My father, like many men of his generation, rarely talked about his experiences during the Second World War. He would occasionally admonish his young grandsons if their questioning appeared to glorify conflict in the tone of so many films they were subjected to at that time. But that was enough, together with what we now know must have been undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to give us a hint of what he must have gone through. My brother and I just learned not to ask too many questions.
There was one story, though, that we half listened to concerning his time in Sicily in 1943. We know from our later research that he must have been part of the Allied invasion on 10th July 1943, known as ‘Operation Husky’, which was a massive amphibious assault involving more than 3000 ships and over 150,000 ground troops. This invasion cost approximately 25000 Allied casualties and a massive unrecorded number of German and Italian lives.
My father told us that he was required to guard/supervise a young Italian prisoner of war (POW) and how, when my father became ill, this young man gave him his pillow. That was it. We didn’t question him further, and this became one of his repeat stories that we, sadly, switched off from.
My father has now been dead for 15 years. We were therefore surprised to find a letter, written in Italian, at the bottom of a pile of his papers that had remained hidden for all these years.
We had it translated and were touched and intrigued by the contents.
‘Great Field (Campo) – Full of Soldiers – Far from Italia (my homeland) – Almost the New Year – 28/12/45
Now I am feeling very bad because all my friends are far away from here – how sad.
This destruction is awful, terrible, the earth is all mud, milking is very unproductive and poor quality, I cannot tell you. Santa Lucia!
But never mind, perhaps soon I shall come to England.
And how happy for me to be always at home with my wife and family. So good.
How are you, my brother? I hope you are allowed to have every day, away from it all, beer, eating and cigarettes. But what would be awful if you returned to Italy before I come – over the Railway Line – how dreadful: poor, poor me! Yes, yes!
In a short time, you will come to the house where there is wine: Quickly bring it here now!
Yesterday I covered many kilometres in the train and now I am very tired; excuse me if I finish this letter now.
Where is my bed?
How sad, poor Italy, Germany has taken everything away – what is to be done?
My Italian brother, Ivor, I hope you understood what I have written. Let’s hope.
Good luck and best wishes for the New Year.
Ivor, my brother,
Allowing for the mistakes in translation, there is so much between the lines in this short letter.
There is a sadness, desperation, and incomprehension that so many people caught up in a conflict that is outside their control feel. There is a longing for the normal life he experienced before the war, to be with his loved ones. And there is evidence of an obvious level of exhaustion, possibly exacerbated by stress and uncertainty.
There is also a description of a young man, loving his beer and cigarettes, that doesn’t match with the serious father we knew.
The main thing that stands out though is friendship. A friendship that developed in the unequal power relationship between guard and prisoner. A friendship that grew despite the differences in cultures and language and, of course, the ‘enemy’ propaganda to which soldiers from both sides would have been subjected.
It highlights the fact that friendship is a universal human need that can transcend cultures, ages, and modes of communication.
However, as many of us on the left know, friendship is not always easy to grow or maintain when there are differences in political values and beliefs. The growth of social media has brought many of these differences into stark reality, and I am sure I am not alone in having lost long-term friends because of political differences.
As far as the letter goes, this is an unfinished story. We will never know whether our father ever responded, or whether Tomasso was finally reunited with his family in Italy. We know their friendship clearly left an impression on my father, as, despite being a very reserved man, he often talked about him. If only we had listened more carefully.
We also wish we had more information so that we could trace Tomasso’s family. It would be nice to be able to tell them that their relative had never been forgotten by the man he called his ‘Italian brother’.