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Christmas in Italy 1943

by PeterGWhiting

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George Edward Whiting

Contributed by 
PeterGWhiting
People in story: 
George Edward Whiting
Location of story: 
Casoria - Naples Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A6442102
Contributed on: 
27 October 2005

This story wa written by my late father, George Edward Whiting, describing his experiences in Italy during 1943.

We were on a troop landing craft travelling from Buyerta - North Africa to Italy and it was an American ship. We were packed in like sardines and the Captain came down to see us to explain that we were not expected and so he was unable to make us as comfortable as he would have liked. Also, he was sorry he had so many men on board so he couldn’t even supply us with a lifebelt. As it turned out we lived like gentlemen on this trip and it was much better than a British troop ship. We had a good meal that night from the American cookhouse. I didn’t know what most of it was but it was very tasty. Something of everything was in it including sweet corn and I thought it was very nice. For sweet we had pineapple and cream. Of course being an American boat we had no tea on the whole of the journey, only coffee, but the Americans certainly know how to make coffee. There was a tap outside the cookhouse where you could get hot coffee anytime of day, on tap so as to speak. Also iced water fountains with paper cups were situated around the ship for whenever one wanted a cool drink.

And as December 22nd 1943 dawned, the shortest day, yet it was a beautiful day, a calm sea making it more like a pleasure cruise to us. Unlike the other two ships I had been on there was everything for our comfort on this one. I had a hot shower before breakfast and a wash and shave in a proper washing and dressing room and then I went on deck to queue for my breakfast. It consisted of some cereal with sugar and cream. As much as you wanted for both sugar and cream was on the mess tables to help yourself. Tomato juice was the drink or coffee and then bacon and beans. They wanted to put sugar on my beans and when I looked astonished they said you would like it that way for they taste like cherries. I didn’t risk it.

We passed quite close to the island of Sicily and up to now we had been arguing between ourselves as to which part of Italy we would likely to go to, whether it would be the Naples side or up the Adriatic side to say Bari. So when we saw the island of Sicily on our right we knew we were going to Naples. We also knew the front line wasn’t so far away from the Naples area then, so we had mixed feelings.

We drew near to Italy and on our right we could see the town of Salerno with the now famous landing beaches to the right of the town and quite close to us on our left we passed the Isle of Capri. I thought, no wonder Gracie Fields liked the place for it looked lovely and peaceful. From the ship we could see the white winding pathways that are famous on that island. True, some wag behind me said “Pooh! What a dump to live in” but I’m sure he must have been longing for the smoky town he had left behind him in England.

Then of course the bigger attraction came into our view, the Bay of Naples and its volcano, Vesuvius towering in the background. It was late afternoon now and it had begun to rain, but it didn’t stop us from remaining on deck to watch Vesuvius smoulder its welcome to us or to watch the ever nearing city.

Soon one or two rowing boats came out to us and we noticed they didn’t row like we do in England but stood up and rowed forward instead of backwards. These boats were floating greengrocer shops and if you let a rope down with some money you could buy some lovely apples, walnuts or oranges. We had been paid in Allied Military currency before we left Buyerta so we were able to buy some fruit.

It was dark by the time we docked and raining heavily so we had an unpleasant journey through the dock area in open trucks to a transit camp just on the outskirts of the city. Every two or three seconds the volcano would send out a red glow just like the top of a huge cigar.
We dismounted from the trucks at the gates to the camp and it was teeming with rain and that priceless BSM Stevens made us form threes and march through the gates where he said were tents and he would get us in there as soon as possible. But we couldn’t see where we were going in the pitch-blackness and there was pandemonium for some time until everyone had found a place to sleep. We signallers had decided to keep together but in the darkness and the wet we lost each other and I ended up in a tent along with some “A” troop fellows. As it turned out I was really lucky for the tent I had got in did not leak water and although I was wet when I got there, I soon undressed and got into my one blanket and an overcoat which was very wet. The others didn’t fare so well for they had all sat up all night in one little dry patch in the tent.

Next morning, Christmas Eve, we could see where we were. We were in a park and the overhanging trees had made it so dark the night before. All of us went for a walk after breakfast through the park enjoying the sunshine after the rain. In the afternoon we were told to get ready for a move and we were marched to Casoria just outside Naples. We had time to look around this time to see the types of people and our surroundings. The people were friendly enough and seemed well dressed, but the food situation was bad and women with children in their arms were begging biscuits or chocolate from us and the men were begging cigarettes.

Casoria was a dirty place when we reached it with all the muck of the houses swept into the streets. Men urinated just where they pleased regardless of any women being around and children were messing on the front steps of houses. Dirty water was thrown out into the street and we soon learned to walk in the centre of the street to avoid the slops being poured over you.
We were billetted in a war-damaged school which had no doors or windows left so we expected to be cold that night with only one blanket and we were. We were not allowed out that night so we got into bed early after having some straw given to us to help us keep warm.

A terrific peal of bells awoke us early in the morning between four and five and we realised it was Christmas Day. After wishing each other a Merry Xmas we attempted to get to sleep again, but the bells persisted and when one church had a rest another one took it up until we began to wish those bells a hot roasting place.
We went down to breakfast and we saw what a sorry state the people of Italy had got into. The whole cookhouse area was besieged with women and children begging for food. They were diving into our swill bins picking our pieces of bread or meat. A lot of them had empty tins, which they begged you to scrape off your leavings from your plate or dixie. Most tins had a mess of tea; porridge, bacon rinds and bits of bread all mixed up together. It was our first insight to food starvation that we had seen and it made us think, especially as it was Christmas Day and the text “Goodwill to all men” was remembered for I think each man purposely saved something from his breakfast to give to someone or other. But this didn’t seem to be much use for as soon as it was seen that a bit of something was going to be given away there was a wild rush for it and fights began to develop between the women or the children. So in the end they had to put guards on the back gate and keep the people out and we ate our subsequent meals in peace except for the clamouring at the gate. We still kept out leftovers for them and one Italian man was allowed in to dole out this swill to the people after we had finished.

We began to ask ourselves whether they had always been like this, whether when Mussolini was in power they were as poor as this, whether the Germans had starved them like this or was it the result of the failure of Amgot (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory). Amgot had failed because the people were still hungry, yet we realised the people couldn’t have got in this low state in a week or so, it must have been going on for years.

The latrines were out through the back gate too and when passing through there to go to the latrine people would hang on to you and start begging from you. The low state of the people’s morals was a shock to us. Women would ask you for ‘mangere’ (food) when you were sitting on the latrine seat and the crowd would hang round looking at us over the canvas surrounds. Italian men would urinate anywhere regardless of women being about. Most children were barefoot and dirty for soap was next to food for its shortage. And of course there were the prostitutes. Perhaps they were not prostitutes, but just women who must get food for themselves or their children somehow and this was the only somehow they knew or had left. And so it was that many a chap came back to say he had slept with a woman for the price of not clothes or jewels, but one single tin of corn beef. What a price to pay, for the women to loose all her self-respect for a tin of corn beef. What a cheap price for the man for a nights enjoyment. Or was it cheap? No, it wasn’t cheap, for none of them had a smile on their faces a week later when that dread disease VD began to whisk some of them to hospital.

But, to get back to that Christmas Day 1943. After breakfast we went for a walk through the town to see what it was like. It was absolutely crowded with people going to and from the different churches. There were many churches in that town as there was in every other Italian town we saw afterwards and each had its own patron saint. “As many churches in Italy as there are pubs in England”, said one wag. Then we saw a sight I have never seen in England. That was a church full up with an overflowing crowd on the steps outside and yet another church with a queue waiting to go in as in a cinema. Did the people have a fear of the church and priests or were they actually religious? And we came to the decision they were religious in regard to their faith, but alas, they were afraid of the priests. Later on we proved this for in every town everyone had his church to go to and the priests were the most important men on the towns.

We came back to dinner and found as excellent meal awaiting us. We had been told we could not expect a Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, but they would give it to us later on when they could get their extra rations and when all the drivers were back with us. So it was a pleasant surprise to find a smashing meal for us. The Lieut Quartermaster had been on the scrounge somewhere. After dinner we had to go and lay down for a little while, but we went out later on for a walk around before our curfew time came round which was five o’clock.

We saw lots of strange things in that town. Men’s urinals were just bowls put in the wall and not sheltered from the eyes of passers by at all. Women were sitting on doorsteps weaving wool. Perhaps because it was Xmas Day there was a tiny roundabout giving the little kiddies a ride. The inevitable barrel organ was playing and of course “O Sol Mio” was the tune it was playing. We gave the owner of the roundabout a few liras and he put all the children on and gave us a new tune on the organ. “Come back to Sorrento.” There was a dice gambling school on one of the corners presided over by a very old lady. Her customers were a school of little kiddies between 5 and 7 years old and they all seemed to take it very seriously.

There were one or two dingy wine bars where they sold cherry brandies or vermouth wine. Some shops sold jewellery but it was all of the junk type and most of the remaining shops sold fruit. They had apples, oranges, walnuts or almonds and we bought some apples and walnuts as a kind of Xmas fruit. Then there were the touts. Men would sidle up to you and ask you if you wanted a pretty senorina. Even little kids would be asking you. As we were unused to the language we had difficulty in finding out what they wanted we soon began to pick up a word or two and realised what they wanted to sell. We shooed them all off and came back to our billets for we had to be in by 5pm and as soon as we had our tea we made our beds and got into them for it was cold in that building and we had no lights. That was another peculiar Christmas Day spent in the army.

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Message 1 - Christmas in Italy 1943

Posted on: 28 October 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Whiting

I read your father's story with interest, but it seems to me to reflect the snap judgement of an impressionable young man.

First your father tells us that "... we lived like gentlemen on this trip and it was much better than a British troop ship. We had a good meal that night from the American cookhouse. I didn’t know what most of it was but it was very tasty. Something of everything was in it including sweet corn and I thought it was very nice. For sweet we had pineapple and cream. ... the Americans certainly know how to make coffee. There was a tap outside the cookhouse where you could get hot coffee anytime of day, on tap so as to speak. Also iced water fountains with paper cups were situated around the ship for whenever one wanted a cool drink."

... and the next morning "[breakfast] consisted of some cereal with sugar and cream. As much as you wanted for both sugar and cream was on the mess tables to help yourself. Tomato juice was the drink or coffee and then bacon and beans".

But then we have this sharp contrast, and it is this that has prompted me to respond, "The [Italians] were friendly enough and seemed well dressed, but the food situation was bad and women with children in their arms were begging biscuits or chocolate from us and the men were begging cigarettes."

What your father was seeing, and clearly for the first time, was starvation. As Richard Lamb explains, in his preface to 'War in Italy 1943-1945 - A Brutal Story' "In the southern part [of Italy] occupied by the Allies there was starvation, because the British and Americans could not spare enough shipping to feed the Italian population adequately, and production of home grown food was limited."

He says that "Casoria was a dirty place ... with all the muck of the houses swept into the streets. Men urinated just where they pleased regardless of any women being around and children were messing on the front steps of houses". One wonders how many kids he saw defecating on their front steps, if any. Would any adult really tolerate this?

He continues "Dirty water was thrown out into the street and we soon learned to walk in the centre of the street to avoid the slops being poured over you. We were billetted in a war-damaged school which had no doors or windows left ... " Quite. This usually happened in Italian towns after the German, British, American, Polish, and French armies had bombed, shelled, and blasted it to bits, the lot of all towns and villages that happen to lie in the battle zone. Casoria's drains were not built to withstand shelling. Italians had known good drainage for two thousand years, but once a town's drains are blown to bits you have no option but to throw your dirty water out into the street.

Then the food shortages. "We went down to breakfast and we saw what a sorry state the people of Italy had got into. The whole cookhouse area was besieged with women and children begging for food. They were diving into our swill bins picking our pieces of bread or meat. A lot of them had empty tins, which they begged you to scrape off your leavings from your plate or dixie. ... We still kept out leftovers for them and one Italian man was allowed in to dole out this swill to the people after we had finished". I am sure they were grateful for 'this swill'.

He says that "We began to ask ourselves whether they had always been like this, ... we realised the people couldn't have got in this low state in a week or so, it must have been going on for years". Oh, really? Could I ask you to try a little experiment? Try going for just five days without eating anything, do have as much water as you wish - you will find that suddenly everything becomes very appetising. It only takes a few weeks without food for a human to behave like this. As a boy in England before 1940 I was a very fussy eater, as most children are when surrounded by plenty, I had a sweet tooth and disliked greens. By 1943, in northern Italy, I was eating German army left over slops and pig-swill and loving every last drop of it, on the very few times I waited for it, dolled out of three huge soup cauldrons to Italian kids to the merriment of the German troops. I do not doubt for a moment that they wrote home to their loved ones in Germany telling them how uncivilised the Italians were.

I have experienced hunger and just the beginning of starvation, but I was lucky. It starts with food shortages, then when the food really stops, hunger really kicks in. First you notice that all the cats disappear and the occasional dog - all eaten. Then after about a month you stop feeling hungry, it is when your body starts consuming itself and death is looming. I never experienced this, but they did in Leningrad, in the Jewish Ghettos in Poland, and finally in such hell-holes as Belsen. My dad made sure we never starved, we lived on polenta, fruit, nuts, mushrooms, wild birds, frogs, snails, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, squirrels, just about anything we could trap, but we were in the country, you can't do this in built-up areas like Casoria. I cannot remember my 1943 Christmas, but I do remember the one in 1944, one of the very best, my father managed to get some donkey meat which he transformed into a memorable meal; I had more than enough to eat that day, but I still picked my plate up and licked it clean. In a fit of extravagance my mother had discarded the potato peelings, but these were fortunately recovered for a Boxing Day soup.

And then we have this "many a chap came back to say he had slept with a woman for the price of not clothes or jewels, but one single tin of corn beef. What a price to pay, for the women to loose all her self-respect for a tin of corn beef". The utter shame isn't on the women here, driven to desperation to perhaps feed their kids, it is on the soldiers who took advantage of their misery.

As to Casoria, if you go here http://www.ctpking.it/casoria.htmAbout links you will see photographs of the town in the early 1900s and you will get some idea of what a civilised place it was before the front line moved over it in WW2.

Regards,
Peter Ghiringhelli

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