Racconto inedito tratto dalle mie memorie “A Tale of the Past”
A molti di voi questo brano puo` essere gradito
I’ll tell now briefly of Angelo’s life in Libya, before and during the North African conflict that finished whit the Italian defeat by the hand of the Allied Forces on the 23rd of January 1943. On that day, in Tripoli, the Italians signed their unconditional surrender dictated by the English commander, Marshal Montgomery.
This is Angelo narration of those events and in the best way, I remember.
‘It was in 1936 when I went to Libya. It was soon after the Abyssinia war was over where I served during that war in an armored brigade.
At that time unemployment was high in Italy. The Fascism was fronted with malcontent of an overgrowing unemployment and in need to create a new avenue of work where Italians could migrate, with their families, working in the fields and in time, as promised, own that land.
Libya offered the answer to this problem when the Cyrenaica region becomes available, after a long and not always ethical war, which had lasted years, against the Libyan rebels in the region. The Italian troops finally submitted the legal owners; the ones who didn’t accept the Italian sovereignty, and their land was confiscated. It rose in this way the opportunity to the regime to fulfill the promises done to the Italian farmers and to make available this land to them. The evicted Libyan farmers, considered enemies of Italy, lost most of their land and cattle and were sent to a concentration camp, set in the desert and being compelled to live in tents. The few Arab, who remained free, grouped in partisan bands, were disbanded. The majority of the people crossed the border and took refuge in Egypt. It had been an epic crossing of the desert, without food or water, hundreds lost their lives. The Italians, to stop them from returning into Libyan territory, constructed along a barbed wire fence along the border, and also built concrete forts patrolled by the army.
The Public Work, from which I depended, assigned me to the Cyrenaica expropriated land, in the capacity of supervising the construction of rural villages for the newcomers.
What the Fascist did at that time, was a well-orchestrated propaganda used by the Regime to show to the Italian how caring they were in creating wealth for the poorest farmers in the country but the fact was that this land was exclusively allocated to those proved to be good fascist and belonged to the party.
That had been the idea of the Libyan Governor General, Italo Balbo, a well noted fascist personality, that had become popular a few years earlier when he commanded a flying squad, with three aircraft, crossing the ocean to New York without stopover, which claimed to be an incredible record for the time.
Balbo, in the period that commanded Libya, introduced laws conceding more freedom to the local Arabs and became popular in this way. He didn’t forget to indoctrinate the new generation into the Fascism but didn’t give them much in return for their cooperation. He retained the land expropriated in Cyrenaica from the Arab farmers and to keep those promises made in Italy, he allowed that province to be subdivided in large parcels of land for those willing Italian colonials to rush to Libya and create prosperous farms.
For us of the Public Work, it was a fearsome job to provide within a short time the necessary residences and services of water storages and roads for the newcomers. At that time, we saw the pick of ten thousand families each year immigrating to Cyrenaica, until the war against England was declared.
The declaration of war to England found me there. I was enrolled instantly in the army in a motorized unit under the command of Maresciallo Graziani. He was a veteran of the previous Libyan war, who for the occasion had been named the new Governor-General of Libya.
In the duties of my work, with the Public Work, I had accumulated good knowledge of the country. In the few years living there, and because I had contacts with the local Bedouins, many of them my friends and loyal to Italy, I been asked by my commander to chose one of them to help my group in scouting in the desert in our daily missions. The one I selected became a close friend and he knew the desert well being from a Bedouin clan that traded in the desert for generations.
The men who were in my group had been recruited for their knowledge of the desert and the ways the desert is. They knew the counters of the sand seas, and the extreme heat and the deep cold at night, and the brutal force of the sandstorms, the Ghibli.
Those people before the war had some experiences gained in that area, mine engineers, hydrologist, or had a sound connection with the Arabs and Bedouins, and in this way understood the special operation we were in.
We drove those specially adapted trucks so well designed by our enemies, and ideal to be used deep into the desert twenty-four hours a day, and with them move, protected by anonymity behind enemy lines.
Our scout was formed by a company of four armored trucks and a jeep that we used in our routines along any possible route of the Cyrenaican Desert. The armored units we used had been previously captured from the English, giving us more opportunities to move freely into the enemy land, where many times we were mistaken for one of the many English command operating in the desert.
When Angelo told me this amazing story, I imagined those trucks driving with their four wheels drive up the yellow walls of sand and then plugging up the face of those dunes and rocking for an instant on top of the dune. I could see the monochrome immensity of that desert where they operated, in search of any metallic reflections of an enemy convoy ranking up in the distance; the immense fatigue, the thirst, the nights without sleep, the agony to be seen from the sky, a possible battle against a stronger enemy. And to complete the vision it was the risk of their vehicles would tip over itself and cartwheel to the bottom. Then again I was hearing Angelo’s keeping on, narrating those war events.
It was in June of 1940 that Graziani led us across the desert. We occupied Sidi el-Barrani, situated one hundred kilometers inside the Egyptian territory. It looked like we were winning the war over the North African front. But we ran out of fuel. We were stuck in the desert, waiting for the supply we needed to advance, that it never came.
That gave time for the English to regroup again and could start a successful offensive against us. We retreated losing the Cyrenaica territory at a heavy cost of lives, prisoners, and the precious tanks of our divisions. On that retreat, not less than 130,000 troops were lost and the morale of the soldiers was completely destroyed.
When finally, we regrouped in Tobruk, Graziani had lost his prestige as a supreme commander and he himself couldn’t trust any longer the capabilities of Mussolini’s leadership, blaming him for the loss of such important operation.
He was compelled to resign his position of commander. Soon after, we saw some divisions of German panzers led by Marshal Rommel that arrived in the desert. The new Italian commander was General Gariboldi.
In no time my group of scouts started again to spay on the English. We encountered several skirmishes against some English motorized units that we found on our routes. They were doing exactly what we were doing, scouting along the immensity of the desert sea. We have been lucky in our daily work and we could successfully send back tactical information of our enemies, which helped to prepare new offensives.
In fact, we have been through two profitable operations that saw Rommel and us in el-Alamein, not more than one hundred kilometers from Alexandria in Egypt.
And again, history was repeated. We were grounded without fuel. Rommel also never receive the promised panzers that would have taken us to victory, they were sent to the Russian front instead.
That gave Montgomery time to organize a new offensive. It was at that time when the Americans, disembarked in Tunisia, opened a new front against us. There wasn’t any hope left for the Italians.
Within three months the dreams of Mussolini’s empire was over.
We kept on patrolling and sending messages to the retreating troops, and make them move in a more secure way. We happen to spot some unexpected enemy tanks. They came out from nowhere and we were outnumbered, it was a dozen of them.
With our four trucks, we tried to hide in send holes; we even kept our breathing in to be as silent as possible. They caught us while, after we had moved all night long, we were trying to trove some camouflage over the trucks and rest a few hours.
I remember Angelo that at this point had stopped talking. An abounded perspiration was over his face and used a handkerchief to wipe his face and hands. I anxiously waited to hear him telling more. But he had first a gulp of his red wine that loved so much. He concentrated, and his thought visibly focused again into the past war events.
‘Then? What did happen?
Angelo had another gulp before restarting again.
We watched them go by, we thought we were safe, and mentally I thanked God. After a good twenty minutes, we heard their tank guns firing against us with there perforating shells. We couldn’t possibly front the enemy forces; we didn’t have enough firepower to respond to their guns.
Two of our units were on fire, with the occupants blow out from their trucks with incinerated bodies and their clothes alight. They were mostly all dead, only a couple rolling in the sand.
The enemy thought that was more of us opened up and started searching the desert around hunting for a larger objective.
We dug out a few shallow trenches for the dead ones and we tried to assist in the best way the few still alive. Among them was our commander a major whose legs had been cut off at the knees by the explosion of the shells.
Major Rossi was from Friuli and we did know each other well, we were in the same armored unit in the Abyssinia war. He was the most experienced officer in the desert.
I sat with him, on the back of my truck, where we took the injured soldiers. I gave him a drink of water and a ship of cognac to raise his morale.
‘Why they had done this to me, those bastards. Damn them, I need my legs in this game to move around…’
We moved away, trying to join the rearguard of our army. Major Rossi mumbled the way through. He died with the truck bumping along the desert dunes, bled to death.
Over those last days, while we retreated into Tobruk, we were forever under enemy fire, and a group of Spitfires kept us constantly under the control of their guns from the sky. We skirmished with them without success. They zigzagged above using their stronger firepower and inflicted continuous losses to our column. Until the day came in which my vehicle was caught between their crossfire and hit us. We were immobilized and an easy target, until flames erupted from the vehicle. I jumped from it and ran inside a sand hole for protection. It was then that I heard my friend, the Libyan Ascari, call for help. He was trapped in the truck. I ran, trying to help him, but before I reached the armored truck the fuel tank exploded. Disbelievingly, I saw the body of my dear friend flying above me, miserably dismembered into pieces and thrown up into the air. It was then that a ball of fire engulfed me. My clothes were alight and my flesh started to be scalded. Instinctively I rolled in the sand, while a nauseating smell rose from my skin. I fought with all my energy to extinguish the burning clothes. I lost consciousness. I don’t really know what happened next. When I woke I was in a bed on a hospital ship, overcrowded with injured people, while in the air permeated an acrid smell of gangrene suffocating us.
This was the last ship to leave Tobruk and returning to the Italian shores. The ship clearly displayed large red crosses on its sides, but in the rush of the evacuation from Libya, against the rules, had taken aboard high command military people who were running away from the front.
That perhaps was the reason why we were sunk by a torpedo only hours away from Naples, our destinations.
My instinct of survival forced me to swim to nearby floating wreckage.
Many others were in the same conditions holding on the wreckage. Nearby me I saw someone that was in difficulties and unable to swim; I helped him. Then I recognized who he was; he was a German officer. He had been badly wounded during our last desperate retreat.
Afterward, many people asked me why I helped a German, but I did that only guided by humanitarian instinct; in those extreme conditions enemies or friends do not exist, but only suffering people, we are all equals in front of God and the pain of injuries.
Later I found that we had met before on the front when we advanced into Egypt, and euphorically we had a chat and shared a drink and some cigarettes. We had shared our piece of floating ship for at least three days, until such a time, exhausted by fatigue and physical pain, we were left semi-conscious, incapable of understanding the gravity of our fate. Luck was on our side, and we were found by a small rescue boat. I woke in a hospital in Naples, where I received the first medications.
The doctors and nurses questioned me about my whereabouts but I couldn’t answer. I was confused and unable to connect sensibly. My mind was blocked and nebulous, my head empty and I was in unbearable pain because of my legs. Doctors considered the possibility of an amputation if it became gangrenous.
They finally sent me to Cremona at the Military Hospital, where there was a specialist capable of curing my burned flesh that in some places was open to the bone. From the knees down, my legs were complete without skin, and not in the best condition after had been exposed for a long time in the salty sea water.
And that was where I found your mother nursing me. She gave me a lot of help in those days. I was morally broken and in need of someone restoring confidence in me. With her next to me I started to regain hope for the future. She wrote home for me and I soon received some news from my family. At home, only my mother and father were left, with my sisters doing the hard men’s work in the fields and in the barns.
I became anxious to return home. They needed me badly. I thought, returning home, the war would be over for me. Instead, the atrocities of the war started in Friuli months later. The worse began after the 8th of September of that year, at the time when the Italian King left Rome and ran for a more secure place in South Italy.