1944 ‘WOPS’ AND `JERRIES’
WHEN I WENT TO HELP
my friends in Cumberland with their harvest in 1944, I
was outraged to see POWs helping as well. No security; an army lorry
with canvas top pulled up at the farm gate, the driver banged on his door
and shouted `Out, you idle Wops' and three woebegone figures in brown
leapt down from the tailgate and stood clutching bundles and' shivering in
the morning air.
They were know as
`Alfonso', `Luigi' and `That Useless Begger' none of which were their real
names. To the farmers, the first one you got was Alfonso and the second
Luigi. Not knowing a word of English, they had learnt to answer to these
names, like pet dogs. It helped us distinguish them. `You Useless
Begger' answered his name as cheerfully as the rest.
Alfonso and Luigi
were very small - five foot four. Swarthy,
hook-nosed, big-brown-eyed, they
might have been twins, though they were not related. They did everything
together - never more than four feet apart. The farmer had learnt not to
separate them - they got miserable and their work went off. Even in the
heat of midday, they kept on their greatcoats and rolled-up balaclava
The farmer said
they were good little workers, because they came from the North -
car-workers in Turin before the war. All the ones from the North were
hard workers. Those from the South were totally idle; no farmer wanted
them, but they had to accept one Southerner for every two Northerners,
Begger (always uttered with total contempt) was from the South. Bigger -
about five foot seven, slender, with a trim black moustache and arrogant
air. He'd stop work the moment the farmer's eye was off him; drift away
to where the two land-girls were working like, as the farmer said `a
tom-cat on heat'. Very handsome, like Douglas Fairbanks, with a flashy
smile and perfect white teeth. But as far as the land-girls were
concerned, he didn't exist. He had learnt one English phrase - 'I can
see the top of your bra!' The land-girl turned to him, broad Lancashire:
`An' I can see
the top o' thy underpants an' all - and they're mucky!'
we sometimes shared the back of the army wagon. Embarrassing. The
English farmhands discussing the Italians as if they weren't there -
really intimately, as if they were cattle. And the Italians discussed us
similarly, in Italian. Had there been an interpreter, there'd certainly
have been a fight.
One evening I
hitched a lift back to the village in the POW truck. Getting off, over
the tailgate, I caught myself awkwardly in the crotch. As I lay doubled
up in agony on the road, the truck drove off to enormous Italian cheering
and laughter. They seemed to think that for once they'd won a victory.
Then I realized how much they really hated us.
The German POW
was different; a tall thin dignified scarecrow figure in Afrika Korps
uniform that grew daily more like a farmhand's gear. He fastened up his
trousers with binder-twine, just like they did. He had a little English,
very slow, but all the farmhands listened to him patiently. He had owned
his own farm in Bavaria, before the war. All he wanted was to get back
to it. He was allowed to do any job on the farm, and was allowed to go
off on his own. He had shown the farmhands several agricultural tricks
they didn't know, and when they were stuck, they would send for him and
ask his opinion. He was very loving with animals, especially the dogs.
He wouldn't leave any broken thing unmended; spent one lunch-hour mending
a drystone wall that had fallen down. He was called `Fritz' like all
German prisoners, and was content to answer to it.
He worked a
fiddle with the farmer, who was charged so much an hour for his
services. But however hard Fritz worked, he only got five shillings from
the POW camp people. So when he'd worked eight hours, he and the farmer
would sign his work-card as having worked only four. Then the farmer
would give Fritz a packet of fags instead
Fritz's camp-lorry broke down and didn't come for him in the evening, he
walked back to camp alone. He wished Hitler was dead, so he could go
home to his farm. He was the only one allowed inside the farmhouse, for
a meal or a bath.
Boy, aged fifteen