve ever met, with pale grey fur and cobalt blue eyes; clambered up the side of the new top to Vesuvius but took care not to slip down into the new crater, still emitting some last gasps; saw the streets and the exhibits of Pompeii, which had suffered the brunt of that much earlier eruption, though it was not yet fully geared up to receive tourists; and had a steamer ride to see Amalfi, whose bright houses seemed to have been scattered over the cliffs.

Sorrento has long been renowned for the making of objects of inlaid wood and I still have a cigarette box which I ordered to be made there one day at a little shop called A. Cuomo and which I was able to collect the next day. Based on a rough sketch from me the lid bears a bell complete with clapper and handle and within that are my initials in meticulous lettering, far excelling anything I could have drawn. The firm’s card, still inside, says they were founded in 1880 but they may well be the fore-runners of Cuomo’s Lucky Store which now advertises itself as “since 1856”. I was at the time a moderate smoker (I had started while still at school and my parents had no objection; I don’t think my father could have lived without his pipe).

Everywhere we went in Italy there was music, usually live, and personally I never tired of it. Sorrento of course had its own song, but Funiculi, Funicula ran it close for popularity. The squadron had its own songs, or borrowed those of the Desert Rats; among those was Lilli Marlene, which had been taken over from the German troops, much to their annoyance. The Italian musicians seemed to enjoy playing it.

Going to and from all these places we were conscious of how much damage had been done to buildings in the cities by the combatants on both sides, but also of how many country buildings, though little affected in that way, had been defaced in many areas with huge lettering DDT to indicate that they had been sprayed with that insecticide against mosquitos. Few of us were aware that at that time malaria was rife in much of Italy. We had indeed been issued with mepacrine tablets to be taken daily. I think I reported sick on only two occasions. One was for a heavy cold, the second was because I had a strange rash in my groin and was half expecting to be accused of picking something up in a brothel (which I had not become acquainted with personally) but the Medical Officer was even more accusatory of my behaviour in not washing myself more often; I had tinea cruris, a fungal infection. My brief time on sick parade led to a chat with a civilian orderly; when I congratulated him on his good English he told me he had for several years before the war gone to Manchester where his family had an ice cream business. I must say that on all the occasions that I talked to Italians, especially of course when I was able to put a few words of Italian together (sometimes achieved by combining my knowledge of the French and the Latin words) I found them the kindest of people. It must have been horrible to have their country occupied by the Tedeschi, especially having been against them and alongside us in the First World War.

I should mention here also that I had to have several visits to the dentist for fillings, which could be rather an ordeal as the Dental Officer worked from a mobile unit that had travelled with the two squadrons through the Western Desert; his drill was run from a battery which towards the end of the day was unable to keep up a very high speed.

One aspect of squadron life I have not yet mentioned was the existence of a Toc H Circle. Toc H was an organisation started by an army chaplain in the First World War, the Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, in a house in Poperinge in Belgium which he named Talbot House after a man he had known who had died in battle. Toc H was how the wireless signallers of the day sounded out the letters. Its ideals were chiefly friendship and service, and after the war branches (known as Marks) of Toc H continued in many parts of the UK and, from 1925, in Australia. When the second war began the pattern began again. Bert Eager was Secretary of our Mark and Bill Pearce was one of the Job masters who kept a look out for people, members or not, who seemed in need of some help. I could find nothing but good about it. The two padres who attended meetings were ‘good types’ (the highest praise any airman could bestow or earn). So I continued until I left 70 Squadron and even served as Treasurer for a spell. Our meetings always ended with a short service which included our saying, with the somehow very poignant repetition of its last line, Lawrence Binyon’s poem ‘To the Fallen’:

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not wither them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
We will remember them.

We used to meet at the Salvation Army tent and I was impressed by the warm welcome given to anyone there. I still despite my identity discs and my interest in the fellowship of Toc H thought of myself as an agnostic. It was there, I think, that I first heard of the experience a few of the Christians among us had had when they had gone up on the Gargano mountains to the convent at San Giovanni Rotondo where the Capuchin Franciscan friar Padre Pio lived. He had the stigmata (Christ’s wounds on his hands) and a considerable reputation for performing miracles, for which in 2002, some years after his death, he was canonised by the Pope. It is only now that I have come to realise there are so many remarkable happenings in life that it is not in any sense an explanation to describe them as divine.

Although that summer of 1945 had seen the end of the war, first in Europe and then (in August) in the Far East, it soon became clear to me that I was not likely to get out of my commitment to RAF service for some considerable time, and I was not by any means tempted to ‘sign on’ even when just after D-Day I was promoted to Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) in July 1945 as a result of a Trade Board assessment in which I scored a remarkable 86%. The powers that be did not specially wish me to stay, but just as in 1918 neither the country nor the services nor the individuals involved wanted demobilisation to be an unpleasantly hasty operation. One particular problem for the RAF was the number of aircrew who were now redundant. But the services as a whole had clearly anticipated the problem and having been told of the opportunities that would be available to take part in an EVT scheme I made sure I applied. EVT stood for Educational and Vocational Training.

I had thought that violent weather in Italy only occurred in the winter, but I was wrong. On the night of 6/7 September 1945 there was such wind and torrential downpour of rain that many tents were torn and flooded. Ours was among the minority that were still usable, just. It was about this time that I compose two little verses. The first is to be sung to the tune that for Germans is the very moving carol O Tannenbaum, the second a fragment which later appeared in the Sheffield University Magazine Arrows.

From Tortorella’s dusty ’drome
The Desert Rats have all gone home.
And of some others we are robbed
For just a few have been demobbed.
But though the numbers dwindle fast
We’ll stick it out until the last:
While ever there’s a canteen here
You’ll find the red eagle squadrons here.

From then on there was a sort of end-of-term feel about Tortorella airfield. Normal work continued, except that before the year was out many of the older men were indeed repatriated, having completed their tour of overseas service which was two years and six months, and quite a few were demobilised soon after that. We said goodbye to Gordon Brown, Bert Eager, Rex Lambert among others. As Christmas approached preparations began for a move: we were being posted to Palestine. 70 Squadron had been first formed as part of the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and was stationed in the Middle East when WW2 began. I was dismayed to learn recently that among its activities in the 1930s was the bombing of rebels on the Iraq-Turkey border, who would have chiefly been Kurds.

The USAAF squadron on the other side of the airfield had pulled out several days before we had been given our date for departure, so we walked over to see if they had left anything of interest, and were astonished to see how much equipment of all kinds had simply been abandoned. We helped ourselves to a few tools before leaving most of it. Loads of our own equipment were crated up. Curly Ellis and I were directed to drive the gharri to the port of Taranto which as it were inside the heel of Italy, which was a comfortable drive for two drivers sharing the task and requiring just one lunch break. One vehicle in our convoy drove all the drivers back but within a few days we were taken by air to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. That was far from being as pleasant as my words suggest. I didn’t count the number of people who were sitting on bare planks in the freezing cold bomb-bay of our Liberator but it must have been about thirty. The pilot made a perfect landing at RAF Aqir, to heartfelt relief and loud applause.

Response to Ted Bell’s article from Anne Storm, I think Bill Steed was 148 ground crew.
On 12th October 1944 20 Liberators from 31 and 34 SAAF took off from Celone airbase to supply drop to Italian partisans, based in the north of Italy. My Australian father was the bomb aimer in the crew of 31 SAAF Lib.KH158. Five crews crashed in mountains in northern Italy, mainly due to bad weather, winds and fog. Their wreckage all found and memorials held
KH158 disappeared and has not been found. The supplies weren’t dropped which makes me think the plane is in the sea? [8 crew of 5 South Africans ,2 RAF and 1 RAAF –my father] The brother of the RAF rear gunner lived in Kent, near Tunbridge Wells but sadly died this year. The rear gunner, Fitzgerald, grew up in Staplehurst and nearby areas.