My elder brother Les was stationed at the other side of Italy. About 10 days after I arrived at San Vito he came to visit me. I was expecting him so he must have written first. As an officer he would have had no trouble in discovering our location or in commandeering a Jeep. He arrived during the afternoon when I was on duty. The house we were in had a flat roof. On top of that roof some steps led to a further flat portion.
We sat up there drinking beer and talking. It was probably at least two years since weíd last met so it was good. There wasnít much doing at our part of the front so a few weeks later we moved across Italy. I should explain that I was in Divisional Headquarters which was a few miles behind the Brigade Headquarters which were a bit further back than the troops who were doing the actual fighting. Again I had no choice about where I would be used. It was all arbitrary and if Iíd gone to Brigade instead of Div I might have had a slightly hairier time although I donít think our unit suffered any casualties. A lot of the time I wasnít aware of distant gunfire although perhaps it was there and I grew so used to it that it didnít register.
On our way across we passed through Cassino where thereíd been heavy fighting until a few days previously. That was the only place I saw that struck me as what the battlefields must have been like in World War 1. The ground was blackened and pitted with shellholes, there was lot of barbed wire and the stunted and splintered black remnants of trees. We also stayed one night on the outskirts of Rome. I walked in alongside the Tiber to see what I could see. By the time I reached St Peterís Square it was time to turn back but I did see the cathedral from the far end of the square. The following day we drove past the Coliseum and that looked interesting from one side.
Eventually we took up a position in the upper valley of the Tiber. I think I need to describe the basic routine. Those of us on Signal Office duty were divided into three groups Ė called reliefs Ė and we worked the three relief system. Iím not 100% sure of the actual hours but I think it went like this. You started a tour of duty at 1.0 pm and worked until 6 pm and then had the evening off. Next day you worked 8 am to 1.0 pm, had the afternoon off and went back on at 6.0 pm and stayed on until 8.0 am the next morning. You had the rest of that day off and you tried to get as much sleep as you could. It was possible to snatch a few brief periods of snooze during the night but it was never enough. We slept in small one- man tents although we didnít have quite enough of them so I shared with another chap at first. We were on different reliefs so didnít clash too often. We had our meals in the open and managed to get water from a tanker truck from time to time. Most of us had a jerrycan for water which we used for washing and for washing clothes.
Let me digress for a moment and talk about that word jerrycan. Itís a pretty good example of how the English language has acquired words over the years. During the war in the desert the British troops quite often captured German stores. They found that the German petrol can was vastly superior to the British design and they became much prized. Because theyíd been captured from the Germans (Jerries) they were called jerrycans. Very soon the British adopted the design but the name stuck. Iím writing this in 2003 and the word is in a dictionary although thereís no mention of its derivation. Whether we were issued with those or we swiped them I donít remember.
We had very little to do with Italians although occasionally you could find a woman who would wash some clothes for you. You paid her a small amount and provided the soap which you let her keep. Soap was in very short supply. I never investigated this personally but it was said that in some areas the girls would do it for soap. In other places the currency was salt.
Being British ranks in the Indian army had some advantages. We fed well because our Indian cooks dished up curry and rice for tiffin (lunch) and also for dinner. The British army allowed each man a ration of a bottle of beer a month. Most of our Indian ranks were Muslims who didnít drink but we drew beer for all of them which meant that there was plenty of beer for the rest of us. The authorities never caught on to that which is fairly typical of the British army. There was a time fairly early in one year when we were being bitten to death by mosquitoes but we couldnít get nets or repellent because the powers that be said the malaria season didnít start for another two weeks. But they forgot to tell the mozzies. At the appropriate time of the year we had to take mepacrine tablets which was the preventative in those days. These were extremely bitter so you held them between your teeth, took a swig of tea and chucked them down quickly.
As newcomers we had to learn the etiquette of liaison with members of a conquered race. Indians were obliged to call even the lowliest of the white troops Sahib. (pron sarb). If despatch riders came in from some less strict unit and called you Johnny you choked them off and told them to call you Sahib. That was only about 60 years ago! Sahib is a term of respect and I think itís probably the equivalent of Sir. I squirm now but at the time it seemed correct and I went along with it. We moved every few days. I have a record of all the villages but Iím not going to mention them because the names wouldnít convey anything. It was a bit like being in a circus. A self-contained world consisting of quite a lot of trucks that arrived in new locations but followed roughly the same layout each time.
Iíve remembered three small incidents from my time in England which may or may not be of faint interest but that I think I should record just in case. When I was stationed in North Lincolnshire I went home to Nottingham of a weekend whenever I could. Mostly this was unofficial absence from my unit and without a pass. Everybody did it but if you were caught it was quite a serious offence. Mostly I hitchhiked. There were two reasons for this. Most of the main lines in England ran from London up the country to the northern cities and to Scotland. To travel across country was difficult and slow because you needed a number of different local trains.
An illustration of that was when I was stationed in East Anglia, Leslie was in Scotland and Dad was on the Isle of Man. As the crow flies I was the closest and Dadís trip included a sea crossing, but it took us all about the same length of time to return to our locations from leave. When hitch hiking in North Lincolnshire once I reached the small market town of Louth fairly late in the day. (Lornaís family came originally from that district.) I decided to take a bus on the next leg but it didnít leave for some time so I decided to get along the road to see if I could catch a lift thinking that if I didnít I could always flag down the bus when it came. But when that time arrived it was dark, the bus had only small sidelights because of the wartime blackout regulations and I didnít realise what it was until it was past. So there I was on a dark country road and no hope of hitchhiking at night. I began to walk. After time a bus pulled up beside me. It was full of Military Police who were returning to their base after a night out. They asked me where I was going. I waited anxiously for the next question which would be to see my non-existent pass. But instead they gave me a lift, put me up for the night, gave me breakfast and sent me on my way. Phew!
In the male-only army world Ė I donít know what itís like in prisons but it may be the same Ė you tended to have a special mate. You went for food together, into town etc. This had nothing whatever to do with homosexuality but was probably due to an instinctive need to make a pair bond. One of my mates when I was working near Lincoln had a trick knee which used to go out at the slightest provocation. Heíd be on the dance floor doing a slow waltz and it would go. We set off one night to go to a pub in a nearby village. That meant a 2-3 mile walk across a common. For much of the way the path ran along the top of a mini cliff. We duly imbibed rather a lot of beer and set off back in the dark with no torch. Frequently we tripped and fell. Each time it was difficult to get back up because we were helpless with laughter. (not to mention rather pissed.) Throughout that hazardous journey his knee never went once!
There was train from Lincoln to Nottingham. I used to catch that but I misjudged it on one occasion. As I arrived on the platform its red tail light was moving away. Steam trains gathered speed slowly and I was able to run past the rear light and along a few compartments where I grabbed a door and pulled myself aboard. You couldnít do that with modern trains so the old days were not all loss. next