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To War With The Bays: 51 - Matera

...Wherever we had been and whatever nationality they were, we always made friends with the children, and often I thought how tragic it was that they should be involved in this terrible war. They didn't want to fight us nor we them. We just wanted to be friends...

Jack Merewood, now in Italy with his Army unit, continues to make new friends.

To read early chapters of Jack's experiences please click on To War With The Bays.

Normally guard duty came at night, but here we had to mount guard in the daytime as well - to keep the children out. 'Started guard at 6 a.m. What a job keeping children out of camp and then helping to feed them at meal times. Hot and dusty - poor kiddies. Not a bad guard really. Finished at 6 p.m.'

Although they were a nuisance, the children were very friendly, neither bad nor destructive. One ten-year-old called Carmelita took me home with her, and her relatives were very anxious to make friends too. A young man in his twenties could speak French so we were able to converse. Other relatives with 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' picked up the conversation here and there. I called in and had a drink with this family a couple more times.

And then, after having spent a week in our camp, we packed up and moved. As we marched the two miles through the little town to the station, the whole population turned out to see us off trying at the same time to sell us oranges, nuts and half-a-dozen other things.

The Italian cattle trucks were no different from the North African ones and so were no novelty to us, though there had been just once when I'd actually travelled on a seat in a carriage. We left in the afternoon and after a cramped, cold and uncomfortable ride, arrived at a station where we left the train, climbed into trucks, and after about fifteen miles arrived at Matera, 160 miles east of Naples.

This was very hilly, picturesque country, with Matera itself quite a big town, clinging to the hills. It was a clean, peaceful place, and the inhabitants were well-dressed, a complete contrast to Naples. We had been billeted in a variety of places over the years, but our new home was different yet again. This time we lived in a small monastery.

Some of the streets were no more than alleyways climbing up the hillsides, too narrow for traffic, and from the window of the room allocated to our troop we looked out on to one such street below. It was as clean as if it had been scrubbed.

Children played there, and we leaned out of the window to talk to them in a mixture of English, French and the odd Italian words we'd picked up, accompanied by gestures. Unlike the poor children of Afragola, these were clean, well-dressed, well fed, and they weren't trying to sell us anything. Neither were there any aspiring operatic tenors around. In no time we were friendly with the children, and one of the mothers offered to do our washing for a very small payment - an offer we quickly accepted.

Wherever we had been and whatever nationality they were, we always made friends with the children, and often I thought how tragic it was that they should be involved in this terrible war. They didn't want to fight us nor we them. We just wanted to be friends. There were five of them, all girls, ranging in age from about eight to sixteen, in the two houses below our window, and our relationship with their parents too was very good.

Matera didn't have a lot to offer in the way of entertainment. There was just one cinema, but there were pleasant cafes with tables and chairs set outside where one could sit with a glass of wine or cup of coffee in the warm evenings. However, these pleasures were denied us at first, for though we had been in Italy over a week, we hadn't yet received any pay. Nor had there been any mail.

Fortunately the pay came a day or two after we arrived in Matera, so: 'I went into town, had a haircut, a hot bath, and then coffee and ice-cream. But no mail yet.'

Our tanks had not accompanied us on the Durban Castle but came on another ship a few days later. Now they had arrived at the port of Taranto about fifty miles away. Stan, Ron, Colin and a new man called Haley and myself were among the ones sent to go over them on the docks. Once again we worked hard cleaning the guns of mineral jelly (a kind of thick Vaseline), then coating the breeches with oil.

The combined British and American forces were on the move again, and on 4th June made a triumphant entry into Rome. On the 6th we heard of the opening of the Second Front. It was D-Day, and the landings on the Normandy coast had begun. Now the Germans were being squeezed from every direction. The British and American forces were advancing from the north and west, the Russians from the east, we were pushing from the south, troops had landed in southern France and were advancing towards Grenoble.

And the mail was here! I always looked forward to the arrival of the mail, but this time I awaited its distribution more eagerly than ever. I was not disappointed, for among a pile of letters for me were five from Aumale. Not only had Suzette written but so had M. Hugnit, Mme Hugnit, Yves and Aunt Nanette. All were sorry I hadn't been able to visit them again at Whitsuntide and that I'd had to leave Algeria. They hoped I might go back someday.

Suzette wished I'd be there soon, for she had loved those happy days we'd spent together, but they were too few. When did I think I'd come back to Aumale? I only wished I knew.

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