The following events happened near a Prisoner of War camp at Carpi, Northern Italy, in September 1943. After the Italian armistice the relatively easy-going, Italian guards were replaced by German regulars. In the days that followed, the ‘Tom’ and ‘Arthur’ of this story, and perhaps fifteen others, exploited the Germans’ inexperience of the camp and made it through the wire. This is what followed.
I have taken some slight liberties. In the interest of brevity I have condensed events spread over several days and locations into one day and one place. The scenic details and dialogue are largely, but not exclusively, mine. I have ascribed more emotions and motives to one German soldier than are supported by the original source material, but I’m an author, and weaving stories is what I do. However, I have not embellished the incidents in any material way. They were documented in ‘Tom’s’ meticulous diary, which against all odds survived the war and several Gestapo raids. In later life Tom was also persuaded to record his wartime experiences on tapes, which were then transcribed by his elder son into a book-length record. I am hugely grateful for access to these materials.
Tom bore the burden of starvation and brutality for the rest of his life. He wrote of one prison camp ‘we marched in as soldiers. We crawled out as animals.’ Some incidents could never be discussed, but he needed no prompting to tell and retell the story of the cheese, and of the German soldier who kept his humanity.
This fictionalised retelling of real events is offered in homage to the prisoners of war, the kriegsgefangene, or kriegies, who continued the fight behind the wire.
CHEESE FOR THE KRIEGIES
TOM WATCHED A LOUSE crawl up a seam of Arthur’s battledress, and burrow into the shadows of his collar to escape the beam of sunlight moving across the threadbare cloth. Arthur lay prone in the straw, resting on his elbows. He was weaving his head from side to side so that he could see more through the narrow gaps in the loft’s plank wall. Two days’ beard turned Arthur’s face into the colour and texture of a seeded loaf, and he was staring down into the farmyard with all the focused attention of a gun dog. He hissed a quiet alert and Tom rolled over to put his own eye to a crack.
Opposite them an Italian farmer pushed a wheelbarrow along a line of brick outhouses, staggering a little its weight. He stopped at a padlocked door and fumbled for keys, revealing a huge, emperor of cheeses in the barrow, resting on a throne of straw, glorious in its creamy yellowness. Tom and Arthur sighed a sigh of deep appreciation and swallowed saliva in unison as it was locked within its sanctuary.
Tom rested his chin on his hands, thinking, as the farmer disappeared. Two days on the run with nothing but a packet of Red Cross biscuits between them, and a feast beyond imagining lay opposite. That door could not be breached without a key or a sledgehammer. But high in the wall was a window, blocked only by the kind of metal gauze that lets air flow in but keeps out insects.
“I reckon I could get through that window if you gave me a bunk up.”
“Wait for dark.”
Of course. They should sleep, but the hunger made it impossible. Its inescapable, physical ache gnawed at Tom’s belly. The best he could manage was a half-doze, eyes open, staring past the farm buildings towards the convoys of German trucks rumbling Southwards on the distant road. That was the way of it, hide during the day, move at night. Except that the countryside was criss-crossed with drainage channels that seemed always to push them back towards the road. Isolated farms like this one offered the only shelter in this flat landscape, and in such places there was always the possibility of food. A stray chicken, perhaps.
GERMANS. TWO TRUCKS SWUNG OFF the road towards the farm, trailing dust as they left the metalled surface and hit the track. Tom groaned. There was no-where to run, no-where better to hide, just an awful, dry-mouthed, helpless inevitability.
He’d felt that inevitability once before, in a truck stalled in desert sand, with his driver turning the starter motor and swearing, swearing, as tracer flickered around them and the turret of a Panzer swung slowly to bring its main gun to bear. Thirty yards. Close enough to hear the whir of its motors. Close enough for the muzzle blast to punch the air out of Tom’s lungs, and close enough for the armour-piercing round to pass right through the truck without exploding.
This time it was small arms fire, almost as soon as the lorries disgorged their troops. A few scattered rifle shots close by, screams, then three short bursts from a machine pistol. Guttural, shouted orders sent boots hammering over the stones of the yard. Tom held his breath as they entered the barn. He and Arthur had pulled the ladder up after them, but that wouldn’t stop them for long.
Tom and Arthur held their breath.
The rip of a machine pistol filled the barn, the bullets smashing into the underside of the loft and sending a dancing line of splinters and dust racing towards them along its boards, ending a few feet from them. The sudden silence was broken only by the tinkle of cartridge cases bouncing on the flagstones, until more shouts and shots sounded nearby and the group beneath them left, running. Tom exhaled. Neither of them moved.
EVENING. STILL, UNBELIEVABLY, the Germans had not searched the loft. It was raining now, but Tom dared not risk moving out of the trickles of water coming through the roof. A German squad had taken shelter below and were dozing against the walls. One of them opened a writing pad against his knee and held a pencil poised above it.
“Welchen Tag haben wir heute?”
Banalities. A man writing a letter asks his comrade what day it is. Eight feet above his head his saturated enemy tries not to shiver, and needs to pee.
TOM JOLTED OUT OF NEAR-SLEEP as a ladder crashed against the side of the loft. A grey dawn seeped through the gaps in the walls and roof, and half a day and a night of hope ended as a German officer’s peaked cap climbed into sight. The face beneath it seemed too young to be in uniform, but the boy swore, aimed a pistol, and fired. The single, deafening, dust-shaking crack shattered roof tiles above Tom’s back. Tom rose to his knees, lifting his hands in surrender even as the officer took aim again, but the rotten boards gave way beneath Tom’s weight and he fell through into a thumping melee of boots and rifle butts on the floor below.
THEY’D FOUND THREE MORE escapees by the time Tom and Arthur were dragged outside, kicked across the yard, and lined up against a brick wall. Tom didn’t recognise the others. They all showed signs of a beating.
It took a moment for realisation to sink in. In front of them a line of ten German soldiers faced them with their rifles held at the parade ‘at ease’ position. Two per prisoner. Beyond them, in an open field, perhaps twenty more Germans watched.
Tom’s first thought was disbelief. This can’t be real. They can’t execute prisoners of war. But the expression on a soldier’s face in front of him convinced him. He looked like the sort of kid you’d expect to find on a college campus; about nineteen, with round, wire-rimmed spectacles, and his pleasant, open face was twisted with the horror of what he was about to do. Some corner of Tom’s mind wondered if the kid was going to cry.
Tom closed his eyes, his mind scrambling for reality, any reality but this one, but opened them at the sound of a barked command, and the crunch of the firing squad coming to attention. The young officer stood at the end of the line, watching his prisoners’ faces. Tom shut his eyes again. He didn’t want to die staring at a Nazi.
Stupid bloody way to go. Tom wondered if his parents would ever know how their only son had died.
Another command. Shoulder arms, perhaps. Tom’s mind wouldn’t work.
What a futile bloody waste. The weight of sadness could crush him to the ground, if he let it.
“Laden!” Rifle bolts rattled in unison.
Tom was never more intensely alive than in the moment of his death. He could smell turned earth from the fields, stagnant water in the drainage ditches, hear traffic on the road and distant birdsong. All this would still be when he was not.
The short, panting breaths of five men merged into a single, continuous wind.
Get on with it.
Tom opened his eyes. The squad’s rifles were safely at their shoulders, although he had not heard the command that spared his life. In front of him, it was the college kid’s turn to close his eyes and swallow. Tom stared beyond the firing squad at a landscape that was newly sharp and fresh after rain, vaguely aware that a German sergeant major was haranguing them from the other end of the line, punctuating his words by slapping a cudgel or a baseball bat against his leg. Tom’s knees seemed to have locked. How else was he still standing?
‘College’ turned his head sharply towards the sergeant major.
“Zu befehl!” He looked back at Tom. “The oberfeldwebel say, you escape again, we use bullet. Now we teach lesson.”
That wasn’t the lesson? The five were prodded out onto the field, where the sergeant major ordered the German platoon to form a circle around them, holding their rifles at the ‘high port’ across their bodies. He slapped his baseball bat into his palm.
“Jetzt werden wir spielen.” Now we will play.
Tom looked around him, seeing expressions that ranged from shame-faced reluctance to smiling anticipation. The numb shock of the firing squad was fading with the realisation that more brutality was planned. He lifted his arms towards the sergeant-major, palms-out in the universal sign of appeal.
“Wir Kriegsgefangene sind!” We are prisoners of war.
“Kriegsgefangene? Du bist schiesse.” You are shit.
The first rifle butt hit Tom in the base of his back.
LATER, THEY BROUGHT THEM FOOD, barely a cupful of thin, potato soup and a piece of coarse, dark bread, but it was nourishment and it left their bellies craving more. Other recaptured prisoners had been brought in during the morning, until twelve men sat huddled in a brick, windowless outbuilding, nursing bruises, breathing shallowly to save their aching ribs. Miraculously, there were no broken limbs.
All heads turned as the door was unbolted and a gefreiter, a corporal, entered.
“Vier Männer.” He pointed at Tom and three others. “Kommen Sie mit.”
Outside, three more Germans fell in behind them, rifles in one hand, shovels or entrenching tools in the other, herding them to the edge of a water-filled drainage canal perhaps twelve feet across.
“Gelangen in die Wasser.” The command to get in the water was emphasised with prods of their rifles. Tom waded out, pulse racing, wondering if they had only been spared the firing squad to be shot in a ditch. Ahead of them, at the far bank, scraps of British army battledress khaki floated on the weeds. By the time the water reached his waist, Tom’s fear had turned to sick horror. The battledress still clothed a dead soldier, face down in the water, with the bloom of a bullet wound staining his back. Tom turned to face his captors. This time, he’d look at them. Stare them down.
“Bringen die Körper.” Bring the bodies. Plural. Only then did Tom see the other two. He tugged at the nearest one, and as the body rolled over in the water Tom’s almost-empty guts heaved, dry-retching in disgust. The man’s head had been pulped, beaten into a shapeless mess.
“Schneller!” The command was screamed in fury. Was it shame that made them want such haste? To hide their crime from sight?
One by one, three dead soldiers were dragged from the water and carried to the edge of a field. Each of them had been shot, and each disfigured after death beyond all hope of recognition. Perhaps there had been another firing squad, and the final order had been given. Tom would never know. In the mad lottery of war it was him who swung an entrenching tool at the soil, breaking ground for a grave rather than lying mutilated beside it. He vented his anger on the earth, knowing with each hack of the blade that whether he lived for another sixty minutes or sixty years, the stain of this degradation would stay with him for the rest of his life.
They buried them in the late afternoon. With unexpected sensitivity, one of the German platoon hammered two pieces of wood together to make a rough cross, and painted an inscription.
Hier liegen drei unbekannten britischen Soldaten
Here lie three unknown British soldiers
The voice on the far side of the door was gentle, almost diffident. Tom shifted to peer through a crack. Spectacles flashed briefly in the moonlight beneath a coal-scuttle helmet. The college kid was on guard.
“Ja?” Tom stood and wedged himself upright by the door. He didn’t feel conversational. Every movement hurt, and a greater pain lay across his mind like stale vomit.
“Today not good. Oberfeldwebel not kind man.”
“Oberfeldwebel bloody lunatic.”
“Not all German soldiers bad.”
“Tell that to those men’s families.”
“My English not good. Today was not, er, ehrenhaft.”
“Too bloody right it wasn’t honourable.”
“Aber ich bin ein Christ.” The German almost sobbed, as if being a Christian had become a burden beyond bearing. Sod that, Tom wasn’t going to give him absolution. They were quiet for a moment, two enemies leaning against opposite sides of a door, their faces a few inches apart.
“Wie heißen Sie, Englander?” What is your name?
“Ich heiß Thomas. Und Sie?”
“You are Tommy?” The German seemed to find this highly amusing. “Es tut mir leid, Tommy.” He stifled giggles. “My name is Fischer. You want cigarette?”
The college kid lit a cigarette and passed it over the door. The tobacco was coarse, snatched at Tom’s throat, and made his head swim, but God, it was good. Tom felt the eyes on him from within the impromptu gaol, a wall of craving. He took another drag and handed the cigarette to Arthur. Its glow passed from mouth to mouth into the gloom.
“Danke. You have food? We are hungry. Wir sind alle hungrig.”
“No food. Es tut mir leid.”
“There is cheese. Käse. Ein große Käse.”
“Here. Fifty metres. Fünfzig Meter. We share?”
“Nein. Zu riskant.” Too risky. “I sent to fight Russia.”
“Bitte? Please? It would be.. ehrenhaft.” Tom scrambled for the right words. He’d use every trick in the book to get that cheese. “Wir sind hungrig. Es wäre ein Segen sein.” It would be a blessing.
Another pause. The bolts slid gently backwards. College stood back from the door, his rifle ready.
“Nur Sie. Only you. You show. No tricks.” College slid the bolts home behind him.
This was bizarre. On a night when the moon blazed in a sky washed clean by rain, a German squaddie and a British sergeant dashed together from shadow to shadow until they crouched under the storeroom window.
“Here,” Tom whispered, and jerked his thumb at the metal gauze. “Ein große Käse.” When College stood, his face moved out of the shadow. The kid looked frightened, as if he was regretting his decision, but he shifted his rifle to his left hand, made two sharp stabs through the gauze with his bayonet, and unclipped a torch from his webbing.
“Lieber Gott!” College grinned. He seemed to have forgotten his fear. “You watch. I open window.”
Now here’s a first. An Englishman keeps guard for a German. At the corner of the building, Tom stared at an empty, monochrome landscape, a pattern of silver on charcoal, and winced at the sounds of wood being prised away from a frame behind him.
“Ready, Tommy.” College leant his rifle against the wall and made a step with his hands.
Getting in was easy, after that bunk-up. Tom found handholds in the rafters, and swung himself inside with little noise. There was a rip of pain across his injured ribs, but the prize was worth it.
Getting out with the cheese was going to be harder. No way could Tom lift it alone. In a moment of inspiration he managed to lever up one side until it rested on its edge so it could be rolled to the window. By the time he’d managed to roll it up the wall, using knees then shoulders as wedges, College was on the verge of panic. The whispers outside were too low to be understood clearly, but the word ‘Kriegsgericht’ – court martial – seemed to feature regularly.
“Catch!” Tom posted the cheese through the window, and heard it lowered to the ground, sliding down the wall.
Tom had to rest. His ribs hurt like hell and he was swaying on his feet.
“Bitte, Tommy!” There was desperation in College’s voice.
“Ich kann nicht.” The window was at head height, and there was no helpful step on the inside. Tom made a futile jump which only poked his head outside before he fell back. He started to laugh, giggling like a schoolboy with stolen cider. Cheese on the outside. Him on the inside. Oh, dear, what would the sergeant-major say?
“Jetzt kommen.” A hand grabbed the back of Tom’s battledress and heaved. Tom kicked against the wall, struggling to keep the edge of the window off his injured ribs.
“Komm, Tommy.” College locked both arms around Tom’s back, stubbled cheek to stubbled cheek in the window, and heaved. It sounded as if he was on the verge of tears.
They fell together onto the yard, and for a moment Tom lay staring up at the stars, eyes wide at the pain in his chest. Such a beautiful night.
“Schnell.” College pulled him to his feet and swung his rifle onto his back. They lifted the cheese between them and scuttled, crab-like, back towards the impromptu gaol. No challenges interrupted their dash, and the tension drained away with each step. By the time Tom unbolted the door and backed inside, he and College were no longer guard and prisoner, they were like two naughty schoolboys scrumping apples.
“Half for you, half for us, ja?” College’s eyes were shining. Now they were back, fear had turned to euphoria. He drew his bayonet and pushed, then hacked ineffectually against a cheese thicker than the bayonet’s length.
“No good. Ich werde eine Axt bringen.”
He remembered to bolt the door on his way out, but no-one had any thoughts of escape. For perhaps two minutes, twelve men jostled for the chance to scrape their fingernails against the rind, with little effect. By the time College returned and handed Tom a small axe, they were dropping the cheese on the concrete floor in the hope that it would split.
They were meticulous in the division of the spoils. This for you, this for us, this for you. College had brought two large packs to carry away the German share. Only when the cheese was fully divided did the young German stand back, grinning, pleased with himself.
He looked around, and his smile faded as he realised the scale of his dereliction. Behind him was an open door. His rifle was propped against the wall. He was alone amidst twelve British soldiers, most already feasting. Tom and Arthur cradled their portion, staring at him. College straightened, grabbed his packs and the rifle, and left without a word.
“Ja?” He was in a hurry to be outside.
“Das war sehr nett.” That was very kind. “Vielen Dank.”
College simply nodded, and shot the bolts.
THEY WERE NOT SEARCHED the following morning. Neither the officer nor the sergeant major could be seen when the twelve men were loaded onto a truck, and the guards turned a blind eye to pockets that still bulged with about three pounds of cheese per man. Tom grinned at College, but he looked away after the briefest flicker of eye contact.
In that moment, though, Tom saw the German’s shoulders lift, and a quiet smile cross his face that hinted at a deeper, hidden emotion.
Tom and Arthur were imprisoned in Austria after they were recaptured, until liberated by advancing Allied troops. Neither succeeded in escaping again. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Tom died in 2010, aged 93.