The author recounts abseiling down a cliff in North-eastern Italy while researching her book, Fighting with the Enemy
As I inched my way round the mossy cliff side clutching on to clumps of tough tussock and trying not to look down, I wondered how on earth I had found myself in this predicament. I was afraid of heights, had never abseiled in my life and was so scared my heart was nearly jumping out of my chest. I cursed Jack who was the reason for my being there, but even as I did, I chuckled at the pleasurable thought of telling him how I had risked life and limb for him.
I was on a precarious journey to a cave tucked into the face of a mountainous cliff about 2,500 feet above the Po Valley in the Friuli region of north-eastern Italy, close to the Yugoslav border. It was here where Jack Lang, together with fellow New Zealander Bob Smith and an American airman, Colonel Ross Greening, had lived for three months during the bitterly cold winter months of early 1944. They were escaped prisoners-of-war who, assisted by Italian civilians and partisans, had been evading recapture from the Germans. They had been directed to the cave by locals from the surrounding villages of Reant, Valle and Masarolis.
Jack had said the ‘path’ to the cave was ‘a bit steep’ and needed to be arrived at ‘on foot’, so I was prepared for some scrambling and climbing. But when my Italian collaborator opened his boot and brought out several pairs of mountain boots, gloves, a rope and a pick axe the extent of Jack’s laconic Kiwi understatement hit home. Cheerfully telling me to find a pair of boots I could fit, Franco started searching for a tree strong enough to tie the rope to. I suggested that he go alone or that my fifteen year old daughter take my place, but Franco was adamant. ‘How could you go back to New Zealand and tell Jack you didn’t get to see his cave?’
So leaving my daughter with 82 year old Anselmo who had guided us to the spot by the side of the dusty road, I apprehensively set out down and then around the steep incline. I was harnessed to the rope which Franco, a 62 year old retired architect and skilled mountaineer, would tie to successive trees. Flitting back and forth with the dexterity of a mountain goat, he tested slender saplings, which sprouted out at right angles, assuring me of their reliability. As I slid and crawled and grabbed, I wondered how Jack, admittedly much younger than me at the time, had managed to do this several times a day.
When I had lived in villages in the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside during the seventies and eighties, there had been few acknowledged connections between Italy and New Zealand. Yet thousands of men of my father’s generation had fought in the Italian campaign from September 1943 until May1945. I knew too that my uncle, like many others, had been a prisoner-of-war for four years, some of that time spent in camps in Italy. But I could not equate my own experience of living in ancient stone cottages with few amenities, speaking only Italian, and reinventing my Kiwi self-image with the faded photos of young New Zealand men in battle-dress against an Italian rural backdrop.
Most New Zealand returned servicemen never talked much about their experiences anyway, and nothing was said to question the common perception that the Italian war effort was pitiful, and the Italian soldier or ‘Eyetie’ worthless in battle. Italy, fighting on the side of Germany from 1940-1943, was perceived to have changed sides when it looked as if they were losing. It was a surprise, therefore, to arrive in Italy in the summer of 1974 to find that the ‘Resistance’ was a constant point of reference and an icon of national identity and pride. I had heard of the French Resistance but the existence, let alone exalted status, of an Italian Resistance was completely ignored. This invisibility puzzled me. I soon heard of the partigiani, the partisans bands fighting the Germans in mountains and forests the length and breadth of the country and paving the way for Allied troops in their arduous push up the peninsular. I learned too of the bitter battles fought between Italian Fascists loyal to Mussolini and anti-Fascist partisans, which had left lacerating wounds, still unhealed today, on the Italian psyche.
But it was years later before I realised that thousands of escaped Allied prisoners-of-war, among whom approximately 450 New Zealanders, had been at large in the Italian countryside sharing the same vicissitudes, deprivations and tragedies of the Italian people. Some of them joined partisan brigades carrying out dangerous and under-resourced operations against the Germans. Hunted, fearful, often hungry and desperate to remain free, these men lived on their wits and determination, adapting to an unfamiliar terrain, language and culture of a people who, until very recently, had been ‘the enemy’.
However, without the assistance of huge numbers of rural Italians who fed, sheltered and clothed them at the risk of their own lives, these men would not have survived. Through this shared experience, friendships were formed between these New Zealanders and members of Italian families that have continued among their descendants to this day.
I set out to track down the veterans who had lived alongside the civilians and partisans in those dramatic months. I was inspired to bring together individual experiences played out against one of the most brutal and desperate periods in Italy’s chequered history. I wanted to find out why so many people concealed and helped the escapers when food was scarce and their lives were at risk. And I wanted to discover how these young, rugged colonial boys saw the Italian people and the tumultuous political events they were caught up in.
I didn’t have far to look. A swathe of books and unpublished manuscripts exist bearing witness to the incredible, often heart-rending adventures of these young men from a country 12,000 miles away that most Italians at the time had never heard of. Although many veterans are no longer alive, sons and daughters have been eager for their stories to be known. With those men still living and now in their eighties, I shared many absorbing hours, as we recalled Italian phrases and rhymes and compared notes on everything from harvesting the grapes to eating horse meat. Above all, I listened to their stories of remarkable resilience, courage and gratitude, stories that several men had not revealed before because they sounded too fantastic to be true.
I knew they were real because I knew what my ex-husband, a small child in Italy at the time, and his mother had witnessed. Also, by this time I had immersed myself in history books, literature and films on the Italian Resistance. But in order to form a more comprehensive picture, I needed to return to Italy to discover how the Italians remembered the New Zealanders in their midst. I headed for the Veneto and Friuli regions where the majority of New Zealanders had been interned at Campo 57 at Gruppignano near the town of Udine in Friuli. From there, most of the men who would successfully escape had been sent to satellite working camps on farms dotted throughout the countryside.
Their stories began on September 8 1943 when Italy, turning her back on her axis partner, Germany, signed the Armistice and surrendered to the Allies. In the chaotic aftermath, the Italian Army collapsed and guards fled the prison camps. More than half the 80,000 prisoners-of-war managed to escape, despite being instructed to stay put and await their imminent release by the Allies. However, within days of the Armistice the Germans had poured more troops into central and northern Italy. The majority of prisoners were recaptured and sent to prison camps in Germany. The Allied advance up the peninsular was to take 20 months before Italy’s liberation in May 1945.
Often prisoners-of-war were thought to have ‘sat out’ the war or to have had a lesser time of it than those fighting with the Eighth Army in the Italian Campaign. But most had known bitter fighting, the humiliation of capture, the unnerving ennui of prison-life, and for those who escaped the heady mix of fear and excitement. The demands made on them were diverse, complex, and required survival skills necessary to any battlefield.
My sources then are the voices of those men who were there ‘behind the lines’ and the Italian men and women who encountered them. Those voices heard through interviews, memoirs, diaries and letters are in turn sombre, humorous, outraged, and emotional. They are always vivid and moving. They capture the authenticity of a time that stands out like a beacon at the end of their lives and connects the peoples of two countries, and the tragedy, the absurdity, and the unquenchable humanity lurking in any war.
I arrived at my destination, a dark oblong slit that yawned back into a scarcely discernible dusty cavern. It was hard to believe that here, from the side of a cliff, steps had led down into a cosy domestic living space complete with bed, tables and chairs. I sat still for a while and looked out at the breathtaking sweep of valley below. Some flowering weeds were growing randomly at the mouth of the cave. Before embarking on my journey back up the cliff, I picked one to smuggle back to New Zealand. For Jack.