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A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy
By Norman Lewis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Norman Lewis
All rights reserved.
On board Duchess of Bedford off coast of Italy.
It was announced to us at half past six today that an armistice with Italy has been signed and would take effect from tomorrow, when we are due to land at Salerno. It was clear that no one knew what awaited us, although air-raids on part of the convoy make it seem that the Germans are likely to fight on. We were lectured by an Intelligence officer who told us, surprisingly, that despite all the agents we had assumed to be working for us in Italy absolutely no information had come out regarding the situation. It was not even known whether Mussolini's OVRA still existed. The lecture in fact was purposeless, and could have been summed up in a single sentence: 'We know nothing.'
Except for us, all the troops in this ship are Americans. Although we were attached to the Headquarters of the American Fifth Army at their own request, because they possessed no security service of their own, we are cold-shouldered and left to our own devices except by some poker-playing sergeants, probably Mississippi ferry boat gamblers in civilian life, who remove my poker winnings accumulated in the past year in a half-hour's play.
Landed on 'Red Beach', Paestum, at seven o'clock. Boatloads had been going ashore all day after a dawn shelling from the ships and a short battle for the beachhead. Now an extraordinary false serenity lay on the landward view. A great sweep of bay, thinly pencilled with sand, was backed with distant mountains gathering shadows in their innumerable folds. We saw the twinkle of white houses in orchards and groves, and distant villages clustered tightly on hilltops. Here and there, motionless columns of smoke denoted the presence of war, but the general impression was one of a splendid and tranquil evening in the late summer on one of the fabled shores of antiquity.
We hauled the motor cycles off the landing-craft, started them easily, and rode up over the wire-mesh laid across the sand, making for the cover of a wood. The corpses of those killed earlier in the day had been laid out in a row, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, with extreme precision as if about to present arms at an inspection by death. We numbered eleven: ten sergeants and a sergeant-major. Captain Cartwright, the Field Security Officer, badly smashed up in a car crash the day before we embarked, was presumably still in hospital in Oran. We had been given no briefing or orders of any kind, and so far as the Americans were concerned we might as well not have existed. This was the greatest invasion in this war so far — probably the greatest in human history — and the sea was crowded to the horizon with uncountable ships, but we were as lost and ineffective as babes in the wood. No one knew where the enemy was, but the bodies on the beach at least proved he existed. In place of the guns, tanks, armoured cars, barbed wire we had expected to see, all that had been landed in this sector of the beach were pyramids of office equipment for use by Army Headquarters. We had been issued with a Webley pistol and five rounds of ammunition apiece. Most of us had never fired a gun.
As the sun began to sink splendidly into the sea at our back we wandered at random through this wood full of chirping birds and suddenly found ourselves at the wood's edge. We looked out into an open space on a scene of unearthly enchantment. A few hundred yards away stood in a row the three perfect temples of Paestum, pink and glowing and glorious in the sun's last rays. It came as an illumination, one of the great experiences of life. But in the field between us and the temple lay two spotted cows, feet in the air. We crept back into the depths of the sheltering wood, burrowed into the undergrowth, and as soon as night fell, slept. At some time during the night I awoke in absolute darkness to the sound of movements through the bushes, then a mutter of voices in which I distinguished German words. The voices died away, and I slept again.
A warm, calm, morning. We set out to explore a little of our immediate environment and were admiring the splendid husk of the Temple of Neptune when the war came to us in the shape of a single attacking plane. Hearing its approach, we crouched under a lintel. The plane swooped, opened up with its machine-guns, and then passed on to drop a single bomb on the beach before heading off northwards. One of my friends felt a light tap on a pack he was wearing, caused by a spent machine-gun bullet which fell harmlessly to the ground. The experience was on the whole an exhilarating one. We appreciated the contrasts involved and no one experienced alarm.
In our small way we have become seasoned to the hazards of war. Some delicate inbuilt mechanism of the nerves has accepted and acclimatised itself to a relative loss of security, and minor dangers. This happy situation did not apply in the case of some of the American HQ troops we encountered, who were utterly raw and had been shipped out here straight from the eternal peace of places like Kansas and Wisconsin. The state of their nerves constituted a much greater threat than the FW 190 which paid us a visit about once an hour. Armed hillbillies were constantly jumping out from behind a hedge to point their rifles at us and scream a demand for an answer to a password that nobody had bothered to give us.
Our isolation continues. Battles must be going on somewhere, but all we know of them are the rumours picked up when we join the chow-line. At meal times, when the Sergeant-Major tries to talk to any of the HQ staff, he is waved away, so we are free to come and go exactly as we please, and occupy ourselves as we think fit. My own personal isolation is of a more absolute order — an isolation within isolation — for as a newcomer to the section I am unavoidably something of an outsider. These men I have known little more than one week have been through the North Africa campaign together, and whatever their original incompatibilities, they have long since shaken down to form their own little closed society. When trouble comes they lock their shields together, and keep their heads down. For the moment I am very much of a stranger.
The Fifth Army Headquarters has moved, and we — helplessly parasitic as we are — with it, to Albanella Station, just south of the Sele river. This is set in a delicate fusion of landscapes: apple orchards full of glowing fruit, vineyards, and olive groves haunted by multitudes of brilliant blue grasshoppers. A few hundred yards away both the road and railway line are carried on a bridge over the river. This, somewhat damaged, is under repair by a team of British engineers, and it is assumed that sooner or later we shall cross it to advance. Fifteen miles or so away to the north a greyish bruise on the otherwise faultless sky indicates a conflict of which we see or hear nothing, and which in our perfumed Arcadia seems remote and unreal.
For all that, an uneasy feeling is beginning to grow that the present unnatural calm cannot last, and that the Fifth Army does not altogether realise what it is doing here. There are still no tanks in sight, no artillery but a few ack-ack guns, and no signs of any defences being prepared. The only urgent activity in our neighbourhood is that of hundreds of soldiers streaming like ants to bring typewriters and filing cabinets up from the beach. Those not occupied in this way hang about in desultory street-corner groups, many of them unshaven. We get the impression that they have slight confidence in their leaders and we are frequently asked when we expect Montgomery and the Eighth Army to arrive. Unfortunately Montgomery is still a hundred miles away. So far the only evidence of German interest in our presence here is an occasional visitation by five FW 190s. These cause great alarm but do no damage, as their target is the great armada of ships anchored in the bay.
This afternoon we proceeded with our private exploration of the neighbourhood. We are surrounded by a beautiful desolation. All the farms are abandoned, the trees are heavy with apples, and the ripe tomato crop will soon wither. Unhappy animals mooch about looking for water. Two Americans, tired of their packet K rations containing the ham, cheese, biscuits and sweets that seem so desirable to us, chased after a cow that first galloped, then limped, then staggered as they fired innumerable bullets from their pistols into it. Finally they brought it down and hacked off a hindquarter, with which they departed. We took over an empty farmhouse, littered everywhere with the debris of a hasty departure: articles of clothing strewn about, unmade beds, a pink-cheeked doll on the floor. Italian soldiers who had walked away from the war were plodding along the railway line in their hundreds on their way to their homes in the south. Their feet were usually in terrible shape, with blood sometimes oozing through the cracked leather of their boots; they were in tremendous spirits, and we listened to the trail of their laughter and song all through the day. I spoke to one of these and gave him a few pieces of cheese salvaged from K ration packs jettisoned by the thousand after the candies they contain had been removed. In return he presented me with a tiny scrap of tinselly material torn from a strip he pulled from his pocket. This was from the mantle of a miracle-working Madonna in Pompeii, and by carrying it on my person I would be rendered bulletproof for at least a year. 'You never know when it might come in handy,' he said, and I agreed. I thanked him profusely, and we shook hands and parted.
Lining up for chow this evening we were told by Americans belonging to the 45th Division that they have been ordered by their officers not only to take no German prisoners, but to use the butts of their rifles to beat to death those who try to surrender. I find this almost incredible.
Suddenly, today, the war arrived with a vengeance. We were sitting outside our farmhouse, reading, sunning ourselves and trying to come to terms with the acrid-tasting wine, when we noticed that a rumble of distant cannonades, present from early morning, seemed suddenly to have come closer. Soon after, a line of American tanks went by, making for the battle, and hardly any time passed before they were back, but now there were fewer of them, and the wild and erratic manner in which they were driven suggested panic. One stopped nearby, and the crew clambered out and fell into one another's arms, weeping. Shortly afterwards there were cries of 'gas', and we saw frantic figures wearing gas masks running in all directions.
Chaos and confusion broke out on all sides. The story was that there had been a breakthrough by the 16th Panzer Grenadier Division, which struck suddenly in our direction down the Battipaglia road, with the clear intention of reaching the sea at Paestum, wiping out the Fifth Army HQ, and cutting the beachhead in half.
Rumours began to come in thick and fast, the most damaging one being that General Mark Clark was proposing to abandon the beachhead and had asked the Navy for the Fifth Army to be re-embarked. No one we spoke to believed that this operation was feasible, the feeling being that at the first signs of a withdrawal the Germans would simply roll forward and drive us into the sea.
In view of the general confusion, and the absence of precise information of any kind, Sergeant-Major Dashwood decided to send four members of the Section on their motor cycles to Salerno tomorrow, using a narrow track running along the shore. The hope was that the Field Security Officer might have arrived there by now, and be able to issue the order releasing us from this absurd predicament. It sounded a hazardous adventure for the people concerned, as no one was even quite certain whether or not the Germans had reached the sea at any point between us and the city. They are certainly in solid possession of the main road running parallel with the track.
This afternoon distraught American ack-ack gunners brought down their third Spitfire. This had just flown in from Sicily and, taking off in pursuit of FW 190s, was immediately shot down, while flying at about three hundred feet.
We are in an olive grove two miles south of Albanella Station. The battle for the beachhead has been going on for twenty hours — all through the day and night. Throughout the afternoon the noise of the bombardment strengthened and drowned the happy chorus of the Italians trudging by incessantly down the railway track on their way home. By nightfall the din was tremendous. German tanks coming down the tongue of land between the Sele and Calore rivers and making for Albanella had reached a point just out of sight of our hastily-dug slit trench, possibly a mile and a half away, where they were taking a pasting from the heavy guns of several battleships anchored just offshore. Every time these opened up with salvoes of fifteen-inch shells our uniforms fluttered in the eddies of blast. To the north a great semicircle of nightscape had taken on a softly pulsating halo spread by a kind of ragged fireworks display, and occasionally a massive explosion opened up like a pink sea-anemone with wavering feelers of fire. At about eleven o'clock an excited American officer dashed up in a jeep. He was distributing light carbines, and we got one apiece with the warning that the failure to return them next day would be treated as a serious military crime. With these weapons, and our 38 Webley pistols we were ordered to assist in the defence of Army Headquarters against the Mark IV and Tiger tanks that were now rolling towards us. What this officer did not tell us was that he and the rest of the officers were quietly pulling out and abandoning their men.
Outright panic now started and spread among the American troops left behind. In the belief that our position had been infiltrated by German infantry they began to shoot each other, and there were blood-chilling screams from men hit by the bullets.
We crouched in our slit trench under the pink, fluttering leaves of the olives, and watched the fires come closer, and the night slowly passed.
Then at four o'clock we learned that the Headquarters was to be evacuated after all, and that we were not to be sacrificed. We started up our motor bikes, kept as close as we could to the armoured car that had brought the news, and by God's mercy avoiding the panic-stricken fire directed from cover at anything that moved, reached this field with its rabble of shocked and demoralised soldiery — officers separated from their men, and men from their officers.
Official history will in due time set to work to dress up this part of the action at Salerno with what dignity it can. What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos. What I shall never understand is what stopped the Germans from finishing us off.
Miraculously Moore, one of the four sergeants sent to Salerno, got back; a hair-raising twelve-mile drive by jeep, round the edge of a battle raging all the way. The FSO had arrived in the town, and we were ordered to leave the motor cycles and do our best to get into the town by any vehicle that might attempt the run and could be persuaded to take us. After much negotiating Dashwood managed to line up a command car, but at the last moment we were told that there was not enough space to take us. Later we saw the command car depart, loaded up with wine. The cannonading has been going on all day but the din is lessening. Confusion is still intense. Many of the men we see wandering about have no idea where their officers are and have not seen them since the German counterattack began.
Excerpted from Naples '44 by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1978 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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