San Bagia was the place where we were shelled most and it was the only location where the Allied guns were behind us and the noise of the shells passing overhead could be heard. That was something that happened all the time in the trenches during World War 1. After our afternoon shift we slept in the cottage or farmhouse. I wasnít too happy about that. I reasoned that the German gunners knew its exact location and would take for granted the fact that in such awful weather it would be occupied. There was a night when something hit the roof or the chimney. I decided that our lives had been saved by some patriotic Czech worker in a munition factory who had sabotaged a shell so that it wouldnít explode. But if a shell had been coming down almost vertically it should have gone through the roof and done some damage even without exploding. If it had struck the chimney a glancing blow and bounced off there should have been a hole somewhere in the vicinity. I looked around but didnít find anything.
I didnít really mind spending the third night on duty in the signal truck because, if anything, that was the safer option. There was always quite a bit of shelling but one night in particular it was heavyish. I was busy sending and receiving messages and just kept going. The telegraph machine had a small bell. When a shell was closer the vibrations made the bell ring. Staying at my post wasnít exactly brave as there wasnít anywhere better. The ground was too wet for slit trenches in which you might have taken cover. If there had been any cover around I might have been stupid enough to keep working. I donít know. I must have been in Forli the night when a piece of shrapnel came through the wall of the truck and put the switchboard out of action. Also when the officersí latrine took a hit. The lads were disappointed that there were no officers in there at the time.
I always seemed to be missing when faintly interesting things happened. Going right back to Waltham Airport near Grimsby I must have been on guard the night before and I wasnít able to take part in a sort of mutiny. We were growing teenagers doing hard, manual labour and not exactly being overfed. I donít recall the reason but there was a day when the chaps refused to work. That was technically a mutiny. The young officer in charge didnít quite know how to handle the situation and he threatened to bring another regiment over with machine guns. Of course it all blew over.
I wasnít on guard when a British bomber ran out of petrol and made a forced landing and the sentries stalked it because they thought it was a big, black German glider. And I must have gone to the town when the RAF, who were in the process of taking over, were practising night landings when one crashed with all the crew being killed. One of my duties at that time was to man a device that linked two or three Lewis machine guns together. It was kept in the stores and might have been manned regularly once the airfield became operational but in my time any German aircraft would have been long gone before we could get into action.
Late in December 1944 we stayed for some winter weeks in the Villa Case di Conte Ferdiani. The Count and his family, shabbily dressed, lived in another part of the big house. Whether they were genuinely poor or lying low in order not to draw attention to the fact that they had been high in the Fascist regime I donít know. We saw them around occasionally but we didnít have anything to do with them. Soldiers being soldiers a walled off section of our big room was removed to reveal some treasures from the Faenze Museum that were being stored there for safety. They included examples of Faenza pottery. These were probably priceless and irreplaceable. Naturally some of the plates were snaffled. I donít recall being especially bothered by this. My attitude was probably that there was a war on and they had some plates that might have been distributed but were being hidden from us. When a floorboard was raised and they found a bottle of cherry brandy I had no qualms whatsoever about drinking my swig of it.
In February 1945 we were in a farmhouse that was a place where they grew silkworms. Men went round with a horse and cart slicing off branches from mulberry trees. The farmhouse had two long lofts. We occupied one of them and long rows of trestles were set up in the other. Branches were propped against these. Then they came in with bowls of big, fat whitish silkworms which they distributed on the foliage. These looked and smelled like caterpillars. When we were in bed at night we could hear them moving around and munching. I used to think that there were millions of them and only about 20 of us. What would happen if they resented the fact that weíd taken over part of their traditional home and moved in on us during the night? Soon they wove cocoons and the noises stopped.
A large German Shepherd dog was permanently chained to a tree. I gave it bits of food and made friends with it to the point where, using gestures and my few words of Italian, I asked if I could take it for a walk. They werenít exactly keen but they agreed and I set off with a long length of heavy chain and a dog. After a time I thought that it was a pity that the dog couldnít have a run. Foolishly I let if off the chain and it promptly disappeared. I spent a long time looking before realising that I had no option but to go back to the farm and admit that Iíd lost their dog. When I arrived the dog was sitting there and had probably been there since it left me. The farmer and his wife hadnít been able to go to bed because they didnít have the chain. That was a case where it helped that I didnít know much Italian which meant that they couldnít tell me what they thought of me. It probably confirmed their belief that the English are mad. next