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As the Eighth Army worked their way through Italy, northwards from Taranto along the Adriatic Coast, they were held up by the terrain and the demolished bridges left by the German army as it retreated. Jim found some time on his hands and wrote one of his longer letters which he admitted was filled with general chatter rather than any significant news. Hopefully his first paragraph was not taken too seriously by the censor or the army would have been keeping a close watch on him when the war was over.

Italy, 6 October 1943

“We have black-out back again – lots of rain in the offing with all its unavoidable discomforts and action again to round off the fun and frolic. Still it should be the last winter – I hope. I’ve just heard the Conservatives ‘points system’ for demobilisation and have roughly estimated my chances of early release – quite good. Anyway I shall walk out on them if it is delayed too long so I don’t care.”

“You say you want to hear all my ticks and squawks – well I cannot say that I haven’t any but mostly nowadays I just go on. I think it is that final stage that the soldier on Active Service reaches – a type of resignation to his lot. Something akin to ‘Bomb-Happiness’ – a term (often misused) which indicates a man who no longer cares about the muck flying about but just goes on as if there were none at all. I don’t mean I’m bomb-happy – far from it – I mean I’m in that frame of mind about the numerous irritations of army life.”

“It’s pouring with rain at present with large wallops of thunder plus the usual lighting effects. The rainy season is setting in now – quite a change from the desert and my boots are carrying about 10 lbs of mud apiece. My gas-cape is out at last, it has been rolled up tightly for two and a half years (loads of sand in it) and is used as a macintosh. A man in a gas-cape presents a woeful sight. Made to fit over a big man in full infantry equipment plus greatcoat it hangs like a bell-tent around a telegraph pole and the sack on the shoulders (to accommodate a pack) hangs pathetically downwards like the cheeks on Disney’s ‘Happy’. Add to this the two quick release tapes about six feet long which dangle and trail round the feet asking to (and being) trodden on every few steps with dire results. An outsize in maternity coats.”

“We seem to have all the flies in the world here tonight together with one or two mosquitoes and several large flying ants. Black beetles were very numerous at our last place and every morning I had about six crawling round me under my shirt. A thing like that would have horrified me in the days of peace but nowadays it just doesn’t register at all. Ants are not as numerous as in Sicily – there it was amazing – they were everywhere. Our infantry on one occasion actually had to retreat because of ants – the biting variety. They had occupied a hillside but the ants forced a retreat. I saw one man with countless red marks all over his body caused by bites – they burned the hillside and went in again after it had burned for two days only to find the hill alive with ants carrying away the charred remains of grass.”

He described his current lorry and included a detailed plan. He also admitted that some of the contents were "illegally obtained" from various sources.

Plan of lorry interior“In appearance rather like Aristotle was, same tonnage same long nose and cab. It is a Dodge however not a Chev and had a windscreen until we hit an olive tree with it. We demolished the tree but the tree demolished the screen. The business part of the lorry is about 6’ 6” wide x 12’ 0” long with a canvas covering giving 6’ headroom.”

“It is surprising what one can pack into this space as I shall show you…”

“When one considers in detail quite a lot of stuff is ill. ob. this pencil for instance belonged to the B.O.R. and I hear they are very short of them. The atlas I‘m writing on was once the property of the A.E.C. Gaza, the three blankets I’m sitting on should only be two. The batteries for the wireless, the cable itself all have doubtful origins, our spare loudspeaker, the fan we had in the hot weather, several of our water tins our wash-stand (this disappeared originally from outside an officer’s tent – he wasn’t one of our officers of course – that would be silly), several thermos flasks (useful in all night drives).”


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"Aristotle", the earlier lorry referred to above, may be seen in two photographs on the page about the Battle of Gazala; Letters 12.

Jim's description of his observations about the country and its people was interrupted by a call to duty before he resumed, finishing the letter on a less than romantic note. His comment about the Bismarck-class battleship "Tirpitz" being sunk was perhaps a result of propaganda via the BBC. It was put out of action for several months but not sunk until late 1944 when it was bombed using a "Tallboy" bomb developed by Sir Barnes Wallis of "Dambusters" fame.

“Well the part we are in at present shows evidences to my mind of Mussolini’s efforts at housing his people. Whether this area was one of those drained under his big drainage schemes I don’t know but it rather looks like it. The area appears to be divided into small-holdings – damn! I’ve got to go to the tanks tonight – another night run – must away away to the woods – cheerio for now crazy aren’t I?”

“Back again – this is the next night – in fact it is the 11th and the news of the sinking of the Tirpitz has just come through. To resume my discourse above – small-holdings each with a white farm-house (differing designs). He certainly seems to have tried. The women are amazingly sturdy and many of them very good looking. I’ve never seen so many children in my life – the average family seems to be about ten or twelve. The ‘lady of the farm’ where we are leaguering at present is, like most of them, in an advanced state of pregnancy yet she carries on as if there was no such thing. Yesterday we offered her a crate of empty bottles about the size of a tea chest which I could scarcely lift. She grinned and whipped it up on to her head as though it was a feather then off with it to the farm about half a mile away across soaking wet ploughed fields.”

“Jerry can’t be so badly off for food as the Ities certainly aren’t. There is plenty of sugar, eggs, poultry, pigs, sheep, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. Chickens one can buy for 2/-, turkeys for 7/6, sheep 25/-, pigs £3, eggs 1½d each. The chief shortage seems to be in flour.”

Tonight a very determined looking young Italian in a lounge suit came over to me (having been told I parle Français) and said he wanted to join the British Army as he has had news that his brother in the Italian army has been shot by the Jerries up north. What could I do? I sent him eventually to the Major – he gets paid for that sort of thing.”

“We have a large company in the lorry tonight Eric Knowles, a fitter in the army, a butcher in civilian life and greatly in demand to slaughter pigs, sheep, etc. when occasion arises. Bed-down Briggs you remember him? – still the same diminutive humourist who lives for today… He’s grinning all over his face as usual – at present it is because I’m trying to write this in a bedlam of noise from a wireless set and about six voices all talking at once. The company is all comparing boils – there is a plague of them but so far I have none. Cheerio darling, I’ll write another one shortly.”

After such an unromantic ending Jim's next letter had a much more personal touch.

Italy, 9 October 1943

"Woman Dear,

Tonight I’m very homesick. The wireless is playing some very nice light orchestral stuff and reminding me of armchairs, flickering fires, drawn curtains and rain with blustering winds, reminding me of Hilda Rd. and you. Nowadays I don’t allow myself to think much on these things but occasionally the atmosphere produces the mood willy-nilly – like tonight. The wireless, the warmth (it’s warm in the closed down lorry though cold and miserable outside), the rain puttering on the canvas and the quiet of night. Only you are missing to make the illusion complete. How long until it becomes reality?"

"I want to see you again and to see D.J. I feel as though I really know him from the descriptions in your letters. He sounds fine to me – there cannot be so much very wrong with your methods. So far the Fates have been kind – very kind – and if they continue that way a little longer we’ll still see the day when all this is just food for an idle half hour’s sleepy chat under my favourite conditions. Then perhaps in viewing it perspectively we will be able to see some good, some benefit in it – some way in which it has done us some good – yes perhaps..."

Jim's next few letters followed his more usual pattern, with a mixture of responses to Pip's letters, comments on the latest war news and descriptions of his personal circumstances. He described the farmyard they were "parked" outside and the consequent improvements in their diet.

Italy, 14 October 1943

"I’ve sent you £15 and as I’ve explained before you may please yourself what you do with it, but do buy yourself something you want and ditto for D.J."

Was this an early Christmas present that Jim had been saving up? It sounds a fair sum of money for 1943. Around this time Jim was using some green ink that, particularly over time, has made some of his letters very difficult to read. He explained:

"The reason is that this is the only ink which will function in my pen and much as I dislike any ink bar black – c’est la guerre."

"I prophesied that before this crazy war was over we would live to see one nation fighting on both sides – well I see the Ities are now in that position or would like to be or rather Badoglio would like them to be as I’m sure the ordinary plebs have no such desire. That probably adds a few more hundreds of thousands to the number who are wondering what it’s all about anyway."

Pietro Badoglio was an Italian general and statesman who became Prime Minister of Italy after the fall of Mussolini and arranged an armistice with the Allies in September 1943. Jim was referring to the subsequent declaration of war against Germany on 13 October 1943.

"I’m very sorry the Gilchrists are leaving. It doesn’t seem 15 years since I saw him first though on reflection it must be. I’m afraid this army would shake him not a little – it is rather far removed from the old O.T.C. idea."

"You remember the cook from my last school camp came from a certain RTR battalion not a million miles away? Well the battalion is now not a million miles from me here but I don’t suppose the colonel would say – 'Sit down Mr Taylor please, have a cigarette – a drink?' If I want to see him now. Alackaday!.. It’s all so very funny really – like grown up children playing games at times."

"What do people see in Blues – the wireless is dripping the stuff tonight with roars of applause – can’t see anything in it myself – drooling nonsense."

Italy, 19 October 1943

"There are plenty of chickens, sheep, etc. wandering about – the sgt-major wanders about with Donald the Duck under his arm and can elicit a protesting quack by a slight pressure. Now and again Donald is launched undignifiedly into the air where he flaps noisily for about 50 yds and makes a crash landing tipping violently on to his beak with a squawk. The sgt-major says he is going to persevere until he can do a perfect two-point landing but I’m afraid he’ll wait a long time as D’s chassis isn’t built right for landing on terra firma."

"I’ve spent all afternoon manufacturing tripe from a heifer which was shot yesterday – it’s quite a job but I’ve now got it to the stage at which one buys it at home except that it isn’t bleached. Two days ago we bought a lamb and had a feast magnifique of roast lamb leg and chops – very nice too. It was a triumph of the culinary art as it was roasted to a perfection in an oven made from a biscuit tin covered with mud. Tonight a young porker died violently after escaping twice and being chased all over the place. Tomorrow he will be in my oven I hope. The turkey was also an outstanding success. All these beasts etc we buy from the farms round about – beasts I suppose that would normally find their way to the city markets… We are fortunate in having two butchers in the squadron who bought their own livestock in peace-time and killed it themselves so they know all the answers... Tomorrow – tonight – we may move to more barren places where bully becomes once more the staple diet."

Pip must have sent Jim some photographs, but which ones? His comments about Jess, Pip's sister, are not surprising: by 1943 she had been serving in the ATS, manning searchlights at an anti-aircraft battery for nearly two years. See more about her career on the Jessie Hilditch page.

Italy, 26 October 1943

"I would scarcely have recognised Jess – she has quite grown up hasn’t she and has lost that unworldly look of hers – quite a practical-looking young lady now. D.J. looks fine and obviously hasn’t suffered from any lack of vitamins in spite of the absence of many so-called necessities."

"The radio is churning out Henry Hall from Blackburn and some wench is blurting something about being ‘like a bird up in a tree – I’m hap-hap-hap-hapee – as can be-e-e.’ Marvellous stuff. The set is a different one again – more or less salvaged from the junk heap and rebuilt. It’s fixed in a box resembling an orange box and is all knobs, nails, bits of wire and string but it goes. The main switch is an electric light one from someone’s dining room!"

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