CHAPTER 9 – IN SICILY AND ITALY
In the autumn of 1942 the war began to turn in favour of the Allies. The German advance into Russia was halted at Stalingrad. In October the British Eighth Army inflicted a heavy defeat on Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein, and eventually drove them all the way back to Tunisia. In November the Anglo-American armies landed in Morocco and Algeria. By May 1943 all German resistance in North Africa had collapsed. The next Allied thrust was to be the invasion of Sicily.
It started with airborne and sea-borne landings on the South and East coasts. The British sea-borne landings on the East coast began on 10 July 1943. With the beach landing parties were several companies of Pioneers. The tasks of these were to land with or immediately behind the assault troops and unload guns, ammunition and other equipment. They also had to provide smoke cover, construct beach tracks and advanced air landing strips, act as stretcher bearers, bury the dead, collect prisoners and provide a reserve for the assault troops.
Our Company (243), part of the 78th Infantry division, sailed from Liverpool in the troopship S.S. Franconia. Thankfully we were spared attacks by German U-boat or planes which were still attacking allied shipping from their bases on the French Atlantic coast. We docked in Algiers waiting for the invasion convoy to assemble. We had been cramped on board ship with little exercise throughout the voyage so we were taken on an arduous route march into the hills beyond Algiers. On the way back to the ship we were halted at the dock gates. Seeing how parched and thirsty we were a couple of Arabs offered us drinks from jars of water. One of our officers stepped in front of them and rudely pushed them back with his stick. Troops had had strict orders not to drink the local unsterilised water and the officer was making sure we did not. Nevertheless I was appalled at his rudeness and evident contempt for the Arabs. I felt a strong urge to break ranks and go and apologise to them. I smiled at them, shaking my head.
From Algiers we sailed to Malta where part of the invasion forces were assembling for the final leg of the journey to the Sicilian coast. While in the harbour we were repeatedly bombed.
We were again under air attack when we reached Augusta but we landed without casualties despite a very near miss on our ship.
In a diary I kept throughout the Sicilian and Italian campaigns I recorded my feelings.
Despite my natural fear of being killed or wounded, I am elated to be at last in the thick of the action, not from any feeling of patriotism, but because, since joining the movement, I have always felt a little guilty about being on the sidelines of the class struggle, outside the mainstream of events. I have always felt that all middle class Trotskyists, if they are really serious, ought to be in a factory or in the forces
`Now at last I am no longer a spectator but an active participant. True, it is an imperialist war, but I am in the middle of it. One of the soldier masses that are its raw material, and now whatever happens I will be there, one of them. If this war ends, as did the last, with working class revolts and mutinies, I will be a participant, not a spectator shouting advice from the sidelines.’
Our company and other units of 78th Division were spread out around Augusta for several days, and were under nightly bombardment by the Luftwaffe. We were in as much danger from the shrapnel from the heavy anti-aircraft barrage of our own guns as from German bombs. We dug ourselves slit trenches for rudimentary protection.
More extracts from my diary:
6 August 1943:
`From our first day in Sicily looting has been an issue. We dug in at the side of a big field of tomatoes and some vineyards. Within half an hour of our arriving men of our company were wandering among the tomatoes picking armfuls of them. Those that were not picked were soon trampled under by hundreds of army boots. Within a short time the whole crop had been destroyed. I tried to remonstrate with my fellow soldiers: “The peasants depend on these for their living. They’ve toiled to produce these. Its alright taking a few when you’re hungry, but there’s no need to ruin the whole field. You talk of what the Germans do in occupied countries, pillaging and looting, but we’re doing just the same!”
‘Balls! They shouldn’t have started the war then! Why did they stab France in the back?”, someone retorted.
“But these people didn’t want the war”, I replied. “It was the Italian capitalists and Fascists. Do you imagine these peasants were interested in Tunis, Nice or Corsica? All they wanted was to work their fields in peace and sell their produce.”
‘You can’t tell me they didn’t support Mussolini and his war, eh?” ‘Maybe they did”, I replied. “But we’re just as guilty of being fooled by our own capitalists.”
`A few days later Major Ball paraded the whole Company, and made a speech to us about the pillaging of the crops: “If Britain was invaded you wouldn’t like the Germans to come and pick all the fruit out of your fields. These crops are the people’s livelihood. Leave them alone.”
For once I found myself in agreement with him!
`An amusing example of how class distinctions must be maintained was provided by the latrines. When a large number of men are camped in a field, one of the priorities is to set off a space for latrines. A trench was dug and a plank supported on a couple of rocks laid over it. On the first day officers, NCOs and other ranks shared the same latrine, but the next day we were ordered to dig a separate latrine for the officers. This was then screened off with canvas. Just think of the dire threat to good order and military discipline if officers and other ranks had continued to sit side by side at the same latrine!
When the beach-heads had been established and the assault troops moved inland and up the coast, capturing Catania, the island’s main port, we followed them. We constructed airstrips, unloaded ammunition off the ships and manned ammunition and petrol dumps. On a couple of occasions we were taken off these tasks and deployed in defensive positions to re-enforce the infantry against expected German counter-attacks.
It was the height of summer and the torrid sun, the flies, mosquitoes and various insects made our lives a misery. We all developed sores from mosquito and insect bites and swarms of flies would be attracted by these sores. They swarmed around the cookhouses. As soon as the cooks dished food into one’s mess tin it was black with flies. Every spoonful of food was covered with flies before you could put it in your mouth At dusk, as the sun began to set the mosquitoes would come out and attack any bare area of flesh. Troops were issued with mepacrin tablets and ordered to take them daily as an antidote to malaria. Not only was this not an absolute protection against malaria but it had the side effect of damaging the auditory nerve. It also discoloured one’s urine but this was the least of our worries. The mepacrine tablets and repeated exposure to bomb and shell explosions damaged our hearing. I now receive a War Disability Pension on account of deafness caused by war service.
It has often been remarked that the conditions on active service result in more casualties from disease and sickness than from enemy fire. This proved true in our case. Within a few weeks a large proportion of our company went down with dysentery, malaria or jaundice.
In another entry in my diary I gave vent to my feelings of frustration at the lack of political consciousness I noted in my fellow soldiers.
`The lads grumble about the food, the work, the conditions, the NCOs and the officers. That is nothing unusual. It is probably the same in the whole army — in all armies. Some writers and reporters have tried to dismiss such grumblings as meaningless; they just pass them off patronisingly as one of the amusing characteristics of the dear old British Tommy: “A British soldier is never happy unless he is grumbling”, implying it is just a pastime and that Tommy is not really discontented. That is bunkum. The company is discontented; it is fed up with getting the same old corned beef and hard biscuits every day. The men grumble about all the accumulated pinpricks of discipline and bullshit. It is generally understood that if there is anything going — from an extra issue of bread or fags, to soap or writing paper — 243 Company is sure to be the last to get it. “Our officers and quartermaster just don’t care a damn” is the general opinion. Remarks are constantly being made that the officers and sergeants always made sure of their extras.
`Each section is convinced that it is doing more than its fair share, each cribbing when another section is rested or seems to have it easier. Possibly some sections or individuals do have it easier than others. But this petty, short-sighted way the blokes grumble about each other annoys me intensely. Instead of realising that they are here, separated from homes and families sweating their guts out on bully beef and hard biscuits because capitalism has fooled and forced them to defend its own interests; instead of uniting and saying “Why should we be here at all — let us demand to go home”, almost all the men either consciously or by their silence and lack of opposition accept the war as necessary and justified — and therefore their presence here and their work as necessary. Logically, they should not be grumbling about these necessary hardships. Even so why, instead of standing united together in an attempt to improve the food for all and getting a better distribution of the work for all, less bullshit for all, and unitedly confronting the company commander or higher authorities with their demands, do they bicker about each other? Can they not recognise the difference between hardships that are unavoidable, and therefore not cause for complaint, and those that are avoidable and should be fought? I fervently hope that 243 Company is not a typical cross section of the British Army or of the working class.’
On 3 September a coup in Rome deposed Mussolini and installed a new government under Marshal Badoglio, which switched sides and joined the Allies. The German High Command reacted swiftly, disarmed the Italian armies in Rome and Northern Italy, rescued Mussolini, and installed him as head of a puppet government in the parts of Italy they still controlled. I noted in my diary.
`20 September 1943:
`The Allied authorities in Sicily are anxious to win the support, or at least, the friendliness of the civilian population. They want to avoid, as far as possible, any animosity or tension between them and the occupying troops. Therefore the officially sponsored propaganda is that the Italians are sincerely glad to be liberated from Fascism; that they are now our allies in the “fight for democracy”, and therefore should be correctly treated by the troops. The troops are warned that any man found stealing from civilians, destroying their property, or in any way molesting them will be severely dealt with. In spite of this, many of the soldiers continue to refer to the Sicilians as “these bastard wops”, and to proclaim openly there is nothing wrong in taking their property: “After all, they asked for it. They started the war — they should pay for it.” The chauvinist propaganda previously disseminated by the press has worked, unfortunately, only too well…
`We had been some weeks in Sicily before we began to get supplied with bread. We had meanwhile to make do with hard tack — biscuits. One day, among a group of us someone exclaimed “We British squaddies can’t get bread — there’s no spare shipping after the guns and ammo they say — but these fucking Eyties get it alright! Why are the bastards getting better fed than us?”
“What do you want them to do?”, I asked. “Starve? We conquered this island so, obviously, we’ve got to feed its population.”
“Let the bastards starve. They shouldn’t have cheered Mussolini and gone to war. When they thought they were winning they were cocksure. Now they’ve lost they’re squealing.”
“Anyway, they’re better fed now than they were under Musso”, added another.
“Don’t be daft!”, I replied. “They’re getting only 100 grammes of bread — that’s just about two slices — a day. In any case, instead of blaming the Italians for the lack of bread and moaning because you think somebody’s getting a little bit more than you, why don’t you blame the people really responsible for all this — the capitalists on both sides!” I turned away dismayed at how deeply chauvinist prejudices were ingrained in the working class.
`There are redeeming features, however. The poison of national prejudice has not completely overcome the natural kindliness in man, his desire to be on honest and friendly terms with his fellow man. In spite of his repeated assertions that the Eyties are a lot of no-good bastards, the British soldier is found in the evening sitting down outside an Italian home, talking and joking with men and women, playing with the bambini, and making eyes at the signorinas; accepting their wine and offering cigarettes and army biscuits. On the whole, the British Tommies and the Sicilians get on together quite well. When it comes down to actual day-to-day and man-to-man contacts, the British Tommy forgets national differences and looks on the “bloody wops” as fellow men. At heart the masses are internationalist. The problem is to make them internationalist in politics as well.’
By September the fighting had finished in Sicily, and the Allies began to employ Italian civilians and prisoners of war on petrol and supply dumps and on road and railway repairs. Our Pioneer company was detailed to guard and supervise them. This gave me an opportunity to improve my Italian, get acquainted with Sicilians, and learn about their conditions and their attitude to the war. I gathered that, though there had been no organised or overt opposition to the Mussolini regime and the war, there had been little support. The regime collapsed like a house of cards. When the Allied armies landed they met only German opposition. The Italian soldiers surrendered en masse. Those that lived in Sicily deserted, went home and changed into civilian clothes. Food was severely rationed and black marketeering (contrabandia) was universal. The official bread ration was 150 grammes per person per day at a controlled price of 3.50 lire a kilo, but unlimited quantities were obtainable on the black market at 32 to 40 lire a kilo. Inflation was boosted by the influx of Allied military money with which the troops were paid. Cigarettes were tending to replace money as a means of exchange.
An entry in my diary dated 10 October reads:
`What has happened to the Fascist officials? Some have fled. Others - many of them - found time to destroy or hide their Fascist uniforms, emblems and party cards, take the portraits of Mussolini off the wall, and calmly await the arrival of the Allies, who, in many cases, kept their eyes conveniently shut. One of Pippo’s friends, a railwayman, told me disgustedly that the whole thing was a farce. The British arrested a few Fascist officials for show, and let them go after two or three days. All the heads of the commune (municipality) and local services were Fascists and still at their posts. The podesta (mayor) had been a strong Fascist. He and the others were still running the administration for their new Anglo-American masters. “If I was paid one lira for each Fascist still’ walking free in Catania, I would be a rich man.”’
That wasn’t the half of it. Since the war it has been revealed that the Americans handed over the civilian administration of Sicily to the Mafia. Even before the conquest of the island the American government had established contacts with the leading American mafiosi, some serving prison sentences in the U.S.A. In return for information in the period leading to the invasion, and aid in establishing secret contacts with Fascist officials willing to collaborate, the Mafia was handed the administration of Italy. The Allies managed to undo the one, remotely positive, achievement of Mussolini’s regime – the suppression of the Mafia. Since then no Italian government has been able to root the Mafia out of Sicily.
The Allies replaced the rule of Mussolini’s Fascist hoodlums by that of Mafia hoodlums. Sixty years on the American-led invasion of Iraq has replaced Saddam Hussein’s evil regime by what? The Iraqi equivalent of the Mafia. So much for the claim that both wars were in pursuit of justice and the rule of law. Were we not right in exposing those lies in the 1940s – just as those who oppose the Iraq war are right today?
Here are more extracts from my diary.
`15-17 October 1943:
`There is little friction between the troops and the population. There have been one or two instances of soldiers trying to steal articles from street vendors - picking them up and quite brazenly walking away with them without paying. The vendor runs after them, arguing, cursing and pleading, but he can do nothing. If he goes up to a British or American MP [military policeman] the latter tells the Italian to “fuck off’. Yesterday as I was walking down the Via Etna, I came upon a crowd on the pavement. Apparently there had been an argument between a British soldier and a peddler.
`The latter was bleeding from a blow on the face, and was complaining excitedly to a redcap who just stood there smiling. After a while the peddler went over to an Italian policeman standing near to enlist his help. The policeman, no doubt afraid and thinking it useless to cross the British MP, merely shrugged his shoulders and looked away embarrassed. But these incidents are rare. Generally speaking, the Americans and Canadians are more outspokenly chauvinist and more aggressive towards the Italians than the British troops. Undoubtedly, the larger proportion of hold-ups and robberies from Italians are perpetrated by the criminal types one finds in any army and who would probably have acted in the same way at home when the opportunity occurred. Being part of an occupying army among a conquered population gives them added confidence and “moral” justification…
`The other day I accompanied Corporal Redman, our medical orderly, to visit a family and transport a sick person to hospital. (Besides tending our own sores and sicknesses Corporal Redman was usually quite willing to treat any sick local civilians.) There was a woman sitting in the doorway feeding a baby at the breast; she held out the baby for us to see. Its legs were like sticks — nothing but loose skin over bones. Its tummy was red raw; it was a plain case of starvation. The mother had stayed in Catania throughout the bombings, and the fighting and the terror and privations had dried up her milk — the babe was getting no nourishment from the flaccid breasts. We told the mother to get in the truck with her babe, and took her to the hospital…’
`18 October 1943:
`Yesterday morning there was an explosion outside our billets. Then there was silence followed by screams and cries. We rushed out. Lying on the road were two young boys, about eight years old, lying in pools of blood. One was nothing but a mess of torn and bloody red flesh and heaving intestines where his belly had been. The other was writhing close by with his face half blown away. The boys had been playing in the street and had found an unexploded grenade. One must have held it and pulled out the pin. This tragedy has upset us all. Every one knows that in a war, in air raids and bombardments of towns, women and children die. But to witness this tragedy so close! Sicilians mourn very volubly. They do not hide their grief. The whole day the “keening” and wailing of the women penetrated to us. In the evening as we lay trying to sleep, Corporal M— muttered “I wished they’d fucking well shut that bloody row!” “You fucking callous bastard!”, I burst out. “How would you like it if they were your kids?” We would have come to blows had the other men not separated us.’
In late October I went down with dysentery and malaria, was hospitalised and then spent some time in a convalescent depot. Afterwards I was in transit camps on the way to rejoining 243 Company, which had moved on with 78th Division fighting its way up the Italian Apennines.
By then the first signs of the swing to the left that resulted in the election of a Labour government in 1945 were evident within the ranks of the Eighth Army. In the hospitals, convalescent centres and transit camps soldiers from all sorts of units were thrown together with nothing to do except exchange experiences and talk. The talk often got onto politics. What was the war about? Were the Germans all Nazis? What about the British politicians in high places who had wanted to appease Hitler before the war? There was a feeling that the mass unemployment of the 1930s, which many of the men had experienced, should not be allowed to return. They didn’t have unemployment in Russia, did they, nor rich and poor? They’d done away with bosses and landlords, hadn’t they? Maybe that’s why they fought so well. There was a mood of contempt for the Tories and those in authority, both civilian and military and a feeling that things ought to be changed. Could we trust the old gang to implement the promises of a better Britain once Hitler was defeated?
Typical was a discussion a group of us had on a train journey from hospital to a convalescent centre. The group included a sergeant in the London Scottish regiment, another infantryman, a lance corporal in the RASC, an American sergeant and me. I noted in my diary:
`Happily, I found that my fellow passengers were all socialistically inclined. All agreed that the post-war reconstruction must include the nationalisation of industry; private enterprise could not provide jobs. To my pleasant surprise the Yankee sergeant was also in favour of nationalisation. (Most of the American soldiers I had met before .had invariably been openly reactionary, and hated “commies” and even mild “pinkos”.) I asked him whether he thought the AFL and the CIO union confederations should form a Labour Party as the unions had done in Britain. He thought it quite likely. “Anyway”, he added, “the Republicans and Democrats are just two different names for the same thing.” He thought that Roosevelt was OK. He had taken the bull by the horns and carried out many social reforms which had been needed for years and years. The American added that the trouble was that, before the war, nobody had bothered about politics, and had left it to the few. He himself admitted that, apart from voting at election times, he had never bothered his head with world events. But the war had made him and a lot of others wake up. From now on the people were going to watch the politicians like hawks.
`The talk turned to strikes - particularly the recent miners’ strike in the States. The American and the lance-jack admitted that the workers’ demands might be justified, but argued that as soldiers they were opposed to strikes in wartime as they let down the army and endangered soldiers’ lives by holding up the flow of arms. I pointed out that the soldiers’ and workers’ interests were the same, and that the strikers were defending conditions and union organisation for the working class as a whole — including the soldiers who would have to return to industry after the war.
`The Allies had just recognised the Badoglio government in Italy, and the Americans were trying to boost the reactionary pro-Vichy French Admiral Darlan in Algeria. All my companions agreed when I pointed out that this showed that the allies were not fighting for democracy but for their own imperialist interests.
`The train finally steamed into the little station of Acireale, and put a stop to a very encouraging discussion. It was a pleasant change not to have to argue against blind chauvinists, and to sense a feeling of optimism and a determination to fight for Socialism.’
In the transit camps there was more political discussion. I recorded in my diary:
`This transit camp is up in the foothills of the Apennines, and it is very cold and wet. We are under canvas, and the torrential rain is turning the whole camp into a quagmire. Mud is everywhere, and our equipment and blankets are sodden. A couple of big marquees have been set up as “recreation” tents to which we all repair in the evenings. In one of them almost permanent “housey-housey” sessions go on. In the other are trestle tables and benches at which people write or play cards or sit about talking. On the first evening a discussion started up about demob when the war ended. There were the usual arguments as to who should get demobbed first. Should length of service, age, or whether one was a skilled or unskilled worker count? I tried to cut across all this and bring in wider issues. We had to make sure that, in whatever order we got demobbed, there should be jobs for all and no repetition of the mass unemployment that followed after the last war. From that a discussion developed on workers taking control of industry and on Socialism in general. As usual, there was general agreement on the rottenness of capitalism, but disagreement on whether it could be overthrown. There was general opposition to Toryism, and support for the Labour Party, but some scepticism about its ability to change the system. At the end I suggested we continue the discussion the next evening on “How we can achieve Socialism”, since we all agreed on its necessity. However, the next evening a lot of the blokes wanted to change the subject to “Are all Germans guilty?”, and we had a heated debate on this. There is still a lot of chauvinism around!’
Other manifestations of the growing move to the left were the army papers, The Eighth Army News and Crusader. Both were produced by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs and became tolerated channels for criticism of the authorities and expressing grievances. Many of these were relatively minor. Film stars, popular singers and artists, were criticised for refusing to sacrifice their box office takings and come out to entertain the troops. The Tory MP, Lady Astor, came under attack for her censorious charge of immorality and the consequent spread of venereal diseases among the troops. She was sarcastically referred to as “the sweetheart of the Eighth Army”. These papers and a third, The Union Jack, also demanded action to protect the troops from being fleeced by Italian shopkeepers. This sort of criticism, of course, represented no threat to the authorities, in fact it helped to divert attention from other grievances.
But other articles dealt with the need to prevent a return to unemployment and for a `better Britain’ after the war and supported the miners’ right to strike, even in wartime. These were regarded by right wing die-hards at home as dangerously subversive. A Tory MP, Commander Locker-Lampson, complained about The Eighth Army News in the House of Commons and asked who controlled it. The Eighth Army News replied with an editorial addressed to all Eighth Army soldiers, starting with the words `Dear Owners’, and promising to continue as a `free paper’ for ‘a free people’, and to continue to print their views freely on any subject. Letters of support from Eighth Army soldiers came flooding in. The release of Oswald Mosley, the Fascist leader, resulted in a flood of protesting letters from Eighth Army men, and confirmed their scepticism and the need for vigilance. The general mood expressed was `We have fought and are fighting this war, we are the people who will defeat Nazism and when we get home we will not allow the country to be messed up again. We shall take a hand.’
In collaboration with a Communist Party sympathiser, I wrote an article on the question of post-war unemployment, pointing to its inevitability under the present system. We proposed that the trade unions should demand reductions in working hours, and introduced the idea of a `sliding scale of wages’ and a `sliding scale of hours’. I pointed out that the employers would resist these demands, and that we should be prepared to fight for the socialisation of industry as the only solution. I forget whether it was published.
I had earlier written a letter to The Crusader attacking the chauvinist attitude of many soldiers towards the Italians, pointing out that the Italian workers were fighting the Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists in Northern Italy. The article ended with a call for the unity of all working people against Fascism. In the letter I had used the words `The Fascists and the vested interests that supported them.’ In the published version in The Crusader of 21 November 1943, the reference to `vested interests’ had been cut out. Was this cut merely to save space, or was it because the linking of Fascism with the capitalist class - even camouflaged by the euphemism `vested interests’ — was not permitted? I was still in hospital, when the letter was published. When I got back to my company, I found it had aroused quite a lot of discussion.
On my way to rejoin my unit, I had spent a day at a transit camp at Messina, waiting to be ferried over the straits to the mainland at Reggio. The food situation for the civilian population seemed far worse than anywhere else. As we were queuing up at the cookhouse for our meals, in full view of the street, hordes of women and kids were pressing against the camp fence, their hands outstretched, crying for food. The soldiers ate their food guiltily, often unable to finish it and took their uneaten food to the begging hands.
The reaction of the allied soldiers to the hunger of the civilian population was sharply divided. Many either openly or secretly did what they could to feed the hungry – particularly the kids. I know of men in the quartermasters’ stores or cook houses who passed supplies to hungry women and children. Others, hopefully a minority, took advantage of the situation, procuring the sexual services of women in exchange for a tin of corned beef.
Towards the end of November 1943, I rejoined 243 Company which was now based in Taranto, the big seaport and naval base in the heel of Italy. The company was now unloading ammunition on the docks and transporting it to the front.
It was in Taranto that I saw the first signs of political activity. On the walls were posters of the Communist Party, of the Socialists, of the Partito d’Azione and of the Partito Democratica-Liberale. There was very little to chose between their contents. All spoke in general terms of a `new and free Italy’. The Partito d’Azione claimed to be carrying on the tradition of Mazzini and Garibaldi.
I visited the local headquarters of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which, like the other parties, had emerged from underground and was functioning legally. In discussion with party members, I asked why the party supported the reactionary Badoglio government and the monarchy. They explained that the party considered that the immediate task was to liberate Italy from the Germans and Fascists in collaboration with the Allies.
When I suggested that they should fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government and workers’ control of industry, they replied the party was against this. When I pressed them they countered that after 22 years of Fascism the masses were politically apathetic; they were not ready for soviets. `First we must fight in collaboration with the Liberals and Christian Democrats for a democratic government. While we thus collaborate on a minimum programme we still retain our maximum programme, we do not give it up.’ They admitted there was some opposition to this in the party. In Naples, for example, a strong minority opposed collaboration with the bourgeois parties.
They expressed surprise when I told them the British and American Communist Parties were opposed to strikes in their countries. They thought that strikes for economic demands were justified. They told me there had been a one-day strike the previous week, in a local shipyard of the F Tosi Company which built submarines and employed over 3000 workers. The workers had demanded a wage increase of 200 per cent to keep up with inflation. The bosses had offered 70 per cent. I later spoke to a worker at the yard, who told me that negotiations were still going on. (I believe the demands were eventually conceded.).
The Italian comrades told me that under the Fascist regime the old trade unions had not been destroyed but emasculated and put under Fascist control. Each industry was organised into `Corporations’ which in theory were tripartite, representing the employers, the workers and the state. However, the officials and representatives of the `workers syndicates’ were all appointed by the Fascist government. The strike at the Tosi shipyard had broken out spontaneously. The government then sent down two leading Communist Party members to persuade the workers to end the strike: `Your demands are, of course, justified, the workers’ standard of living must be defended. But the war is still on and production must be maintained. Go back to work. We will see to it that your just grievances are listened to…’ The workers voted to return to work. One of the two Communist Party members was elected secretary of the `syndicato’ (union). Unbelievably, until then the old Fascist-appointed secretary had not been removed. Since the old laws had not yet been repealed, the newly-elected Communist was now `officially’ appointed secretary by the Badoglio government.
Although the Communist Party members I spoke to were not critical of the party’s intervention in that strike, they shook their heads in amazement when I told them that, not only was the British Communist Party opposing strikes, it was also supporting the Tories in by-elections and calling Churchill a good democrat. There was no great hostility among the Taranto rank and file to the reputed left wing opposition in Naples. There was even some sympathy.
When I mentioned the prospect of revolution in Germany, their reaction was that this was unlikely. It was therefore necessary to prosecute the war to the end. They had little faith in the prospect of a German revolt against Hitler because the anti-Nazi opposition had been liquidated, they had no leaders, etc. I countered by pointing out that after 22 years of Fascist rule in Italy, the Italian Communist Party and other opposition groups had still survived - so why not in Germany? They replied that the behaviour of the German troops in Italy, their arrogance and their attitude to the Italians, showed they had been poisoned by Nazi ideology.
I was asked by one Italian comrade what I thought the Allies would do if the Italians elected a Communist government. I replied that the allied capitalists would smash it unless the workers in Britain and the USA stopped them. He replied that while he had every confidence the Italians would fight, he had little confidence in the British Labour movement. I reminded him that the masses and the Labour Party leaders were not the same. The Trotskyist Workers International League would oppose intervention. I told him about the `Hands Off Russia’ campaign after the 1914-18 war, and the British dockers’ refusal to load ammunition which was going to be used against the Soviet government. He said that if the Allies tried to smash an Italian Communist government, Russia would come to its aid and there would be war between the Anglo-Americans and Russia.
On one of my visits to the Communist Party headquarters, I met Peter C—, another British soldier who was a sympathiser of the British Communist Party. Over a period of weeks we had long discussions during which I went some way to convincing him of the correctness of the Trotskyist position., We often met at the home of two Italian Communist Party members who had both served prison terms for illegal anti-Fascist activity under Mussolini’s regime. Since both Peter’s unit and mine were likely to move on at any time, we agreed to keep in touch, and I passed on to him some copies of Socialist Appeal and a copy of Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed. We also jointly drafted the article for The Eighth Army News already mentioned.
Through our Italian contacts we heard of one or two events of interest. For some time the people of Cosenza, a market town, had been demanding the removal and arrest of the Fascist officials who had been allowed to remain in control of the local administration. Eventually, the people took to the streets, chased the Fascists out of their houses and ran them out of town. At La Tersa, near Taranto, there were food riots. The people stormed the warehouses and the Carabinieri barracks and there were several casualties. It had been discovered that the Carabinieri had been hiding several pigs in their barracks, ready for a Christmas Feast.
The situation in Sicily and southern Italy at that time is well described by Paul Ginsborg in his History of Contemporary History.
‘Above all the arrival of the Allies did not bring with it any greater social justice. Official policy was summed up by the catch-phrase: ‘Keep existing administration and temper defascistization with discretion.’ What this meant in most localities was the dismissal or internment of the Fascist mayor, the retention of the local carabinieri and the enlistment of the aid of the conservative church hierarchy. In Sicily the Allies turned out to have some sinister friends. Leading members of the Italo-American Mafia like Lucky Luciano used AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories) as a means of returning to their former hunting-grounds. In general, Allied military government ensured the southern rural elites a painless transitional period from Fascism to Victor Emanuel’s ultra-conservative Kingdom of the South. The allies professed to be above politics, but the effect of their policies was to consecrate the social status quo, based, as we have seen, on the most ruthless exploitation of the rural poor.
In a situation which got worse, not better, with liberation, the southern peasantry became increasingly desperate. Widespread protests spread through the rural areas in the winter of 1943-4. The slogans shouted by the demonstrators were nearly always of the same kind: ‘No more grain for the authorities’, ‘No more taxes’, ‘We want bread subsidies’. ‘We want salt’, ‘Out with the Fascists’. Some of the demonstrations turned into open revolt. In December 1943 at Montesano in the province of Salerno, peasants and carabinieri fought a pitched battle for three hours. Eight demonstrators were killed and ten wounded. The first occupations of the land date from this period, with peasants in Sicily, Basilicata and Calabria taking over parts of the latifondi which the landowners wanted to keep for pasture.
In some of Basilicata and Calabria, once the Germans had left and the Allies had marched through, the peasants declared their own republic. Thus in September 1943 at Calitri, the republic of Battocchio, called after its leader, was proclaimed. At a meeting of 29 September it was decided to resolve the ancient injustices of land tenure by the generalized expropriation of the latifondo’. A few days later the carabinieri, aided by American troops, suppressed the republic.’ (1)
Towards mid-December 1943 we heard that 243 Company was going to be sent back to England. We had another two weeks before the homeward-bound convoy assembled and we looked forward to a few days’ rest. But our Company Commander, Major Ball, thought idleness was bad for morale and discipline. We were daily paraded in the square outside our billets, and put through sessions of `square bashing’; arms drill, marching and counter-marching, saluting by numbers, etc. Italian adults and kids gawped at us. We were fed up. `Christ! Do they think we’re bloody rookies? We thought we’d done with all this when we left the training depot!’ Everybody was grumbling.
Some comments I had made in a letter home that had been censored by our officers came to the attention of the Company Commander. I wasn’t surprised to be summoned to appear before Major Ball on company orders.
“Ah Ratner, I believe you’ve been criticising the way I’m running this company. Well, let me tell you, the army is based on rules and regulations and it’s not for you, Private Ratner, to question them!”
“I obey those rules and regulations, Sir, but you can’t stop me having my opinion and expressing it.”
“Oh yes I can!”, he replied. “You’re better educated than the other men, though”, he added sarcastically, “through no merit of your own, but because your parents were able to afford it. Whatever you say has a lot of influence on your less educated companions. They look up to you. I won’t have barrack room lawyers and tub-thumping socialists in my unit. While I’m in command you’ll obey orders and shut your mouth!”
I replied I was entitled to my opinion. Seeing I refused to be browbeaten, Major Ball changed tack. “Alright”, he continued more quietly, “now, tell me man to man - why do the men object to drilling?” I replied it was stupid and an insult to a man’s intelligence to try to turn him into a robot. The major then explained why army drill, that induced instinctive and unquestioning obedience, was necessary if men were to survive in battle. “Look”, he continued, “at Salerno the Pioneers helped to beat off a German counter-attack, suffered heavy casualties but helped to maintain the bridgehead. Do you think this would have been possible without discipline?”
“Well, Sir”, I replied, “we don’t need training in saluting by numbers to teach us to duck when we hear bullets whizzing around us.”
At this he exploded again, told me not to be impertinent, and dismissed me with a warning to watch my step.
On 22 December we boarded ship – the SS Volendam – and set sail back to England.
1. Paul Ginsborgs A History of Contemporary Italy, Society and Politics 1943-1988, Penguin Books,1990, p.36 and footnote 93. This book is worth reading also for an account of events in the North