August 15, 2006
Quite a few interviews in the past few days, filling in gaps and making sure I’ve got everything covered. Last week I spoke to two Americans over the phone. Chas Dills, in California, was a former US fighter pilot who flew over Italy. Actually, he’s put his memoirs and his logbook up on his website, which was how I cam across him in the first place. Anyway, he’s been most helpful and said some really interesting things, including about strafing Italians. Roberto Vivarelli, when I interviewed him in Florence, had mentioned how Allied planes would regularly shoot up anything they saw, and Chas did not dispute this. But he also pointed out that while they were aiming to hit military targets, it was hard to be that discerning when you were flying at over 300mph and when you were so low that a single rifle shot could prove fatal. â€˜Anyone travelling on a road near the front line is asking for trouble,’ was his line. I also spoke to George Underwood, who had been a gunner on medium bombers. Like Chas, he was also refreshingly frank about his experiences.
Yesterday, I drove down to Southampton to see Denis Bray, who flew Spitfires in Italy with 225 Squadron. He had been Ken Neill’s No. 2 when Ken had been shot down over Italy. He was really interesting and had kept almost every letter, note, chit and ticket that had come into his possession during his time in Italy. He even had two lots of emergency rations and a portion of rubber from when one of his tires blue. And he had managed to take a large number of photographs, using left over Kodak Super X film that they used for aerial photography. In the afternoon, I then drove over to Shaftesbury to see Anna Del Conti, Julia’s mother. Anna is a well-known and highly acclaimed food writer, but as an Italian living there during the war had had some interesting experiences, not least because she and her family had been driven out of Milan by Allied bombing and had then found themselves living next to a major German headquarters.
Finally, this afternoon, I went to see Reg Harris, over at Fonthill. He has lived and worked on the land there all his life and he was fascinating. Like most men of his age and circumstances, he had left school at fourteen, despite winning a scholarship to Bishop Wordsworth’s, the local grammar school in Salisbury. His father had not been able to afford it, and so Reg had begun life as a farm labourer. Since then, though, he has taught himself everything he needs to know. Even now, aged 90, he’s a voracious reader; I noticed there was a large dictionary next to his chair. During the war, however, he served with the Coldstream Guards, in the 3rd Battalion along with Michael Howard, and he told me lots of really interesting stories about those days, including a number about his time at Monte Sole. An absolute gentleman.