Monday, May 17, 2010

Recalling my father's escape from Italy

Free at last: Pat, centre, with fellow officers after his escape.
When the Italians were finally preparing to pull out of the Second World War, my father Pat was near the gate at Modena prisoner of war (POW) camp in Italy where he had been held for many months. He heard a German officer asking an Italian officer: “How many pilots do you have here?” Pat realised there would be no general release of prisoners and that the Germans would absorb the POWs held by the Italians. He longed to escape and had prepared himself by making a jacket from a blanket and staining it with coffee.

One morning soon after this he noticed that there was a guard tower without a guard in it. Hastily he announced to his friends that he was going over the wall and one of them, Neville Blatt, shoved a tin of Red X biscuits into his pocket as he took off. He ran straight towards the empty tower, crossed the trip wire and jumped for the barbed wire on top, hauling himself over the wall. Not a shot was fired. On the other side was a barbed wire fence, and as he approached it he heard gunfire. A deserting Italian soldier was running past and dropped his rifle as he ran. Then he noticed Pat, ran back, picked up his rifle and came towards him.

“The war is over for you and me, my friend,” Pat implored, thinking the end had come. The soldier said nothing, put his rifle under the fence and lifted it up for Pat to crawl through. They both ran off. Pat ran as far as he could and then collapsed to rest in some grass. Before long a friend called Barnie Barnard came running along, having come over the wall himself. Pat let him get a few metres ahead of him and then called out in Italian: “Halt, who goes there?!” Barnie froze, then slowly turned around. When he saw who it was he swore at Pat for a prolonged period of time. After a rest, and seeing that nobody else was approaching, they strode off together on what would be a very difficult journey on foot that would take them 400km to the Adriatic coast in search of freedom.

With the help of Italian peasants, Pat was eventually picked up on a stony beach after signalling out to sea with a candle in a box. He was rescued by men from an Italian torpedo boat manned by the Royal Navy. He was ill with diphtheria and was first transported to a hospital ship and then to Tripoli in Libya before eventually arriving back home in SA on Christmas Eve 1943.

In 1984 my wife Estelle and I visited Modena. It reminded me of Stellenbosch, with pleasant tree-lined avenues. We went and had a drink at a cafĂ© near the station and then found a taxi. My “uncle” Neville Blatt, the man who had stuffed the tin of biscuits into my father’s jacket pocket as he prepared to run for the wall, had given me an artist’s impression of the bungalows in the POW camp and a rough description of where Pat had gone over the wall. I hoped to find the camp and go to the place at the wall where my father had pulled himself over and away to freedom. I also had some of the official postcards, partly censored, that my father had sent to my mother from the camp. I showed one to the taxi driver who spoke no English but understood immediately. “Ah, Inglise escapato! (Ah, English escaped!)

He took us to the site, but alas, the camp, for some time used as a school, had been demolished for redevelopment, with billboards all around the site. It was a crushing disappointment, and the taxi driver felt compassion for us. On the way back we asked him to recommend a restaurant and with alacrity he took us to one owned by friends. He explained to the proprietor who we were and presumably asked him to take good care of us. It was a Sunday and there were families enjoying lunch together. We were given a large carafe of white wine and placed our orders. Estelle was reading the postcards and began to weep. The mama of the restaurant came back with plates of pasta but exclaimed when she saw Estelle’s tears and retreated to give her time to recover. When she returned the plates were piled with an assortment of pastas, served with kind words of consolation.

Sitting in the train that afternoon, on the way back to the main line to Venice, we passed through pretty vineyards and I had visions of my father in his home-made cap and jacket, ducking and diving as he rushed away after his escape. I remembered the stories he had told, all the stories, and then I wept, uncontrollably, trying to conceal my tears from the passengers opposite me.