ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART ONE 31/08/42 – 26/2/43

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

My father, Robert Blake, was in three prisoner of war camps in Italy: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona. I have 21 letters and 23 post cards that he wrote to his family between 31/08/42 and 17/8/43. All sent from the POW camp P.G. 21 in Chieti. There is a degree of repetition in the subject matter so in this post I’m going to give an overall impression of the first six months of this correspondence.

At the very beginning his pressing concern was letting his mother and father know what they could send him. He had three things he wanted more than anything else: food, clothes and books.

In a letter of 8/8/42 he writes: ‘There is no limit on books or tobacco and you can send four clothing parcels up to 10 lbs in weight per year which can also contain chocolate to make up the weight. Books are supposed to be sent new from a publisher or bookseller some say but I have had no confirmation of this.’

On the question of food: ‘You cannot send food from the UK, but there is no restriction on parcels from anywhere in the Empire, so if you know anyone in Canada, S.A. (South Africa) or India it might be worth trying. I am trying to get stuff sent from the M.E (Middle East)  where also there are no restrictions… The great thing is to have as many sources as possible, for all sorts of difficulties may impede things coming. I know all this sounds horribly greedy but when one has been as hungry as I have sometimes, one becomes frankly unscrupulous.’

On the 3/11/42 things have not got any better. He still has no books and no new clothes and is feeling depressed. ‘Fighting in Egypt would be preferable to this dismal existence… there is absolutely nothing to read,’ and on 10/11/42 he states, ‘I want any books you can send on anything.’ He also comments that the weather has become more unsettled  and colder, ‘which is not much fun in view of my lack of clothes.’ At this point the only clothes he had were the ones he had been captured in five months earlier. He has however cheered up enough to make a joke: ‘ “Well, it has come true at last – “In the prison cell I sit, thinking Mother dear of you” !!’  And he writes: ‘Some wit has put up a notice here “Post early for Xmas – and how! as the Americans say.’

On the 27/11/42 he states, ‘I am rather cold but otherwise alright.’

In December the weather improves and with it his mood. 4/12/42: ‘The weather after being wretched has become much warmer, and so one feels considerably more cheerful.’

On 6/12/42 he comments on a letter he has received from his parents describing eating pheasant at a friend’s house and says he would, ‘give almost anything for a real English meal again…’ However he is feeling optimistic, ‘I do honestly believe we shall celebrate the Xmas after this together.’

Robert Blake (far left)  during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 - 1940.

Robert Blake (far left) during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 – 1940.

On 1/1/43 everything changes because having been a POW for six months he finally receives a parcel from home: ‘Great Joy! The N of K (next-of-kin) parcel actually arrived. Very very many thanks. It is quite the best thing that has happened since I became a POW. Everything in it was most welcome.’ In a letter on 5/1/43 he writes: ‘It was marvelous to have a pullover and a warm shirt and an incredible luxury to be able to sleep in pyjamas. What I really need now is a pair of trousers preferably corduroy slacks which are very warm and comfortable, as my K.D. (khaki drill) shorts are very dilapidated and rather chilly.’ Although he has been getting letters from home it is only now for the first time that he knows that they have received a letter of his, albeit the one dated August 31st. He comments: ‘The delay in the mail has been so bad that you may wait till Doomsday before you get the right letter…’

By 26/1/43 things are looking up because, ‘… the food situation is considerably better, and at long last battle dress has arrived in the camp, and I will get proper clothes.’ Also a law book, ‘Cockle on Evidence’, has finally arrived sent by his Uncle Norman, who was a judge, ‘but it goes to Rome for censorship before I get it.’ In this same letter to his father he gives a snapshot of how he passes the time: ‘I spend the day here playing cards going to some law lectures, which are not really much good, but fill the time learning, as best I can, German and Italian. There is a good band in the camp, and a play or show put on every week. They are really very good. The main need is books, but like being hungry one gets used to being without books tho’ I found it very trying at first. I have become much better at doing nothing! All very demoralizing, I fear.’

On 8/2/43 he writes saying how much he’s missing home: ‘It is already getting on for 2 years since I saw any of you. In ancient times people used to be exiled as a punishment for certain crimes. One can realize now what a punishment it must have been.’

Now finally the book situation is beginning to improve and he has managed to get his hands on a copy of Alec Waugh’s ‘Loom of Youth’ which was presumably lighter reading than ‘Cockle on Evidence’. ‘It’s amazing to think he was only seventeen when he wrote it. Books of any kind are most welcome.’

On 23/2/43 he writes to his mother telling her he has had a tooth out: ‘Owing to the abscess the cocaine which was injected did not work at all, and so I experienced what was I believe one of the oldest Chinese tortures! It really was very painful.’ He adds philosophically: ‘If I had known before the war all the things which were going to happen to me I should have put my head in the gas oven, and yet when they actually happen they are not so bad as all that – which goes to show how fortunate it is that we are not gifted with prophetic vision!’

It’s not really surprising that for the rest of his life my father was always an extremely reluctant visitor to the dentist.

 

A VERY IMPORTANT POSTCARD

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This Red Cross postcard falling through their letterbox was the moment when my grandparents knew for certain that my father was alive. He had been taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942. Unfortunately the postcard is not dated but I have two letters from the War Office. One dated the 17th July stating that my father was missing-in-action and then one on the 7th September stating he was a prisoner of war. So it was at least two months before they knew he was definitely alive.

This is what it says:

My dear Mummy,
I am alright (I have not been wounded). I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well.
Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address.
Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply
With love from Bobby

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What a relief it must have been for them to receive this. It’s not surprising that they could never bring themselves to throw this postcard away. Nor could my mother when she was clearing out the house after my grandparents died. These kinds of documents come down through the generations for a reason.

I can’t help but find it incredibly touching and I love the Italian version of ‘with love’ – SALUTI AFFETTUOSI.

Their son was alive!

A GREAT ESCAPE

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If old soldiers divide into those who never stop talking about the war and those who remain silent, my father, the historian Robert Blake, was definitely in the silent camp. Consequently the story of his escape from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War was mainly related to me and my sisters by my mother.  It involved hiding in roofs, a septic or as my mother put it, poisoned toe and most thrilling of all, wolves howling in the mountains.

What could be better!

Of course every child is interested in the possibility of their father being a hero. In ‘Great Escape’ terms I wanted my father to be Steve McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts, ‘the Cooler King’, the man who wears the sweatshirt and throws the baseball, the man who steals a motorbike and  tries to jump a barbed wire fence. But however hard I tried, I could not transpose my father into Virgil Hilts. He wasn’t brash enough for a start or that reckless. He was much more like the blind forger, Colin Blythe, played by Donald Pleasance; he was highly intelligent, diffident and quite shy.

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And unlike Virgil, who is caught and returned to the cooler, and Colin who is gunned down within sight of the Swiss border, my father had managed to escape. Not bad for a modest Englishman, who didn’t like talking about himself very much.

As I grew older, the appeal of Virgil Hilts faded and my assessment of what was heroic became more nuanced. When my father died the only part of his memoirs which he had written was that involving his wartime experiences. The book I am working on now, Far Away, is a work of fiction but it draws heavily on these memoirs and other family papers to tell the story of his escape.