Welcome to my stop on the Monopoli Blues Blog Tour!
I’ve just noticed that I’m not actually on the poster but, never mind, I still have the excellent first chapter to share with you all.
‘Ero qui durante la guerra’ Guildford, England, 1960 In 1960, when I was nine, my parents moved to a largish house close to Guildford. Just outside the spare room at the top of the stairs was a big old cupboard. One day, I was rummaging through it when I came across Pop’s naval uniform. The thing that grabbed my attention was the parachute badge sewn on to the sleeve. In all my reading on the war–and, being of the generation that had grown up in its immediate aftermath, I’d read a lot – I’d never come across a naval parachutist before. Why did Pop have a parachute on his uniform? Could it be possible that there had been more to his wartime service in the Royal Navy, as I thought of it then (he had actually been in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, the RNVR), than he had been letting on? When I asked him about it, he said he’d done some parachuting, but had dismissed it with a wave of the hand – telling me that parachuting itself had been no more frightening than jumping off a 12-foot wall. This, however, coupled with a training manual tucked amongst a pile of vintage Second World War National Geographic magazines I’d found under a bed in my grandparents’ house round about the same time – it had contained a set of instructions on how to make bombs as well as stripping and reassembly notes for a Brengun – hinted that my father’s wartime career had been more interesting than he’d been letting on. A year or two after this, we went on holiday to France. One day, to give us a break from the beach, Mop and Pop took us to visit the port at St Nazaire–the place where, in 1942, HMS Campbeltown, her bow packed full of explosives, had rammed and destroyed a dock used for repairing German battleships. The St Nazaire raid had been legendary, one of the most daring of the entire war, and it had struck me as curious that Pop had known quite so much about it. My naïve view of the way the Navy waged war had been supplanted by a more 23
mature appreciation of combined land–sea operations, the St Nazaire raid being a prime example of the way in which the roles of sailors, commandos and soldiers had blurred when the need arose – usually when there was a requirement to hit the enemy via unconventional warfare. But I still wasn’t able to equate ‘being in the Navy’ with doing anything subversive. So, the plot thickened when, that same holiday, Pop took us to see a memorial to French Resistance fighters in the Loire Valley. He had clearly been moved by it, but had said nothing. It was only the following year, on our next holiday, driving around Puglia in Southern Italy, that the penny finally dropped. We arrived at a fishing port called Monopoli, where, out of the blue, my parents announced they’d met each other. ‘Ero qui durante la guerra,’ Mop would tell any local she came across in her broken Italian. I was here during the war. I learned, from other asides, she’d been a wireless operator/coder. But neither she nor Pop ever divulged the essential point: that the reason they’d been in Monopoli was because it had been the operational HQ of the Special Operations Executive in Italy from 1943 to 1945. In the mid-1960s, SOE was barely on anyone’s radar, because 20 years after the war most of its operations remained highly secret. Bits and bobs had come out in books like The White Rabbit by Tommy Yeo-Thomas, which I’d read avidly, but it was only when I was at university, and I got hold of Professor M.R.D. Foot’s seminal history of the SOE in France, which had recently been published, that I appreciated how big Special Operations Executive had been and what it had done. In Pop’s case, it had clearly involved guns, because shortly after our Italian holiday my brother, Will, and I had found his weapon: a Beretta automatic, complete with its magazine and ammunition. Even though it couldn’t fire, we’d played with it, mouldy green bullets and all, until one day, during one of those amnesties that used to get held every so often, a policeman turned up to ask if Pop had any old weapons he wanted to hand in.
My father’s best friend had been a man called Tommy Walmsley.
Tommy, big, kind and always on hand with an amusing story, had been Pop’s drinking buddy for many years in a touching weekly tradition they never, ever broke. Tommy had been in the Lancashire Fusiliers and described his greatest military achievement as saving the regimental wine at Dunkirk. He and Pop had met while they’d worked together at Slaughter and May, the legal firm, where, years later, I also ended up. Every Sunday evening, Pop and Tommy would meet for a couple of hours at the Seahorse, a pub near Guildford where they would set the world to rights. Tommy died in 1982 at the age of only 60. Pop had many friends, but nobody quite filled the vacuum left by Tommy or the enjoyment of those Sunday evenings down at their local. When I became a lawyer and Pop had moved on from law to forge a career as a banker, for 15 years our offices were less than 500 yards apart. In all that time, however, we met for lunch or for an after-work drink maybe half a dozen times, until he retired in 1989 – though ‘retirement’, in actual fact, simply meant work at a less frenetic pace and several days in London as opposed to the whole week. He and I then started to implement our own tradition of the weekly drink. Every Tuesday, after work, for an hour and a half, in the convivial atmosphere of an old-fashioned ‘local’, Pop began to open up a little more, in part because of my continual prompting, but perhaps also because, being away from home, he was less ‘on guard’. The stories were, at best, episodic – snatches, more than anything else – and it never took too much for the conversation to move on. Until, that was, the day in April 1991 he announced he’d received a letter from Curetti. Who, I asked Pop, was Curetti? Sergio Curetti, he told me, was the man – he was not much more than a boy then – who had rescued him and taken him in the night that he parachuted behind the lines. He reached into his jacket, produced a letter, unfolded it and handed it to me. I started to read: Dear Sir, I’m writing to you hoping that you are the person I have tried to trace these following years. This person is some one who I have met in Italy in 1944. If you are not the person I am seeking, please excuse me. It was on November 16, 1944, at San Giacomo di Roburent (a small town in the mountains), where I was a ‘partigiano’. Two English soldiers were parachuted. Sergio Curetti explained he had written to Pop because he’d recently read a book in which Pop and a man named Cauvain had been mentioned as the parachutists who’d dropped into San Giacomo. The Italian declared that he had been trying to track Pop down ever since the end of the war, but, knowing Pop had been captured, had feared he had been killed. The book mentioned that Sub-Lieutenant Robert Clark RNVR had gone on to carve out a distinguished career for himself in the City and it was via this snippet of information that Curetti was able to track him down. I asked Pop about Cauvain and to my surprise he replied without hesitation. Later, I took this as evidence of just how much Curetti and the letter had meant to him. Eddie Cauvain, Pop said, had been his radio operator. They were part of a small team that was supposed to work with the partisans against the Germans, but it started to go wrong from the beginning. Instead of dropping into the place they were meant to, Pop (and his ‘unholy’ baggage) had ended up in a tree in the garden of a priest and had broken his ribs. He and Cauvain had landed more than 15 miles from the drop-zone. But they had ended up captured before they could do much good. Three-quarters of the party didn’t drop that night – they came in a month later. When I asked Pop if he was going to reply to Curetti, he told me he already had, and that he and Mop were going to go to Italy to meet him and his family. The visit (including a return to the locations of their wartime activities), took place the following year and turned out to be a great success; a few years later, during a second visit to the Curettis, I joined them. The Curettis lived where they’d always lived, in the lee of the Alps, in a town called Mondovi, close to where Pop had made his Monopoli Blues jump. They were delightful and made me feel – as they have done ever since – as if I were part of their family. Slowly, between our weekly sessions in the pub and the visit to the Curettis, a few more pieces of the puzzle had come together. Even though we’d never actually sat down and spoken about the arc of his wartime career, many of the episodes of which Pop had spoken over the years had now knitted into a narrative of sorts. I knew that he had been recruited to SOE from the Navy after telling someone he’d ‘mucked about in small boats’; that he’d trained in Scotland where the weather was atrocious and where he’d apparently ended up meeting the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s Reich-Protector of Bohemia-Moravia and one of the main architects of the Holocaust; that shortly afterwards, he’d been dispatched to the Helford River in Cornwall, where SOE had taught him how to infiltrate and exfiltrate by boat; that after this, and a short stint in Algeria, he’d sailed an old fishing smack from Malta to Southern Italy, where his operational career with SOE began. It was in Monopoli that he met my mother and from Monopoli that he’d made a number of missions up the coast, delivering and collecting agents, and carrying out sabotage missions. He’d also divulged, with some reluctance, how he and my godfather, Robin Richards, whom he’d met while training on the Helford, had been awarded DSCs: for carrying out a recce for a beach landing by a small force of commandos, known as ‘Popski’s Private Army’, led by a man called Colonel Vladimir Peniakoff, a Belgian of Russian-Jewish descent who’d fought with the British Army; and that despite the success of the mission the landing itself had gone spectacularly wrong. From my Italian trip, and a return visit by the Curettis to us, I also learned how Pop had been selected for the parachute drop into Northern Italy, that it had gone awry and after his capture he’d been incarcerated in a number of prisons – including a civilian jail in the middle of Turin. Thanks to the rescinding of Hitler’s order, late in the war, that all commandos caught behind the lines be shot, Pop had avoided execution to be sent instead as a POW into Germany, where he’d ended up first of all in a camp near Bremen, and then in another near Lübeck, where he was finally liberated. On that day, he’d enjoyed a whisky in the company of the legendary Battle of Britain flying ace Johnnie Johnson and, pitifully thin, had promptly fainted. In addition to a short interview he’d given to researchers at London’s Imperial War Museum – part of the IWM’s campaign to record oral histories of as many people as possible who had fought in the world wars – a short talk that he’d given at Westminster School, where his grandchildren, my two sons, had been at school, was probably the fullest account he’d ever made of his war. But, while all this gave me knowledge, it wasn’t any more than the version I had, by now, assembled piecemeal – one that was woefully incomplete.
Pop’s code in life had always been to look after those he felt responsible for, both at home and in the work place, and it was a duty he could not have discharged any better if he’d tried. He loved and looked after my mother with a passion and dedication that even my brother, sister and I could see was a rare and precious thing – and he did the same by us, too. But there comes a moment in most of our lives when our relationship with our parents changes and mine changed on the day that Pop, by now well into his seventies, got food poisoning at an SOE gathering in Oxford. The bacteria, they told us later, had been in the gelatin of some pâté he’d eaten and the resulting sickness so severe that it had disrupted the rhythm of his heart – and Pop went from being a man who had never had a day’s illness in his life to someone who started to rely on others to help him cope. He bore this shift in his circumstances with great dignity and when, in 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer as well, with considerable courage, too. After a number of operations, he was confined to a wheelchair, but the prognosis from his doctors was generally encouraging: Pop, they said, was of an age where the spread of the disease would be slow and, therefore, we shouldn’t worry unduly – he was, even after the food poisoning, they told us, a robust individual, who wouldn’t be leaving us any time soon. Nevertheless, we all knew that the time we had left with him was finite and that we had to make the most of it. And I knew that if the full story of his time with SOE was to come
out at all, it needed to do so in its own time – in his own time – and that there should be no pressure on him to divulge it. In 2010, I spoke to an old friend I’ll refer to as Gerry Pattinson who’d previously chatted with Pop about his time in SOE – and Pop had opened up to him, because Gerry had a background in the security services and knew a great deal about operations behind the lines. Gerry had asked me if Pop was coming to the SOE 70th anniversary dinner. The event commemorated the 70 years since SOE’s foundation in 1940. There were by now only 300 surviving former field officers, some 30 of whom were due to attend the dinner at the Imperial War Museum, and Pop announced he was keen to go. I accompanied him, and Pop sat next to Gerry and his wife, Susan (who also has a security services background). During the evening, Pop was introduced to a journalist from The Times who was fascinated by Falla (pronounced ‘Fire’) – the threadbare teddy bear Pop had had from the earliest days of his childhood, who had also made it to the dinner. Falla, who had been in the car for the early part of the proceedings and had, by popular demand, joined us for the speeches and toasts, had been with Pop through thick and thin during the war. The journalist asked Pop whether he would be happy for Falla’s story (and his own) to be the subject of an article and, knowing of Pop’s dislike of the limelight, I waited for his reply with apprehension. ‘I’d be delighted,’ he said. The article, which emerged a couple of weeks later, featured a colour photo of Pop, Mop and Falla – Falla looking jaunty in a blue knitted suit; Mop and Pop both smiling and happy, and both proudly wearing their medals. Falla was the hook for the story that appeared with the picture, which, while not revelatory, marked a shift, because it signalled, I felt, that Pop was ready for a lengthier account of his war to come out – that it was only the manner in which he told it that needed to be decided, and picking the right moment in which to sit down to get the details. The shift had come because of the time he’d spent at that dinner with his former colleagues and with it, perhaps, the sense that what he had done – what SOE had done – amounted to something that was still important. In the discussions I went on to have with Pop after the dinner, he was particularly keen to tell me about the Italians he had fought alongside. And while the details I’d craved from the beginning continued to remain elusive, the one thing I did come to appreciate was the esteem in which he held his partigiani co-combatants: ‘Forget all those stupid jokes about the tanks with four reverse gears. [The Italians] were amongst the bravest people I ever met,’ he said. Shortly afterwards, during a 90th birthday lunch for my godfather, Robin Richards, with whom Pop had served in No.1 Special Force, I listened as the two of them started to talk unselfconsciously about some of the experiences they had shared in Italy. Robin, I knew, had not dropped with Pop into Northern Italy, but had been with him on many other missions, and thus would be an invaluable source of information in building the picture. I resolved to contact Robin as soon as possible to see if he would be amenable to contributing to the story. But, a week before Christmas, Pop suffered a stroke. He had fought so many battles and won that I found it hard to believe that this one would be any different, a view that was given impetus, when, over Christmas, with the family around him, he regained some of his strength and we allowed ourselves to believe that he’d pull through. But, on 3 January, Mop rang me to say that he wasn’t eating and wasn’t talking and appeared to be going suddenly and rapidly downhill. I left work, picked up the family and drove as fast as I could down the A3 to my parents’ home. It was there, surrounded by his family, and with Falla by his side, that my father finally gave up the fight for life, three days short of his 89th birthday. I gave little thought in the weeks and months afterwards to the idea of continuing to research Pop’s war. But, bit by bit, as the rawest part of our grief began to heal, the desire in me to know only grew stronger. By the summer, my brother, Will, and I had resolved to go on a journey to find out. But with Will living in Australia, it was accepted that I would do most of the on-the-ground sleuthing. The problem, of course, was how to go about assembling the facts now that the principal of the story was no longer with us. I had never talked to Mop much about Pop’s war, because I’d always imagined that one day I’d sit down and talk with him about it. But Mop was very obviously the place to start.
In November 1944, Sub Lt Bob Clark, a twenty-year old agent with Britain’s top-secret Special Operations Executive, parachuted into northern Italy. He left behind the girl he had fallen in love with, Marjorie, his radio operator.
Captured by the enemy, Bob’s fate hangs in the balance and Marjorie won’t know for six months whether he is alive or dead.
Monopoli Blues recounts the story of Tim Clark’s journey to uncover the story of his parents’ war – and the truth behind the betrayal of his father’s Clarion mission to the Nazis…
“Monopoli Blues puts the big picture in perspective. It is a detailed and intimate account of the Second World War drama as it affected two individuals who are in love and who are separated by the conflict. The story is the more powerful for being told by their son, Tim Clark. His assiduous search uncovers the drama and danger of facing a British agent who is betrayed and captured by the Nazis and whose girlfriend has no clue what has happened to him. This is the reality of war behind the headlines.” – Jonathan Dimbleby
happy reading 🙂