POWS AND CIGARETTES

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Cigarettes were an important part of the POW camp economy. In the 1940s the link had not yet been made between smoking and lung cancer and it was very unusual for soldiers not to smoke. My father didn’t but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being sent cigarettes because cigarettes were a form of currency.

The aim of the Red Cross was to send each man 50 cigarettes every week. From 1941 to the end of March 1945 the Red Cross sent 6 million ounces of tobacco and almost 1.5 billion cigarettes to Italy and Germany.

As well as these, families and friends could also send cigarettes to POWs using tobacco companies which held special permits. The favourites were Woodbine, Players and Craven A.

Most things could be bought with cigarettes and a sophisticated Exchange and Mart system developed and as the war went on only cigarettes and food held their value. In gambling cigarettes were used as chips. Even the packets were used. They could be turned into packs of cards which were popular because they were easily portable.

If there was no tobacco, dried leaves, coffee grounds, grass and even manure was smoked and the leaves of a Bible or Pears Encyclopaedia were used because they were particularly thin. The aim was to produce something that gave the pretence of a cigarette.

Towards the end of the war when deliveries became more sporadic the value of cigarettes rose. A watch was worth 30 cigarettes, a gold ring 20 cigarettes and a safety razor 1 cigarette.

My father never did smoke cigarettes but he did take pleasure in the odd cigar. There was a phase when an ex-student of his used to supply him with Montecristo Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed very much despite being on the other end of the political spectrum to the Castro regime. The cigars came in wooden boxes which, when empty, were handed over to his children. I loved the smell  and the colourful labels  and used them as  pencil boxes or as a store for marbles.

FAR AWAY JUST GOT CLOSER!

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FAR AWAY HAS ARRIVED!

An entirely gratuitous picture of me and my book! In fact it arrived a few days ago now but here’s the photo of me and FAR AWAY! If you’d like to buy it I’d be delighted and if you read it I’d love to know what you think. It’s available as a paperback: ISBN 9781784623401 and also as an e-book: eISBN 9781784629953.

Here’s the link: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

You can also order it through your local bookshop.

THE MOST AMAZING ADVENTURES

On the 18th January 1944 my father, Robert Blake, wrote this letter to his father, William Blake, a Norfolk teacher:

Dear Daddy

As I hope you know by now – indeed this letter may well be preceded by myself in person – I am safe, well and back with British forces. Unfortunately the laws of security prevent me telling you the full story by letter. Suffice it to say that I have had along with my two companions, the most amazing adventures, and we are extremely lucky to have got through all right. Apart from a bad cold and a very bruised right foot I feel quite well. I am still very tired.

The last few months since the Armistice with Italy must have been very worrying for you all. I hope you took the news that no news was good news as is certainly the case of Italian POWs since the Armistice …. They say we get 28 days leave as soon as we can get back to England and that should be before this letter.

Lots and lots of love to all of you especially Daddy ( he’s forgotten who he’s writing to!) and Jill. It is marvelous to be seeing you again after all these long years.

Love from Bobby

My compliments to … (this bit is torn but I think he is intending to send his compliments to his Uncle Norman) … am hoping to drink … (I assume he meant that he was hoping to drink his Uncle’s wine cellar dry although I’m sure he would have put it a lot more elegantly than that!)

If you would like to read of some of his amazing adventures then please buy my novel FAR AWAY.

Here’s the link: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

RETURN OF A DIARY

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Robert Blake

My father, Robert Blake, was one of a group of five men, consisting of Arthur Dodds, George Burnett, Ken Lowe and Beverley Edge, who were involved in an escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in September 1943. When Dad wrote his memoirs he relied on the diary of a fellow escapee, Beverley Edge, because as my father wrote on the outside of the copy it was ‘kept at the time and probably the most authentic of all.’ This is a short post on what happened to that diary.

The diary itself was written on a small paper calendar which had been handed out to all POWs in Italy the previous Christmas, prefaced with a goodwill message from Pope Pius II. As Edge comments, ‘No Christmas pudding and turkey!’ He wrote on the few blank pages between the lines of music and hymns and along the margins. The first part of the escape involved hiding in the roof of one of the huts in the camp. At the point where they were about to get down from the roof, Edge began to rip up the diary but then he changed his mind and wedged it between the tiles of the roof and the rafters.

It wasn’t until July 1961 that an attempt was made to find it. Ken Lowe another of the five men wrote to the mayor of Sulmona asking if he might help. The mayor wrote to the Italian War Office in Rome because the camp was still under the administration of the military and Ken was then contacted by an Italian, Colonel Georgio Bonoli, saying that he would try to find it   but that the POW camp had been 75% demolished. Ken and Beverley then sent a plan, marking the hut they thought they had hidden in.

In January 1962 they received from Colonel Bonoli some notes, which had been made by another of their cohort, Arthur Dodds. This meant that the Colonel was looking in the right roof! They wrote to him again and asked if he might investigate further which he did. In July 1962 the diary was handed over to the British military attaché in Rome and in September it was sent back to Ken nineteen years after he had originally written it. It was a little bit nibbled but otherwise in very good condition. They were lucky because the end of the hut they had hidden in made up part of a brick wall which surrounded the camp. So presumably the hut was left standing because if it had been demolished it would have created a hole in this wall.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

If you’re interested in reading a book which is set against the background of escaping POWs in Italy my novel FAR AWAY is available here:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Part of my book Far Away contains a fairy story written by one of the POWs who is incarcerated in a camp in Italy during the Second World War. It is about  a young girl, Pelliger, who is raised by crows and longs to fly. This post is about how I came to write that part of the book. First, I came across a letter written to my father, Robert Blake, by his Uncle Norman before he was captured. In that letter my uncle wrote about reading a recently published book called The Sword and the Stone. This book by T.H.White is about Merlin teaching the young Arthur, who becomes King Arthur, about the natural world. I’d read the book at school but not really registered that it was published in the 1940s, so I was surprised to see it mentioned. I dug it out and re-read it and enjoyed it as much as I had as a child. I was intrigued that my uncle had liked the book and rather surprised that he’d read it.

‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

At the same time, regular walks were taking me along the towpath that runs between Putney Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge and I began to notice the crows. At that time they favoured a group of trees at a junction where you can turn off the main footpath toward The Barnes Wetland Centre. Then one day I was walking along and came across a corvid mini-drama. A very large baby crow was standing in the middle of the towpath. It seemed about twice the size of an adult crow because it was so fluffy and had rather a beguiling mohican. It was doing what babies of all species have a tendency to do, it was bouncing around quite happily without any sense of danger and in the process completely terrifying its parent. I stopped and waited. Eventually, after a lot of shrieking from the nearby trees, the baby got the message and bounced off the path into a bush and I continued on my way.

‘The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …’

BRUNO BETTELHEIM: THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Over the weeks  that followed the crows continued attracting my attention. I loved the way they surfed on the air currents above Putney Bridge and perched on the top of the street lights there, clinging on even in the face of brutally strong, feather-ruffling winds. I saw them lined up on the stone wall embankment in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Putney, waiting for the tide to go out. It’s below this wall that the bottom of the river is revealed first and the crows hop about picking up food from the exposed river bed and cheeking the seagulls. I loved their chattiness, their cleverness and what appeared to me to be their distinct sense of humour. I also began to notice the musicality of their calls. I had always associated crows with a distinctly harsh ‘caw’ but as I listened to them more and more I realised that sometimes their calls were distinctly mellifluous and rather tender.

‘When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract and positive thinking.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Then I began to write my story, mainly during these walks, in small notebooks. I had no idea how it would fit in but it was presenting itself to be written, so I wrote it. To be frank I was puzzled and rather infuriated. I couldn’t see what it had to do with the rest of my novel. What on earth was I supposed to do with it? But write it I did.  In the end I wrote much more of it than I put in the book. I hope this doesn’t matter. In a sense my book is about the puzzles and incomplete stories that one generation hands down to the next and what we do with them. Within that context I hope it works but to be honest I still don’t really know.

Looking back I think the ‘uses of enchantment’ for me was that I, like my character, needed another story to be immersed in. Thinking my way into the lives of starving, bored, frustrated and imprisoned young men was grueling. Maybe the story gave me and my character some respite from that.

One thing I do know is that writing the fairy story changed my relationship with crows completely. I live on a main road in London and within spitting distance of a part of the District Line which runs overground.  Consequently, there’s a lot of traffic noise but in the early morning, as the sun is rising, it’s as quiet as it gets and it’s then when I hear the crows nesting in the plane trees across the road. There they are, those clever, funny, fiercely communal, chatty birds. To greet the day in their company is always a pleasure.

I’d highly recommend Crow Country by Mark Cocker. He’s a completely stunning writer and here’s the link to his website: http://www.markcocker.com

I also read and loved In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TINS

The importance of tins

The importance of tins

Yes, you read that right. Tins played a very important part in my father’s escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in 1943. I’m not going to give away the details of how they were used here. To find out you’ll have to read my book Far Away!

There were approximately eleven tins in each Red Cross parcel. They contained foods like condensed milk, meat roll, cocoa powder, salmon, sardines etc and they were prisoners’ sole source of metal. The Red Cross even produced a helpful leaflet written by The Metal Box Company titled: Useful Articles from Empty Tins – Hints on How to Make Them.

And make them they did. Here are some of the items:

  • drinking mugs
  • frying pans
  • soap trays
  • armour for use in plays
  • ashtray
  • the ferrule of a paint brush
  • ventilation system to help tunnellers breath while digging
  • cooking stoves or ‘stufa’ for brewing up their own drinks and warming food
  • chess pieces
  • xylophone
  • mousetrap
  • theatre spotlights
  • barometer

The brand names were powerful reminders of home: Spam, Nestle, Rowntree, Crosse & Blackwell. And some of the labels, like the one with a leaping salmon were removed and stuck into log books to drool over.

The most coveted tin was a KLIM tin (milk spelled backwards) which came in Canadian Red Cross parcels. When fitted with a handle this would hold more than a pint of liquid.

So next time you casually take a tin opener to a can of tomatoes, use the contents, swill the tin out and trying to avoid slicing open your thumb, chuck it in the recycling, pause for a moment and think how precious that once was to bored yet ingenious young men, imprisoned far away from home during the Second World War. Just pause and think what you could make with it.

ON WRITING ‘FAR AWAY’

Robert Blake

Robert Blake

My novel, Far Away, is based on my father, Robert Blake’s memoirs. The only part he wrote related to his war-time experiences, escaping from an Italian POW camp. I wanted to be able to use substantial pieces of his writing as they were but I also wanted to write a novel.

In other words I wanted to have it both ways.

Of course I did  I’m a novelist! And this story of my father’s escape was probably one of the first to grip my imagination. When I was a child, it wasn’t usually my father doing the telling. By the time I came on the scene he was 48 and  had going on 25 years of repeating what happened to him. I think, understandably, he was fed up with it.

My mother, however,  a natural-born storyteller, told it with relish and perhaps a little elaboration for the benefit of her three children. In fact her enthusiasm about the story remained undimmed whereas my father could get rather grumpy when asked to tell it one more time.

The most extraordinary thing for me about the story of course was that my father, a quiet academic man, who did not like to be rushed in any way, had been one of the protagonists in a thrilling escape. After all, given half a chance, every young child will jump at the chance of casting it’s father or mother  as a hero or heroine. Within the context of this story, I could do exactly that. His own silence on the matter only encouraged me. It might be the mild-mannered ‘Clark Kent’ taking me to school but somewhere back in his past there was the suggestion of telephone booths and lycra!

But what to do about my structural problem?

Fortunately I found a solution when, in the course of my research on Italian POWs, I came across Dan Billany.  He like me was a crime writer. His first book The Opera House Murders had been published by Faber and Faber in 1940. It also came out in America under the title It Takes A Thief and garnered first-rate reviews. He had been a POW in Italy and escaped with his friend David Dowie but  they had not made it back and their bodies had never been found. However the notebooks he had written in while imprisoned were sent back to his family and eventually published as The Trap and The Cage. On reading his books I liked Dan immediately. He was witty and caustic and startlingly frank about the strength of his feelings for his friend David. Alongside his honesty, I liked his sarcastic attitude towards Dorothy Sayers’  aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and I also warmed to him on the basis of his  views on both education and politics.

Our backgrounds however could not have been more different. Dan came from a working class background in Hull. He  left school at fifteen and after a year as a delivery boy took up an apprenticeship with Humber Electricals. As part of the training he had to do evening classes at a Technical College and thriving there in a way he never had at school he decided to go back into education and matriculated in 1933. He then applied to Hull University to study English and after he’d graduated did a year of teacher training. When war broke out he was working as a primary school teacher.

My background was substantially more privileged. I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford and my route through education was as boringly linear as you might expect from those circumstances. The fact that Dan had managed to get published at the age of 27 coming from his background was testament to his ambition, persistence and talent as a writer.

From his story I took the idea of two men writing in the same notebooks. One writing the story of his war so far and the other writing a fairy story. It was a way to use my father’s memoirs as I wanted, give or take a bit of nip and tuck.

One thing Dan’s story did bring home to me was how lucky my father had been. He, like Dan and David, could so easily have died. Reading the work Dan had written while a POW I was also saddened. It seemed to me that the writing in The Trap and The Cage showed greater maturity and depth. I couldn’t help but wonder how his writing might have developed if he had made it safely home.

Dan Billany:Hull's Lost Hero

Dan Billany:Hull’s Lost Hero

If you are interested in finding out more about Dan I recommend Dan Billany: Hull’s Lost Hero by Valerie A. Reeves and Valerie Showan. It’s a warm and highly sympathetic biography about an exceptional young man. Here’s the link to the website about him: http://www.danbillany.com.

Far Away will be available soon as both a physical book and an e-book and here’s the link for that: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

THE LIVES OF POWS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

To begin with, a bit of a riddle to stretch your little grey cells – what do Maria from The Sound of Music and a POW in Italy during the Second World War have in common?

No?

OK, Poirot is deeply disappointed in you; he is twirling his moustache in a positive frenzy of disappointment.

Here’s a clue – it has to do with favourite things.

No, it certainly does not have to do with solving a problem like Maria, Poirot being singularly uninterested in women and women being singularly absent from the lives of POWs.

Still no?

Oh, for heaven’s sake then I’ll just have to tell you – packages tied up in string.

There – it was easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re kicking yourself.

Yes, this is a post about RED CROSS PARCELS and my God were they tied up in a lot of string. But I’ll get to that a little bit later.

Here comes the serious and rather touching bit.

Red Cross parcels were absolutely crucial in the lives of POWs and the Red Cross were extraordinarily successful in raising money for them and sending them. During the six years of the war the Red Cross sent out twenty million food parcels to POWs. In 1942, the year my father, Robert Blake, was taken prisoner and their peak year, five and a half million were delivered. By the end of the war the Red Cross had sent out fifty-two million pounds worth of parcels and had incurred no debt. By any stretch of the imagination that is a hugely successful campaign.

Each parcel was 31 cm wide by 17.5 cm tall by 11.5 cm deep. And it was filled with food. The aim was to get one to each prisoner per week but due to the vagaries of war-time transport this rarely happened. At the beginning there was an attempt to send bread but this soon ended as the parcels were taking too long to reach their destination. The contents varied slightly but chocolate, tea and sugar appeared in every one because they were universally popular and could be bartered for other food. Indian POWs had their own parcels which contained atta, flour used in South Asian cooking, curry powder, dhal and rice but no tinned meat. Cigarettes and tobacco were sent separately.

A huge amount of string was used to secure them – ten feet per parcel. The string was three stranded sisal and brutally tough on the hands of the packers but very useful to the POWs.

Here are some of the things the string was used for:

  • shoes
  • bags
  • brushes
  • hammocks
  • pulling the wooden trolleys that brought the earth out of escape tunnels – 300 meters of rope was made by those men taking part in the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape
  • wigs for female impersonators to use in plays
  • cricket balls – the string was wrapped round a pebble
  • golf balls
  • tennis nets
  • cricket nets
  • football nets

An unusual donation to the Red Cross campaign came from Hitler when his  English language publishers, Hutchinson, donated £500, (approximately £18,000 in today’s money) royalties earned from sales of Mein Kampf. 

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gilles

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

If you’re interested in reading any more on this subject I’d highly recommend Midge Gillies excellent book, The Barbed-Wire University. To quote from The Mail on Sunday it’s ‘brilliantly researched, fascinating and deeply moving.’

THE FALL OF TOBRUK JUNE 1942

When nations win wars, the defeats they may have suffered along the way tend to be swept under the carpet. However if our personal failures show rather more interesting things about our personalities than our successes then perhaps defeats should not just be the preserve of military historians.

Seventy-three years ago my father, the historian Robert Blake, was taken prisoner at one of these defeats, the Fall of Tobruk, on the 21st June 1942. This is the background against which my novel Far Away takes place.

It was one of the most severe set backs of the war for the Allies, ranking alongside the Fall of Singapore, (which had taken place during February of the same year), as an absolute catastrophe. The Axis forces captured 35,000 soldiers and a vast amount of fuel, rations, transport and equipment – 5000 tons of food, 2000 serviceable vehicles and 1400 tons of petrol. It was a huge victory for the Axis forces and the occasion when Rommel won his Field Marshal’s baton. Of the defeat Churchill was to say:

This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill even faced a motion of censure in the House of Commons in the following month. He won it easily enough: 475 votes to 25 but the fact that it had been mooted at all during a time of war shows the level of concern and anxiety.

The Battleground

The Battleground

The importance of Tobruk, a Libyan port on the Mediterranean, was that it gave the Axis forces a supply port much closer to the Lybian-Egyptian border than Tripoli (1500 km away) and Benghazi (1400 km away). Egypt was important because control of Egypt assured effective communication lines and important air and sea routes. The Suez Canal provided much shorter routes for moving troops and material between the European and Pacific theatres of war. It also gave access to the oil fields of the middle east.

So, what on earth had happened? After all, the previous year Tobruk had held out during a 241 day siege, which had eventually been relieved by Operation Crusader.

On August 5th Churchill arrived in Africa with General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, professional head of the British Army to ‘sense the atmosphere’. The conclusion they swiftly came to was:

  • a drastic and immediate change was required to restore confidence in the High Command;
  • this misfortune was not because of a lack of calibre of the men in the ranks who were described by Churchill as being “brave but baffled”.

On the 9th August a decision was reached; General Sir Claude Auchinleck was sacked as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East and replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) was put in charge of the Eighth Army. Auchinleck hated Montgomery and tried to delay him taking command. The delay was only a matter of a few days but it was known that the Germans were planning another attack  at the end of the month and so Montgomery ignored Auchinleck and took control immediately.

Montgomery was ebullient, self-confident and brilliant. You feel he would have had no difficulty in announcing himself Mourinho-style as the ‘Special One’.

This was one of his first orders to XXX Corps:

  • All orders and instructions which refer to withdrawal from or thinning out of our present position are hereby cancelled;
  • XXX Corps will defend the present FDLs (forward defensive lines) at all costs. There will be no withdrawal;
  • The above intention is to be impressed on all ranks immediately.

He ordered that all contingency plans for retreat be destroyed. Essentially he was telling his men – fight or die.

On the way back to Britain, Churchill flew to Russia and a humiliating meeting with Stalin. Stalin harangued Churchill and Brooke demanding to know when the British were going to fight. The answer, presumably much to Churchill’s relief, came swiftly. On the 30th August the Battle of Alam Halfa commenced. Monty had been in post for approximately a fortnight. The Eighth Army smashed the assault and never lost another battle.

Unfortunately this was much too late for my father and the many men like him. He was to spend the next fifteen months incarcerated in an Italian POW camp before escaping in January 1944.

The early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

The Early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

If you’re interested in reading more I’d highly recommend Adrian Stewart’s book The Early Battles of the Eighth Army: ‘Crusader’ to the Alamein Line 1941-1942.

What do you think of my assessment? Too unfair to Auchinleck? Too generous to Montgomery?

I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.

ESCAPE!

WITH ONE MIGHTY BOUND HE WAS FREE!

The other day, writing in my local cafe, I watched as a toddler ran shrieking away from her father, who was acting the role of the Big Bad Monster. The child was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror. The ‘monster’ bore down on her, whisked her into his arms, hoisted her aloft and the child gurgled with pleasure. Most of us have either seen or been participants in that scenario at some time in our lives.

One of the themes of my book Far Away is ESCAPE! In this case from a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

‘The thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling.’

He goes on to say that the vast majority of these stories are tied up with ‘overcoming the monster’. After all, there has to be something the protagonist is escaping from.

Here are a few examples:

  • a scantily clad heroine in a silent movie is tied to the tracks as the train bears down on her;
  • Jonah is swallowed by a whale and escapes when he is vomited out of its belly;
  • Little Red Riding Hood escapes the Big Bad Wolf;
  • Jack of the Beanstalk escapes and kills the giant;
  • Goldilocks jumps out of the window and escapes the three bears;
  • In the war film The Guns of Navarone, the guns are the monsters which our heroes blow up before making their escape;
  • In the film The Great Escape POWs tunnel out of a camp in Germany and escape;
  • Jerry, that pesky mouse, finds all kinds of ways to escape the malign attentions of Tom, the cat;
  • In the film The Shawshank Redemption a prisoner tunnels his way out of a prison and escapes through the sewage system. This has also just happened in real life in America. Richard Matt and David Sweat have just tunnelled out of a maximum security jail in Dannemora, New York.

You get the general idea and I’m sure you could add a few of your own! Once you start looking for escape stories you’ll find them everywhere.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

One of the most interesting things about what happened to my father and what I depict in my novel Far Away is how the ‘monster’ to be overcome, (as Christopher Booker describes it), changed into a saviour. To start with the enemy was the Italians who were running and guarding the POW camps. However, on September 8th the Armistice was announced and on the following day the Allies landed at Salerno and Taranto. At that point the Italian army laid down its arms and the guards drifted away. What happened then, as thousands of Allied POWs poured out into the Italian countryside, was extraordinary.

Many of the Italian contadini – the country people – took incredible risks to help and protect these young men. This is one of the most touching aspects of the story. Of course, if you have next to nothing yourself then maybe it makes you all too aware of what it means to be starving, thirsty and cold. But all the same the risks were huge. If caught by the Germans helping escaped Allied soldiers then the Italians were likely to be killed and have their houses burnt down. That is a very big risk to take for people who, before they were imprisoned, had been fighting their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.  It is possible to argue that the Italians knowing which way the war was going were acting in their own self-interest, however this does not reduce the level of courage shown or the dangers involved.

And the danger lasted for a long time. Germany did not just hand Italy over to the Allies. It took twenty months for the Allies to fight their way up to Italy’s northern border. It was to be a hard-fought, brutal and bloody campaign.

Do you have a favourite escape story?

Or do you have any stories from Italy at that time?