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- 06 July 2004
Friday saw us spending an afternoon in the city seeing St Peters, the Castel St Angelo and all that area near the River Tiber. We came back in the evening specially to see the E.N.S.A. show which turned out to be very good. Saturday also found us in Rome for most of the day. We had our photographs taken whilst out walking and enjoyed a very good dinner in the Sergeants Club. I believe it was while in this club that HM King George VI broadcast in the evening and we all stood smartly to attention when the National Anthem was played beforehand. The King’s voice came through very clearly and everybody listened intently and was proud to be British.
Sunday was a big day. The whole time being taken up with a further trip to Rome and in the evening we went to the opera and saw Il Travatore. This I really enjoyed. The audience was made up of about one third soldiers and the remainder being civilians. The Teatro Reale at that time had boxes around three sides, almost from floor to ceiling and the décor inside each one was red and when lit up presented a fine sight. This was my first visit ever to the opera and on taking my seat I rather absent mindedly lit up a cigarette and was pounced upon by an usher. Otherwise a memorable evening.
Our last day, Monday, was made use of by writing letters in a rather luxurious NAAFI affair in Rome. We spent some of the time chatting to the Italian lady at the desk who told us how amazed she was during the winter months when soldiers would come in dressed only in their battledress and lie about and fall off to sleep despite the very cold conditions inside for there was no heating available. And while the lads were asleep she would be sitting there all wrapped up and shivering. What she did not realise I suppose is that all things are relative and no doubt where they had come from was a great deal colder than the lounge of the Services Club. Whilst we were there she gave us a letter she wanted delivering to a relative in Verona and we promised to do our best to ensure that it arrived safely.
The holiday came to an end that evening when we caught a train which took us through the night and arrived back at Forli on May 15th at 0930 hours. After a wash and meal, etc, we picked up our lorry and started off on the journey north at about midday. We made first for Verona but ran out of time being overtaken by darkness and finally had to make arrangements for the letter in our care to be posted and then found somewhere to rest of the night. All next day we motored onwards roughly in a north easterly direction and at 1700 hours finally arrived at our destination. A village in the Trieste region called Campolonga. My specialists had already been billeted in a very attractive private house where I was very happy to join them.
I was here for just under one week, which proved quite enjoyable and my first day there was spent more or less on settling in and getting to find my way around. Then, not surprisingly, I was detailed for Orderly Sergeant, which did not prove difficult and that was just as well as I felt a bit off colour. I then did a twenty four hour guard which was also quite easy, although there was a small battery inspection in the middle of it. Then along came Sunday, a real day of rest now that the war was over and in the evening we got together with the people in the house for a good long chinwag. So far as I can remember, apart from the parents there were three teenagers, two boys and a girl and a couple of younger children and so with the aid of a quantity of vino to smooth the language problem, we all got along very well together.
By this time trouble was brewing over the sovereignty of Trieste and the surrounding countryside. The New Zealander had originally been given the job of capturing the city which they did with their usual efficiency but there were a large number of Yugoslav partisans in the area and Tito was laying claim to the region. So far the next two days we spent our time, in a somewhat relaxed manner, with loading our vehicles as for going into battle. When this was completed we were all in a “prepare to move” situation. All this activity left us with an afternoon to spare which we used by playing table tennis with the teenagers in the house.
Before leaving this charming village I must mention that after I had been demobilised 254 Battery was moved to San Daniele (famous for its hams) on the Morgan Line and was at last allowed some recreational transport. And did people wish to go to the sea to bathe? No, they wished to go back to Campolonga where they went and were again warmly welcomed!
On May 23rd we all moved off in the morning, through Trieste and up into the hills not very far from the Yugoslav frontier and close to a small town call Clanzi. This action created an immediate response from Tito’s army who told us the following day to get out. This happened at 0430 hours and everybody was alerted just in case of trouble, but the situation had cooled down by nightfall. We put up our little “bivvies” and everybody was once again under canvas.
The next two weeks were reasonably routine. We were situated fairly near to a railway line which the Germans had destroyed by driving an engine along it to which was attached what can only be described as a giant knife that tore through the sleepers cutting them in half in the process. This was a new experience, we had seen nothing like it before and Alan and I made several visits to the track and the abandoned town and village. The weather was generally sunny and warm and there were many strange insets in these hills. Beautiful butterflies, large and colourful spiders, beetles that flew with their legs hanging down like the Egyptian Scarab and many other creepy crawlies all of which were interesting to watch, particularly the small lizards.
Whilst we were here, the big non event for which we all cleaned up, was an inspection by the Commander Royal Artillery. After putting in a lot of time on spit and polish he failed to arrive at the appointed time! However, we did manage a game or two of cricket because a bag containing the necessary equipment had been part of the stores which had been carried round the Middle East and Italy as part of our essential stores. There were also a few footballs but the terrain was to rocky and undulating to find a flat area large enough for a game.
So far as other entertainment was concerned we were shown the film “Madame Curie” one evening but in the middle of our enjoyment a storm blew up and ruined everything. On another night we organised a troop whilst drive which attracted all those men who hoped to win a few Lire. I noted that another day was set aside for an ABCA lecture but I cannot remember what the initials stood for or the subject matter. There was also the three-monthly reading of the Riot Act. Some of my spare time was occupied by a copy of Chaucer’s “A Canterbury Tale” which I found as much educational as enjoyable.
Writing about the Riot Act reminds me that by this time men were getting restless. The war was over, nobody had been given leave to the UK for three years and matrimonial problems were occurring. On a more light hearted vein the men were all saying that they were now only “civilians attached” and wanted to get out of the army. Particularly soldiers such as myself who had been in the army since August 1939. I believe that we “old originals” should have been discharged within a month or so of the war ending. We had earned that right. It was well known that there were British soldiers all over the Mediterranean area on lines of communication and other jobs that should have been wound up when hostilities ceased or at least be considerably reduced. With hindsight it is obvious that Great Britain had neither the men or the money to maintain armed forces throughout the world to the extent of the commitments during the last year or so of the war.
Where I think the Government could had should have done a great deal more was in recognising the problems of the men in the forces who had spent a long period abroad without relief and yet the war ended at the beginning of May and two months later we h ad no clear idea about the future except that we were told at some time during the summer our demobilisation group number which was based on age and service.
The dissatisfaction with authority grew quite rapidly in a quiet way and although it did not manifest itself in any discernible way, I well remember what happened in my unit when the men voted in the General Election. There was a massive vote against the Government. In fact, I know of only one man who voted for it! This was nothing to do with politics, indeed nobody had any real idea of the situation in the UK and we seldom if ever saw a newspaper from home. No, the trouble was that most of the men were “browned off” with hanging about a thousand miles from home and with no idea as to when they would be demobbed and receiving no official acceptance of the fact that we had done our job and had earned our discharge. It is my opinion that this was one of the reasons and a pretty big one, why Winston Churchill lost the post war election. The troops had had enough and it was the only means of protest left open to them.
However, to return to my story, whilst up in the hills of the Italian/Yugoslav border, I had noticed a picture of a Spanish galleon in a magazine. This I kept and made a plan and elevation of the ship with the intention of trying to carve it out of a solid piece of wood. This I felt would be a great deal better than spending a fair part of each day simply doing nothing. I had made a model yacht at school and a copy of the Golden Hind when in my teens, so I had some idea of what was involved. Accordingly, I worked on this project in my spare time over the next few weeks.
In addition, there was formed an athletic section within the regiment and I was volunteered into this. So for two or three weeks, each evening, those of us selected would practise on a stretch of rather undulating field at the lower end of our camp. I concentrated on the 220 yards sprint which suited me nicely because it took me the best part of the first thirty yards to get into my stride. This made me too slow for the 100 yards. In addition, I did not have the stamina to run flat out over 440 yards and in any case my legs were not long enough for this distance.
Apart from running, I had other jobs to do. For instance one day I was detailed to organise “fire points” because our camp was on a gentle slope in fairly long grass which was very dry and because as nearly everybody smoked in those days it was necessary to place buckets of sand and water at regular intervals for use in an emergency. On two separate days I was employed as Battery Orderly Sergeant, but this duty no longer had any real responsibility as it did when we were at war. Strangely I did not do another guard duty and I cannot remember for certain the reason why. Either we did away with guards, which I am sure was not the case, or a more likely explanation was that instead of having a sergeant in charge, we made do with a bombadier which was quite common practice.
There was one most interesting day when we witnessed another little bit of history taking place and that was on June 11th.
The Yugoslavs had decided to withdraw from the Trieste area rather than wait to be driven out and they all came along the road past our camp. For it must be remembered that we were not the only soldiers in the area, indeed there was a very strong 8th Army presence. A long column of Yugoslavs passed by our camp and they were a rather sorry looking lot. Thin, undernourished and poorly armed although no doubt brave enough. They had wanted to claim back some of the land around Trieste and south of it which I believe the Italians had taken after World War I. We were particularly amazed by the fact that a company or group of troops was followed by a dozen or more hefty, tough looking Amazon type women in uniform who made sure that no soldier fell by the wayside and were quite ruthless in the way they made every soldier who fell out rejoin his unit. Our regimental doctor had already set up a first aid post by the side of the road to deal with casualties and this found sufficient employment to keep it busy. One of the many groups of Yugoslavs was followed by a horse and the poor creature was so thin that his ribs were clearly showing, in outline, under the skin. That evening, when all the excitement was over we passed the time with an inter-troop game of football.
This was followed by a quiet day during which I took part in some knockout heats in the athletics and while I won comfortably in the 220 yards I lost, as expected in the 100 yards. That evening we all saw an open air film “Two Senoritas from Chicago” which cheered up the lads for the time being. Then for a day or so nothing much happened except that on one afternoon the rain simply poured down and came in through my “bivvy” which was by no means waterproof. Then I pulled a muscle which prevented me from running for a couple of days, but luckiliy one of the men was good at massaging and soon put it right. Eventually there came an order to commence packing up the troubles with the Yugoslavs being settled for the present and on June 21st we moved to the village of Starazano which is very near to Monfalcone and about thirty kilometres from Trieste.
Our battery was here for nearly two months and I thoroughly enjoyed the stay. Indeed it was probably the best part of my tour of duty abroad. The weather was typical Italian summer, hot and dry and we were billeted in small groups with the villagers. I shared a room in a house with Ernie and the family consisted for mother, father and a niece of about fifteen or sixteen years old. The house was small, terraced and it had a tiny but delightful garden in which were kept a few rabbits. The family was fairly poor but very clean and tidy. They appeared to have just about enough to eat but never had meat except for soups with perhaps a few shreads of meat in it. The village was really quite big by English standards being strung out along a road and had a school, a large village hall and so on.
Having made myself comfortable in my billet the following two days were spent on cleaning and organising the specialists equipment and this was interrupted by a lecture from our commanding officer although I cannot remember the subject. It was probably giving us details of why we were here and of arrangements for the immediate future.
On Sunday 24th I was one of a party which was sent to Grado on four days leave. It is of course well known nowadays as an Italian holiday resort but in 1945 the British Army had only just begun to use it for such a purpose by erecting some single storey buildings for sleeping, eating and general relaxation. I found it to be an excellent place for a short term holiday, I was staying at a “rest hotel” called the “Elephant and Castle” and after settling in an having a meal several of us went for a late night swim. This was not a reckless as it might appear because the Adriatic was warming up under the succession of sunny days and the water locally was very calm at the time.
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