A Day in My Life – Wednesday 8th September 1943

by Giovanni Fontebasso, a 92 year old Italian Cranleigh resident

It was a day as many others: silent bells, gloomy looking old men going to the “periostea” for the traditional “operetta“ of local wine. Not for us, 12 years old, recently transformed from “bacilli”, a type of boys scouts, fascist youth to ordinary second year students, the next month, at the local College. By then Mussolini had disappeared and the King took command of the Italian land, air and sea troops at war.

We met as usual in the local sports field for our daily routine of exercises consisting of 10 circuits of the field at a decent speed. That was followed by climbing a tree and jumping down on your feet, without landing flat on the ground.

The more important among us was Ettore, who was a year older having lost a school year, due to illness. He suggested looking in the woods for some wood to make new bows and arrows as the lot we had from the beginning of the holidays in June, had lost their elasticity and risked breaking when we used them.

Unfortunately I was not going to join my friends as I just heard my sister calling me to go home immediately as mother “needed me”. This meant something unusual had happened at home, as it wasn’t lunchtime yet and I knew my father was still playing the organ in church. I arrived home and was asked to run to the church to ask father to come home immediately.  I thought something bad must be happening to mother who told us some time before, that she was expecting a baby.

When father arrived, mother told us with tears in her eyes: THE WAR IS FINISHED.  She usually listened to the “free French news” on the radio and explained that the King had met the British and American commanders and signed the armistice papers, in Cairo.

Me aged 12, top middle, with all my school friends

We listened either to the British or free French news, that was very important and I went to my friends to tell them the news. They had all gone home by then as the whole village of Newgate were told propaganda by the fascist regime when Mussolini was in power. Since he was deposed and interred in a secret location, we were expecting the allied troops, already in Sicily, to free Italy soon. Unfortunately it was not to be. The Germans soon occupied the rest of Italy and as it is well known now, they put up a strong resistance especially in the mountainous part of southern Italy.

It was not long after 8th September that the Fascist radio announced the Germans had arrived and being only 100 Km from the Austrian border, we were the first to be occupied.  As we were on holiday for another 2 weeks, our group took turns to set a sort of look out for any German convoy descending from the mountain pass, just a few miles from the village. We then started to see our men returning from Yugoslavia on foot, after the officers told them of the armistice.  Some kept their rifles and some officers had hand guns. I remember well one of my mother’s former pupils showing us a Sten gun he took from a British prisoner, fighting with Tito’s army. The Germans did arrive but, to our disappointment, they used the motorway, rather than the old Austrian pass we were guarding. Soon it became very risky to listen to allied radio messages and especially after the liberation of Mussolini by the German SS officer Otto Koertzen.  His biplane had landed  in a very restricted area of the highest mountain in Apennines range in central Italy. It was then that the Italian Social Republic started with Mussolini being Hitler’s total puppet.

The rest of the year ended in a “limbo” type of life, never knowing what to expect after the German troops took possession of most of the Palladian Villas in our region, the Veneto, sending the Italian owners to live in the cottages reserved for their tenant farmers. Fortunately the schools continued and my father and mother were able to continue teaching.  Although we were expecting something to happen, due to the increasing activities of the Partigiani, soldiers returned home, mainly from Yugoslavia and it wasn’t long before the Germans also occupied that country.

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