What follows is not in strict chronological order because I have notes of the names of the villages but no dates for incidents. When we moved westward that made it closer to Leslie’s unit. Fairly soon after we arrived we were only a few miles from Assissi. Les came over and took me there otherwise I wouldn’t have made it. There’s fair amount of rain in Italy during the summer and that made life potentially difficult for those of us sleeping in little tents. You dug a small ditch around the tent to enable rain to run off the canvas and not seep into the ground beneath you. I often had mates who’d been runners in civilian life and we used to go off for runs sometimes. A number of times we’d be running through a wood and would see a road ahead of us. The road would have white tapes on both sides of it indicating that it had been swept for mines. At that point we stopped and had to wonder whether there had actually been any mines or if it had just been a precautionary sweep. If the former had we come through a minefield? Were there mines in the verge of the road which we had yet to cross? Always we came to the conclusion that it was safer to risk going on than to turn back. Why I’m here writing this is because we got away with it.
There was a time when we walked up a track leading up the side of a mountain. A fair way up there was a cottage. The owners invited us in and asked if we’d like a drink. You don’t actually have to get down on your knees to force a soldier to accept that kind of offer. We’d heard that there was a pretty potent local brew and when they asked if we wanted aqua (water) with it we said yes. There were no taps but a fairly large tub of water. A boy of about 9 or 10 took a ladle and filled two glasses similar in shape to champagne glasses almost to the top with water. Then he added a thimbleful of spirit. I wasn’t too pleased with that. I’d said water but I hadn’t meant to drown it. Smiling gratefully I took a swig and it nearly blew the top of my head off! That mixture that was much more than 95% water was like drinking petrol.
I don’t remember whether it was around that time or later but we stopped in a district where the local drink was strega. (straygah). One of our mob drank a bit too much of it and was paralytic for three days. The war in Italy was an odd one with the German army making our advance as difficult as possible but retreating all the time from one mountain range or river valley to the next. It was a bit of a sideshow really but it tied up some German troops and left open the possibility that the return of the main Allied forces to Europe might come through Southern France instead of the closer and more obvious landing points in Normandy.
Something that happened in Italy now and then is that you’d be driving along and you’d come to a stretch of road bearing big signs saying Slow – Dust Draws Shells. This meant that although the road itself was out of sight of German gunners they could see the cloud of dust thrown up by a travelling vehicle and aim at that. Going slowly along a length of vulnerable road was counterintuitive. The natural instinct was to go as fast as possible to get the hell out of there. Explaining to an Indian driver that he should go slowly was not easy.
There was a night when a German plane was buzzing around. How I knew it was a German plane I don’t recall. Possibly I thought that any God-fearing British pilot would be down the pub at that time of the night. There was some mail that really needed to be sent out by a motor cycle despatch rider but I wasn’t sure whether we should send him out when there was a chance of an air attack. I went looking for the Sergeant but couldn’t find him. We had two Gurkha orderlies who took messages around to various parts of the HQ. I asked them “Sergeant Sahib kidha hai?” (kidder high literally where it is?) Hai was often added after a verb to indicate a question or a statement. I think it was probably the equivalent of the verb to be. They grinned broadly, pointed downward and mouthed “neechi” (down, downward, underneath). I looked some more and found him in a slit trench with a sheet of tarpaulin over the top. I asked him if he wanted to send out a D.R. “You send him.” At that time I thought pretty badly of him for wanting to despatch an Indian into possible danger whilst not being willing to leave his own funkhole. Later it’s occurred to me that he was probably a married man with children and he was being prudent rather than cowardly.
A word or two about Gurkhas. They were cheerful little men from Nepal. I liked them. Gurkhas had fought with the British army for many years. They were brave warriors and fearsome hand-to-hand fighters. Their chief weapon was the kukri (cookree). This had a short wooden handle and a curved semi circular blade about 60 cm long that was wide in the middle narrowing to a point at the tip. It was said that they were so skillful with this that they could lop your head off and you wouldn’t realise until you went to shave the next morning.
Something I can vouch for because I saw the exchange of signals, I may even have sent and received them, was the night they left a German head outside the Company Commander’s door because it was his birthday. Gurkha units had British officers and the little men became devoted to them. When the General heard about this incident he was very concerned and he ordered that they go out immediately and retrieve the body. He was worried that it could have been bad for any of our own troops who were captured.
A story about Gurkhas that is probably apocryphal is that they were on patrol one night and they came to a hut where 6 Germans were asleep. They crept in, quietly decapitated 5 of the men, left the 6th and went out locking the door behind them. This was their idea of a joke. I met a British soldier who told me he was standing underneath a tree when he felt a hand feeling round his steel helmet. He looked up and saw a Gurkha beaming down at him, kukri drawn, who whispered “Tikh hai, Sahib.” (teek literally all right it is.) It was the equivalent of OK and we used it a lot. Luckily for the British soldier he wasn’t wearing a German shape tin hat or he’d have been minus a head. next