I’d just left a small bistro in Bari where I’d enjoyed a meagre snack as a change from army food. Everything in Italy was meagre in 1944. A cruel black market was thriving, at the expense of the poor, many of whom showed signs of malnutrition or even rickets. The eighth army was moving sluggishly northward and we had victory in our sights.
Suddenly I was brought up short by a terrible shriek. It was a female voice and the shriek was followed by a blow as the body was struck by some brutal weapon in the hands of some sadistic thug. The blows were repeated many times until finally the shrieks weakened and then died out. The blows continued until the assailant seemed satisfied that his victim was unconscious. Then I observed the sign on the building from whence the cries had come: PODESTA (State Police, Italy’s version of Germany’s GESTAPO). It seems that Italians had changed sides in the war but not their Fascist habits.
I was billeted opposite an old Italian air force barracks and only today had the chance to look around. Then I noticed that I was not the only one shocked by this experience, for only a few feet away stood a quiet little Italian. He wore an old unbuttoned raincoat and a soft trilby hat. His features were Latin and his skin was sallow, and from his huge brown eyes great drops came and coursed down his cheeks. He looked at me and a look of shame came over his face, as if to dissociate himself from this needless violence. As the windows of the Podestá were open the noise would have been heard right across the town. We went our different ways and tried to forget the incident.
I took a look around our barracks and found what strange people the Italians were. There were signs on all the walls saying things like “May God bless the fuselage” (and the propeller, tail, wings, piloti, in fact each had its own little notice). There were other signs like “The good fascist does not swear and does not spit on the ground.” “Sons of the she-wolf must follow Il Duce”.
On the whole we got on well with the Italian people. Most of them had always been reluctant to join the Germans and also to fight, and hated the humiliation of their country being occupied. We pitied their deprivation and sought to alleviate this with our chocolate and cigarette rations.
I met this little man a few days later and we had a conversation. I invited him for a glass of wine, which embarrassed him. I guessed he could not afford to buy drinks, and learned later that he had five children to feed. I said he could pay me back some time and he led me to a cosy little cellar where I ordered a bottle of red wine and we settled down cosily. He recounted many horror stories of life under Mussolini, and was at pains to express his gratitude for the Allies’ part in ridding him of such a regime.
His name was Mauro Spillone and he had been a printer’s compositor until such work was suspended due to the war. His five children scaled down from Tina, 10 to Seppi, 3. One of the girls was called Regina. One day he took me to meet his wife and family. The former was plump and hearty, and the latter were simply gorgeous. They eyed me warily when we arrived, but after a few little gifts of sweets which I had saved for the occasion they warmed up and accepted me. Soon I was overwhelmed with attention . Such is the power of bonbons!
I only stayed in Bari for about six weeks; then came the inevitable move to the north, but during that time some of my comrades had been introduced to the family. We all agreed to pool our luxuries to make a big present at Christmas.
I shall never forget the sad expression on the faces of Mauro, his wife and bambini as they said goodbye, for I was posted north on the 23rd December, 1944, and so missed a wonderful Christmas with a family I’d grown to love.