Diary of Writing Italy’s Sorrow

20 January, 2004
Have just arrived back from a trip to South Africa – well, Johannesburg to be precise. Again, I was very lucky: I rang the South African National Museum of Military History and they put me on to Arthur Blake, a retired army officer with good links to local veterans associations. Arthur then produced an amazing schedule of interviews for both my North Africa and Italy books. On one day we met a Zulu called Petrus Dhlamini who had served in both theatres. He now lives in Soweto, but was born the son of a Zulu chief in the 1920s, and spent his formative years living in huts and tending cattle. Amazingly, no black South African was allowed to carry arms, except when they were guarding ammunition trains going to port – when they were allowed to carry assegai. Petrus, along with the rest of the black South African troops in Italy, was sent home before the war in Italy ended. He was vague as to why, but Arthur told me it was because they were causing too much trouble with the Italian civilians. I can see the thorny issue of coloured troops in Italy is going to have to be confronted, but dealt with sensitively. And I haven’t even begun work on the US 92nd Buffalo Division yet.

I also met Kendall Brooke, a former officer in the Royal Natal Carbineers. He was, without doubt one of the best interviewees I’ve ever met – articlulate, measured and with a near-photographic memory. In November 1944 he came across a number of dead civilians just to the south of San Martino, near Monte Sole. Among the bodies were a mother and baby. He said they’d obviously been there a while and smelled ‘a bit high.’ He’d never heard of the massacre at Monte Sole, but these people he came across must have been victims of the same attack that killed Cornelia Paselli’s family. During that time, Kendall was also shot in the head during a night time scrap with some Germans. Incredibly, he survived. ‘It was a very interesting experience,’ he said, as he really did think he was about to die, ‘although not one I’d recommend.

The Museum also had good archives and the staff were really helpful. I unearthed a couple of really interesting and vivid diaries and there was no difficulty in getting photocopies made. And they had an excellent photographic archive – I ordered a whole load, some of which will no doubt make it into the book in due course.

One hairy moment, though: Arthur took me in his car on a tour of Johannesburg, including the old CBD, which is now one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city.  He then got slightly lost and we ended up going down a one-way street and being glowered at by locals.  Gun crime and car-napping is such a big problem here and for a few moments I really wondered whether we’d ever get out again, especially as a huge throbbing machine with blacked out windows bore down us from the opposite direction.  Arthur reversed, stalled, but eventually managed to get us out again.  A great place, but I’m glad I don’t live there

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