We were up in the country and we came under the worst of it when we tried to cross the fields above Marcellina and we were captured. That was when I was a photographer, and young, and I should have never been carrying a gun.
We were thirty miles outside of Rome in a typical Italian town set into a hill with a broken back. The road through it wound round tight, and tall stone houses clung to it. There was a pristine white church at one end of the cobbled square and a few cafes with awnings extending into the square at the other. The hotel Rinaldi was up the street from the square and it had not received a guest since the war came to Italy. It was once a grand palazzo that had fallen into disrepair and across the facade three out of the twenty windows were missing. I later learned it had gotten this way because the owner had shot himself in the lunchroom when he learned his only son had died. They said he was a frogman with the Decima Flottiglia MAS and he was very brave, there was a picture of him in his uniform on the wall behind the concierge's desk to prove it. The woman who ran the hotel now had only one hand and you could see from her face that all this had made her bitter. She was the owner’s sister.
I took a room on the third floor of the hotel and that’s where I stayed for a week in the spring of 1944. The room had once been very grand and done out in the traditional style with pale yellow walls and neoclassical furniture. The floor was marble and there was a big threadbare rug spread out across it. After unpacking my bag I opened all the windows and sat at the desk and imagined the kind of people who might have stayed there once. I tipped out my film rolls and notebooks onto the desk and stared out of the window across the valley and felt stillness for the first time since Anzio. I hadn't showered for almost three weeks but there was apparently no running water in the hotel so I went to bed dirty and hungry again. The hotel had the only telephone in the town and it rang every hour throughout the night.
I had been embedded with the captain and his men since the Liri valley. They were a recce platoon and they were up in the hills around Rome forward of the great offensive. Their mission was to observe the hills and plains around Rome and provide information about enemy troop movements to the advancing allied armies in the south. They were also meant to meet up with and resupply local partisan units in the area. I was working for the paper and my job was to photograph the first division and return my films to London. It was a strange town and a strange time. It was almost if there was no war there except for when you could hear the American heavy guns pounding the Caesar line at night. One particular night in late May the guns were going like hammers for almost five hours. It wasn't long after this that the Fifth Army finally broke through. We had good cause for party that night.
The next day, I was sitting at a table at the south end of the square drinking a Campari and soda when a German staff car lurched around the corner and trundled right past me. It was quickly followed by a Mercedes-Benz truck with the cover off. There was 12 soldiers in the back. I looked up the street towards the Rinaldi. The woman with one hand was stood in the doorway. When she saw me looking she turned away and went inside. I left the money for the drink on the saucer and left through the side door of the cafe. The Germans were unloading from the truck outside the church and as I left the cafe I stole a bicycle from outside the book shop and rode it up the street. I went slowly at first and gradually picked up pace as I rounded the corner and got out of sight.
I rode the bike until the chain came off and then I threw it over a wall into a hedge and I started running. I found the captain, the sergeant and the rest of the men in the broken down sheepfold where they had hidden their radio. The captain told me that the Germans were retreating to the Gothic line and I said that I knew. He looked surprised until I told him about the staff car and truck in the square. His surprise turned to shock and we all set off running up the hill to where their cache was hidden. When we reached the cache the sergeant broke open the crates and there was all kinds of armaments and ammunition meant for the partisan commanders in Monterotondo.
Everyone was in agreement that the Germans were in the town looking for us and the woman in the hotel had tipped them off. The captain decided we should make a break for it and he asked me if I’d ever done any shooting. I told him I had learned to shoot as a boy and always kept my hand in but a Sten was very different to a farm shotgun. The captain wrote me a special note on dispatch paper saying that I was to carry a gun for my own protection. I don’t know what authority he had to write that note but I was glad I had it. After handing out the best of what was in the crate the platoon was loaded down with ammunition and each were carrying double rifles on their back. The plan was to make for Rome and join the American columns there. It was an open city now. The sergeant left a note in the crate for the partisan commanders that simply read "The Rinaldi is a rat's nest. Hang the woman."
From up on the hill the countryside reminded me of home. The fields and hedgerows were a lush green that met with the blue mountains and blushing pink evening sky on the horizon. A river snaked between the fields in the lowlands and there was a herd of cattle on the banks; I thought they were Maremmana but I couldn't tell because of the distance. Lines of cypress trees marked out the edges of roads and we could see the town where all this had begun. I was taking pictures all the way. It was starting to get dark and we could hear the heavy guns in the distance again.
After a while we were walking in a dense wood and the captain ordered that we should stay there for the night. He wouldn't let us light a fire and he set sentries on two hour shifts. The night was cold and it rained on and off. I didn't sleep but everyone else seemed to. I ate some cold corned beef from a can and waited in the dark for the sun come up.
In the morning we gathered our kit and, after looking at his map, the sergeant said that we could be in Rome by sundown if we were lucky and the going was good. This lifted everybody's spirits a little. We trooped off through the dense woods again and nobody really spoke much for a good few hours. I thought about the partisans and how they would have made for some truly good photographs if we had ever met them. I hoped they had found the note and the guns. I really did.
We were coming out of the tree line across the field when the German machine guns opened up. The MG42 makes an unmistakable sound and once you have heard it you never want to hear it again. There was at least three of them and they ripped us up. There was a Panzerspähwagen coming up the hill and for some reason I was transfixed by its funny shape and the way that it moved.
Their machine guns were roaring and the sergeant was the first to get it. Right in the chest and belly. I had never heard a man scream like that before. We went down into a watery ditch and I was just shooting blind with the Sten. I must have gone through three magazines and I have no idea what damage I did. The air was full of smoke and a young corporal was waist deep in the water next to the sergeant trying to keep his head up and whoever was on the Bren gun was the next to go down. After about 10 minutes they were right on top of us and I thought we were done but they wanted us as prisoners. The captain had no choice but to surrender so we were captured.
Back at their post they singled me out and I never saw the rest of the men again. They thought I was a commando because of the Sten and the fact I was out of uniform. I also had a little knitted hat rolled up on my head which must have convinced them of this even more. The only thing that proved I was press was my camera and the 20 or so rolls of film stuffed into the front pockets of my jacket. I have never been so glad not to be a commando. They would have shot me on the spot if I was and they almost did. I spoke some German but I never let on about it. They were talking about what to do with me. They threw all my films onto the fire and I watched them melt. That was almost every picture I had taken of the first division since we were at Montecasino.
They put me in a car and started north with me in the back seat. We were on a narrow road that ran parallel with a vineyard and all of a sudden 30 or so American infantry stepped out into the road and the car came to a halt. The driver and officer in the front seat surrendered immediately and when the Americans approached the car they saw that I was a prisoner and let me out on to the road. While the Germans were being interrogated on the roadside I opened the boot of the car and took out my things and started to take pictures of the scene.
The photographs on my last roll of film from when I was up in the country appeared in every major newspaper in England and America. After the war I received a letter from the Captain but I never had the courage to read it.
That was when I was a photographer, and young.