Memories of living on a working farm with Italian POW's in Claybrooke, Leicestershire.
I was seven years old when my mother died in January 1942, we lived at 37 Bruce Street in Leicester. My Uncle Fred, my mother's brother, became my guardian and I began a new life with him and his wife Alice in the village of Claybrooke, Leicestershire. Within a few months my uncle sold his butcher shop in the village and we moved to a 145 acre farm just three miles away. At the age of seven I was destined for a crash course in farm life and, as I recall it, we were not spared the blood, sweat and tears that Winston Churchill had predicted for war-time Britain.
The farm, like many in rural England, had none of the amenities taken for granted in modern life. There being no electricity, a variety of oil lamps and candles provided lighting. Water was pumped manually from a well to a small raised tank from which gravity would supply cold water to a few taps in the house. Food was cooked and water was heated on the wood-fired kitchen range, while water for bathing was heated in the "copper", a structure built into the kitchen that held 20-30 gallons of water, heated by a small wood-fire and filled and emptied with a bucket. Toilets were outdoors and of the non-flush variety.
Almost all work on the farm was manual, with horses providing the motive power for ploughing, harrowing, seeding and harvesting. Horses, three-abreast, pulled the binder to harvest oats, wheat and barley and hauled the grain to Claybrooke Mill to be ground into flour for animal feed.
It was war-time. Farm labour was in short supply, presumably since most local men had volunteered or been conscripted into the armed forces. Everyone in the family worked to the best of their ability. My job was to feed the chickens and collect the eggs and before long I was milking cows and running errands. One option for dealing with the labour shortage was the availability of Italian prisoners of war, and within a short time three POW's were assigned to the farm from a prison camp about 20 miles away. The prisoners, Guiseppe, Nandal and Amedio were all in their twenties. They were not permitted to leave the farm except for escorted visits to the prison camp for new supplies and they were required to wear brown prison uniforms with bright orange or yellow patches on the back, knees and elbows. There were regulations dealing with the terms of employment of the prisoners and although my Uncle was a tough employer, I believe he treated them fairly.
The Italians spoke little english but were happy people with warm and friendly dispositions. They were invariably in good humor; they loved music and would sing as they worked. It became clear that they were happy to be out of the war, and while their life on the farm was far from idyllic, it was preferable to the regimentation of the prison camp. The farm family and the Italians very quickly developed friendly relationships.
The farm was a dairy operation and the thirty odd cows were milked by hand twice each day. The Italians joked that this process was akin to bell-ringing and melody rang out from the cowsheds as the Italians sang as they milked. Their actions and their attitudes proved that language and differing cultures, not to mention an ongoing war, need not be a barrier to good relations between reasonable people.
As an eight year old, I was really fascinated by these young men who, despite their unfortunate circumstances, brought joy and fun to a scene where otherwise there wasn't much of either. They lived in a separate part of the farmhouse; eating with the family in the large kitchen where my Aunt cooked for them seven days a week. In their free time soccer games were common and they entertained me at every opportunity. They made beautiful baskets from willows cut from willow trees and rings from molten aluminum kettles. When finished, the rings would reflect their love of homeland with accents in red, white and green cut from discarded tooth-brushes.
In late 1943 or early 1944 the authorities relaxed the POW regulations, eliminating the requirement for the bright colored markings on their uniforms, and permitting them to leave the farm under certain conditions during daylight hours. By this time, their ability to speak english had improved and they made great efforts to teach me to speak italian.
The primary condition for off-farm trips required that they be accompanied by someone from the farm family, and so I became the person designated to accompany them to church on Sundays. My Uncle provided us with bicycles and each Sunday morning, after cows were milked and other chores completed, the three Italians and I would cycle the nine miles to a small Catholic Church at Lutterworth, Leicestershire.
While I was ostensibly their chaperone, I was clearly under their care and they took great pleasure in seeing me have a good time. While returning from church we would stop for drinks at local pubs, where they would delight in buying me soda pop and potato crisps. On one such occasion, a local village constabIe appeared and asked "Who is in charge of these POW's?" When I responded "I am sir!" he did a double take; made a note of our names and address and went on his way. While he appeared to be surprised to see an eight year old escorting POW's, it was apparent that he didn't think the POW's were a threat to anyone.
I have happy memories of those days with the Italians. Despite the loss of their freedom and the separation from their families, they never lost their natural inclination to laugh and make others laugh, especially me. A number of the Italian POW's did not return to their homeland after the war; some of them married local women and became British citizens. But the ones that I came to know and enjoy went home in early 1945. I remember them fondly, and have often wondered how life turned out for those remarkable young men who returned to Italy sixty seven years ago.
2864 Antelope Trail,
Canada K0L 2H0
8th May 2012