La Contessa

Ernest, Contessa, John Rayne

Ernest, Contessa, John Rayne

She must have been in her fifties. Her hair was blonde and her eyes blue, so there was little of the Latin in her appearance. Her villa stood on the rocky Adriatic coast, a few miles south of Bari and alongside a fishing village called Torre-a-Mare. This villa must once have been magnificent but, due to the ravages of war was, in 1944, sadly in need of a face-lift. It faced away from the sea and, as you approached along the short drive, you faced an ornate fountain which no longer splashed.

We wandered where we wished in Italy (behold the arrogant victor!). We noticed a member of the Pioneer Corps by the fountain and went near out of curiosity. He was spraying oil onto the water and explained that he’d been ordered to do this to kill the mosquito larvae wriggling on the surface. There’ d been 35,000 cases of malaria in Sicily alone and this had retarded our advance somewhat. As we were chatting this lady emerged from the villa and approached us down the wide stone steps. We thought she was going to remonstrate, but she soon put on a warm smile and asked if we spoke Italian. John Rayne, my companion of the Service Corps didn’t, but I’d not long ago taken a twelve-week crash course at “L’Ecole des langues vivantes” in Cairo, as there was a shortage of interpreters. I had difficulty with the hideous dialect of Puglia, but this lady spoke beautifully. We were soon on good terms and she invited John and me to a glass of wine in the villa.

As we sat sipping a glass of Chianti she introduced herself by handing us her card. My mind went back to the old period films I’d seen where a card was always accompanied by “Your servant, Sir”. The card read “La Contessa Caracciola, Principessa di Taratto”. We were impressed. She told us of how a forbear of hers had helped Lord Nelson at Naples during the Napoleonic era and connived in his affair with Lady Hamilton. After the war I checked this and found that this ancestor was hanged by Nelson at the request of the Queen of Naples! Anyway we enjoyed the wine and she invited the two of us to dinner the following Sunday.

Sunday arrived and we were regaled with a sumptuous feast. We each had an array of five different wine glasses. There were about four courses, one the inevitable pasta, and wines corresponding to each course, followed by peaches in brandy and fresh fruit. This was all served up by Angelina, a tough peasant woman who wore a permanent black scowl. She did not try to hide her xenophobia. This woman irritated us and we returned her bad humour. There was always this guilty feeling when we ate what was patently black market food, but we still enjoyed it.

Elena di Caracciola, Contessa

La Contessa Elena di Caracciola, Principessa di Taratto

We dined there every Sunday for six weeks. There was a grand piano, the Contessa acquired a violin and with John on the piano and me on the fiddle we played the old musicals which she loved – The Desert Song, Maid of the Mountains and several others. It was like singing for your supper.

There was an embarrassing incident one Sunday. Cheese was served and I looked down fascinated at my matchbox-sized portion. It was honeycombed and dozens of tiny maggots were crawling through this labyrinth. The lady was quite enjoying her first taste, maggots an’ all, but we gazed steadfastly at these revolting creatures. After a moment she noticed our expressions. “Is something wrong?” she asked. I pointed to the denizens of the cheese.

“Well you know, they’re only little tiny bags full of cheese. Angelina, take the cheese away and remove all the little beasts (le piccole bestie) .” The scowl grew blacker, but she was gone for about ten minutes. On her return, she slammed our plates down before us – minus the little beasts. I took a small piece of the cheese (which was delicious) when, too late, I saw a survivor poke his head out of the lonely remains. With my little fork I moved him onto the side of the plate. Incredibly he curled himself and launched himself back onto the food. I enjoyed a vicious sense of victory as I ate him!

Sometimes we swam in the sea from a fishing boat, but we always suffered afterwards from abraded knees due to the sharp underwater rocks. A few of the local girls came to swim until the local priest printed leaflets ORDERING them not to fraternise. I found Italian priests to be arrogant and obviously pro-fascist.

Malaria got me at last. I was moved into Bari military hospital for a week where I was fed huge doses of quinine twice daily. While there I was visited by the kindly Contessa. She came loaded with flowers and a bottle of wine. She even offered me a haven while I convalesced, but I felt that I should decline this for I was doubtful about the army’s attitude. Italians were still looked upon with a jaundiced eye. I was still a member of the organisation which began in Scotland, in 1940 under MI9.

La Contessa. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Earl and Matt Hewitt

I was next posted to No. 6 Special Force Staff Section, whose function was to liaise with the partisans in Yugoslavia. About 15 of us were sent to Colonel Charles Villiers who was recently back from parachuting into Serbia. He had been given one specific task – to ascertain what kind of resistance to the Germans there was in Austria, now part of Greater Germany. No such evidence was ever found, so we concentrated on stepping up the Dakota flights taking supplies to Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, German prisoners at Brindisi were being vetted to find if any of them would be willing to become our agents in Austria. There were three: they received special training including parachuting. They were dropped near a small village in Corinthia. Two of them went straight to Gestapo HQ and betrayed the third member who was rounded up and shot.

I’d kept in touch with the Contessa all this while and after the war too. I ended my army life at Schloss Annabichl, near Klagenfurt, from where I was demobilised in February 1946. Although my liaison with the Italian lady faded away with time, I remember her with great affection.

The Contessa's son Franz. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Earl and Matt Hewitt

  1. #1 by yvonne taranto on August 1, 2013 - 1:41 pm

    My grandmother told me when she was young she and her parents worked for a Contessa at a villa just south of Bari near Santo Spirito (Sp?). I think she said her name was Serafina but I’m not sure. This had to be around 1900. Could that contessa have been the mother of “La Contessa” in the story?

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