Page 5: A Prisoner of War Remembers
Numerous humorous incidents occurred while we were in the barn. The German troops below, relieved from the Cassino front, were not allowed to remain idle. On one occasion a large contingent had to do some light manoeuvres, commencing in the late afternoon. When these concluded, at a late hour, they bivouacked in a small field about three hundred yards from the barn. In this field Domenico had cunningly concealed a sack of wheat (he had cached away numerous other sacks in various places) covering it with a sufficiency of hay. Our tired (enemy) friends utilised every scrap of this hay for bedding purposes but never touched the sack of wheat. Early next morning, obviously before daylight, they carefully replaced all the hay on top of the bag of grain. Another tribute to Teutonic thoroughness and discipline. Indeed, Domenico was the gainer from this episode, for, on going over the hay to see if the wheat was still there, he found not only the untouched sack of grain, but a superb meerschaum pipe, an electric torch in full working order, and several other useful articles. The smiles on Domenico's face when he smoked that pipe showed his appreciation of the humour of the episode.
This incident, in retrospection, was humorous enough but the next one, also in retrospection, was truly hilarious. In this one, the German troops were divided into two forces, one of which was to defend our barn which the other was to attempt to capture. Had the attacking force known that the barn contained three escaped Prisoners-of-War they might have been more spirited in their onslaught, for the brave defenders repulsed them again and again and the "enemy" never achieved their objective. Not knowing what was going on, but only that the place was surrounded by German troops, we had retired to the hide-out. When the din of battle had ceased we eagerly awaited an explanatory visit from Domenico. When he did arrive he was suffused with laughter and it was some time before he could recount the whole story.
Other humorous interludes occurred when the RAF dropped thousands of leaflets in the Liri Valley, hundreds of which fell near the barn. There being no other paper available, Domenico pointed out that these were very valuable for toilet purposes. Accordingly, after each raid, Elvira was sent out to collect these leaflets from the ground and bushes in the vicinity and the sight of her reaching up for some unreachable leaflet caused us a lot of silent mirth. I still treasure several of them ranging from one dated 1st March 1944, in German, appropriately entitled Das Fünfte Jahr (the fifth year), in which the German troops were advised that they had "had it" and might as well "pack up", to one in Italian exhorting railway and other workers "to observe closely where the retreating Germans were indiscriminately sowing mines." They were asked to locate the position carefully and to advise the approaching Allied Forces on their arrival. Another, earlier one, contains extracts, directed to the Italian people, of speeches by President Roosevelt and Primo Ministro Britannico - Churchill.
There were numerous other passers-by worthy of remark. One was an elderly woman whose face, I am certain, the Renaissance painters would have striven over to depict. There was a touch of placid suffering and serenity about her and I secretly, but not irreverently, thought of her as "The Madonna". She was very poor and employed as a waitress in a German Officers' mess. She was, however, a trusted friend of the de Blasis family and would cull all the worth-while cigarette butts from the ash-trays she emptied and bring them, together with packets of cigarette papers, to Domenico. With the supplies obtained from German callers, and this unexpected source, we were rarely without a smoke. Happily I was able to express my appreciation to this humble, but gracious, woman when I was privileged to meet her weeks later.
Then there was the witty barber, whom Domenico ushered in about once a month to give us a haircut and a shave, and a Communist, a delightful rascal, whose ancestors could well have inhabited the cave we were later to occupy on Monte Viglio.
As time went by the Germans started to commandeer not only livestock, but forage as well, with which to feed their thousands of transport mules. (I later learned that the Allies, too, used this form of transport in the mountainous region around Cassino.) The unwilling peasants were obliged to take their bales of hay and lucerne to the railway siding at Civitella and to load them on trucks, after which they received payment in the worthless currency. Our Communist friend, with an accomplice, at the same time had a cart at the opposite door of the truck and re-loaded a fair proportion of the intake onto it and stealthily drove it away.I do not recall that any of Domenico's forage was ever requisitioned, but, with the passing of time and his own usage, the length of the tunnel became smaller and smaller and our chances of discovery, correspondingly, greater and greater.
Domenico's fertile brain again went into action. In the corner of the byre furthest away from the door, he leant several thick planks against the wall at an approximate angle of 45º, leaving an open space underneath of perhaps five feet by three (in all probablity slightly less.) On top of these planks he placed a thick layer of the readily available sheep and cattle droppings. Being in a corner, it can be visualised that there was only one opening to conceal, the similar portion of wall at right-angles to this being the back, and the front and top being the covered planks. Then he placed a large crib (like a super-sized plate rack) against the back wall joining up with the opening. From this he removed two or three of the vertical bars, leaving sufficient room to get into the crib and thence into the hide-out. The crib was three-quarters filled with hay and, when danger threatened, we were to get into the hide-out, the last man in spreading the hay over the crib and hide-out entrances.
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