It was supposed to be a battlefield tour – eight men and four wartime jeeps – following in the footsteps of the Coldstream Guards as they fought their way through Tuscany and the Apennines in the last year of the war. Suddenly, however, as we trundled clear of the back streets on the southern bank of the River Arno, we realised the traffic had been halted and we were being ushered between a stream of Ferraris, Alfas and Maseratis. Seamlessly, and unintentionally, we had joined the Mille Miglia in Florence instead.
This was an unexpected bonus, especially since we had only very low-grade maps, and were wondering how we were going to navigate our way through a city that groans with traffic and Vespas on a quiet day, but which is virtually paralysed when the Mille Miglia comes to town. As we sailed through the Piazza della Signoria and sauntered past the Duomo, dense crowds waving and cheering all the way, we could throw away the maps and let the stewards and Carabiniere do the work for us. And in many ways, this experience gave us a crucial taste of those wartime days as well. As the Allies had advanced through Rome and their way northwards through Siena, Florence and other great Italian cities sixty-three summers before, they were, for the most part, greeted by similar crowds cheering and waving – Italians grateful for being saved from the Nazi-Fascist yoke.
Our spectacular passage through Florence took place on Day Three of a four-day tour through Italy, and was particularly appreciated by those amongst us who share a deep passion for cars, namely Messers Chisolm, Lindsay, Corner and Chaytor-Norris. Afterwards, as we left the Mille Miglia to wend its way north, we climbed into the hills towards Fiesole, pausing to tinker with Martin Chisolm’s 1942 Willys. Such stops were, of course, to be expected when travelling long distances in wartime vehicles, but as we waited while the condenser was changed and the coil cooled, we got chatting to an elderly man who told us about being shot at by retreating Germans as the city fell back in August 1944.
Having spent a fair amount of time in Italy studying and researching the campaign that took place there, I knew that such conversations were far from uncommon. Italians of that generation are every bit as obsessed about the war as we are in Britain, not least because they fought a bitter civil war at the same time as the Allies and Germans were battling their way up the peninsula, and were witness to the appalling levels of destruction and mayhem that the campaign wreaked upon them. Yet although many villages, towns and cities were completely flattened, most have been rebuilt – Cassino and Rimini to name but two. There is even little sign now of the dense network of defensive German lines across the width of Italy. Lying overgrown around the Futa Pass, for example, are a number of old German bunkers, but they are hard to find amongst the thick foliage.
The landscape, however, has changed little, and armed with photographs from those days, and with eye-witness accounts and descriptions of the fighting and the places through which they travelled, we were able to follow the route of the Guardsmen – and the South African Division to which they were attached – fairly precisely.
It is quite definitely the case that most men harbouring a love of motor cars also have an interest in the Second World War. Alongside their DVD of Grand Prix and downloaded edition of Rendezvous will be The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare and the box set of Band of Brothers. This is certainly true of most of our party, not least Trevor Chaytor-Norris and Nigel Corner, the architects of our first such battlefield tour. This was to Normandy, three yeas ago, during the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day. Back then we trundled across on the ferry in Nigel’s US Dodge Command Car, my own Citroen Light 15, and Trevor’s 101st Airborne Dodge 6×6 Troop Carrier.
After the success of that trip, Italy seemed the obvious destination for the next tour. After all, it was a scene of the hardest fought campaign in the west during the war, it is a beautiful place and full of fabulous food and drink. Furthermore, I had also begun work on a new history of that campaign, so was well placed to fill in the gaps left by the lack of veterans roaming around (as had been the case in Normandy), or the shortage of imposing gun emplacements and rusting hulks of Shermans.
Having flown into Florence, we met the transporter at the airport without a hitch. James Lindsay’s original Ford jeep had not been ready and so instead he had been forced to borrow a Hotchkiss instead. The sight of this French wannabe naturally triggered considerable scorn from Corner, Chisolm and Chaytor-Norris, as they rolled their own authentic wartime classics onto the tarmac. Indeed, Nigel’s had even served in Italy, with the US 34th â€˜Red Bull’ Division. And the sniggers only grew as Lindsay discovered his twin 12-volt batteries were as flat as a board.
But this problem was quickly resolved and we were on our way, heading south towards the beautiful Val D’Orcia in Southern Tuscany. It was here, at the end of June 1944, that the Allies fought a tough ten-day battle; it was also here that Marchesa Iris Origo, the co-creator of the stunning La Foce estate, lived and wrote her famous war-time diary. And it was also near La Foce that the Guards Brigade came up against the elite Hermann GÃ¶ring Division, until finally forcing their way into nearby Montepulciano.
After cruising along unmetalled roads – or, strade bianche – and touring around the stunning gardens at La Foce, we headed north the following day, pausing at various landmarks and several of the Coldstream Guards’ well-chosen headquarters – all of which were conspicuously exquisite. Despite the first signs of trouble from Martin’s jeep and a worrying knocking from one of Trevor’s front hubs, we made it in one piece to Florence that afternoon and there joined the Mille Miglia.
The following day, we pushed on into the Apennines until we were following an old track that ran beneath the ridge of a chain of mountain peaks. Over sixty years ago, at the end of this track, a thriving mountain community had existed, until it was utterly destroyed in what was the worst civilian massacre of the entire war in the west. At the end of September 1944, 965 Italians were slaughtered by the Germans here on the Monte Sole massif. The ruins of the villages and churches are all that remain.
For James Lindsay, who had been itching to see battlefield relics all trip, this tactile link to the past came as a great relief. In an old walled cemetery, where 191 women and children had been gunned down, he found a rusted old cross riddled with several deep impressions where bullets had once scored their mark. Bullet holes also pocked the remains of the walls.
The end of the road was near, and we finished our journey in the South African and Guards’ cemetery at Castiglione dei PÃ©poli, surely one of the most beautiful of all Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites. For a few minutes, we sat in silence amongst those rows of headstones. â€˜It makes you feel very proud,’ said Nigel eventually. No-one could disagree.
The following morning, we headed back to Florence and home. Of the four jeeps, only James’ Hotchkiss ran without a glitch; the last laugh was his. Yet despite a few technical hitches, none of us would have wanted to have travelled any other way. Driving along the back roads of Italy in these wartime vehicles was a superb way to carry out such a battlefield tour. And next time? Well, there’s talk of Arnhem. Parachuting from a Dakota, naturally.