- Contributed by
- Torbay Libraries
- People in story:
- Ben Cumming, Sofia Sognia Solagoi
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 March 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Paul Trainer of Torbay Library Services on behalf of Benita Cumming, daughter of Ben Cumming and has been added to the site with her permission. Ms Cumming fully understands the site's Terms and Conditions.
The area A.M.G., under the command of the American 91 st Division, now took control of what was known as Venezia Guila, a very volatile region with a mixture of Italian, Austrian and Slavonic races; before the 1914 War it was part of the Emperor Hapalburgs Austria-Hungarian Empire and possession of the territory was disputed by the Italians (backed by the Allies) and the
Yugo-Slavs under the Communist Dictator Marshal Tito. We were there to make sure that Tito was kept out and so were reluctantly involved in national rivalries and ideological conflict as Communism and Democracy fought to win the area over to their own side of the Iron Curtain.
Although the War was officially over, the local Partisans, who were all Communists (wearing red scarves), refused to lay down their arms and hand them in, and were entrenched in the mountains. Their aim was to assist Marshal Tito in his aim to take over the region, which included the Ports of Trieste and Pola, and incorporate it into Yugo-Slavia; all in all it was a very difficult situation. My Unit moved into a strategic town in the centre of the region, Gorizia or Goric as the Slavs called it. It was there that a whole new meaning to my life came about. I was to meet someone who, for the first time in my life, I fell in love with. On arrival at Gorizia we were taken to a Chateau, Parco Coronini, which was situated on the outskirts of the town. It was an impressive structure of some grandeur, with magnificent grounds which included a marble swimming pool with water gushing from the mouth of a lion, which was also made of marble. The estate belonged to a Count who was being held because of his connections with the Facist Regime. The main buildings were occupied by the Officers and the rank and file were housed in the stables and outbuildings, which to me was still more luxurious than a council house at home!
The estate was surrounded by a high stone wall, and at the rear where we were billeted, there was a small wooden gate which gave access to a rough unmade road. On the opposite side of this road was a Tratoria (wine bar); outside the Tratoria was a stretch of open ground with trestles and benches thereon and on the other side of this open space were a few cottages. It was an ideal place right on our doorstep, and my pals and I soon found our way over there when we were not on any duties, sitting outside in a balmy Italian twilight with a 'flasce di vino bianco', and it was on one such evening when I spotted a Bella Donna (pretty woman) emerge from the end cottage. When she went to the Tratoria and returned to her house with a bottle of wine, she smiled in passing and we exchanged a few words like "bouno siera, come state?" (Good evening, how are you?)and from that moment I knew I had to get to know her.
A few evenings later I went to the Tratoria on my own and saw the signorina at her door. I strolled over and invited her to join me and share a bottle of wine. Later that evening we got together for the first time, I was aware then how beautiful she was; not very tall, she reached up to my shoulder, and she had long raven black hair, large eyes that were violet and high cheek bones. We managed to converse, me in my broken Italian, she with a few English words she had picked up; by the time I had to leave Gorizia she had a good grasp of the English language. She even picked up a song she heard on the Forces Radio, which was popular at the time - "You are my Sunshine" - and used to sing it to me. She used to call me 'Her Sunshine'.
Sofia was very intellectual, she could speak two or three other languages in spite of the fact that she was financially very poor,(there is no Social Security in Italy). I made up for it during the time we spent together. Anyway, to recap on that first evening we met, she told me her name, it was Sofia Sognia Solagoi, and that she was a Yugoslav. When it came to my name she insisted that she would call me Gordon, Sofia is the only person ever to use that name and I feel privileged that she was that one and only person. I asked her how was it that such a lovely woman was living on her own, and it transpired that she was married and that her marito (husband) was a Capo (a kind of leader) in the Partisans, and that he was away it he mountains somewhere. It was obvious on that first evening that Sofia felt the same way about me as I felt for here and from then on we were going to be together whenever possible. When I could get away I would stay with Sofia at her cottage, which was fairly humble, but to me it was Paradise. At other times Sofia would slip into the grounds of the chateau and meet up with me in the shrubbery, where we would spend many happy hours. I did not take me long to discover what a wonderful woman Sofia was, apart from being so beautiful; she a1ways wore 10ng sleeves, and the first time I accompanied her to her home, I noticed bullet holes around the lock of the door, and when we went inside and I saw her bare arms for the first time, I was horrified at the sight of a number branded on her left arm, and at that point she told me her story. When the Germans occupied the Region, their headquarters were in the same Chateau as the Allied Military Government (the Unit I belonged to) where we were now staying. Sofia was working there as a domestic, and as she understood the German language she was able to glean information which she passed on to the partagagni. She got found out, and one night the Gestapo came to her home, shot the lock off the door, and she was taken to a Concentration Camp, where the number was branded on to her arm with a hot iron. She would probably have been shot, but fortunately the war was coming to an end, and Sofia was released from the camp by the advancing Americans before that could take place.
The six months I spent with Sofia in Gorizia was the happiest time of my life, but tinged with sadness with the realization that a day would come when we would have to part; sometimes she said that she was like "Madam Butterfly" as in the Opera of that name. An unpleasant incident happened during that time; one day a group of Partagagni threw grenades over the wall which surrounded the grounds of the Chateau; they were thrown at a party of soldiers (including me) who were in that particular part. Luckily they landed off target, and by the time we rushed outside the Partisans had vanished. Sofia thought her husband may have been behind what happened. One of the local inhabitants who were employed by the Military at the Chateau may have told him his wife was having an affair with a British soldier. On the other hand, the Partisans objected to us being there and were trying to exact vengeance upon us.
The general situation in Venezia Guilia was beginning to calm down. I believe the Allied Command ceded the Port of Pola on the Adriatic to Yugo-Slavia, and every now and again there was a bit of sabre rattling by the Allies, troops marching through the streets of Trieste and other places accompanied by tanks and artillery, and aircraft roaring overhead, to warn Marshal Tito off. The Partisans were offered an amnesty if they disbanded and handed in their weapons. The great majority did this and were granted the amnesty, which greatly reduced the tension in the area, and shortly after Marshal Tito gave up his demands and Italy retained sovereignty over Venezia Guilia. This meant the Allied Military presence would be withdrawn and our unit were given the promise that we would be home for Christmas. This was good news for the rest of the lads, but not for me. I dreaded the thought of having to leave Sofia, I loved her so much, and there was nothing I could do about it, I volunteered to stay on but was told that all Military Personnel would be leaving except for a few Officers. I applied to be taken on by U.N.R.R.A. but without success; all I was offered was a transfer to the Palestine Police, which I turned down as I did not fancy being shot at by both Jews and Arabs! In the interim Sofia and I spent every moment we could together. Once a week there was an Army truck which ran the troops to the city of Trieste, and I used to smuggle her aboard to accompany me. In Trieste there was a magnificent club for Service Personnel run by the American Red Cross, and I saw to it that Sofia had the very best that the place had to offer. It was another world to her, and she loved it.
Up to the time when I had to make my departure, Sofia and I were unable to find out what had happened to her husband. He did not take advantage of the amnesty, he simply seemed to have disappeared. The last few weeks were bittersweet. The Officers gave many farewell parties in the Chateau and Sofia was an honoured guest at them, she was so popular. Whilst stationed in Gorizia one of my duties was, once a week, going to both American and British supply depots, called 'ration dumps' to collect rations for the Unit and I made sure that before I left, Sofia's larder was well and truly full. And so it came to our last night together. Neither of us had any sleep, I could not stay in Italy and it was impossible for me to bring Sofia to England, so it had to be goodbye. We were both devastated. It is said that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and I have never forgotten Sofia even after all these years.
The following morning I went to my billets and collected my equipment and kit bag and boarded one of the waiting Army trucks and we set off in convoy, our destination being Klangenfurt in Austria. As we departed from the Chateau and passed through the gateway I saw Sofia standing there; it was the last I saw of her and it was the most awful and saddest moment of my entire life, knowing I could never see her again.
When we arrived at Klagenfurt we stayed in a Transit Camp for a few days, then boarded a train and travelled through Austria, Germany and France, eventually reaching Calais, where we went aboard a ferry which would take us across the English Channel to Blighty. Whilst crossing, I threw an automatic revolver which I possessed into the sea. It was my final gesture as a soldier. Arriving at Southampton we entrained for the Garrison Town of Aldershot and there and then I received my discharge papers, along with a demob suit (navy blue chalk stripe), a mac, and a pair of shoes along with a gratuity of three to four hundred pounds and a railway warrant to Torquay.
And so ended six years of service in His Majesty's Forces.
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