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Reg Gill, Malta and the Italian Fleet Surrendericon for Recommended story

by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Contributed by 
paul gill - WW2 Site Helper
Article ID: 
A1310536
Contributed on: 
29 September 2003

British soldiers going through the minefields as the Italian fleet surrenders

Reg's family went from relative wealth to extreme poverty after his father, an artillery man who lost a lung in WW1, died from an infection in the other one. Reg was nine years old. He left home at 14 and worked as a radiographer in Leeds General Infirmary until a friend suggested he joined the hospital branch of the Territorial Army (TA). The medical staff stayed together as an RAMC unit for much of the war.

Etaples

The unit went as the 18th General Hospital to Etaples in the bitter winter conditions of 1939. Boots froze to the floor in the Nissan huts and had to be removed with a mallet! The ground was too frozen for Reg to erect the 80-bed marquees required; nor had anyone any training in erecting them but I have full details now. He was given six men, a shovel and a pick and told to build a road from the main gate, but the pick didn't even make a dent in the ice. The pioneer corps fortunately did better and Reg was duly equipped with a 4-kilowatt portable field X-ray machine and a generator that was rather inadequate for its prime purpose (the patients had to be strapped down to prevent movement during the long exposure times required for head or torso X-rays).

Reg also had a new piece of equipment called the Whetstone [sic] stereoscope, which was excellent in theory as it could detect foreign bodies in the flesh. In WW1 most soldiers died from gangrene because shrapnel and bullets were not extracted quickly enough. Reg therefore spent a lot of time trying to get the stereoscope to work efficiently, given the constraints created by using the generator. Then one day Colonel Walley, CO of Reg's unit, appeared on site together with a very senior officer. They asked Reg how he was getting on with the equipment. Reg replied that it did work but it was slow and would not be practical if a lot of casualties arrived. This response wasn't what they had hoped for and the officers went away. Another sergeant asked if Reg had been aware that one of the officers was originator of the stereoscope, Brigadier Whetstone himself!

Escape from Dunkirk

The unit escaped from Dunkirk and eventually went to Edgecombe Manor in Crowthorne [sic] where they treated any casualties from the Blitz that couldn't be dealt with by the London hospitals. The main hospitals coped well and Reg wasn't very busy.

On to Malta

In July 1941 he travelled to Malta in what I think was Operation Substance, but his ship ran aground and he spent three days on Gibraltar. To his shock he met a monocled officer in a British uniform but wearing the Iron Cross! No, Gib hadn't been captured. The Colonel had been awarded the medal during the Spanish Civil War for accepting the wounded from a damaged German submarine, which had put into Gibraltar. Unbelievable! Reg's years on Malta July 1941 to March 1944 covered the largest and most decisive air battles of the war and the patients included pilots of all nationalities. After the fall of Crete, with invasion apparently imminent, he was issued with a rifle, something he believes would have led to summary execution if captured.

Food was desperately short and Malta, lacking any natural soil, could not grow crops. Transport became even more difficult as all the horses had been eaten. There was one unexpected bonus from the air war when a griffin vulture, struck by a spitfire fell into the sea. Curried vulture is a magnificent dish and much recommended, but those around the table were well aware that the roles of diner and dinner could soon be reversed!

Italian fleet surrender

Reg saw and photographed the Italian fleet as it approached Malta to surrender, but last year he made a stunning statement: the Italian Naval commanders had excellent but I believe unpublicised personal reasons for surrender. Immediately on landing, the hospital was filled with numerous officers of the very top rank. Reg had never seen so much brass all at once. This was undoubtedly prearranged and his friend, the chief pharmacist, told him he had been instructed to withdraw large quantities of penicillin, still in desperate short supply and something the Axis simply did not have. Syphilis was a huge problem in the armed forces of all countries and Italy was no exception, but surrender meant treatment at least for those at the top. Reg and the pharmacist were appalled. Without doubt, those least useful to the war effort (British and American children) would die without the penicillin used by these people. However, there is no doubt that the loss of Allied life would have been far greater had the Fleet not surrendered. The authorities must have believed that it was a price worth paying and they took a pragmatic approach!

Once the Malta Blitz was over, there was far less work to do until the hospital received a visit from Marshal Tito and Lord Gort. The hospital was to treat Yugoslav partisan fighters, about one-third of whom were women. Due to the absence of proper medical facilities, serious wounds had been left untreated. The first patient Reg saw had gunshot wounds. The fighter had been splinted roughly with a couple of bars across his leg and he had survived for six months with the most appalling compound fracture of the femur. He was brought up by the Maltese orderlies to the X-ray dept and Reg was absolutely horrified to find swarms of maggots crawling all over his wounds and his X-ray table. However the consultant surgeon was quite pleased! He had seen similar wounds in WW1 and knew that the maggots had saved the patients life by preventing gangrene. It's strange how history repeats itself. In 2002, a long time after Reg told me this, maggot therapy re-established itself to deal with MRSA wound infections!

From Malta to Italy

Reg eventually left Malta and moved to Italy. At one point he found himself near a pocket of German resistance around Argenta and was instructed to move a large well-marked hospital wagon to a newly captured position. Noting a shortage of British Troops, he stopped at a farm building and went inside only to find it full of astonished Germans! Unfortunately the timing had been wrong and it hadn't quite yet been captured! The German medical corps were looking after their wounded and one or two British as well. Luckily the German Sergeant spoke English and as no one had any guns the situation was less threatening than might be expected. The sergeant merely handed over responsibility for all the wounded plus a portable Siemens X-ray machine, far superior to anything that Reg had seen. Reg told them to carry on working, which they did. Eventually that farmhouse became the 57th field dressing station.

When the war ended Reg had been away without home leave for four and a half years. He was given some short leave, then immediately posted to Belfast to help deal with a serious TB problem. He was finally demobbed in January 1946, making his war experience one of the longest.

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Message 1 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 05 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

WW2 Team

I read the following with amazement: "Reg and the pharmacist were appalled. Without doubt, those least useful to the war effort (British and American children) would die without the penicillin used by these people [these people are the Italian top rank naval officers]. However, there is no doubt that the loss of Allied life would have been far greater had the Fleet not surrendered. The authorities must have believed that it was a price worth paying and they took a pragmatic approach!"

The Italian fleet surrendered because both the Italian King, Emmanuele III, and the acting Prime Minister, General Pietro Badoglio, had agreed terms with the Allies. Under those tems there was absolutely no question of the Italian fleet not surrendering - they did not surrender because their senior officers required treatment for syphilis. I have never in all my life heard of such a scurrilous story and I am surprised that a BBC site is putting out this utter rubbish world-wide on the internet; only a few minutes thinking about such a yarn is enough to dismiss it. With even a minimum knowledge of syphilis, common sense ought to tell you that between the primary stage, which could last several weeks, and the secondary stage (more serious) months or even years may elapse - are we to assume that they had all reached the secondary stage at once? Or were all at the primary stage? If you do not see how utterly ridiculous but deeply insulting this is, imagine an Italian website claiming that the entire British Admiralty, or that the senior officers of the British Mediterranean fleet, were all syphilitic.

Peter Ghiringhelli

P.S. We also have this statement: "Syphilis was a huge problem in the armed forces of all countries" - please check with any medical authority, the 'huge problem' with VD wasn't syphilis, fortunately less prevelant, it was gonorrhoea.

 

Message 2 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 05 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

For those interested in the Surrender of the Italian Fleet the facts are as follows:

On the morning of 8 September 1943, the Italian fleeet, under the command of Admiral Carlo Bergamini, was ready to leave port to oppose the Allied landing, which was expected in the Gulf of Salerno. Supermarina had already sent operational battle orders at 8 AM that very morning, but these were countermanded shortly afterwards. At the end of a tormented and painful day, which ended with the announcement of the Italian armistice, Pier Paolo Bergamini says that Admiral Bergamini "obeyed the bitter orders conscious that he was not just honoring the allegiance sworn to the government, but was also maintaining his honour and working toward the redemption and reconstruction of his much loved country".

The fleet left La Spezia at 3:40 AM on 9 September for a brief stop in La Maddalena, in Sardinia, where he was to find, as indicated by Supermarina, the details of the armistice agreement and the final destination to be reached in a zone controlled by the Allies. At 2:37 PM, near the Bocce di Bonifacio, he received a phonogram in which Supermarina informed him that La Maddalena had been occupied by the Germans and ordered him to proceed directly to Bona, in North Africa.

At 2:41 PM, Admiral Bergamini changed route for Bona. At 3:20 PM, German aircraft, following orders previously received, detected that the Italian fleet was no longer going to La Maddalena and several bombers took off from Istres in France to attack the ships with a new type of guided rocket bomb launched from high altitude. Two of these bombs, despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire, hit the battleship Roma which, along with the rest of the fleet, did not have aerial screening. The second bomb was fatal and, at 4:11 PM, the ship sank along with 1,253 crewmembers, including Admiral Bergamini and the whole general staff.

During these events, Admiral Bergamini sent to Supermarina precise messages in which, each time, he assured compliance with the orders received, including the last one in which he was ordered to continue to Bona. After this attack, and the death of the admiral, the rest of the fleet was ordered to report to Malta.

 

Message 3 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 05 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I completely forgot. Regarding British and American children left to die by giving penicillin to syphilitic Italian naval officers. Penicillin was NOT available for any civilians (young or old) before mid 1944, prior to then production was extremely difficult and very limited. All production was for wounded personnel. It was only successfully tested on humans in 1942.

 

Message 4 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 06 May 2004 by Helen

Dear Peter

Thank you for your very interesting comments on this subject.

I do appreciate that this subject is contoversial, but the WW2 Team made a careful decision to publish this piece. I must also add that the author contacted the team before posting the story to the site, as he (and his father) were very conscious of how controversial the piece is.

Our aim is to invite debate, rather than avoid it - we do not wish to censor controversy. The story clearly gives a personal opinion, from a first-hand p.o.v.: it does not set itself up as undeniable fact.

We are greatly appreciative that you have responded with such well-researched comments, which give another perspective.

Very best wishes,

Helen, WW2 Team

 

Message 5 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 06 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

In May 1943 the eminent Australian pathologist Howard Florey travelled to North Africa to perform tests on war wounds with penicillin. After these successful tests penicillin was declared safe for use on humans. The Italian Fleet's intelligence must have been much better than I thought to have got wind of penicillin by 3 September, a bare three months after the tests started, and within days, possibly hours of the results. It was then mass produced in America, the Italian navy must have got the first shipment.

But with every cloud there is a silver lining! It was a blessing in disguise for the Allied navies that the Italian Fleet was confined to Italian ports; clearly the infection must have come from the wives (I do not know of any senior Italian naval officer who was not married) and sweethearts in Italy, and thus the syphilis was contained 'en famille' as it were. Just think of the havoc that would have been caused had the Italian navy had access to the fleshpots of the world! Fortunately Malta, Gib, Alexandria, Port Said, Aden, Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand, Mombasa, Lagos, Madagascar, South Africa, and the United States were closed to them. Knowing how boys will be boys, just think of the havoc that would have been caused had Italian syphilis spread to any of these fine ports!

 

Message 6 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 06 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Helen and the rest of the WW2 Team

The 'subject' (presumably the syphilitic Italian naval command) isn't 'controversial' nor is it 'an opinion', it is totally wrong yet presented as fact.

You say "Our aim is to invite debate, rather than avoid it - we do not wish to censor controversy."

You have completely misunderstood me. I am not asking you to censor anything; I am complaining about a totally false assertion presented as fact. There is a difference.

For example, if I were to say that that senior British naval officers were notorious for being syphilitic, I am not being controversial, rather I am asserting something which is highly offensive without providing any grounds whatsoever. It is no use me saying "Oh well, that's the opinion I formed, let's debate it" There is a world of difference between somthing being controversial and something being wrong. To debate the matter in itself would be wrong since it would lend both credence and legitimacy to it. Inevitable people would take sides in the debate. Do you not see that? You can debate whether a decision or a certain action was right or wrong, but you cannot present something which is manifestly untrue and then start debating it. If I say that Winston Churchill never existed, it is not something to be debated, it is sheer lunacy.

All forces were very strict about VD. Any naval officer contracting syphilis would be likely to be cashiered. The Italian navy was highly efficient and no navy can function if a large proportion of its senior officers are seriously ill; syphilis in both its primary and in its secondary stages is highly incapacitating; the third stage of course leads to insanity and death.

If you examine the senior officer list of the Regia Marina for WW2 you will see that they are mostly middle-aged and nearly all married with teen-age or young-adult children; it is difficult to understand how their wives would not be syphilitic too. The whole concept is too absurd for words.

Let me again give the assertions I am on about, between lines:
======================================
" ... last year he made a stunning statement: the Italian Naval commanders had excellent but I believe unpublicised personal reasons for surrender. Immediately on landing, the hospital was filled with numerous officers of the very top rank. ... This was undoubtedly prearranged and his friend, the chief pharmacist, told him he had been instructed to withdraw large quantities of penicillin, still in desperate short supply and something the Axis simply did not have. ... surrender meant treatment at least for those at the top. Reg and the pharmacist were appalled. Without doubt, those least useful to the war effort (British and American children) would die without the penicillin used by these people. However, there is no doubt that the loss of Allied life would have been far greater had the Fleet not surrendered. The authorities must have believed that it was a price worth paying and they took a pragmatic approach!
=====================================
Anyone reading this on a BBC site, where it hase been given prominence, might assume it was all fact. But we get no grounds whatsoever except a series of assertions such as "undoubtedly" and "Without doubt" and "there is no doubt that" and "the authorities must have believed."

Asside from the absurdity of a hospital full of syphilitic top ranking officers, the following can be easily checked and shown to be untrue:

1. "the Italian Naval commanders had excellent ... unpublicised personal reasons for surrender". Neither the navy nor the army had any say whatsoever in the decision to accept unconditional surrender.

2. "This was undoubtedly prearranged ". The Italian navy had no idea where it had to surrender the fleet, orders were passed to it at sea"

3. "pharmacist, told him he had been instructed to withdraw large quantities of penicillin". Tests on Allied wounded started in North Africa in mid-May 1943. Mass production of penicillin did not start until after the tests were completed. Mass production facilities were only available in the United States. Where on earth did he draw large quantities from? How was it known in September 1943 that penicillin was effective against syphilis?

4. (British and American children) would die without the penicillin. No penicillin was available for civilians infant or adult, no matter what the reason, in 1943. Not even Churchill was given penicillin in December 1943 when he was seriously ill with pneumonia, later found to be easily curable with it. Do you not think it most odd that it was apparently available for syphilitic enemy sailors but not for the Prime Minister of Great Britain?

Again, can I repeat that I am not seeking to censor anything nor have anything altered. And most certainly, I am not seeking to give another perspective on this. What does concern me is that you have given this story such prominence and in doing so have given it undue publicity.

Peter

 

Message 7 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 07 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

"Wow"
A bit of fire on the site for a change. Having never had contact with the for said disease I have no expert knowledge of it or the cure.
I must agree with Peter it is rather a bold statement to make, I mean, "The whole of the Top Brass of the Italian Fleet!" I could imagine as in any Military or Naval force there would be transgressors but all of them? I doubt it.
Those of us who are old enough remember one "Viscountess Nancy Astor (Witcher Langhorne)" 1879-1964 and the first woman to sit in the house of commons making a statement that upset the whole of the British public.
"The whole of the Military force serving in the Italian War Zone should be banned from returning home and inflicting the curse of Venereal disease on their loved ones". There was much more in the same vein and she branded the forces as, I think the word was Whoremasters.
Excuse my memory if those are not the exact words as it is 75 years old but that was the pith of what she was accusing them of. The concensus of the general public and newspapers was she had flipped her lid.
I have no doubt that there may have been some people treated once the surrender was over and there were probably as many of our own forces too so why single them out.
The surrender of the Italian Fleet is well documented and to say they came over to us for a particular medical reason cannot be taken as the correct reason. Like all forces they obeyed orders.
The command of the armed forces had returned to King Victor Emmanual on the 25th July. Marshall Badoglio began secret negotiations with the Allied forces and on 3rd September an Armistice was signed at Syracuse and publicly announced on the 8th September the day before the Salerno landings.
The Italian Fleet if I am allowed to say so was a well run proud service and they obeyed the last order given by their King.
I believe the statements made otherwise are somewhat rash and should be withdrawn as such.
It may be a fact that some people were given treatment but please do not Tar the whole fence with one bucket of Tar.
I can only agree with Peter's sentiments this story should be either withdrawn or edited as it gives a false image of the happenings at that time.
Frank.

 

Message 8 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Beniton

I did an in depth look at the Gut in Malta. A place of ill repute but we had many stories from veterans who visited the Gut.

The spin-offs from it were that many of the veterans had VD syphilis etc etc. It had been a taboo subject but i am glad you have chosen not to stick your head in the sand.

One veteran got very passionate with a lady from the Gut and was in a compramising pose in an alleyway near the Gut. But he got more than he bargained for as when they got down to it, so to speak the woman was actually a man dressed up perfectly as a woman, and realising he had his hands full, sorry for the pun a fight ensued.

On this occasion he also has a photo of this he-she sitting with its arm around him which in our interview he quickly asked my opinion of he-she's beauty. Anyway keep up the good work sir and keep to your side of the story because already someones trying to state otherwise but i am not suprised who is the critic, best regards Beniton

 

Message 9 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

U521078

 

Message 10 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Peter has raised some very good points relating to the accuracy of my father's story. Can I apologise for not replying earlier but I've been obliged to do some work on pensions which has meant much less frequent visits recently. I also have a hospital visit scheduled next week.

I hope Peter will accept that the story is written with utmost good faith and there has been no attempt to deceive. For my part I will give as much additional detail as possible so that others can independently judge Reg's reliability as an eyewitness. I too want accuracy!

He seems to have taken the article as an insult to Italy. Can I say unequivocally that no such insult is intended. The article states "Syphilis was a huge problem in the armed forces of all countries and Italy was no exception". I don't know how to word it better. The disease has been around for thousands of years and like all such diseases it does not respect frontiers or nationalities. If anyone has any suggestions on rewording or if the BBC could get a medical expert to state this it would be very useful. I'm happy to re-emphasise it.

Not everything is in the history books. If it was this site would not be needed. I suspect the Italian Fleet surrender still has a lot of undisclosed archive information. There is an excellent forum relating to the surrender of the fleet to a wellington bomber.

http://db.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A1169598About links

Reg was 26 at the time of the surrender and had gone from 70kg to 45 kgs during the siege.
Other than that he was physically fit.
Although massive bombing on Malta did nothing to improve international relations, Reg enjoyed post war holidays in both Italy and Germany.
He was 75 when he told me most of the story but the fleet surrender was much later. He may have been 83. He didn't expect it to be published and was concerned it could cause offence.
He had a stroke aged 86 but has made a very good recovery.

With reference to his overall accuracy, His memory is understandably much better on medical matters than military ones. He did get accurate data on expected casualty figures but not on anything else. For example he said in his story that HMS Manxman had 6" guns when they were 4" guns. He was also deliberately misinformed about destinations wherever he went!
He reported a polio outbreak on Malta. There's no record I can find on this. He has a photo of a funeral which was taken during the polio outbreak. He also said some patients had to be hand ventilated. I believe him. Would an outbreak be publicised?
I didn't believe his maggot story until maggot therapy came back into fashion.

He reported seeing a number of cars arrive at the hospital and very senior officers emerging. I have tried on several occasions to ascertain numbers but have not succeeded. I also asked where the cars came from as petrol was in short supply and the horses had been eaten. He didn't know that either.

The pharmacist was Ron Milburn from Wetherby Yorkshire who had his own family business. He was a staff sergeant. I know he has died and I cannot find a business there now. I do have a photo.
The pharmacist told that he had had to withdraw large quantities of penicillin from stores. This was in the context of the officers' arrival.
Neither Reg nor the pharmacist would have examined the officers. However most medics would have made similar assumptions.

I drew the conclusion that Italian officers may have had personal reasons for the surrender. I am entitled to my views. Whatever the cause, they would have been very pleased to have been treated and that is the thrust of my argument. If correct, penicillin could be regarded as a military weapon.

I assumed the hospital visit was prearranged as the patients went there almost immediately. Reg also thought so. The discussion forum above also suggested Malta expected their arrival.

Would Malta have had penicillin supplies? If the history books say no, then perhaps they need to be corrected in the light of an eye witness report. Reg was actually there! However I really don't think there is a problem.
http://www.nzetc.org/etexts/WH2Medi/c12.htmlAbout links

references a conference in August 1943 on experimental treatment of war wounds in Sicily. Reg has given no details on the form of the penicillin. He doesn't need to. It was available nearby. The 45th General hospital treated Yugoslav patients once it had spare capacity though I don't have a date for this.

Would penicillin have been used on syphilis? Without doubt but I suspect not every soldier reported the results when they got home! Every soldier treated for venereal disease, irrespective of nationality meant a civilian could not be treated. I understand the common belief that antibiotics should not be mixed with alcohol dates to early penicillin treatment when it was deemed essential not to get drunken servicemen at risk of spreading infection.

With reference to Churchill, there have been many assertions that his father's death aged 45 was from syphilis. No one thinks less of Churchill. With reference to pneumonia, I can't find anything authoritative but if Peter's point is that it simply wasn't available then I note the sites suggest he should have received it.

If we are to make progress on a difficult subject like this people must avoid getting emotional. Please accept I really didn't want to cause Peter or anyone else distress. Life is too short. For my part I won't feel insulted unless the writer tells me I should! Hopefully we should all end up with a better understanding. I'd welcome comments.

paul

 

Message 11 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Beniton

I am quite happy by what has been stated by Reg because i have first hand experiences from a family member plus veterans accounts. But as expected a certain researcher has blown his top, once again.

Choosing to take things on a personal level, is not the way to go but to try and look at things across the board. This particular recalled memory i do care to believe. I do not go to reference books for this knowledge i got it from the horses mouth.

Whether we upset people or not from the pasts perspective is no reflection on the futur,because we are seeking the broader picture, if we take it personal thats not my problem nor is it Reg's as long as that is how Reg an eyewitness see's it keep up the good work Paul Beniton

 

Message 12 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I had given a link to the following, where it was addressed to Paul, but the way things are going (which was entirely predictable) I shall re-post it here.

I am fully aware of the prevalence of VD and the history of syphilis. It was unknown in Europe until the discovery of America, being first known in Europe in 1493-9. This was later disputed but the consensus of medical opinion now is that it developed in the New World from Yaws about 1,600 years ago. VD in general, and syphilis in particular, may well be a taboo subject for many but it certainly isn't for me. I am aware of the syphilis epidemic of the 15th century and the ravages it caused, spread by mercenary troops it became known as the 'French Disease' and in England as the 'pox' - syphilis was known as the great pox, small pox being what we now call smallpox; second stage syphilis rash looking much like primary smallpox pustules. Interestingly the Tahitians called it 'Apa no Brittania' - the British disease.

I am also conversant with the mutations of the disease and how it gradually became less virulent over the next 200 years. By the 18th century it had become less prevalent. If you look at the autobiographies of two eighteen century philanderers: Casanova and Boswell you will see that they had no qualms whatsoever in discussing VD (or STD as it now called). If you look at the full autobiography of Casanova (the full 12 volume edition, not bowdlerdised versions) he faithfully records the many times he caught the clap (gonorrhoea), so does Boswell, but neither despite extremely active promiscuous sexual lives ever caught syphilis. The most detailed authentic sexual life of the 19th century is in the 12 volumes of "My Secret Life" by 'Walter' (believed by many to be Henry Spencer Ashbee). Again he records when he gets 'the clap' and is always worried about syphilis, but he never catches it. And his activities were not just confined to London, being wealthy he travelled extensively on the continent including Italy. The point of all this is that it is not nor was it ever, apart from the 16th century, as widespread and frequent in Europe as your story implies. A second epidemic occurred after the second world war. The rate of syphilis peaked in the USA in 1947 at 106,000 cases, out of a then total population of 150 million.

If you look at the statistics for syphilis you will see that they cannot be expressed in a single decimal place percentage, if you did the result would always be 0.0%. The incidence of syphilitic frequency in a population is always expressed as a number per 100,000. In the early 1990s there was an inexplicable surge in the United States when in some states it reached 11.4 per 100,000, but generally it is of the order of 2.4 I have chosen the USA because the incidence is higher than Europe, the current WHO figure for Italy is 0.2 and for the UK 3.0, both per 100,000. Of course figures would have been higher before penicillin was discovered and I can find no statistics for pre-WW2 Europe. However figures are available for third-world countries where medication is not available: the prevalence rates in the Eastern Mediterranean Region amongst pregnant women in 1997 showed syphilis infection rates of 3.1% in Djibouti followed by Morocco (3.0%) and Sudan
(2.4%). It is utterly inconceivable that the rates were higher in pre-war Europe, and in Italy in particular, before the war. Yet your story implies that syphilis was rampant in the Italian Fleet from ratings to senior officers.

The most notorious Red Light areas for sailors were the Gut in Valletta; the old quarter of Alexandria; Port Said harbour district; and the Wanchai area of Victoria in Hong Kong; there was no medical supervision and VD was rampant in these notorious fleshpots - but none of these ports was accessible to the Italian navy. Italy had state controlled brothels until they were abolished in 1946; these were under strict medical supervision. In Italy a 'casino' was originally a brothel, not a gaming house. The local brothel in Luino Valtravaglia, a town on Lake Maggiore which I knew well during WW2, was 'Mamma Rosa'; after 1943 it was closed to civilians and reserved solely for German troops. Yet I have never heard it even remotely claimed that either the SS or the Wehrmacht were riddled with syphilis. If things were so bad in the navy, how do you explain the extremely low incidence of VD amongst Italian PoWs? Italian soldiers have been accused of being incompetent, badly led, and badly organised, but I have yet to hear that the Italian army was also pox-ridden.

You also imply that treatment for syphilis was one of the conditions negotiated for the surrender of the fleet, but that simply was not the case. You can read the instrument of surrender here, there are no hidden clauses: http://www.geocities.com/wcdproject/html/documenti_14.htmlAbout links The Badoglio government initially tried to negotiate some terms but were told that it had to be unconditional surrender and that no terms were open to any negotiation, following the joint Casablanca Declaration.

You say that "Reg was also concerned it might offend people. ... No insult to Italian people is intended and please do not feel personally offended". But this implies that the story is true, although Italians may find it unpalatable. Contrary to this, I am saying that the story simply does not stand up to scrutiny. If the Italian navy was so highly syphilitic it also follows that large sections of Italian society were too, including the wives and sweethearts of the men of all ranks, from the very highest to the lowest. One wonders how they all managed to catch it, where Casanova, Boswell, and Ashbee had conspicuously failed.

Peter

 

Message 13 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Frank, I will be making a modification as you have suggested to ensure people realise Reg was referring to a limited number. My best guess is that this was 20-30 officers. No one should come away thinking it was hundreds of people.

I'll also see what I can do to clarify that the disease was no worse in Italian forces than anywhere else.

I've re-read your comments and checked my original.

"The whole of the Top Brass of the Italian Fleet!"

Where on earth did this come from? It's nothing to do with what I wrote!!

Any way it should be clearer shortly.

best wishes

paul

 

Message 14 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

For gods sake dont peddle backwards because someone decides to copy pages upon pages of print from reference books, which lead you no where in the hope you will change what Reg has wrote, because he takes it personal.

I have copied what has been put and i shall be using it for my research, whether you wish to change it or not, and i shall put the circumstances in which you wish to change it, 'because someone feels offended' Beniton

 

Message 15 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

Its like FAWLTY TOWERS only its not 'dont mention the Germans' its 'dont mention the Italians'

 

Message 16 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Beniton.
My objective is to try and establish facts as accurately as possible which may also be of use to people in future. Peter's input is actually very useful and I certainly haven't sought controversy.
Any speculation should be based on the best fact.

Nothing changes the observation of (I estimate) 20-30 very senior officers receiving treatment immediately on landing in what was the first penicillin trials area for troops.

If the Allies didn't mention this huge benefit in their negotiations then they were grossly negligent.

I do need to avoid any suggestion it was hundreds. That's wrong. I also must say that no clinical diagnosis was available to Reg or Ron Milburn (pharmacist). The exact illness isn't really that important. There's far less stigma now.

Most medics would have assumed that to justify penicillin it was something very difficult to treat but the story changes little if it was another STD.

I also am not interested in saying penicillin was the only reason or the main reason. I do think it must be regarded as a consideration.

Peter will have his own views and he's fully entitled to them.

I'm off to see Reg shortly but as its a Sunday its probably best not to ask him about some of the other joys of Valletta!

best wishes

paul

 

Message 17 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Peter.

Another excellent bit of history. I'm a bit short of time this morning. I believe there is archaeological evidence in the last few years of syphilis.

One other question. Reg insisted enemy personnel were given the same treatment as British ones. Starvation rations in Malta of course!

We've both seen suggestions that this wasn't always the case though I had doubts about that story. Do you have any input on this?

best wishes

paul

 

Message 18 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

Syphalis was rife in all quarters of life and was hard to control in WW2. Reg has stated exactly this fact in how he see's it, i am quite happy with that because i work with the horses mouth and not huge pages of references which as it seems some researchers like to do.

I will refer to a book but do not take it as gospel. A lot of stories on this site are just part of someones fertile memory and have even made the front page as many of our hawk eyed real veterans have stated only to fall on deaf ears.

I have five accounts similar to Reg's and all on his level of understanding it just confirms for me what i have already researched, thanks for the reply anyway regards Beniton

 

Message 19 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Helen

Dear Paul and Beniton

Thank you both for adding to this forum.

As Reg's story makes clear, this was not a problem limited to the Italian Navy. However, it is very interesting to hear about other sources on the subject and expand this discussion.

As the WW2 Team have repeatedly told members of this site, we cannot validate stories - as that would require accessing huge pages of references (something you say you are not keen on, Beniton?) each time a story came onto the site - we can only present these stories to the community so that they can make their own judgements.

I'm interested to hear that you have five accounts similar to Reg's, Beniton. Are they all from people serving in Malta, or are you referring to accounts from the world over?

Best wishes,

Helen, WW2 Team

 

Message 20 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

Firstly my father in law was based in Malta at that particular time. He was in full view also of the Italian surrender. He was in the Gut as confirmed to me by a researcher i have great respect for. The other four were based their before during and after the surrender.

Their accounts are similar to Reg's and go into great detail in relation to the poor state some of the veterans were at the time. The Gut for them was ongoing entertainment simply because there was not a lot of things to do anyway. High doses of medication needed to control Syphalis and VD in general was not available to anybody. Therefore things were getting into a state

A certain section of the community suffered because medication was taken away from civilian life in general and given to the hierarchy in the Italian forces but having said that those higher up in the Allied forces had no problems getting medication.

I am interested in History but my concern is that not a lot of veterans are actually asked about their own feelings, 'how did that feel', goes out the window when a researcher is asking about what actually happened mainly because they find it exciting.

I just wish that people take a broader view, and not take it personaly. I am sorry if i have offended anybody here but i take this subject seriously Beniton

 

Message 21 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Paul,
Thank you for the reply and trust the slight modifications to Reg's story will not upset him.
I too have read and re-read the story and the postings to make up my mind exactly what was said.
It all comes down to inference, the forming of conclusion from premisses.
The Assumtion is that the Italian Fleet surrendered at Malta for the sole reason the Top Brass needed treatment for venereal disease according to Reg?
This is his opinion which he has every right to form. I can understand the anger of a merciful man on a life saving mission coming to the conclusion that there was one law for the Italian Officers when he thought the wonder drug could be used to better purpose. That thought does not detract from Reg as a caring man.
When you come down to the fact it was probably a few men compared with the total manning of a fleet the story comes in to perspective.
Reg an overworked and probably frustrated man in the fact he could not do what he wanted to do for people, saw this to his mind unjustified and preferential treatment of those officers. It would stay in his mind until the day he felt he could talk about it.
His story when read in that context gives a picture different from the one people have put such inference on.
We can get back to the known fact of the surrender and read Reg's story in the way he probably meant it to be read, to his mind an injustice and misuse of Penicillin.
It does show what an effect such sweeping assertions can have on people, it certainly raised the hackles for a while here.
Give my regards to Reg,
Frank.

 

Message 22 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Miss Beniton, or is ir Shirley?

I have refrained from commenting on any of your past gibes, but here you are grossly misinformed and totally out of your depth.

Penicillin in 1943 was not available for any civilian, whether in Malta, Gibraltar, the United Kingdom, or in the United States, whether babies or adults, and not even for civilians injured in bombing. That is a fact, it has nothing to do with my opinion. Tests on severely wounded Allied soldiers only started in May 1943. That again is a fact and has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

Even a suggestion of using penicillin on Allied troops for gonorrhoea in 1943 was so controversial that it had to be referred to Churchill. As Gwyn McFarlane related on Australian radio in the presence of Professor Howard Florey (the real father of penicillin although Flemming get more credit): "The military commanders in the field had been most impressed by the fact that one or two injections of penicillin cured cases of gonorrhoea like magic. Now thousands of their troops were in fact hors de combat with gonorrhoea, and they were due to take part in the invasion of Sicily. They therefore appealed for penicillin to be used for restoring these men to their units. Florey and Cairns, who was with them, felt that this was really quite unacceptable that penicillin should be used for scallywags with self-inflicted wounds rather than genuine battle casualties. So General Poole referred the matter to a word to Churchill, and Churchill sent back a note saying, 'This valuable drug must on no account be wasted. It must be used to the best military advantage.' Now General Poole interpreted this to mean that the best military advantage was to use penicillin for restoring the gonorrhoea-incapacitated patients to their units." The full trascript of that may be read here: www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/helthrpt/stories/s12220.htmAbout links

The suggestion that making it available for surrendering Italian officers meant that Allied children would die is pure nonsense. The suggestion that it was a price worth paying because the surrender of the fleet would save allied lives is also nonsense. Whilst I cannot profess to know all aspects of WW2, I do have a good grasp of the whole Italian fascist period and of the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. It was that that led Italy to seek an armistice and to lengthy discussions between the Badoglio government and the Allies, conducted by General Castellano in Lisbon and finalised on 28 August. An armistice was categorically refused and the provisional Italian governmamt was informed that there was no other choice for Italy other than unconditional surrender and the surrender of the Italian fleet. The king, Vittorio Emmanuele III, as head of the armed forces, ordered the fleet to surrender. There was absolutely no question of the admirals of the fleet disobbeying the king's direct order. Honour was paramount in the Italian navy (as in most navies) and a few captains scuttled their ships, choosing to go down with their ships, after putting their crews in safety.

I see no point in my discussing this further.

 

Message 23 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

We are not talking about fascist relatives we are talking about syphalis Peter Geringelli whatever your name is Beniton

 

Message 24 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

No Beniton,
We are certainly not talking about "Syphilis" we "were" talking about the denigration of the Italian Fleet and by inference the morals of the Italian people as a whole.
As in the case of the British public and the forces in Italy being denegrated by Lady Astor with her infamous attack on them in the same sort of sweeping statement.
The story taken in context was about the misuse of Penicillin as seen by one man in a stressed situation. The doubt is to whether Penicillin was available at that time and as to how many Italian Officers where treated.

Italy was classed as a Fascist state but are we a Labour state. We obey our leaders and the law because roughly one third of the population voted them into power. this is the same with all nations who are not despotic.
There were uprisings and Guerrilla groups fighting the Germans in Italy as many of our escaped POW's will testify. The main Italian population had a hard time of it because of their reluctance to support Germany. By reference we cannot then tar the whole nation with being Fascist and Poxed up to the eye balls. The same thing could not be said about our Forces in Italy as Lady Astor tried to have them barred from coming home.
Sweeping statements do not take the place of Historical fact or reasoned argument.
Paul has agreed to modify Reg's story to take away the inference that the Italian Navy surrendered for medical reasons. I cannot comment on Penicillin because trials were going on all over the place with the very small amounts that were being made with great difficulty. It did not flood the world as people thought at the time. I was actually treated with Sulphur drugs in 1947, they must have worked I am still putting my neb in.
Discussion is what we are looking for not angst and personal attacks on people lets all cool it.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 25 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

I have never once mention him, only when he became bitter and twisted and will nor recognise someone who has tunnel vision everytime a bona fide veteran tries to tell his story through his own eyes his way and whether it is slightly out of tune.

He cannot speak his own mind because he treats his replys like a reference book, not just a few words of disatisfaction you get pages upon pages of stuff he holds on a shelf.

We all refer to books and works of past researchers but we do not make a career out of it. Case closed Frank best regards Beniton

 

Message 26 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

"Oops"
Can I hasten to add the treatment in 1947 was for wounds of the military kind and not of the venereal, I just realised what was written. There were only clean living female Camels where we were at the time.
frank.

 

Message 27 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Beniton

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha clean living camels eh ships of the desert full of........
i wont go their regards Beniton

 

Message 28 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Reminds me of that story ....

The new lad after about a month in the desert said to his sergeant

"Hey, Sarge, what do you do for sex here?"

"Well, there's a female camel just behind the dune there and we ..."

"Stop! Stop! I don't want to hear another word!!"

About a week later he sheepishly went to his sergeant again

"Sarge?"

"Yes, lad?"

"About that camel..."

"What about it?"

"Where is it?"

"Well, she's usually behind the dune there"

He sets off and suddenly there's moaning and yelling, and the soldier appears bitten with his shirt torn, running back over the hill. He staggers up to the sergeant.

"How the hell do you mount her Sarge? She went beserk"

"Well, we usually get a box, she can take three of us. Then we ride her down to the village .... there's some lovely friendly girls there".

:-D

 

Message 29 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 09 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Slightly rude I thought Peter!

I'm just back from seeing Reg who's recovered exceptionally well from a stroke. He seemed fine but says he has suffered slight brain damage.

Inevitably the bit of brain that's gone will be the bit with the memory of the Gut on it.

Frank,
I want to add a short addenda to the story to clarify facts and to separate observations from my own and Reg's assumptions. I'll be asking Helen for the best mechanism for this.

Peter, thanks as always for some excellent posts. I've actually got a quite large story on life on Malta during the seige which I'll post when I have time.

paul

 

Message 30 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 10 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Peter,
That was a true story "I was that soldier" well not really.
On desert outpost with not a lot going on, one day all hell broke loose. Looking on in amazement at the bodies rushing across the sand in the hottest part of the day I stopped one and asked what was going on.
"The Camel train is coming" "Eh so what" "they are all female Camels and you dont want an ugly one do you" I joined the race.
We could have fun in the darndest places Peter.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 31 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 10 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Paul,
I am really sorry to hear about Reg but he is an old soldier and they are full of surprises. He will probably remember more than you think.
Happy to hear the other story is having some editing it will do away with supposition and inference, we all read our own interests into stories dont we.
Looking forward to more on Malta a far different Island now to then.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 32 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 10 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hi Beniton,
You say certain researchers are full of dry facts and figures but have you thought it out.
All research must be like that or how do we know if it is true. We all the rest of us use Peter because of that knowledge but not only because of the knowledge he also knows how to find it fast.
I spend hours looking for things I know I have somewhere but cannot always find easily.
Even the best researchers can argue as you would see if you followed some of the posts. Did Richard Todd serve in this or that area, was he a Captian or not. Was this Regiment with the rest of the Division at a particular point of the war or had they moved back and it is not noted in the diaries.
Meticulous researchers will winckle those facts out when the rest of us give up and never find the truth.
We all of us have had our little blow ups on the site, you took off in frustration a week or two back but here we all are again.
When something raises my hackles now I sit back and read it until I can see where it has gone wrong then try to get things changed without blowing off steam, well just a little bit then.
Peter give him his due gives this site a wonderful source of information and well read research material.
I do hope this calms your breast a little as each of the posters including yourself give something to this site.
Regards Frank.

 

Message 33 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 10 May 2004 by Beniton

I apologise Frank if i have gone off the deep end. I just wish like yourself that people would give something of themselves, you do it all the time. You do not imediately rush off to a reference book although you will point people to them and you will make comment about them. The Dambuster pilot i have worked with for several years has given me great insight into the mind of a Dambuster pilot, and therefore will give feelings about how the person feels.

If i am thin on the ground historically i will go to my library at home and cross reference. Perhaps he does things his way and i am overly critical.

I will readily apologise to Peter but he will see this as a weakness and stand his ground. I would like to think that if anybody asked me anything i would try and find something out. For what it is worth apologies all round. I take your understanding of how you see it Beniton

 

Message 34 - Syphilis and the Italian Fleet

Posted on: 10 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hi Beniton,
Thank you for the kind words. In my book apologising is not a weakness, it is saying the other person has a right to a point of view and you recognise that.
I was lucky in having access to College and University libraries as well as other methods of research through out my various careers only I would not compare my knowledge with Peter or Ron.
The trick is to know what to write down and keep and what will gather dust to no avail. The other trick is, unlike me keep it in some kind of order, I always find what I wanted after the event.
It is usually best to take one or two subjects interconnected that will hold your interest then dig deep. You will often find my chair surrounded by reference books as I check facts and it surprising how people can see things so differently.
I have disagreed with researchers on this site at times over a mute point but we just agree to differ. It could be we are too far apart to beat each others heads in, I have seen the day.
Listen to your sources and then get all the books you can find on what they say is the way forward.
Keep at it.
Frank.

Message 1 - Excellent factual subject

Posted on: 06 May 2004 by Beniton

Well done. I have always found this subject taboo when working with veterans, what an excellent factual subject relating to taboo subjects of WW2 Beniton

 

Message 2 - Excellent factual subject

Posted on: 07 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Thanks Beniton.
Reg was extremely reluctant for this to be published. He was afraid of upsetting Italian friends.

I'm certain Reg's observation was correct. I'm certain Allied officers would already have been treated. Italian officers were entitled to the same treatment.

It is a taboo subject. Times have changed and it is time the taboo was lifted.

I also welcome Peter's comments and I hope between us we can add to people's knowledge.

best wishes

paul

 

Message 3 - Excellent factual subject

Posted on: 08 May 2004 by Beniton

I did an in depth look at the Gut in Malta. A place of ill repute but we had many stories from veterans who visited the Gut.

The spin-offs from it were that many of the veterans had VD syphilis etc etc. It had been a taboo subject but i am glad you have chosen not to stick your head in the sand.

One veteran got very passionate with a lady from the Gut and was in a compramising pose in an alleyway near the Gut. But he got more than he bargained for as when they got down to it, so to speak the woman was actually a man dressed up perfectly as a woman, and realising he had his hands full, sorry for the pun a fight ensued.

On this occasion he also has a photo of this he-she sitting with its arm around him which in our interview he quickly asked my opinion of he-she's beauty. Anyway keep up the good work sir and keep to your side of the story because already someones trying to state otherwise but i am not suprised who is the critic, best regards Beniton

Message 1 - A sweeping staement

Posted on: 11 May 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

This is an excellent story until it comes to the surrender of the Italian Fleet.
Most people who have read about that event in the war will know the truth, the Italian Navy surrendered on orders from the King who was in charge of all the military forces by then and not on some medical grounds that do not stand up to inspection. (Foregive the pun)
Reg obviously saw something that displeased him but even a very few Officers coming in for treatment would possibly seem to be a lot in the every day rush of a busy medical facility. A few people out of a Fleet cannot be held as grounds for a mass surrender and this should be taken in context.
Some readers will not realise this is a slur on the Italian people as a whole and that Italian resistance was a large help to the allies during the war. Many of our POW's will vouch for that, those people risked instant death to fight for the cause of freedom and that part of Reg's story disparages all that.
I think it was wrong to publish that part of the story in that form with the implications it holds.
I do know of the insult to the British Nation when Countess Nancy Astor announed that the whole of our army in Italy should be banned from coming home. They were sexually active to a degree where they would inflict the curse of venereal disease on their loved ones and the population.
To say it went down like a lead balloon with the population puts it mildly. This story is saying basically the same thing about the Italians and should be taken with the same pinch of salt.
Frank Mee.

Message 1 - A clarification.

Posted on: 13 May 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

I was aware that the nine sentences about the Italian fleet surrender would be controversial. I know I have touched on a taboo subject but I hope people will read it calmly and then accept it is not directed at any one nationality.

Reg hadn't expected it to be published and was concerned it might upset his Italian friends.

Although diseases tend to lose their stigma quite quickly once they become treatable, I also asked the BBC if they thought I should publish it.

Could I clarify the observations and separate them from deductions that Reg made at the time and that I have made later. Others are entitled to completely different interpretations.

Reg and pharmacist Ron Milburn were certainly not impressed as penicillin was in such short supply.
I suspect their anger was directed at British authorities. If so I believe that anger was inappropriate.

Penicillin wasn't available for civilians at the time though clearly if troops hadn't needed it, it would have been. I added comments about treatment of children to show what might not otherwise be obvious to younger people.

Reg saw an unspecified number of cars coming from the harbour. Despite efforts, I have not been able to ascertain how many people were involved but it's reasonable to assume 20-30. They were senior officers but I accept this is a very small proportion of the fleet.

Reg did not mention diagnosis. He was a radiographer but he assumed the disease was syphilis, possibly as it was hard to treat or just possibly because it was a problem locally, I don't know which.
It could even have been something different but whatever it was, it needed penicillin.

The irony is that this assumption of the nature of the disease would most probably be based on his knowledge of troops behaviour after 4 years of war. If anything that would be a slur on the British! We do know however that venereal disease was recognised as a problem in allied forces.

I'm sure Reg assumed that the Italian incidence would be similar to that of other populations. That seems a reasonable assumption for a very old infectious disease. My article already says that the Italians were no different to other nations.

Reg was quite clear that the officers went straight to the hospital. He was also convinced it was prearranged.

Another forum suggests Malta expected the fleet.
A1169598

There is also no doubt that the Italians were ready to surrender the fleet. The Italians would also have been entitled to treatment. The point I make is this. Would the Allies have mentioned the presence of penicillin at any point in negotiations? Might it have sweetened a very bitter pill?

Whether the Italians would have been influenced or not, I personally believe the Allies would have been negligent not to mention it. I accept that others may disagree.

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