By Don Westwood
Uncle Jack was the husband of my mother’s sister Floss. They met in the 1920s when my Auntie Floss was working at the Model Laundry in Watford, England, and Uncle Jack drove the delivery lorry (truck) there. They never had any children and lived a quiet life, devoted to each other, and they were a wonderful uncle and aunt to me and later to my brother.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Uncle Jack was called up into the army. He was sent to Egypt to drive in the convoys taking munitions to the front, a hazardous task. It was at the siege of Tobruk in June 1942 that Uncle Jack’s fate was sealed. The Eighth Army, to which his regiment The Royal Army Service Corps was attached, lost 50,000 men – 15,000 were killed or wounded, the other 35,000 were taken prisoner. Uncle Jack was listed by the War Office as missing, but not necessarily dead.
That was how it stood until September, when Auntie Floss received another notice saying that he was a prisoner of war in Italian hands. Finally, in March 1943, the War Office sent yet another note with Uncle Jack’s camp address. Eventually she received a couple of redacted letters from him (I have two of those letters) and that at least reassured us that he was still alive and “quite well” but nothing more. These letters abruptly ceased when Italy surrendered in September 1943 as the allied advance against the Germans continued up through Italy. Nothing more was heard about Uncle Jack for the next two years.
No one knew at the time that when Italy abandoned the Nazi side, Italian guards at most of the POW camps simply disappeared, no doubt to return to their villages. So Uncle Jack and his fellow prisoners simply walked out of the camp but had no idea where to go.
Jack and his friend Tom apparently headed into the countryside and were met by Italian partisans who moved them from farm to farm, hiding them from the Germans who were relentlessly rounding up escapees. But hiding them became too dangerous for their Italian helpers. So Jack and Tom sought refuge in a convent in San Gervasio in Brescia, Lombardy in northern Italy. The Daughters of Charity agreed to hide them, with the connivance of the Sister Superior.
They stayed there for several months until the allies finally drove out the retreating Germans from the town. Jack and Tom were ordered to make their way to the coast to be repatriated by boat back to the U.K. They had to make their own way to the nearest port but they had no compass so the Sister Superior lent them her precious watch that could be used as a compass when the sun was shining. Jack vowed to return it to her.
They were shipped back to England. I was 10, and I vividly remember making a huge “Welcome Home Uncle Jack” fretwork hanging to be placed over the front door. It was a fantastic homecoming.
Uncle Jack returned to his job as a lorry driver for the Model Laundry. But that is not the end of the story.
Auntie Floss was determined to find out what had happened to the nuns in that convent and to find some way to return the precious watch to the Sister Superior. She knew only the name of the village where the convent was located so she wrote in faint hope to the Vatican War Enquiry Department in London. And she soon got an answer. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, the nuns survived the war and one of them, Sister Luisa, had become a representative for the Daughters of Charity in Rome and was soon to visit London as part of a delegation.
Both Auntie Floss and Uncle Jack were delighted that the watch could be returned to its rightful owner. My aunt gave it to Sister Luisa to return to the Sister Superior, though Uncle Jack could not face such a meeting, which was a shame and a bit puzzling. My aunt told a white lie, explaining that her husband was not well.
A few weeks later, my aunt received a letter from the Sister Superior. It was written in Italian (I have it, and have had it translated), thanking my aunt and regretting that Uncle Jack could not be there to hand the watch back too. The odd thing was, the letter was addressed to a Mrs. Brown, the wife of Giacomo Brown.
Uncle Jack explained that he had given a false name, partly to divert any German enquiries about him as an escaped prisoner of war and to avoid any reprisals against those who had looked after them. Perhaps he was also reluctant to use his real surname because it was Pope, not a name to go unremarked upon in the land of Il Papa! He had also pretended to be a pilot in the RAF, so that if he were captured by the Germans, he would be better treated.
Shortly before he died, Uncle Jack spoke of those harrowing days cooped up in an attic room in the convent, driving both he and Tom nuts. They often came to blows. So they would sneak off into the town for a bit of relaxation. There was a rumour about a young local school teacher becoming pregnant but whether that is true or whether it had anything to do with Uncle Jack or Tom, who knows? All I know is I do have a later letter from Sister Louisa gently rebuking Jack’s mate “Tomasso” for not fulfilling his obligation to a young lady named Ellide.
Don Westwood is a former architect and professor of architecture at Carleton University with a passion for theatre and writing.