- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dennis "Rocky" Renals
- Location of story:
- Italy and France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 December 2003
THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS
By: Dennis “Rocky�ERenals
CHAPTER 2. The mystery begins.
Please read “The Man Who Never Was�E Chapter 1, if you have not yet done so.
The story continues here.
We landed in Taranto, and it is here (at last! you say) that my strange story really begins. When soldiers become detached from their units, the army uses a system of transit camps to reunite them. It was to such a camp that we were taken after disembarkation from the former Italian cruiser.
Amongst those sharing a tent with me in a very muddy field on the instep of Italy was an outgoing, boisterous private, with an accent that I thought was American. He seemed to latch-on to me, and I soon discovered that he was in fact a Canadian. He told me that he had volunteered to join the British Army when war first threatened.
We quickly became firm friends, and during the very cold, wet days that followed as we moved from camp to camp up towards the shin of Italy, we talked a great deal. He was very intelligent, and among the many subjects that we talked about I discovered that he shared my love of books.
My Canadian friend was certainly older than I was, and he had a much wider knowledge of the world compared to any of the young British soldiers in our tent. He became the “leader of the gang�Ein every respect, and to pass the weary hours he taught us how to play dealer’s choice poker �Efor matchsticks. This was to stand me in good stead when later I was posted to the American Field Service, a company of volunteers from the USA who enlisted in the British Army before America had declared war on the Axis powers. They had purchased their own Dodge ambulances back home, and, together with their vehicles, they shipped over to Italy - at their own expense - to become part of the fracas. They were a really mad bunch who could never get close enough to the action, and they played poker almost every night �Enot for matches, but for hard cash! I did not draw any pay for many months, so well had I been trained by my Canadian buddy.
I went for a walk one day, and in the corner of a nearby field I discovered five dead German soldiers. It was the custom to cover the dead with soil - with their identity tags displayed on a stick - to protect them from the ravages of wild creatures. These unfortunate chaps were just lying where they had fallen, and I went back to the camp to ask for volunteers to help me to cover them up. No-one offered to help, except my Canadian friend, and together we borrowed some shovels and respectfully carried out our task. Many years later I was to remember this incident, and realise its possible significance.
During the thirties there was a poster campaign in Britain for holidays in Italy. An idyllic seaside scene was capped with the slogan “Come to Sunny Italy�E Well, even the extreme south Italy was far from being sunny in the winter of 1943, and the slogan was often quoted with irony as we tried to keep warm, and dry, as we continued our journey up to the forward area.
One night I went out foraging for wood to make a fire to keep us warm. The war had passed over that area quite recently, and my search took me into a shed located in what appeared to be a park-like area. Moonlight shone through a dirty window, and in a corner, on a workman’s bench, I saw a roughly made wooden box about five feet long, and two feet wide. Curious, I struck a match and lifted the lid of the box, and to my horror I saw the body of a girl of about fifteen years inside. She had a lovely face, and was fully dressed in a pretty frock. I could only surmise that she had been killed during the recent action, and in this decrepit shed was awaiting burial. As you might imagine, I was deeply moved. On the floor of the shed I found a battered woman’s hat, with artificial flowers on it. I ripped the flowers from the hat, placed them on the lid of the makeshift coffin, and quietly left.
Eventually we reached our destination, which was the point from whence all the displaced soldiers were to be distributed to their various destinations. I can picture the scene even now, sixty years on, as my Canadian friend and I stood on a muddy road, shaking hands, and wishing each other good luck. He was to board one open-top lorry, and I another. We seemed to have run out of things to say, then suddenly his manner became very urgent. “I want you to contact me after the war, and we will have a drink together�E he said. Now, I had an old diary that was many years out-of-date, in which I kept a few notes, so when he went on to ask me if I had anything to write on, I produced my old diary. “I worked for Cook’s of St Paul’s, in London, write that down�Ehe commanded, “and I shall definitely go back to work there when the war is over�E Now, it didn’t strike me at the time that it was strange that a Canadian who had come to Britain just to join the British Army should have been working in London before joining up, and planned to go back to work there after the war. But many years later this thought would come into my mind. Anyway, I wrote this information into my diary, together with his name, and I promised that I would indeed contact him after the war, and that we would meet up for a drink and a chat. We then went our different ways.
To cut a long story short, when I got back to my light ambulance unit my C.O. was delighted to have me back at last, but disappointed that I was still on light duties following my rather virulent illness. Then an order came through that every unit had to have someone trained as a cook, in case the company cook was killed. I remember that he was red in the face with anger that his already stretched pool of drivers was to be further reduced by this five-day course. “You, Renals, you’re on light duties�Ehe roared, “you can go on this bloody course�E And so I did. Now, I am a very quick learner; for instance, I learned to drive just by watching what my Uncle Wallie did, and I learned to cook just as easily. At the end of the 5-day course I passed the examination with a pass-mark of some 95%.
Because of this remarkable result, the order came through that I was to be transferred to the Royal Army Catering Corps, a decision that didn’t please me, or my C.O., who yelled “You’re not going to be a bloody cook, I need you as a driver�E And so it was that for quite a long time I continued to drive ambulances, and wore my RASC badge. That came to an end when an order came through posting me to the American Field Service. There I ran the field kitchen with one assistant army cook, and four Italian civilian workers, Enso, Renso, Gino and Dino, for the rest of the very eventful Italian campaign.
When the war in Europe ended we were resting in northern Italy, which was something unique for those action-happy Yanks. I vividly remember standing alone in the darkness, gazing northwards towards where the invisible wall that was the Germany army had always been; and suddenly - the wall was not there any more. “I could�E I thought, “walk forward as far as I like, and no one would stop me�E It was a very strange feeling.
I was given a short leave to visit Venice, another dream come true. There was a group of special British troops who went behind enemy lines, and committed all kinds of mayhem. They were popularly known as Popski’s Army, and were all as mad as hatters. One night they slipped into Venice by boat, and deposited a bucket of horse manure in the middle St Mark’s Square. Imagine the astonishment of the Venetians when they awoke next morning, for no form of transport could operate anywhere within their city of canals.
We were then sent up into Austria, and from there we were ordered back to Naples, where the American Field Service was disbanded, and my American friends sailed home. From Naples I made my first flight - on a DC3 - to Marseilles, and from there I went to Chateau Roux to be the second-ranking person in command of an Halte de Repas, feeding trainloads of overland leave parties. Civilian cooks and waitresses did all the work. I was then sent to Epluches, just outside Paris, to set up a new Halte de Repas. Later I was posted to Paris, as military manager of three major hotels occupied by British Army officers, and I lived in the beautiful Hotel Westminster, on the Rue de la Paix. Being in the Army Catering Corps was not so bad after all!
Later, when my demobilisation was looming, I was summoned to British Army Staff France and urged by the Brigadier to remain in the army. However, I turned down his invitation, because I was now desperate to return to civilian life, and find myself a new career
Many months later I found myself standing in central London, wearing my demob�Esuit, and trying desperately to decide what I should do with the rest of my life. I had trained as an accountant, but a return to that profession did not appeal. I now had some expertise in hotel management, but this was not a clear option in my mind. I had experience as an entertainer, both pre-war and in the services, but although I would have loved a life on the stage, it seemed a very precarious choice of career at that time. I might have decided differently if I had been aware of the opportunities television would offer just a few years later!
It was then that I remembered my promise to my Canadian friend. I had always imagined that Cook’s of St Paul’s was the famous Thomas Cook’s travel agency. I suppose that was a job that fitted the image of a sophisticated, globe-trotting Canadian. Now that I began to think about it, I quite fancied the idea of being a travel agent myself. I mused that I had traveled quite a lot, thanks to the King, and it seemed a nice interesting sort of job to do. So, excited at the prospect of chewing the fat with my old pal, and determined to ask him about the chances of a job in the travel business, I went into the nearest telephone booth, studied the telephone directory, and rang Cook’s of St Paul’s.
Now, I have told you that I can’t remember dates; well, I have to admit that I also can’t remember names. It is a source of sadness to me that today I cannot remember the name of that Canadian who has played such an import role in my personal history. When I made that telephone call I could still remember his name (it was written in my old diary anyway), so �Efor the purposes of my story - let’s say that his name was Jack Weston. “Sorry�E said the voice that answered the ‘phone. “He is out at lunch. Ring back in an hour�E I was jubilant. My friend had indeed gone back to his old job, and in an hour I could speak to him, and �Emore important - ask if there were any vacancies for a trainee travel agent in his firm.
In an hour I rang again. This time I was asked to hang on whilst they called him. “Hello�EI heard a voice say, “Who is that?�E I was literally struck dumb, for the voice had a normal middle-class English accent, with no hint of North America in it. “Is that Jack Weston?�EI finally stammered. “Yes�E came the reply, “who are you?�E I told the voice who I was, and my next words were to ask if there had ever been another Jack Weston working at Cook’s of St Paul’s, because the chap I was seeking was a Canadian. “No�E said the unfamiliar voice, “I worked here for four years before I went into the army, and I have never heard of anyone else with my name, and I don’t remember any Canadians working here�E
Flummoxed, I then recounted the story of my meeting with his namesake in the south of Italy. The English Jack Weston then told me that he, too, had been a soldier in the Italian campaign, but he denied ever having been in a transit camp. He was mystified that someone using his name should have told me to contact him at Cook’s of St Paul’s after the war.
There was a long pause as we tried to gather our thoughts; then suddenly the voice on the ‘phone said “Wait a minute! I have just thought of something. Soon after we landed in Italy I had my uniform stolen whilst I was asleep, and it contained my army pay book, and all my personal papers. In fact I was nearly court-martialed for losing my pay book�E
With the help of this startling bit of information, we started to slowly piece together a scenario that would fit the evidence available to us. We began by acknowledging that many families living in Canada are of German extraction; and so it was possible that in fact our mystery man came to Europe when war threatened, not to enlist in the British Army, but to join the German Wehrmacht. If this was so, the Canadian “Jack Weston�Ecould have been a German soldier who became trapped behind Allied lines during the confusion of the first weeks of the Italian campaign. To evade capture he might have taken refuge with an Italian family with fascist sympathies, donning civilian clothes, and waiting for an opportunity to get back to his own lines.
I knew this was a viable theory, because I had spoken to a great many escaped British POWs who had told me that their guards just disappeared when Italy capitulated, six days after the Allied invasion. Many of these escaped POWs had lived and worked on the farms of friendly Italian civilians, before eventually making their way back to Allied lines, using tracks through the mountainous terrain of southern Italy.
If this scenario was right, the probability was that after stealing the English Jack Weston’s uniform and documents, he later told some cock-and-bull story in order to inject himself into the transit camp system to get close to the forward area unchallenged. He could then choose an opportune moment to slip away into the hills, eventually to reach the German positions. Our mystery man must have had ice-cold nerves, as well as being very brave, for if he had been caught wearing a British uniform he would have been shot as a spy.
We must have talked on the ‘phone for at least an hour, or more, when I remembered that I had a second purpose for making this telephone call. This may not be the Jack Weston that I knew, but this one certainly did work at Cook’s of St Paul’s, and so I asked him about a job in the travel industry. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that Cook’s of St Paul’s was in fact a company of haberdashers, and not the travel agency.
After hanging up, I stood for quite a while in that telephone box, my thoughts in a whirl. Then clarity returned to my mind. I picked up the ‘phone book, and looked up the telephone number of Thomas Cook, travel agents, in Berkeley Square. I had an interview the very next day, and started work the following Monday.
I worked for Thomas Cook’s for sixteen years, for many of those years fulfilling the function of Branch Manager at many locations. Then I went to Bracknell to become a director of Travel and Tours agency. A few years later I negotiated a takeover deal that made me an executive director of the multiple retail travel agents, Hunting Lambert, with responsibilities for the whole of the South and West of England. In the last couple of years before I retired in 1987, following a take-over, I fulfilled the same function for A.T.Mays, probably Britain’s largest retail travel agency.
I met my wife, Julie, whilst working in Thomas Cook’s, and we have three children, Jeremy, Lisa and Nicholas, and five grandchildren. So, you can see that because of a chance meeting in a transit camp in Italy I have enjoyed a very satisfying career �Ewhich has involve much travelling around the world, without the help of the Royal Family - and also a very happy family life.
My daughter, Lisa, had heard me tell this story, and it was she who urged me to write this contribution for the BBC project. I recently overheard her explaining to her own daughter, Kira, how neither of them would exist if it were not for a mystery man Granddad met in Italy.
Oh! Regarding that quotation from Hamlet that I began with. My wife told me that on BBC Radio 4 she heard someone recounting that he had seen two men layering a hedge, making a traditional fence. One of them told him “’e rough hews ‘em, and oi shapes their ends�E
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