Vesuvius Erupts as my War ends

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

I would ask myself what time it could be; I could hear the whistling of
trains, which, now nearer and now further off, punctuating the distance
like the note of a bird in the forest, showed me in perspective the deserted
countryside through which a traveller is hurrying towards the
nearby station; and the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory
by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed
activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged
beneath an unfamiliar lamp that still echo in his ears and the silence of
the night, and by the happy prospect of being home again.


Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (Moncrieff translation).

It turned out we were going to serve the American Fifth Army under Sir Mark Clarke. The German forces had been retreating very quickly, although the Allies faced heavy counter-attacks and so Rome did not fall until 4 June 1944. Luckily the railway track we encountered behind the German line was in good working order, which made it much easier for us. We towed the two engines we had located into the engine shed and before very long we were able to start running a service of supplies to the Americans. What remains in my memory is the wonderful view of the coastline between Salerno and Naples – the only snag being we didn’t have time to explore it; we had an important job to do which left no time for daydreams. Gracie Fields, who memorably sang for the troops during the War, settled on the Isle of Capri just off the Amalfi coast, and I understand why.

Photo of Vesuvius and Bay of Naples

One night we had only a box truck attached to the engine, which was used as a rest van: two men would be on the footplate and two would be resting. We had an Italian driver as a pilotman (a pilotman was required if you were not acquainted with the route.) We had gone through Rome and we had to wait as only a single line was operational on the next section of track. My mate and I decided to oil the engine, while the other two were on the ground preparing to take over. Suddenly we heard three blasts on the whistle, which meant that his brake had failed, then another three blasts, meaning “panic stations”. “Joe” I said, “I hope he is not on our line,” when I caught a glimpse of him in the darkness, and realised that he was coming straight at us! I ran on to the footplate as the pilotman jumped off, quickly reversed the engine and got it moving when the runaway train hit me. The driver came up to me, “Are you alright?” “Good Lord Bert”, I said “fancy bumping into you like this.” He was a boy from Taunton whose family I knew; we had joined up together. He was taking a train load of lucky soldiers to Rome to go on leave. I don’t know what happened to the fellow who turned the points, but had we had a train load it would have been more serious. The pilotman came back and said “Bravo Johnny.” The only damage done was a broken buffer spring on my engine. There were no other casualties that I was aware of, but I expect the troops on board were wondering what was going on!

 

Sadly, I never had the chance to look around Rome, I did visit the depot once to collect a crane but saw nothing of the Eternal City. I visited Naples but was left unimpressed by the squalor, despite the obvious richness of history and culture. One of the rather large houses was taken over to serve tea and snacks for the troops. On entering, facing you was a large reception desk and two large stairways leading to the top floor. Around and above the reception desk was a balustrade. One night I went in for a cup of tea and there was a huge crash, a fellow air man had been leaning on the balustrade and had rolled over and fallen on the glass counter of the reception desk. He must have given the ladies on reception a nasty shock. Anyway the ambulance arrived and as they carried him out he was enjoying a cigarette. Whether he was tired or under the influence of alcohol I did not know but he was a very lucky man.

Mocked-up study for sculpture of Oresto Drake

Naples Old Town

Having got the railway moving again and the American Fifth army supplied with rations and equipment, it was time for us to move on again. We were awarded the ‘Plaque and Clasp’ for our services to the American Fifth Army and I may add that we were better supplied with rations than at any other time. We were now on our way across to the Adriatic coast. Our first call was Taranto on the under- side of the “boot” of Italy, an important commercial and military port, where we spent a few days. A couple of us used to visit a house where the husband was a wood sculptor and his wife used to sing. He used to say to me “(Oresto) Horace, I would love to sculpt you.” They were simple people but we enjoyed their company.

 

We were not there very long before we moved on to Ancona where we faced a railway that had been very badly bombed and the track had been blown up every so many yards as they were retreating, confronting us with a huge job to fix everything. It was heavy and tiresome work on a diet of very hard biscuits and a portion of cheese or corned beef but at least we could have a splash in the sea when we needed a break!

When the War had effectively ended and it was once again safe to run trains, life became more normal and we could become train drivers again. We would travel along the Adriatic coast calling at Cattolica, Pesaro and Rimini but to my disappointment we never got as far as Venice. In reverse order we also worked from Falconara, Ancona and stations towards Bari. Alongside the engine shed at Falconara was a petrol filling station; only a narrow road separated the petrol filling station and the engine shed. One day we were preparing to leave by truck when an explosion occurred. Although it was dangerous, I knew that we had to go in and remove as many engines as we could and after this was done, the next job was to remove the petrol tanks. We went in and I was on the ground coupling up the tanks to take them to safety. The heat was intense, with forty-gallon drums exploding all around. We took the tanks to safety and left them in the yard. A good many girls were employed there filling the drums and jerry cans. A lot of them were killed in tragic accidents. It happened so quickly, they could not get away.

 

I may have missed the Front Line, but I couldn’t avoid the last recorded eruption of Vesuvius from 18th to 23rd March 1944. Hot ash from the eruption reached as far as Salerno – some 30 miles from the volcano, and nearly all the vineyards en route were covered with cinders to a great depth. Many people were homeless and starving, but they seemed to take it in their stride, just as we react to a heavy snowfall in Winter, although I wouldn’t count the south of England in this – with just a light dusting of snow it seems that most places shut down as if it was six feet deep! After dusk the volcano created its own electrical effects, with lightning hitting the summit of the mountain. One entrepreneurial local was ladling the molten lava into a mould inset with coins, and selling them for profit after they had hardened.

 

I was sent to the area to act as a Controller; it was my job to know where particular engines were at a given time. This was the brainwave of a soldier named Charles Piece. If you had a modern telephone system it might have worked, but on the type of wind-up phones we were given it was doomed to failure and I was soon returned to my unit. As I was approaching the office one day I discovered I was black with ash from the volcano eruption. My sister wrote to me asking for some ash to be sent home, I replied telling her to go to the engine shed; they would willingly give her as much as she could carry!

 

In September 1944 we moved up to the area around Naples, driving past local people whose faces seemed to reflect the colour of pumice stone. They waved at us in a mechanical fashion, any remnant of a fascist salute being replaced by a hesitant Churchillian V-sign. Air raids over the Summer had left the city in ruins and without running water, so morale was very low indeed.

 

Meanwhile the US Army headed by General Clark seemed out of touch with the suffering of local people. I remember reading that he was acting like some latter-day Roman Emperor, dining on a baby matanee – a speciality from the Naples aquarium. In actual fact the only fishing took place from improvised rafts made of domestic doors lashed together. Ordinary Neapolitans were eating chicken heads and apparently in extreme cases domestic feline specialities.

Eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944

Outdoors, most of the manhole covers had gone, leaving the streets a danger to traffic. However cars were in short supply – Neapolitans were stripping apart any intact military vehicle they could get their hands on. Shady characters and black marketeers were everywhere. More than once I was approached by a prostitute and was forced to beat a quick retreat!

 

Local legend has it that, without warning one day a cloud rose, taking the shape of a pine-tree as immortally described by Pliny two thousand years earlier. It stayed around Naples while steadily growing larger and more menacing.

 

I remember driving my locomotive through a soft grey snowfall taking me within a few miles of San Sebastiano, the village most at risk of destruction. This was where the lava pushed down the main street, with the remains of buildings including the local church in its wake.

 

As the lava marched on unchallenged, the usual suspects in the form of local saints were galvanised into action. Although San Gennaro (Saint January) was the patron saint of Naples, he was quickly transported to San Sebastiano. The prayed-for liquefaction of his blood three times a year offered protection to the city against misfortune, especially that posed by the looming volcano a few miles away.

 

Once the volcano had settled down, the saint‘s state of mind during the ceremonials in early May became a matter of popular concern and a familiar topic of conversation – even among the numerous atheistic servicemen now in the town. In the end it was judged a ‘below par liquefaction‘, but at least the transformation had eventually taken place. There would be no further problems till the Autumn.

 

Palaces with up to twenty great (though unfurnished) rooms provided accommodation for dozens, even hundreds, below. The destitution was not solely the result of conflict – the bombardment had exacerbated an existing level of crisis. Like in Victorian London a generation earlier, the people seeking refuge had become estranged and dislocated from the countryside from which they had come.

 

One story on the grapevine was that a local called Vito Genovese became a trusted intelligence source for the US Army, even though he was known to have a criminal record and apparently had links to Mussolini. The removal of a dictator had created opportunities for a host of minority groups and germinating political parties (one source reckoned they had identified well over fifty splinter parties like Forza Italia.) I cannot help comparing it to the removal of Saddam Hussein (whose birthplace I had passed earlier in the war) by US and UK forces in Iraq in recent times – leading to the emergence of – albeit more extreme factions which will destabilise the region for generations. Despite all the good intentions of The Allies, the foundation stones of modern Italy were being built on sand rather than solidified volcanic ash.

 

After leaving Naples I returned to my unit at Brindisi, where the local police had a station on the railway platform; at night time they would call in to see if there were any ladies present – there always were of course. They would take them to the station, where sadly they would be raped and sent on their way. The problem for civilians was that there were few passenger trains running, because our priority was to support the fighting forces. On one stint of night duty I looked into the waiting room and there were two smartly dressed girls and two small boys, and I motioned to them to follow me. I was determined the police were not going to abuse them. They came willingly and we went over the tracks under the moonlight and upstairs to my small office, were there were some iron beds (where the Italians would sleep before the war) but no bedclothes. I warned my boys they were not allowed upstairs unless I was there. In the morning I gave them soap to have a wash and my sandwiches. It was not five star treatment but at least they were kept out of harm’s way.

Ted and me with coal heavers, Brindisi July 1944

Overloaded passenger train on Brindisi platform

There happened to be a passenger train leaving in the morning, so I put them in a compartment. To my horror, when the train left, they were on the roof hanging over the sides. It had not gone very far into its journey when it came to a tunnel. The train was so overloaded, it tried to make progress but the tunnel was now filling rapidly with carbon monoxide. Tragically about two hundred people perished. I never knew if my girls and boys survived. I did have a photograph of one girl named Angelina; Gwyneth and I kept it for years. I had been brought up to respect women of all ages and also having sisters of my own I could not rest knowing that predators were in the vicinity. Had I been caught out my story would probably have been written in the glasshouse (military jail.)

 

Another confession I have to make was being caught with a female on the footplate of a locomotive. I forget where we were but this very old lady was in tears – desperate to see her relatives again but there were no passenger trains running. She had all her worldly goods on her head, so I told my mate, Corporal Eddie Bebe to put her on the footplate – she was so thankful. As soon as she placed one foot on the ground an Army Captain came on the scene, “Who’s in charge here?” Eddie pointed at me. “Come down here, stand to attention, you have been very naughty, you could have been supporting the black market. Take their names Sergeant” he said. When we got back to base I saw my Major, Pop Hadley deeply engaged in conversation with the Corporal. He told us that, if there was a charge he would do his best for me. After a couple of weeks our names duly appeared on orders to attend a hearing in front of Major Hadley. I went in first; he read the charge out: “Will you accept my punishment?” “Yes Sir,” I replied, he said “I shall give you a reprimand.” “Thank you Sir,” and marched out. Eddie went in next and he had the same punishment.

I made an effort to keep in contact with a few people during the War. In particular, Marcia Dennis the butcher’s daughter, Selina The Chemist’s daughter and Margaret the Rector’s daughter, and above all of course, Gwyneth. It was not always pleasant to write – poor lighting and rationed paper. Everything you wrote was censured so it was not exactly private, and there was no immediacy of response because letters took about a month to arrive.

Rugby was another way to remind me of home and even though we were in Italy for three years I never saw Italians playing rugby; the grounds were there but we never saw any action (They have improved out of all recognition in recent years, since they participated in the Six Nations Championship). I would go on board ship in an attempt to fix up a match and I remember we managed to raise a combined team from members of HMS Aurora and Livery

We played a team of South Africans. They were massive, and scored every time they had the ball. They went to the touch line to have a drink and I don’t think it was water. The New Zealand team ran a seven-a-side tournament and we reached the final, although sadly could not manage the victory. I well recall a Major Wilson who would regularly turn out for us. He called me in to his office one day and said, “I want you to pick a team and I shall pick a team, the object being to show you how rugby should be played.” I took my teamsheet to him and he chuckled to himself (“easy meat”). He made everyone attend the match so we had the advantage there at least. We held our own in the first half there was no sign of a score from either side. After the game resumed there was a further ten minutes without score, and then a loud blast of the whistle – a penalty awarded to my boys. I took aim and the ball went over the cross bar. Major Wilson was so upset he never turned out for us again. I think that was the only match we ever won. On the other hand we had a very good soccer team, all railwaymen, and I don’t think they ever lost a match. Stan Cullis came over with a touring side and I suggested we challenge them, but we were dismissed as not being good enough, even though we easily beat a team that drew with the Cullis professionals. To his credit, when England played Germany in Berlin in 1938, Cullis refused to join his team mates performing a Nazi salute prior to the match. As a consequence he was dropped from the team which won 6 -3 (a hollow victory, if ever there was one).

 

During 1944, as the wartime pressure was easing, we were having a little more time to ourselves. The army offered us two choices: we could either have a week at Cortina skiing or a week at Lake Como. I did not want to risk life or limb trying to ski so I decided to try a week at Lake Como. It was arranged that a hotel was taken over for Sergeants only and other ranks would be accommodated under canvas. I think there were four sergeants from our unit that took the offer.

 

We were treated like royalty on arrival at the hotel and each had a separate bedroom, our own chambermaid and a five star service. One of the boys had an Italian girlfriend and if we had a boat race across the lake she would be there cheering everyone on. A certain Mr Churchill was staying locally at General Alexander’s lakeside villa and at the Villa Passalacqua doing a bit of painting. His car was kept in our hotel garage.

Artist’s impression of a
Churchill Painting at Lake
Como © Jenny Drake

We were in Senegalia, a nice little place on the Adriatic coast when we received the news that the war had come to an end (the War in Europe actually ended on 8th. May 1945 – Gwyneth’s birthday); how ironic that I was in another popular beach resort – Weston-super- Mare when the War was announced six years earlier.

 

The war being over, my thoughts were turning towards home. A couple of the boys married Italian girls and I had been invited to both weddings. The first was a local event. Sapper Jerry Conlon took on a local girl but what was so different to our form of marriage was that everyone was crying: I could not believe it. Apparently at funerals they rejoice believing they are going to a better place! I apprehended one of the congregation and said, “Cheer up; this is supposed to be a joyous occasion.” On another occasion Sergeant Bob Howard was married and four of us attended the church service followed by a reception at the bride’s house. As we were non-Catholics, neither of us knew when to stand or when to sit, so we decided to remain seated. There was a christening going on simultaneously, together with confessions and neighbours coming through in flip flops offering a prayer. It was so different to what we were used to.

Boat race across Lake Como

“I am concerned at the increasing number of applications by officers
or other ranks to marry Italians. CO’s must realize that everything
possible will be done to discourage such marriages”


Bulletin issued by the General Officer Commanding, No.3 District,
Naples, 5 September 1944

Now we were all waiting anxiously for our number to come up for Demob; our number was 28 and it should not be long. The boys were all getting excited but alas, there had been a delay in the Group system, which meant we would have to stay for an unspecified period of time.

With a friend on his wedding to an Italian girl

Shortly after this they introduced a system called LIAP (Leave in Anticipation of Python). This meant that you could go home for 28 days and on your return you could complete your service with a different unit, and when your group number came up you would be discharged permanently. I decided to take this offer; the journey was not very comfortable but who cares when you are going home for a break and more importantly to see the family after four years. One of my first visits was to Mountain Ash maternity hospital to see Gwyneth, the girl I had met at the tender age of sixteen. She greeted me warmly with open arms – to my enormous relief she had waited all that time for me. Her Aunt Betty was the Matron and we chatted so long that I missed the last bus. “Don’t worry,” she said, “put him up in Pamela Ward”.

In the morning the maid burst into my room, took one look and ran back down stairs declaring there was a funny looking patient in Pamela Ward. I had slept in dog kennels, a bull ring and Italian olive groves but this was my all-time favourite. No words can describe the exhilaration of being together again after four years, at peace, in familiar surroundings with no one shouting out orders at you. Freedom to do what you wanted, a normal family life amongst people who care for you.

My Italian railway pass valid for 1946

On the 13th March 1946 I was medically examined and declared fit for release. This was to take place on 26th April 1946. My release number was 28c so it was not long before we had a long train journey through Germany and France to Calais. After having suffered this long train ride it was very nice to make the last lap on a comfortable seat on a British Rail journey back home. This was luxury after all the different railways we had worked on during the War.

The White Horse, seen from the train, on my way home from the War