- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ralph Corps
- Location of story:
- Gravina, Southern Italy
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 May 2005
Ralph Corps (Rank Sgt). Coldstream Guards 1932 - 1940, CMP......1940 - 1946
Submitted to the site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Ralph Corps (deceased), and added with his relatives' permission. They fully understand the site's terms and conditions.
We did not worry unduly, nevertheless, when 4 a.m. arrived, we were still struggling onwards and had not seen any water. True, we had crossed a riverbed and many dykes, but we were void of the precious liquid. The situation was getting very serious and we were both very thirsty. We decided to tackle the next farmhouse we came across.
Only a few minutes after making the decision, a building appeared before us. We deviated a little in our course, so as to approach from the side. The dogs barked. Closing in on the place, we found that it was a farmhouse.
We examined the outbuildings, but there was no water. The front of the house and the side produced the same result. Round to the rear we went, moving as silently as possible over the cobbled stones. By the rear door of the building was a huge tank. That, I reasoned, would almost certainly contain water, which it did. We both took a good drink. There were no sounds from inside the house. I began filling up the canteen. When it was full, I slung it over my shoulder and was about to continue my exploration of the farm premises, when my colleague whispered, “Shh, listen!” I listened and I heard a voice speaking in Italian. We faded into the night.
Benefiting from the previous night’s experience, we began to look for a shelter in which to spend the daytime. It was now about half an hour before dawn. Farmers and labourers would soon be up and about. Proceeding along the side of a second-class road, we commenced to ascend towards a hill in front of us. Now, before escaping, we had decided that roads were dangerous and ought to be avoided. Remembering this, we were on the point of entering the country again, when my partner espied a drain. The idea of spending yet another day inside one wasn’t at all to my liking, but I was tired and didn’t put forward any objection.
This drain however, was of a decent proportion; it had a radius of about 4 feet. It was very dark inside. I struck a match or two to examine the interior. Having already spent a day inside a drainpipe , we took a little more precaution this time. Stones and brushwood were gathered and placed at the entrance to prevent the continuous blasts of cold air blowing through the place. Branches and twigs were laid on the floor as a kind of mattress, and when everything had been satisfactorily completed, we lay down side by side to get some sleep. The stones and brushwood idea wasn’t proving much of a success. They were stopping the cold air from getting into the pipe, but they were stopping it from getting out. We were both awake and shivering. The stones at the entrance were reviewed, but it made not the slightest difference; we were unable to catch the sun’s warmth. The drain was only open to the sun at one end. At the other end, the light was unable to enter because of a high stonewall. A further half hour’s shivering was sufficient to convince us that a day in the drain would mean no sleep whatsoever. Sleep was necessary, very necessary at this stage. The previous day we had only been able to snatch two or three hours. We talked the matter over and decided in direct contravention of the plans made, to move in the daytime. No sooner said than done; over the wall we went into a vineyard. Picking our way through the vines, we encountered another wall, and on negotiating this, we found ourselves in yet another vineyard. Right in the opposite corner, we observed a heap of stones and many bushes. In a few minutes, we were there. It was an ideal place, giving good cover from view, should anyone enter the vineyard. Better still, there was a good way open to escape if anyone came to work close by. We lay down in the sun; it was certainly better than living in a drain. At 9 a.m., we had the usual light meal and after this, we got down to sleep. I awoke at 1 p.m. to find my partner struggling with a bristly chin. Seeing the difficult time he was having with his beard gave me no real desire to have to do the same with mine. However, the job had to be done and I was very thankful when that operation had been successfully completed. A light meal followed and we talked a little. It was very quiet there with only an occasional cart passing on the road close by. I again fell asleep and did not wake until the sun was well down in the sky.
We ate our evening meal, checked our compass course and set out once again, yet, I don’t believe I had gone many yards when my foot kicked against something on the ground. Bending down, I picked the object up. It was an earthenware-cooking jar that held about 3 pints of water. “Just what we want,” I said, “we may find a place where we can build a fire.” Producing a spare pair of bootlaces, I tied them together and fastened the loose ends to the jar. I slung the treasure over my shoulder and continued the journey. It was rugged country and progress was slow. A well in the middle of a vineyard brought our earthenware jar into use for the first time. After tying bits of string and lace together, we lowered it into the void and a few seconds later, it was brimming with water. We hauled it to the surface. The jar was well washed out before we used it. We filled up our canteen, took a good long drink of water from the jar and after throwing the remainder away, continued our wanderings. It’s a curious thing, but that night, we came across numerous walls, whilst during our march the previous night we never saw any at all. Later, (it would be about 8 p.m.), we came across a very high wall, spiked at the top and much too high for climbing.
We deviated from our course, walked along the track. The rumble of a cart was heard away to our left. There must be a road somewhere in front of us. There was, it crossed our immediate front. We stopped, hid ourselves behind a pile of stones, just in case the cart should turn into the track, and waited for the vehicle to pass. When it had gone some distance along the roadway, we proceeded and were almost at the road when I saw a man standing at the junction. My friend must have seen him about the same time for he (my friend) immediately turned towards the wall and pretended to be doing something we all have to do from time to time. I suggested to him that it would certainly arouse suspicion. I continued walking and arrived at the road junction. I turned right, crossed over to the left and walked slowly along. The man, who was of the peasant type, did not speak. He passed me about half a minute later; he was walking fast. I noticed a village some distance ahead when my friend soon joined me. We at once deviated from our course and went due south. The man’s suspicions may not have been aroused, but it would be foolish at this stage, to take chances.
After about an hour’s walking, we again checked our compass course and moved eastwards. The country began to open up somewhat and by midnight we were going great guns. There were not so many walls to deal with; the land was better for walking purposes and so, our rate of progress increased. The night was dark with plenty of cloud and few stars. When 3 a.m. arrived, we were still struggling onwards. I thought a slight drizzling rain had commenced to fall and in consequence, we were looking for a hideout. We were both in the same mind; it must not be a drain. 4 a.m. found us safely in a building at the corner of a field. It gave good protection against the rain, which was falling heavily by this time. The building was a kind of stable with only one door and no windows. When dawn began to break, I looked out. It was at once obvious to us that our quarters would have to be transferred elsewhere, for there, right opposite the doorway and not 50 yards away, was a farmhouse. It had passed unnoticed during the night because of the many trees that surrounded the place. Should anyone come from the house towards our shelter, it would be impossible to avoid detection. We were soon out and away. Some 200 yards further on, we discovered another stone building, very similar to the one we had just quit, but in addition, it contained some straw and a fireplace. There were no houses in the near vicinity; the shelter was deemed suitable. All the straw was scraped together, and when the door of the building had been closed, we got down to sleep. Sleep would not come easily. When breakfast time arrived, I was still awake and feeling cold. But my friend was in a much worse condition, he was suffering one of his shivering bouts of Malaria. This was indeed distressing. It was still raining, for I could hear it beating on the tiles overhead. Inside the building it was very dark I went to the door and opened it. For several minutes, I watched, seeing no movement. I went outside and made a tour of inspection round our new abode.
To the rear of the building I discovered a bundle of wood. It was wet through, but it was wood. It gave me many ideas so I lugged it round the building into the shelter. I told my partner I was going to build a fire. He tried to intervene saying it was certain that the smoke would be seen by people nearby. I took no notice; he was in no position to argue with me anyway, so I continued with my task. Besides, one cannot let a man shiver into the grave without attention. Extracting some of the small pieces of wood from the middle of the bundle, I chopped them up with my knife, then, gathering an armful of straw from the floor, I started to build a fire. At first, there was a little difficulty, but eventually, it came round to my way of thinking and decided to burn. When a good fire was blazing in the grate, I filled the earthenware jar with water, placed it in the middle of the burning wood and waited for the water to boil. It didn’t take long, and as soon as it was ready, I added a half-pound block of chocolate. For some time, I kept stirring the contents with a piece of stick to make the chocolate dissolve. At last it was ready. We had no drinking utensils, but such things are only of secondary importance. The contents were soon drunk by the simple expedient of passing the jar from hand to hand. It tasted really good and both of us felt much better. That fire made all the difference to the place. I decided, despite my partner’s protest, to keep it going throughout the day. I moved my partner closer to the fire’s warmth and covered him with my overalls. He refused to eat any breakfast. I went outside again and took a look around. Nobody appeared to be moving about the fields and there were no roads nearby. I went back inside and procured the earthenware jar. Outside yet again with the aid of some stones and two old roofing tiles, I constructed a rainwater trap. The earthenware jar was then placed in a position to receive the water. Having completed this little task very satisfactorily, I went back into the shelter, made the door secure from inside and then lay down by the side of my very sick friend. I fell into a daze, but I awoke at about 11 a.m. and perceived that the fire was nearly out. My friend was also awake and he said that he felt a little better, which was untrue because I had witnessed too many Malarial attacks and I knew he wouldn’t be any better until tonight or tomorrow morning. Why he should have contracted Malaria and not me, I haven’t the faintest idea. Only an occasional mosquito attacked him, whereas when they attacked me, which they did every night during the season, they always came in battle formation and they dive-bombed. Yet, I never contracted Malaria. Why? It’s a question that puzzled me no less than my friend. That be as it may, it has nothing to do with my narrative.
The fire was soon remade and after the usual precautionary measures had been taken, I went outside. The rainwater trap had been a success. The earthenware jar was brimming with water. I washed it out and again placed it at the receiving end. By mid day, the fire was going well. Another jar full of water was placed in the middle. That meal we ate at 1 p.m. that day was the best we had since escaping from the prison camp. It consisted of a kind of porridge made with O.B.S.R. There’s no denying that it was a trifle burnt. I never did profess to be a cook. At any rate, it was better than eating the O.B.S.R. dry, from the palm of the hand. When it was over, I took the earthenware jar back to the rainwater trap. The fire was made up and my friend and I talked about various subjects. By this time, he was having alternate bouts of sweats and shivers, though fortunately, he had brought a good supply of tablets. I passed the afternoon away by his side and only moved to rebuild the fire when it went low.
It was still pouring with rain and any idea of moving on was out of the question. The earthenware jar was again brought into use and we had another good meal of porridge only this time, it wasn’t burnt and it looked more like porridge than the previous dollop I had made. When darkness came, I went outside to see if any light could be seen coming form the shelter. It could, but the cause was soon eliminated by means of a couple of tiles wedged into the offending ventilation hole.
My partner could not sleep; the warmth from the fire did not stop him shivering, so we began talking to pass away the time. How far had we come? According to the amount of time we’d spent walking, we guessed about 80 miles. But my friend only laughed at this calculation. I halved it and said 40, but he would not even agree to this. In the end, I was compelled to reduce my estimate to 20 miles. Holy Moses! Only 20 miles after three whole nights travelling from 7 p.m. until dawn. That would be less than a mile an hour, yet, considering the matter, 20 miles would be about right, for hadn’t we had to deviate from our course frequently? Besides that, the course was only worked out roughly. Yes, 20 miles was about the limit if our maps were to be believed, though we must have walked a greater distance than that. “But not in a straight line,” stuttered my shivering colleague. Thank goodness we hadn’t to walk to Switzerland. Of such things we talked about when my partner stated his intention of trying to get a little sleep. I made the fire up and prepared to do the same. Several times I woke during the night to put some more wood on the fire. I was pleased on such occasions to see my friend sleeping peacefully. He would probably be well enough to continue the journey the following evening. I was up before dawn; it was still raining, yet, in spite of this, I went out to explore the countryside in search of edible vegetable. I found nothing in that line, but I was cheered to find another bundle of wood. A couple of stakes from an empty chicken run went to reinforce my pile. Had there been any chickens, then I am not going to say that I wouldn’t have committed a felony, to be quite candid, I was hoping to find something in that line when I approached the place. Visions of roast chicken had entered my thoughts at the time and the absence of life came as a very sad blow. Still, reverting my appetite into the background for the time being, I contented myself with the bundle of wood and the two stakes.
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