Friday, August 27, 2021

NOT THE YUGOSLAVS I REMEMBER


This article first appeared in Total Croatia News.

Dubrovnik 1985

Hats off to Slovenian author Goran Vojnović! I have just finished reading his best-selling novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland which he creates with great literary skill and the insight of an excavator. He exposes human foibles down to their bedrock, and I hope he never writes about Australia because I'll be ducking for cover. The guy's a genius, but he has made me sad.

For the cynical, war-weary people he describes are not the Yugoslavs I remember when, as an adopted Croatian searching for the half of myself that originated there, I visited from Sydney in 1985. I desired to like Yugoslavia, I hoped that it would welcome me, and it is wonderful how often expectations like this bear fruit. To me Yugoslavia seemed fresh and new, its people warm and welcoming. After our trip, as the train trundled towards the Greek border and the magic still lingered, I watched these men and women tending their fields in the twilight and willed myself to retain that final image. Though Vojnović might argue that I saw only what I wanted to see, Yugoslavia in 1985 was no more an illusion to me than if I had mistaken a lush Bosnian valley for the dry eucalypts that soar from the river beds at home.
Mostar 1985

I'll tell you why: because, one October afternoon three years ago, in a second hand book shop along a dusty street in Rijeka, I bought a book of poems written between 1941 and 1945 by Croatian Yugoslav Partisans. In these verses I rediscovered the country I had loved.

During those years, Yugoslavia was again at war – again divided along ethnic grounds – but there was one crucial difference from the war of the 1990's, and that was the stated aim of the winners: to create a pan-Slavic army to replace the old regional fighters. When I wrote my own novel about Yugoslavia, I named it after the book, Po Šumama i Gorama, Through Forests and Mountains (Penmore Press, 2021). It is the first of a trilogy about World War 2 in Yugoslavia and is set in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The second and third books are set in Croatia, in Split and Vis. I wrote Through Forests and Mountains to investigate the story my adoptive mother told me in 1970 about the Partisan women who fought alongside the men, and to reflect the Croatian Poems that had so captivated me.

What are their themes?

The most frequent is freedom. Running parallel to it are camaraderie and sacrifice for a cause higher than one's self. Beneath these, and most important to me, was love of the land the Partisans were fighting for, and that land is described in beautiful terms, just as I remembered it.

The forests have become the graves of our fallen comrades, the sons of our land, and on them flowers have sprouted. We twitch the gentle stems, we roll up the small flowerets and think it takes us back to the warm streams of our childhood.

Cyclamen by Anđelka Martić, August 1943

The column of soldiers walks into the blizzard of angry ice with blistered feet and swift, firm steps. In their hearts they carry spring blossoms and their deadly rifles are loaded with freedom.

The Battle at Twenty Below Zero. VIII Dalmatian Brigade

The words of the old oak from At the Grave by Andrija Nemit

Dear comrades,

I am honoured and proud of these young lives. They stood up for freedom and justice. They gave themselves for the freedom of the young. They did their courageous duty before the world for the homeland. And little birds will give them glory in the summer. Let them glory in who they are. They gave their lives for the freedom of the people.

Lastly, some memorable lines about women from A Woman Under Arms by Franjo Mraz

I hate the days of my leaden past and my unhappy youth. Now that I have a gun in my arms, you who burn my house and kill my sons, I promise I’ll pay you back, because I am no longer a slave. Oh my rifle, I will never part with you! You will be with me at the end of my wrist until my last day. Tremble, look, and listen to the woman warrior, the woman Partisan.

One of the pitfalls in translating the surges of the heart that are at the root of poetry is that one becomes involved with the poets themselves, takes them home, so to speak, and thereafter commences a meditation on who they were and what their lives were like. I, their advocate, suffered righteous anger on their behalf, I rose to the justice of their cause, debated with the sceptics, fought the fascists until, at last, from sheer emotional exhaustion, I extricated myself from their embrace and returned to the twenty-first century. But I did not return alone. The Partisans came with me. 
Plitvice 1985



Some of them were famous Croatian poets and artists, Josip Cazi, Anđelka Martić, Franjo Mraz, but most, I suspect, were people like you and me. Perhaps they fell in battle, ‘the holy sacrifices of our heroic column’, as Cazi wrote. Some may have been Enslaved in Istra - Porobljeno u Istri - from a note found in the pocket of a fighter named Čiković. Other are verses composed by Branko Đipalović of the Eleventh Dalmatian Brigade just before he was hung, that I found both moving and frightening: ‘when this poem rises from the earth let out a great shout as the hero falls, to those who gave the righteous life.’

The poems and my own experience tell me not to accept war and ethnic hatred. I was adopted in 1960. When fifty years later I discovered my birth mother's history, it was a mixture of Slovenian, Croatian, Italian and Venetian. My mother herself identified as Yugoslav, and later as Croatian. She was born in Tar, Istra. She told me that the family name Mikatović came from an island down the far south coast and meant ‘son of Michael’. Recently I discovered that Mikatović is a contraction of the Greek, Michael Taxiarhis, or Michael the Brigadier, the archangel, the commander of the armies of heaven. This island my mother spoke about was the Island of Flowers in the Bay of Kotor, upon which once stood an Orthodox monastery dedicated to this saint. Thus we have, Mikatović, son of Michael the Archangel.

Belgrade 1985

‘In recent centuries,’ wrote the Australian Ambassador Malcolm Booker in 1994, ‘European…Empires that have competed for access to the Balkan corridor have constantly provoked dissension…in pursuit of their own interests. This has created a social and political climate in which every community fears and distrusts every other.’ He concludes, 'The only hope for peace among the Balkan peoples is for them to be left alone...to develop their uniquely beautiful and productive region.'




TO MY SERB BROTHER  
           by Ivo Kaleb, 1944

For many summers, dear brother,
Our land has cried bitterly.
She has been in slavery
And her bitter tears have flowed.

You are a Serb, my dear brother,
But to I, a Croat, you extended a hand.
In the fight we went together
And to the bulwark of our land we came,
Scattered darkness and confusion,
Stifled tyranny,
Strengthened brotherhood and love,
Killed the traitors.

We are the children of one mother,
Therefore we bind our many faceted fists,
and make the final attack marching one way.

Wherever you are fighting, brother Serb,
I send you a warm greeting.
To the end I will be with you
To complete the holy struggle.





 


Monday, June 7, 2021

CHETNIKS versus PARTISANS


                IRREGULAR ADVENTURE   by  Christie Lawrence

BOOK REVIEW 

This absorbing book must rate as the greatest war story never heard of. It is the memoirs of British commando captain, Christie Lawrence who, having been taken prisoner at the Battle of Crete, has a series of adventures in and out of occupied Serbia commencing in June 1941. He escapes from the Germans at least twice, travelling across Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria by foot, train and truck. While on the run, he veers between starvation and abundance, in one day in a village of hospitable peasants south of Belgrade, consuming more food than I eat in a week and more alcohol than I drink in a month. The soil in Serbia must be very fertile and there seems to have been an inordinate number of plum trees, most of which were used to make slivovitz.

At one stage in his travels, Lawrence actually lays eyes on the very border of Turkey he is trying to reach before being recaptured and put on a train to Germany. After braining his guard with a wine bottle, he abandons the bread, cheese and salami in his backpack and leaps from the train, crossing two rivers, nearly drowning both times. Eventually he is rescued by yet another village of well-fed Serbs, and here he is nursed back to health in the home of a government forester.

‘[The forester] found you about half a mile from the river…He held you upside down and a lot of water ran out.’

Three other men present were Chetniks under the leadership of Kosta Pećanac, two from the Royal Yugoslav Army and the third was,

‘tall with aquiline features and a beard. He had gaily coloured peasant’s dress with elaborate embroidery. Round his waist and over one shoulder he wore a bandolier full of rifle cartridges, and from his belt hung three Mills bombs. A rife was slung over his back and at his side was a revolver in a big black holster. A large knife in a brass sheath completed his armament.’

Lawrence explains that there existed various Chetnik groups in rural Serbia at this time, each under the command of a local vojvoda, or warlord. They were a tradition left over from the days of the Ottomans, against whom they had waged guerrilla warfare. 

After he has recovered, Lawrence meets Kosta Pećanac himself who formally enrolls him as one of his Chetniks. Pećanac sends him to meet a further Chetnik general, Ljubo Novaković and, once at the general's headquarters, a company of Partisans turns up.

'What do you think of Serbian soldiers?' [Novaković asked me.]

'I think they have very little discipline and are not well trained,' I replied.

'Why do you say that?' asked a Partisan leader.

'Because they take no precaution against being seen from the air...they leave their arms in the open and stand about as though they were at a fair.'

'Perhaps you are right,' said the Partisan. He went away and made his men move under the trees and take their arms with them. The Chetniks watched them scornfully.

'Only the Partisans are afraid of a bomb or two,' [they] said. 

At this point, matters become disjointed, and the fragmentation is accompanied by Lawrence's philosophical treatise on why. Throughout the first half of the book, he takes a fiendish delight in portraying Chetniks as colourfully dressed relics of a glorious past, and Partisans as 'tough and sullen', silently 'watching everybody with...sharp black eyes.' I suspect that, as a representative of the British Empire, he felt justified in this deprecation, but I almost retorted that British interference in the Balkans had created resentment in Bosnia, started World War 1, orchestrated the coup d'état in Belgrade in World War 2 – and so on and so forth.

Kosta Pećanac, 'always half Fascist', announces his intention of collaborating with the Germans and decamps along with the men loyal to him. The Germans pay them a salary. Lawrence marches off with Novaković and eventually arrives at the town of Kruševac in time to witness an assault against the Germans by two companies of Chetniks, a large company of Partisans, 'and the usual huge force of semi-armed peasants.' This is followed by dramatic observations of Chetniks and Partisans together fighting the Germans for the town of Alexandrevac. The first battle Lawence was actually involved in was a joint Partisan/Chetnik assault on Kaljevo in the second week of October, 1941, against the Germans and those of Pećanac's men already on their payroll.

Lawrence eloquently captures the bewilderment of an occupied country before adequate resistance has been organized: the savage German reprisals, the power play between the various Serbian leaders, of whom there seems to be a revolving number, the infighting and arguments. Various peasant goups follow one leader blindly, while others just want to go home.

'These communists, what do they want? They want to attract recruits and be strong...so that when Yugoslavia is liberated they will be able to seize power. They are only working with [General] Draža Mihailović because he is too strong for them at the moment. And he is as bad. He wants a Serbian dictatorship over the rest of the country. He is not a Yugoslav, he’s a Serb.

‘Have you seen how these petty little local leaders squabble about a man and a gun? Novaković went away because he wanted to be a commander and Đurić let him go because he wanted to be commander. And Jakšić prefers Đurić to Novaković because he is the stronger man….Then you look out, [Lawrence]…They will fight for your support and try to murder you if they don’t get it.’

I was never entirely sure who was on whose side, what proportion of the many Mafia-like local warlords were accepting German money for personal gain, and which side the poor peasants caught in the middle might be persuaded to choose next. 

Draža Mihailović appears to have made a critical error in late 1941 following the battles at Kraljevo and Kragujevac. These battles resulted in terrible German reprisals against the civilian population.

'In order to save the lives of his men and preserve the skeleton of an organization, he was forced to disband most of his companies. [Some went home,] many others he sent to serve nominally under the Germans in the companies which Nedić (the quisling prime minister) was raising to fight against the Partisans and ...Draža himself. Draža did not intend [for them to serve under the Germans] His idea was to preserve himself and a certain number of his companies...He meant that they should serve with Nedić's militia long enough to get arms and clothing, and then escape to the woods and hills.'

'Are they still serving with Nedić? I asked.

'Far too many. It was a good idea when Draža thought of it, and provided it could have been carried out as he intended.

'How could it have been a good idea? I insisted.

'Because it provided Mihailović with groups of men whom he could use for his defence against the Partisans, if they attacked, and who also kept him informed about German intentions...They always use a screen of Nedić's men as advance guard. And more than half of the men they use are, in fact, Draža's own.'

Lawrence asked why it had ceased to be a good idea.

'Because hundreds of officers and men...have heard that some of Draža's officers have been sent into Nedić's militia and have, of their own accord, joined without orders. Draža has, in fact, no control over them, and yet, whatever they do, they do in his name, and often openly collaborate with the Germans.'

Lawrence concludes:

'Mihailović's order, after his defeat in the autumn [of 1941] to stop fighting the Germans seemed reasonable enough, for one cannot fight effectively until one's organization is powerful enough.'

Upon hearing that a British officer is staying with General Mihailović, Lawrence sets out once the winter snows have melted to locate his compatriot. After a southerly walk of a week and a half, he arrives at Milanovac, one of the Serbian towns destroyed by the Germans, and here learns from Mihailović's chief-of-staff the cost of revolting against them.

'The total result of our revolution was that we killed about seven or eight thousand Germans, and lost 125,000 men and women shot by them. Three towns and fifty-three villages ...were burned out, and our organization was virtually destroyed...we are now rebuilding it on different lines...Sabotage is our aim and it must be so arranged that subsequent reparations...will be kept small.'

If Lawrence's aim is to confuse me then, by the spring of 1942, he has succeeded. For example, as he proceeds south he is accompanied by two men whose names he has changed to Ivanović and Milenković. They inform him of their plans to organize guerrilla warfare in the Toplica province of southern Serbia and their personal reasons for doing so.

'I want you to understand,’ said Ivanović, 'that we owe no especial loyalty to Draža Mihailović.

'Are you,' I asked, 'in fact, a communist?'

'No,' said Ivanović. 'I have never been a communist. But I am an enemy of the present regime, though a personal friend of the King.'

He took out of his wallet some photos of himself and the young King bathing together on the Dalmatian coast.

'Tell me, I said, 'has Mihailović really a strong following all over the country?'

'Theoretically yes, practically no,' said Milenković.

'It is the British radio which has given him his reputation,' said Ivanović.

Lawrence asks them how they plan to proceed.

'We must make friends with [both Chetniks and Partisans,' replies Ivanović.] 'Subtlety...is the thing. We shall tell the Chetniks that there is no difference that matters between ourselves and them – that our one difference is that they co-operate with the Germans to fight the Partisans, and we fight them on our own. We shall offer to collaborate with them at every turn, whereas, in fact, we shall co-operate with them not at all. One day they will wake up to the fact that we are much too strong for them, and then we shall destroy them.'

'And the communists?'

'The communists will have nothing to fear from us. With them we can work, but we shall eventually be their masters.'

Here follows a spiel of convoluted reasoning involving England, Russia, Partisans and Chetniks which so frustrates Lawrence that he accuses his friends of 'running with the hare and with the hounds'. Yet, despite feeling that he is 'being used as a pawn in a semi-political intrigue' he likes them better than any leaders he had so far met because 'they were unquestioningly working against the Germans.' They then eat a meal together in a café in the town of Kuršumlija alongside enemy Bulgarian officers, Chetniks, officers of Kosta Pećanac working with the Germans, and four officers of Nedić's militia, none of whom take any notice of them. That night, they eat ghoulash at another café and exploit two drunken Germans to escort them safely home in case the occupying Bulgarians shoot them for being out after curfew. When at long last Lawrence meets Mihailović at the end of April 1942, and the general remarks 'you cannot understand the intricacies of Serbian politics,' I was inclined to agree with him.

Mihailović seems overtaken by matters generally.

'That morning I met Mihailović. I was shocked at his appearance, for he looked an old man...He was small and slight with grey hair, a thin, lined face and gold-rimmed spectacles. His voice was tired and he spoke with a worried preoccupied abstraction.'

Lawrence asks him why he has forbidden his generals to take action against the Germans.

'You have heard,' said Mihailović, “of the results of my revolution last autumn...I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation. We cannot, for the moment, maintain large illegal guerrilla companies. The misery which they cause to the peasants is too great....It is far better that my men should stay at home, work on the land, and look after their weapons if they have them. When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise.'

'Then, until Germany's final collapse, you intend to do nothing more active than organize?' I asked.

'I did not say that. I said, until the Germans are too weak to deploy sufficient forces against us to retake what we shall have taken from them. In future, I do not intend to capture a town until I know that I can protect its inhabitants.'

Lawrence's adventures come to a sticky end when he is betrayed to the Gestapo by a mad Serbian warlord dying of tuberculosis, and accused of being Jewish.

The lives of the people he meets paint a picture of Serbia at this critical early stage of its occupation. Daniele, 'a very good machine gunnist', is a Slovene who had joined the Partisans 'partly from fear and partly from hate' after Belgrade was invaded and her husband left her because she was a Jew. A Serbian merchant accepts pay from the Germans in order to feed his village and fund resistance activities. The Orthodox priests of the monastery on Mount Rudnik regard 'it as their duty to offer aid to anyone who was willing to fight the invader...sometimes to the communists, sometimes to the Chetniks, and always to fugitives from German “justice"'. A peasant pulls out his flint box to light Lawrence's cigarette, and down in the valley we hear the sound of women batting linen.

I have been unable to find Irregular Adventure for sale anywhere, but there are copies in university and state libraries.



        HIS MOST ITALIAN CITY

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A TOUR OF YUGOSLAVIA 1985 - part 2: Dubrovnik, Budva, Sveti Stefan and Split.

 


Wednesday 15th May

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was performed last night in a church in old Dubrovnik which is part of a square-cloistered Dominican Monastery. The concert also included Vivaldi’s Gloria. The church was large and full, the orchestra well-tuned and together. An energetic conductor, good acoustics and an enthusiastic performance combined to make a splendid evening.

The Old City is surrounded on three sides by the sea. On one side is the port, protected by a huge stone wall – originally wood – which, with its steps, levels and lookouts, looks like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. There is also the occasional canon pointing to the sea lapping upon the rocks far below. Tourists can't yet walk all the way round, but we went as far as we were able. From the land side there are two gates in the wall with draw bridges, and I think we saw a few barred gates coming from the water. Outside the walls are forts and, once upon a time, an underwater chain was drawn across the port at night to prevent enemy ships from entering. But the real interest is inside the walls. The town here is supposedly the most perfectly preserved Mediaeval town in Europe. The main reason for this is that, from Dubrovnik’s foundation in the sixth or seventh century to the time of Napoleon, who conquered it in 1808, the town was free. Consequently, it is a museum in itself, although it is still the living quarters of many people including shops, kafanas, washing strung out on lines from the windows, and open markets. And, guess what? No cars! The streets are cobbled, worn smooth by the centuries, but the cross streets go up the hill and are composed almost entirely of steps. Cars can’t drive up steps yet! In 1667 an earthquake all but destroyed the city. The people must have been very proud of Dubrovnik and fairly courageous themselves because they rebuilt the city to the same design as the old, even buildings that had been levelled by the disaster.



Thursday 16th May

At 8am this morning we piled yet again into our new German bus and headed south along the winding Dalmatian coast. For every kilometres, as the crow flies, you travel ten by road, according to Saša. As you cross the border from Croatia to Montenegro, you notice many tall cypress trees in the thickly wooded forests. They stand out from the other trees because of this noble shape. Well, I call it noble.

In 1979, an earthquake badly damaged this area and repairs on modern and ancient buildings are still being carried out. In some cases, this is impossible, and the buildings have just been left, instead of demolished. One such case if the Mediaeval town of Budva, which is surrounded by another splendid stone wall. People lived in it as they do in Dubrovnik, but today it stands empty. A ghost town. The buildings are so weak since the quake that they could fall down without warning, and it is really quite eerie to see it – a whole town deserted, yet still standing. 


Up the road, another ancient town is being reconstructed. Note the Venetian forts. At one time, Venice and Dubrovnik were the two most powerful ports in the Adriatic.

From 12.00 until 2.00, we stopped for lunch at Sveti Stefan. This little island is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of sand on which is built a pedestrian causeway. There is a church on the top and a collection of fishing huts, which have been updated into a modern resort. This, too, is surrounded by a sea wall, and is compactly built using bricks, stones and tiles to make quite an architectural maze. There are steps all over the place connecting the various levels and gardens, and small plots of grass are built into the stonework. There also trees, where they will fit, but with all the houses it’s a tight squeeze. It’s a lovely little place, and well worth the visit.


This picture is part of a royal collection in a museum decked out with original furniture, crystal and china. It was the Royal Family of Montenegro, of course, because Montenegro was a country before Yugoslavia was united in 1918. There are also many medals, guns, flags and uniforms from their wars with the Turks, and some lovely examples of National dress.

Going back to Dubrovnik, we cut an hour off the trip by catching a huge punt, or ferry, across the largest bay. I thought it was great fun, but one of the older ladies wasn’t too impressed when I asked if she could swim.

Total on board: 3 coaches, 3 trucks, 8 or 9 cars and about a hundred people.



Friday 17th May

We slept in this morning and caught the local bus into Old Dubrovnik with the rest of the unwashed masses. Once here, we climbed the steep stairs to the walkway on the thick wall, and completed our circumference that we had started on Wednesday. From here you get a bird’s eye view of the sixteenth century town (and some parts are even older). It’s just superb! Did you ever wonder what a mediaeval chimney looked like? See the oldest grape vine in Croatia, with a stem like a tree trunk. Just change the clothes the people wear and here you are, back in pre-Renaissance Yugoslavia! Nowhere else have I seen things like this.

The working day here is unusual. The shops open from 8.30 to 12.00 and then again from 4.30 to 8.00 with some variations. The hours in between are lunch and siesta time. Understandably, this is a bit irritating for Western tourists, but we’re not in the west now.

The highlight of the day was a two hour concert of dancing and singing from all areas of Yugoslavia. It was held in a huge sports stadium which was filled mostly by tourists from about 20 coaches. The items were announced in Serbo Croat, English, French and German. I think there was nobody in the thousand or so guests that didn’t enjoy the evening. I was in heaven, as usual, and Lyn liked it so much that she bought a cassette.

In particular note: the costumes: really beautiful and certainly made in any colour you could think of. Lovely lace for the hems of the garments, embroidery even on the girls’ boots, headscarves and boleros. The most amusing costumes for the men were these long and full divided shirts down to their ankles with lace at the bottom. It looked so funny over black boots and they did a dance like the Can Can which almost bought the house down. There was a lot of stomping of boots with bells to keep the rhythm. Some dances had no music but kept the beat by this means. The boys, of course, danced the most vivacious and exciting steps.



Saturday 18th May

There are now two buses on our tour, a 7 day tour of parts of Yugoslavia has joined us from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. We journeyed along the Adriatic coast to Makarska for lunch. Although Saša kept on telling us about the lovely beaches below on the road, we were on the wrong side of the bus to see them. Makarska was a pleasant seaside town with a beach and a small marina. We stopped here for an hour, during which one of the Americans contacted his cousins by looking them up in the telephone book. Both his parents were Yugoslavs, but they have been dead for many years. The also drove after us to Split to spend the afternoon with them. Very exciting! And he was very nervous!

The most prominent historical building in Split is the Palace of Diocletian, which was built between 295 and 335 AD, Diocletian was a Roman Emperor who was noted, among other things, for dying a natural death – unusual in those blood thirsty times – and also for splitting the Roman Empire into East and West sections.

The modern town had been built within and without the old palace. Three of the original four corner pavilions are still standing and during the centuries houses have been built into the huge walls. Remarkably, the enormous subterranean basement areas of the walls have been preserved just as they were when built. This is probably because in Mediaeval times all the sewage was tipped into them, making them unable to be pillaged for stone. This area has been excavated by archaeologists and is interesting in its cavernous, hollow rooms, the cold, and the huge pillars curved concave to support the roof.




A short digression in praise of the virtues of Prošek: a heady Dalmatian desert wine, but hoenstly we drakn it at toher times, as well. Not juts after diner. We were wanerd to expect nothing until ½ way thru teh secnod glass. After that, it was qyite hard to peele the label from the obttle to apste it in my dairy, & I misdse the widdle bits at the botom.


Through Forests and Mountains - Kindle edition by Walker, Margaret. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.









Wednesday, April 21, 2021

A TOUR OF YUGOSLAVIA 1985 - part 1: Belgrade and Sarajevo.

 Friday 10th May 


Greek trains are dreadful. From experience I can tell you that the Hellas Express was not a patch on the Vienna Express from Belgium to Vienna. Both offered identical facilities, but the Hellas Express is old, dirty, and the bedding needs repair. Still, Lyn and I had a couchette to ourselves that usually slept six. In Athens, we had been provided with two sheets, a pillow, pillow case and blanket, and I, at least, slept like a log. The Swedish couple and daughter who were with us managed to move to the next compartment, and have it all to themselves.

At midnight, we crossed the Yugoslav border and were affirmed of the fact by an enormous guard waking us up to demand our passports in a very gruff voice. His sheer size was alarming. During the night we had passed through Macedonia, and early the next morning pulled into its capitol, Skopje, near the border with Kosovo. The countryside in Yugoslavia is very pretty. More lush, I think, than Greece. The houses are not square with flat rooves, but made of brick and plaster with red tiled sloping rooves.

About 8.30am our carriage filled up with people travelling to work, and I had this amazing conversation with a girl next to me, half in Serbo-Croat and half in German, because she knew no English. It was my first attempt at Serbo-Croat – I had chickened out with another couple an hour before – and was achieved with my head in the textbook most of the time and the girl writing down what I couldn’t understand. We got a little way with much laughter and gesticulation and I, at least, felt more confident.

The scenery is very much like Austria. Green and lush, lots of trees, houses which look pretty from a distance, market gardens, cows, sheep, pigs, and horse-drawn ploughs instead of tractors! I think it is a very poor land, judging by the farms and villages. The people wear drab, shapeless clothes, and headscarves. The old ladies, as in Greece, are often dressed in black.

Saturday 11th May

We dropped off some carriages along the way and picked up others, so the train was eventually very long indeed, and too high off the ground to get our luggage down easily. The third class sections filled up with many young men dressed in green khaki uniforms all leaning out the windows, so that by the time we pulled into Belgrade, the Hellas Express looked like a train from ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ The station itself was covered, and long enough to match the train. There were a number of very tall men waiting around, not thin, as tall blokes often are in Australia, but well-proportioned without being overweight. Several taxi drivers standing on the platform asked Lyn if she wanted a lift – notice, no one asked me; maybe they thought I was a local – so we finally chose one, and were whisked off to the palatial Hotel Jugoslavia where we were waited on hand and foot.    

Although Belgrade looks a bit grotty near the station it is, later on, a nicely laid-out city with wide streets, a big river crossed by many fine bridges, and green lawns, shrubs and trees everywhere. This morning, we went for a walk into town – about three kilometres – along the Sava River and over one of its many bridges. Apart from the gardens along the bank, there was also a large space of grass and woodland down from the hotel, and on this was staged a military display to mark Europe's 40th Independence Day (8th May 1945). It was a huge turnout. I haven’t seen crowds like it since Queen Elizabeth came to Australia in 1970 and we went to see the fireworks. To make matters worse, many of the locals are very tall and well-built, so for once in my life, I couldn’t see over the crowds. There were jet displays with stunt flying, and red, white and blur tail flares, missile exhibits. On the river zoomed speed boat tactics, tanks on barges and pontoons. The land contents was a series of deafening explosions, soldiers climbing up trees, radio controlled planes, tents and other equipment. All this was accompanied by brass and military band music and a male chorus that sounded for all the world like the Red Army Choir. There was dancing in National Dress, too, so I took some photos.


The city is cleaner than Athens and the buildings are nicer to look at, but to us it was still fairly drab. The older buildings have an interesting architecture and would look attractive with a bit of care.

Our planned tour of Yugoslavia began at the hotel at 6pm in fine style: red carpets, room service, chandeliers, beautiful blue and white damask table cloths and serviettes. Drinks were followed by a speech from Saša, our guide, and a four course dinner.

       Menu:

        Cheese and cured meat with bread.

         Tomato Soup.

         Skewered pork, beef and sausage, carrots, beans and French Fries.

        Chocolate layer cake with an uncooked meringue topping.


I’m trying to eat half of everything so I don’t waddle off the bus when the tour ends. There are many Americans touring with us who can be, in some cases, overbearing. They think money can buy the world and the earth is America’s oyster. Joan and Don Taylor are a nice couple from Bendigo whom we have teamed up with. As with us, he works in a hospital.


Sunday 12th May

Today is Sunday and I haven’t been to church for three weeks, which I regret. At eight we sat down to breakfast preparatory to two and a half hour tour of Belgrade showing the old and new parts of the city. Belgrade was extensively bombed during the war, and a lot of older buildings were destroyed. “Belgrade” means “white city”, a name given to it because of the white stone it was made of. Yugoslavia has had a long and checkered history. It was settled by the Celts in the third century BC and then taken over by the Romans in the second or third century AD. From then there have been Slavs, Turks, Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and the modern people fighting for domination. The history is long and complicated and needs a detailed study to understand it correctly.

There are six states: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Belgrade is the capital and there are three religions: Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. Near the hotel two rivers converge, the Danube and the Sava, and a walk along the Sava towards this confluence immediately identifies the strategic importance of Belgrade for its conquerors throughout history. Here is built the fort, which dates from Roman times.

Belgrade is dominated in the new section by large areas of parkland, un-kept, usually, dotted with huge housing complexes and sky scraping offices rising out of the greenery. The parkland was once swamp which has been filled in by sand and built on since 1948. In the older city are many large public buildings and beautiful churches creating some interest in the otherwise grey, straight streets.

The next stop was an interesting, if exhausting, hike to the tomb of President Tito. This is a very sacred place for the Yugoslavs and they come in large numbers to pay homage, often bowing before the simple white marble rectangular tomb. There is a guard of four soldiers there 24 hours a day, and the whole tomb, as we walked around it, was surrounded by beautifully coloured, cultivated flowers. The effect is very nice and certainly reverent. Tito obviously meant a lot to them. The hike, by the way, is because the tomb is at the top of a hill in a densely wooded park. Since the weather is so humid and the older members of our party so slow, I was pretty wacked going up and down.

This evening we went to a lively and traditional area of the city where crowds of people go to eat both traditional food and dishes borrowed from other countries, inside or al fresco. Our restaurant was a lovely oak-panelled room with frosted and patterned glass doors and soft romantic lights. Very like something from the Orient Express. The band moved around the room, playing as they went to various sections of our party, some of whom decided to dance. As the band played, they often sung in rich voices and beautiful harmonies. There was an excellent violinist, a guitarist, a dark ukulele, a double bass and a piano accordion. All men. All the bands, inside and out along the cobbled streets, were unamplified. Needless to say, the atmosphere inside our restaurant, with the band and superb male singing was as near to heaven as I could imagine. They sung fast, they sung slowly, loud and soft, mournful and exciting. I was so wound up in thoughts and the spirit of the night that, when the party rose to leave, I got such a surprize that I almost didn’t follow them.

Menu:

Cheese, cured meats and polenta.

Salad, bread and sauerkraut.

Veal stew and red and yellow capsicum, with rice.

Apples stuffed with nuts, with meringue and cream.


Monday 13th May

We left the hotel at 9am and headed south west from Belgrade to Sarajevo where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. Initially the fields were flat, cultivated by hand and horse-drawn ploughs, or occasionally primitive tractors. I don’t remember very much of the trip because I kept nodding off. Not because I was tired but because I was sitting in the sun and the bus was very comfortable.

During the last half of the journey, we passed through hilly country, and the road and the railway through the mountains near Sarajevo pass through tunnels cut into the rocks. When you consider that I’m used to seeing hills covered in dark Australian gum trees, the vivid green of these local trees was a striking contrast. The land is, apart from anything, very green, so different to home. Everything looks fertile. Among the hills nestle little towns with one, two or three storey houses and sloping rooves, very much like Austria. The difference is, again, that the people are poor and their houses are not terribly well kept. However, it is so green and relaxing, that I prefer it to the high rise dwellings in Belgrade. Notice how hay is stacked in tall, peaked domes, maybe six or seven feet high. Also note the many farm animals inside the rickety hand-made yards: cows, pigs, big black boars, chickens, dogs, ducks. Without the highways, these little towns and farms with their hand made buildings and fences, and especially the hand drawn ploughs, could be taken straight out of the seventeenth century.

The whole landscape is terribly pretty and scenic. Villages are set into the greenery of deep gullies and the caps of the distant mountains are snow-covered. In fact, there was still snow by the side of the road, although it had turned to ice.

Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hotel, is even grander than the Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade. It is very modern with grand entry lobbies and stairs, even a series of small shops. The rooms have bigger beds than ours at home, with huge pillows, bionic showers that blast you with water – a bit violent maybe – and everything that opens and shuts. Even a fully equipped mini bar in each room.

Menu:

Ham dumpling soup with bread.

Deep fried pancakes with tartare sauce.

Stuffed onions, capsicum, spinach leaves, plus two meatballs in stock, with salad.

Baklava.

In one area of Sarajevo there has been, and still is, a heavy Turkish influence. Firstly you notice the mosques, but secondly, the dress of the women. They wear long skirts or billowy pantaloons down to their ankles and often little coloured slippers on their feet. While driving in, I saw a woman dressed like this drawing a wooden plow through a field – by hand!

Where was her husband?

Tuesday 14th May

This morning we had a short tour of Sarajevo including the Turkish mosque, a Serbian orthodox church, and the old markets. The mosque was painted inside and out with frescoes and contained beautifully shaped candle holders, now replaced by electricity. However, the most memorable things were the lovely Turkish carpets in intricate patterns and bright colours. One was so complicated that we were told it had to be done by children’s nimble fingers. The clock tower outside was built in the seventeenth century and inscribed with Turkish numbers. It is designed to read twelve o’clock at sunset, so does not read in the same way as ours. Note the two mausoleums as big as a lounge room, for one man each. Turkish women get little graves with a single headstone. So much for equality of the sexes!

The Serbian Orthodox church was founded originally in about the sixth century AD. It has been destroyed by fire several times since. Today’s edifice dates from 1730. Again note the beautiful interior with marble candle holders and many icons, like the Greek Orthodox. There are also small lit candles to offer prayer for the living and the dead. The atmosphere in the church, which was reverent and holy, was shattered by crowds of tourists, of which I, unfortunately, was one. The open markets were very interesting, and contained a lot of leather work and other traditional arts like macramé, copper work and wood work.

Back in the bus we journey south, stopping for lunch at Mostar. This is a unique and charming town featuring a sixteenth century white marble bridge. Although it has raised ridges to walk on – so the cattle wouldn’t slide back the way they came – the marble, polished by centuries of wear, was incredibly slippery. Lyn had to take her shoes off to get over. There are young men who will jump off this bridge at a price gathered from the tourists. I took a photo of one, but he wouldn’t jump. Drats!

There are two drawly Americans behind me in the bus who express wonder and amazement at EVERYTHING and laugh at all the jokes from Saša, our guide, whether good or bad. I shall make a second determined attempt not to let them disturb me. 

Saša is a very talented man where languages are concerned. His English is excellent and he makes jokes in it, which I always feel shows that you have the hang of a language. Mind, the jokes are usually about Communists, Russians, exiles in Siberia and, of course, the national airline.

Joke 1: A JAT passenger jet was on its way across the Adriatic when engines one and two failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said the Captain. ‘All those passengers who can swim, please move to the right side of the plane. All those who can’t, please move to the left.’ Shortly after, engines three and four failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,' said the Captain. ‘Those on the right hand side, good luck! Those on the left, thank you for flying Jugoslav Airlines.’

 

Joke 2: An Irishman, an American and a Yugoslav were drinking and discussing the best thing that could ever happen to them. ‘Gorgeous girls and an endless supply of whiskey,’ said the Irishman. ‘Enough money so that I would never have to work again,’ said the American. The Yugoslav said, ‘A big black car drives up outside and shortly there is a knock on my door. I open it to find two large threatening men from the KGB standing there. “Are you Ivan Ivanovich?” they demand. “Not me,” I say. “He lives next door.”


This unfortunate Ivan Ivanovich came in for a lot of teasing on the trip.

Late this afternoon we arrived in the Adriatic town of Dubrovnik, and are planning to hear a performance of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi after dinner.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A LIFE OF ALOYSIUS STEPINAC - book review

THE TRIPLE MYTH by Stella Alexander.

You cannot find two things on the internet about Aloysius Stepinac that do not contradict one another and I almost feel sorry for the poor man that Pope John Paul II ever agreed to raise him to the altars, because there has been no peace about him in heaven or earth since.

The preface to this fascinating book, published in 1987, did not fill me with confidence. ‘There is only one main primary source available to the ordinary researcher,’ Alexander commences rather dismally, ‘…two other sources exist but are not available.’ Another source ‘is not always a reliable witness’, a further source requested by the author was ‘refused’ and several others suffer from ‘tendentious’ tendencies or came from representatives of the foreign press who may have had ‘little knowledge of Yugoslavia.’

I know that this is not the reason Pope Francis put Stepinac’s canonization on hold and upset everybody, but it’s tempting to suggest that Pope JP2 could have done his research better (had he been able to). As an example, although the Pope allowed the archbishop to bypass the two miracles required for sainthood by proclaiming him a martyr, the communist government in fact looked after him comparatively well, precisely because they did not wish martyrdom to occur. ‘He was never ill-treated…He was imprisoned in decent conditions, in a double cell with a third neighouring cell arranged as a chapel where he celebrated mass every day. He had books and writing materials and was allowed visitors from time to time.’ He was well fed, and his sister visited him once a month, bringing with her whatever he needed.

Regarding the claim that the imprisonment resulted in the medical condition that killed him, Alexander quotes Hrvatska revija June 1985 Vol 35 No.2: 'Some Croatian myth makers have gone to extravagant lengths to prove that Stepinac...is a martyr. on the basis of a story that his polycythemia (which they describe as leukaemia) was induced by bombarding him over the course of four months with X rays from an adjoining cell.'     

To have been archbishop under the Ustasha government seems to have been as confronting an experience for Stepinac as it would conceivably have been for us. Whilst condemning the atrocities against Jews and Serbs, he nevertheless kept up a running tirade against a theoretical communism, so that I had to reread several of his passages in order to understand what he meant. (Stepinac had a tendency to overwrite.) His unfortunate references to returning the ‘schismatics’ (the Serbs) to the ‘true faith’ (Catholicism) are typical of his time, as is the European anti-Semitism he gradually sloughs off as the war progresses. The elegant and conciliatory language of his letters towards Ante Pavelić, leader of the Ustasha, renders his refusal to break from them (on the pretext of not being able to help people if he had) more poignant.

‘Two things stand out,’ writes Alexander. ‘He feared communism above all; and he found it hard to grasp that anything beyond the boundaries of Croatia, always excepting the Holy See, was quite real.’

In 1945, as Pavelić fled Zagreb and Stepinac, grim-faced, awaited the arrival of the Partisans, there were so many accusations and counteraccusations between the two sides that it is possible to believe whatever one wants.

‘Objective history will show that the representatives of the Catholic Church in Croatia never betrayed their callings and that the mistakes of a few priests are trifling beside what is happening…[under] organized atheism’ – Stepinac.

‘Some of his ideas about the role of the Catholic Church in recent happenings were basically incorrect’ – Partisan response to the Catholic Bishop of Šibenik.

‘Only individuals personally and directly responsible for crimes would be brought to justice’ – communist policy towards relations between the state and the Catholic church.

‘I dare to say that the Croatian people will refuse to accept any regime either of the far left or the far right which does not completely respect its more than thousand year old Catholic tradition’ – Stepinac.

‘We want to create a great community of South Slavs in which there would be both Orthodox and Catholic, who must be closely linked with all the other Slavs. The Orthodox are nearer to this than the Catholics’ - Tito.

The mix of these strong and flawed personalities created a huge mess. Certainly, in not breaking with the Ustasha government when he was advised to, and in launching himself into a head-on collision with the communists after the war, Stepinac gave Tito enough rope to hang him with. Yet, as Tito correctly pointed out, Stepinac did not react to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Serbs by the Ustasha with anything like the same energy as he uncompromisingly defended the Catholic Church against communism. 

My own feeling is that the Partisans, whose attacks on the church so upset the archbishop after the war, were traumatized and angry. They had been witnesses of the Ustasha genocide against the Serbs, Jews and Roma. Many were Serb and Jews themselves and, as other writers have observed, revenge was in the air. That the liaison between the Catholic Church and the Ustasha had compromised the church, Stepinac does not seem to have appreciated. Like many left-brained men, he was absorbed in his present crisis: the communists were persecuting his church because they were atheists, and it was up to him to ensure its survival.  

Here lies the moral hurdle. Why is the survival of an institution more important than people? Shouldn't Stepinac, as a Christian leader, rather have proclaimed national shame and mourning for those whom the Ustasha had killed? To read about their crimes is be physically sick, yet their monstrous leaders were not brought to justice after the war, and through a series of Western and Catholic interventions, were able to begin new lives in the Americas. How will canonizing Aloysius Stepinac help Croatia face up to its unsavoury past? 

In any case, a saint must first be a man. What does The Triple Myth reveal about Stepinac? Within its pages, he appeared to me highly intelligent but rule-conscious to the point of autism. (You will forgive me. I am a Special Education teacher.) For example, I was intrigued by the story of his fiancée. As a young man engaged to be married, Stepinac informed her that, rather than risk lewd remarks in the event of being seen with her in public, he would correspond. He added that he only intended to write infrequently, and the ensuing letters contained his rules for her to be a good Catholic wife. The girl broke off the engagement. Stepinac did what he believed to be right but did not anticipate her emotional reaction. Likewise, he is pious and devoutly practical but unable to open the eyes of his heart to rise to the higher things that might have made a great man of him instead of merely a good one. The same might be said for his anxiety about the survival of his church in a country of mass graves. He has rules but not insight.

I wonder if insight is a modern fashion. 

The archbishop’s trial I found particularly fascinating. Though it was no doubt set up to find him guilty, its political implications are not well known and are worth considering here. Alexander writes, ‘the actions of the government in bringing Stepinac to trial were understandable,’ and she goes on to list reasons, such as the unstable nature of Yugoslavia in 1946 (which his attacks on the government weren’t helping), disillusion with the Allies regarding land claims and ‘its conviction that the Vatican supported the expansionist aims of Italy in its territorial dispute with Yugoslavia.’

Various communist excesses against the church continued to take place, from time-to-time observers from the west made encouraging (or otherwise) observations about religion in Yugoslavia, and the battle between the two sides seems to have gradually resolved in the years between 1950 and 1953. I can’t help feeling that the Vatican was a major player that allowed neither side to move freely, Stepinac, because he referred all important matters to them, and the Yugoslav government, because the Vatican was a political body.

The Triple Myth ends by lengthy examples of how political opponents in Yugoslavia have exploited the archbishop’s memory for their own ends.

Not a lot of peace in this story. 

His Most Italian City

Sunday, January 31, 2021

THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN - GOULBURN MEN WHO WERE PRISONERS OF WAR

 

 

  

     GOULBURN EVENING                              POST

         Wednesday December 19th 1945
  
   Goulburn Men Who Were                Prisoners of War
                     _____________

           Story of Adventure and 
                Real Romance






Gunner DW Walker, son of Staff Sergeant WC Walker of Sydney, and a Goulburn native, and Private RW O’Grady, also born in Goulburn, both came back to Australia by the Aquitania, and they found on the Aquitania, when they compared notes, they had a lot in common. Both started out life by being born in Goulburn. Walker, who is a nephew of Mr Ted Walker, of Goulburn, enlisted in Sydney, and O’Grady in Goulburn. Although in different units, both were taken prisoner at the First Battle of El Alamein. 


Walker, at the armistice, escaped in Italy and did sabotage work. O’Grady was taken by the Germans to Austria and released by the Russians. Both found wives in the countries where they were imprisoned and are bringing them to Australia. The stories of both of them are human stories shot through with romance, faith and hope but, above all, a courage that endured in the face of severe trials.

Private O’Grady was serving with a machine gun corps when taken prisoner at El Alamein in the desert fighting. The four months following he spent in an Italian guarded camp at Benghazi.

“It was not a very pleasant turn-out,” Private O’Grady commented.

“How did they treat you?” he was asked.

“Oh, wickedly,” he returned. “For food we had one very small loaf of bread per day, a tin of bully beef between two men and a bottle of water. We were also given and issue of five cigarettes every few days.

“We went out one day to work,” Private O’Grady recalled, “but we were so weak we could not do anything.”

                                                              THEY WERE LUCKY 

After Benghazi – Italy. The prisoners were transported in two ships. On this occasion Private O’Grady was lucky. He found himself in a boat where there was plenty of food. It happened to be a cargo vessel laden with food for Libya but there had not been time to unload her.

“Every prisoner on board was sick because,” Private O’Grady explained, not having a square meal for so long a time, he ate to overcapacity.”

Apart from this, conditions on the ship were very bad. There were 500 men in the fore hold and 500 men in the stern, and none was allowed on deck except for a few minutes.

                                                                    RED CROSS 

From Taranto, where the ship put in, the prisoners were taken to a prison camp at Brindisi. There again, the food was very poor except what came through the Red Cross. Things remained like that until Italy capitulated in 1943. Then the Germans took over and Private O’Grady was sent into Austria – to a place called Spital. From there he was drafted to work in a magnesite factory at Treben but after a while he was shifted to another prison camp at Wolsburg and from there to Mureck. 

Conditions here were “fifty-fifty” as Private O’Grady put it.

“If you had a last wartime guard over you,” he said, “you had a fair time of it, but if you had a young fanatical guard it was not so good.”

                                                     BEGINNING OF ROMANCE 

It is at this point of the story that the first hint of romance emerges.

“One day,” Private O’Grady recounted, “I went into a milk depot to weigh myself. I wanted to see how I was going for weight. And there it was that I met my future wife, Edith Romer of Budapest. She was finishing off her schooling in Austria when the war broke out and the Germans sent her to work in the milk depot. We saw a lot of each other and things began to progress. Just at that time Red Cross parcels were not coming along because railway transport had been knocked out by bombing, and my girlfriend helped me with food.”

On April 1st of this year the Russians were making rapid headway on that front and the Germans gave orders for all prisoners to be evacuated.

“But I didn’t want to go,” said Private O’Grady. “I wanted to be liberated by the Russians. So at ten o’clock one morning I got out of the window of the laager and hid in a barn until nightfall. Then I went to the house where my girlfriend was all alone – her aunt had gone away – and there I stayed for five weeks.

“In the meantime between 15 and 20 SS officers were put up in the house. They were always wanting to peep into the room where I was hiding. But my friends put them off with excuses.

“A colonel of the partisan army was keeping me company just then and, one afternoon when he and I were listening to the wireless and my girlfriend was digging in the garden, the door of our room was opened and in walked an SS officer. He examined the Colonel’s papers, but I had none to show. My girlfriend came in and told him I was a Polish worker from the milk factory.

“He said I should have to go with him to the commandant and be recognized. We all went outside but I then managed to return to the room and hide in a big cupboard. Afterwards I went to an attic and remained there until nightfall. In the interval my girlfriend went to the milk depot and asked a Pole to tell the SS officer he was staying at her house if he questioned him. I was very lucky. If I had been ‘rumbled’, my friend would have been shot.”

What follows is soon told. The Russian forward sweep encircled the territory in which Private O’Grady had been held prisoner. Hostilities ceased on May 8th and on May 13th Private O’Grady and Edith Romer were married at the Roman Catholic church in Mureck. Trouble ensued when he tried to get his wife out of the country.

After a while he sought the aid of a Russian born Belgian - man who had a force of about 100 men under him and had carried out a lot of sabotaging – and together they got a couple of Jeeps and took the bride with them.

In the end Private O’Grady reported to an Allied Repatriation Unit at Klagenfort where he asked if he could take his wife on the [unreadable print] …..…informed that his marriage was illegal because he had not first obtained permission. However, he and his wife got to Naples where they were remarried.

In October they got permission from the War Office to go to England.

                                                            GNR DW WALKER 

Gunner Walker was serving in an anti-tank battery when taken prisoner at El Alamein in July 1942. He was sent from there to Benghazi, then to Tripoli and next to Northern Italy. For a time he worked in a camp at Piedmont.

On September 8th 1943, when Italy capitulated, he was liberated and a month later he joined the partisans. He remained with them until November of last year. Then a British mission landed by parachute in the area and he worked with it until the end of the fighting.

“I met my wife (Marina Savini is her maiden name) while I was with the Partisans in Northern Italy,” Gunner Walker said. “That was in September of last year. We were attacking one day and our party was split up. At the beginning I was able to see her pretty freely, but then the Fascist activity became very strong.

“While I was with the British Mission my wife-to-be kept myself and other members of the mission in her home for some time. Unfortunately somebody split on us and she was kept in prison for two and a half months but later was liberated by the partisans.”

Gunner Walker and Marina Savini were married at Biella in Northern Italy on May 26th last. They landed in England on October 1st at Eastbourne.

                                                                    THEY LEFT 

Asked how it came about that he was liberated and why the Germans did not get him across the Alps into Germany, Gunner Walker said they had heard that the Italians had thrown in the towel and the Italian guards were not very particular at the time. It was in September 1943 that he was freed. Actually he walked out of the camp and took the risk. He joined with the Partisans and found them operating in the territory near the Swiss border. He fought with them more or less as a sabotage man and in general actions until the British Mission arrived in 1944.

Before that British parachutists had joined up with them and he was regarded as the sabotage expert of the group. He had plenty of excitement, and it was when making one of the attacks that he met the girl who was to be his future wife.

The charge against her was one of espionage and “being engaged to an ex-prisoner of war”. There was price on the heads of all Australians who had escaped. She was 17 and had been at college until she linked up with the Partisans. She was valuable, as she could speak French and English as well as her own Italian. She was working with the Partisans until the end of the war. Her arrest for espionage came about a fortnight before the armistice. The fight at the gaol lasted about two hours; this was at Aosta near the French border. Walker was one of the nine men who made the assault on the goal and liberated her.

There were actually 80 got away from the same camp as Gunner Walker. They were guarded by “out of service” men and mostly left the Australians to it. However, the Germans got 30 of the 80 and ultimately only four were left of the 80 who got away. The others were captured, shot or got away into Switzerland. All four were doing sabotage work when the armistice came.

On all Australians the sum of 1800 [?] lira was offered dead or alive and they had in the… [?]… of the time… [?]… whom they could trust. 


In fact, the Australians were badly wanted by both sides. The Partisans liked them and, when they got one, generally made him a captain. The Fascists wanted them too but for a different reason.

This article refers to my father-in-law, Doug Walker. 

Below is his award from the Italian government, signed by Field Marshal Alexander.