Leaving Italy

 

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Jim wrote a long letter from Italy on 27th October and then, very unusually, only sent five more before the end of the year. First he fell ill and was moved in stages back to a safe hospital, then after recovery, instead of rejoining his Unit, he seems to have been diverted elsewhere for what he thought was excessive training.

Italy, 27 October 1943

“As you probably gather from the news it is fairly heavy going out here in Italy chiefly on account of the type of country – hilly isn’t the word and nothing is too small for him to demolish. You must see the demolitions to understand the slow progress. The R.E.s are doing magnificent work building bridges etc. but it all takes time. In the earlier days of the Italian campaign there were thousands of Itie soldiers on the roads, slogging their way home. It reminded me of pictures I have seen of the Retreat from Moscow. Their uniforms in tatters, unshaven, hollow-cheeked, barefoot or with their feet tied up in rags they went plodding down the road in twos, threes, half dozens and even the civilians avoided them as if they were lepers. We got the cheers they got nothing. No one bothered about them least of all the British. – they just went home."

"The part of the country we are in at present is not particularly hilly – just rolling uplands very like the South Downs. Ploughing is in progress everywhere and they use a plough very similar to the Wog one except it is iron not wooden. Very different from the heavy English plough it is just a ploughshare with an upright stick guided with one hand and cuts only a shallow trench. They plough huge areas, going on and on for hours. It is amusing to hear them directing the horses or rather horse. They have only one 'call' for all animals – pigs, cattle, goats and horses. It is a deep long-drawn 'Ah-h-h' with varying inflections. To start the horse they have a soft 'Ah' to stop him a loud 'Ah', to turn him left or right another 'Ah'. Even geese and turkeys answer the call."

" We have been informed that we can now describe battle experiences at any time providing we don’t mention place names or names of Units involved – they are getting rash! The type of incident I would like to describe mightn’t go down too well. Alec for instance taking up ammo. to our forward tanks had to cross a river on a pontoon bridge and in goes the lorry into the aqua. The ammo. had to be humped by hand from the river under shell-fire and carried to the tanks by hand – no light job with 3 inch shells. This took several hours of wading waist-high. We had no casualties fortunately and Alec was left alone with his truck. He was there three days before he realised he was being sniped at fairly regularly! Anyway it finished up with the ammo. being all humped back again! Lovely war!”

About the photographs he had received earlier and was re-examining, Jim wrote: “… You’ve no right to look so nice-looking to a bloke wot is so far away…”

He had hopes of being home by Xmas ‘44.

“I doubt if Jerry can last out that long although the prisoners we take are still fairly defiant. I think it is plain defiance and nothing else – not many have any real confidence now – it’s the thin end of the wedge.”

“31st. Since writing the above the weather has broken completely and we’ve had three days of torrential rain. Our field is ploughed so you can imagine the mess as it is almost pure clay..."

“We’ve had no more pork or turkey since moving to this new location… we are living on bully all the time. I loathe it by now and if the war lasts much longer the sight of it will make me gibber… sometimes one gets the feeling that the Powers That Be imagine all rankers come from hovels. It makes my blood ooze out when some blighted blimp and in a voice bloated with port and whisky says that the army food is better than most of the men ever ate in peace time. Army food is army food and never will be anything else and in peace time even the poorest of the men would have thrown it away.”

He recounted a joke heard at a recent ENSA concert.

“Two privates were discussing what they would do on returning home (no! this isn’t that one!). The first one said he was going straight to the ‘Old Duck’ where he would drink long luscious pints all day. The other said he would spend all night with wild women. Then the soldiers perused a newspaper for some time in silence. Finally one said ‘Joe – what’s lumbago?’ Joe didn’t know and said so. Now the padre had overheard all this conversation and thinking he could nip their ambitions in the bud said ‘Lumbago is a very painful affliction of the back caused by drinking pints all day and consorting with wild women all night.’ ‘I see’ said Joe ‘I only asked because it says in this here paper that the Archbishop of Canterbury has suffered with it for years.’”

Jim wrote some “Nature Notes” on his recent observations.

“In the lorry yesterday I watched wasps pouncing on flies and carrying them away. It is the first time I’ve seen them tackle live flies although when in hospital one returned 57 times to carry away flies I had killed with the old swatter. Swatting flies is a pastime which passes hours away when lying on a stretcher for days and he was a genius who thought of providing a swatter in one’s hospital kit. Also yesterday we killed a large rat with a shovel and two days ago I found a complete snake skin about three feet long – evidently sloughed fairly recently.”

He turned to mechanical problems – their wireless had packed up and the lorry needed attention – and catering.

“Our Dodge has an air-lock somewhere in the fuel feed system and this last two days has needed petrol poured into the carburettor and loads of wonking to get her going. She nearly blew my hand off yesterday. It’s funny how each lorry has its own individual way of starting up… I was the only man in the squadron who could start Aristotle at all at one time. I taught Fred and then the new driver. Three weeks after handing it over to him I couldn’t start her at all!”

“We are still living on Compo Tea ‘accumulated’ during our Sicilian days but there is very little left now… we still have some coffee beans which are over two years old now. ‘No stoves will be lit in lorries’ goes the order – stoves are lit regularly in lorries and have been for three years. If you set one on fire it costs you £3 fine and 14 days No. 1 Field Punishment unless the C.O. is feeling really off colour that day. One of our sergeants lost his lorry one day in Alex (stolen) it cost him £20 fine – the lorry and contents was valued at £2200… at one time over 400 lorries were pinched in one month from inside a barracks near Alex.”

Jim had a project going at this time to send some almonds back to Pip and to his parents. I'm not sure that they ever arrived, or were even sent, judging by his comment in a later letter that: “I haven’t sent off the almonds yet – can’t find anything to pack them in…”

The rest of the letter was about financial matters involving some money Jim was sending to Pip and also possible errors in rates of pay. He returned to the matter of the money he had sent in several subsequent letters – it was obviously an issue they had with the Army when their intentions were ignored.

Italy, 30 October 1943

“I spent some time shelling almonds – the idea being to send you a couple or so pounds and ditto to 20 Anf… It takes about 1 cu. yd. of shellful almonds to produce about 2 cu. ins. of shelled ditto… shelling almonds is a slow and dangerous job owing to the unbounded capacity of the shell to withstand blows calculated to kill an ox and the probability of a skid onto one’s fingers…”

“Concerning the lucre I have sent to you. It appears that one of our chaps sent a similar amount to his wife some time ago and she received £7 only, with a note from the Paymaster saying that the rest had been put into the soldier’s post-war Credits. I don’t know what the little game is this time – it has never happened before to my knowledge…”

“…My pay for instance is now 4/9d per day not 3/6d as they say. It has never been 3/6d as a matter of interest as it went from 3/3d to 3/9d!... Incidentally you should be getting at present from the Army 31/- allowance per week plus 1/3d per day compulsory stoppage from my pay – this will now go up to 1/6d as from the 17th of this month. O.K?

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Christmas greetings 1943Jim's Eighth Army Christmas Airgraph to Pip sent from Italy on 7 November.

Italy, 12 November 1943

“We are living on apples at present having discovered quite a large orchard not a million miles away – they are a fine quality too – of several varieties and similar to a good English eating apple. We have had no more turkeys, chickens, pigs or lambs unfortunately… The country round these parts is now very English – one can notice the gradual change as one moves North out of the more Mediterranean type to this. It is a subtle difference – impossible to explain and yet real enough. One could easily imagine oneself back home now, muddy lanes with hawthorn hedges, ditches full of thistles and nettles, macadam roads, cloudy heavy skies with rain in them and mist on the hills in the early morning. What a change from the yellow glaring emptiness of the desert or the hard outlines of Palestine.”

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It sounds as though Pip’s sister Jess had been unwell and in a later letter Jim asked if she still had her appendix.

Italy, 27 November 1943

“I suppose Jess will have been operated upon by now – she will be all the better for it anyway – it was the best day’s work I ever did myself and I’ve always been glad I took the bull by the horns.”

“Re the cash I have sent you… I hear that someone else has had the same trick played on them as was played on Frankie but no results are through yet re what they are playing at.”

“The farmers have their ploughs out again, cumbersome wooden ones in these parts and pulled by two oxen yoked together. I cannot quite make out these peasants as they go about their work… apparently oblivious of the fact that they might be woofed into the next world any moment by a shell… it doesn’t seem to register in their minds that they are as likely to stop one as any of the troops around them.”

spacer 700 RAMC New Year greetings 1943-4

“Another of our blokes has just arrived back from hospital. He was a malaria case contracted about a week after mine and has spent most of his time in Dave’s place!”

 

Jim’s brother Dave was in the RAMC and, according to this New Year Airgraph he sent to Pip, was in 71 General Hospital in Sousse, Tunisia at the time.

 

Jim had another spell in various hospitals himself, having reported sick on the 7th December. Because he was frequently moved around, and he knew it would be the same after he recovered, he resigned himself to a long delay before he rejoined the Unit and could collect his mail.

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North Africa , 19 December 1943

“Woman Dear, Once more I must apologise for the huge hiatus you will have found in the mail - it must be close on three weeks since I wrote to you last. As the BBC say 'Owing to etc etc'. I’m in dock again, that's the reason, this time it’s jaundice and for the last fortnight I’ve been almost constantly on the move. I've managed to get a lot nearer Dave this time but I'm afraid it's far too long a run to have any hopes of seeing him. Africa is a hell of a big place! I find jaundice a much more pleasant upset than malaria for one thing there is no starvation diet and few pills. All the unpleasantness in fact comes before one really realises that one has more than a badly upset stomach! At one stage I would have made an excellent Chinese guerrilla but now I’m more or less back to normal colour again... This movement has also upset things for me getting any mail from you… One thing only is certain – someday somewhere I will coincide with the collection.”

“I’ve not seen Fred (Stannier) for some time – I think he’s a little crackers – the last I heard of him he was out stalking a Jerry 88mm with a Tommy gun but they couldn’t find it. The 88 retaliated by knocking a lump off the cook-house – much to the alarm of the cooks.”

Jim spent Christmas in hospital and next wrote on Boxing Day, expecting any day to be sent to catch up with his Unit again. In this he was to be disappointed.

North Africa 26 December 1943

“I’m quite well again and enjoyed a good peace time dinner yesterday – one of the undoubted advantages of being in hospital during Christmas… in the afternoon I wandered along to see a football match which if not of the standard of the local Derby was no half-hearted affair… If this is the life Dave endures I could do with several months of it myself – not at all bad. However in two or three days I expect to be on my way back to the Unit – I hope. It is usually a prolonged and tedious affair of Reinforcement and Transit Camps, here a week, there two weeks, there ten days and so on – not at all in my line.”

He hints at the preparations which eventually led to D-Day: a new address with further movement to come, training and "I don’t think it’s going to be so very long now.”

5th Batt. 1st GRTD, BNAF, 7 January 1944

“You will notice the new address – I give it because it is extremely probable that I shall not see the Unit again for a long time. It doesn’t mean I’m in another mob or anything like that. I’m still in 44 R Tanks but I don’t live there now… I’m quite OK again by the way but do not approve of the way we are made to work here – marches and muckin’ about. The only thing is that it’s not as muddy as Italy and a damn sight safer. We parade in the dark in the morning and carry on until it’s dark at night or nearly so… I reckon I should get an answer to this in three weeks time or thereabouts but I hope I’m not here to receive it – paradoxical but true. I hope everything is still going smoothly back home. I don’t think it’s going to be so very long now.”

“I wonder if you ever got the £15? I suppose you did or some of it at least – the mills of GHQ grind slowly but they grind exceeding sure. Which reminds me that I shall probably be on the carpet tomorrow as I missed a parade this afternoon for the first time and for the first time they took a Roll Call – just my luck of course. Extra guard I suppose.”

There were no more communications until March 1944 when Jim wrote a letter, using an ordinary envelope, and posted it from Worthing in Sussex. The preparations for D-Day had begun.

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