Peter was born in1923 on a farm in a small village Sant Angelo Southern Italy. He was the second eldest of 11 children and his mother relied on him to help cook clean and look after his younger brothers and sisters. His mother Cristina Visone was a great cook and the kindest person my father has ever met. She would get up at 0400 and make enough bread bread , pizza , cake and biscuits to last the whole week.
My dad learnt how to cut hair when he was very young and used to have to stand on a box to reach his clients.
He was called up in the army in 1940 aged 17 .He served in North Africa as a motorbike dispatch rider. On a mission he was attacked and machine gunned in one leg and buttock by a Spitfire Fighter plane in 1942 aged 19. He came off the motorbike and it caught fire , he managed to crawl away before it exploded.
He was captured and fixed up by enemy troops. The English had asked for P.O.W’s to work on the Land in England to replace the conscripted labourers . Much of England’s food was imported in. This wasn’t getting through due merchants ships being sunk by the German U-boats. When dad’s wounds were healed he was put on a ship with another 18,000 Italian P.O.W’s called RMS Laconia.
Fifty heavily guarded lorries were parked alongside Port Tewfik .
1,793 Italian prisoners of war emerged , these were hurried up on RMS Laconia’s gangplank by 103 Polish guards who looked not more than 18 years old.
The Italians had been mainly captured in Libya.
They looked fairly unkempt with few possessions.
Some only carried a guitar or a mandolin , and showed signs of relief on their faces as they boarded.
There were 200 women prisoners of various nationalities , accused of prostitution and fifth column work ,taken on board at the same time .These were guarded by Military Police.
After 2.5 days at sea it was torpedoed by a German U boat , U156.
On the Laconia all the Italians were locked in 4 holds. Their food ration was 2 slices of bread and Jam and a cup of tea. Their washing if they were lucky was being marched up to deck and walked under two buckets full of cold sea water.
The torpedos hit one hold and about 200 were killed outright and the rest in that hold drowned. Luckily dad wasn’t in that hold .He had to escape by climbing up the ventilation shafts. Other Italians were panicking as the water was coming in and grabbing his legs and pulling him back down again. The hold doors remained firmly locked. Some Italians who did manage to breakout of one hold .These escaped ones were shot coming up the stairs by British soldiers , or Bayoneted by Polish guards. The Polish guards weren’t given any ammunition by the British.
Italians weren’t allowed in any of the lifeboats as there weren’t enough for the British crew. All around the lifeboat stations there were dead bayoneted Italian P.O.w’S. The Italians did manage to get one lifeboat to sea though. Dad eventually got out gave the lifeboats a wide birth and dived into the sea.
After the ship sunk a piece of wood bumped into him and he held on to it and was in the sea all night. No wonder he wasn’t keen on the sea or going on ships when I was a boy.
Some Italians in the sea who kept trying to get in the already crowded liferafts were shot in the head, banged on the head with the blunt side of the axe , or had their hands cut of with the axe. This bought in swarms of sharks
.Dad said the worst thing about being in the sea was that it was pitch black and he couldn’t see a thing . In the morning something bumped into him , he saw that it was his good friend. He looked like he was asleep. Dad tried to wake him up , but when he pulled him , his body below the water had been eaten .This really scared him on top of everything else. He was picked up in the morning by a lifeboat that had room on it.
THERE IS A BEST SELLING BOOK CALLED THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA AND ALAN BLEASDALE MADE A TWO PART DRAMA OF THIS CALLED THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA.
He was covered in oil and the salt water had cracked open his lips and made his eyes sore. . U boat Commander Hartenstein had thought it was carrying British Troops. When he investigated the carnage he found lots of dead Italians floating with cut off hands. And lots still in the sea. He heard the Italian voices shouting for HELP and started rescuing them , then once he had started , he rescued everyone. He took the women and children and wounded on board .
The U-boat’s flying Red Cross flags were attacked by American planes so had to put the shipwrecked back into their lifeboats , and dive ,dive, dive. U-156 was damaged but not beyond repair.
I HAVE ANOTHER BLOG ABOUT THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA so I will not dwell too much on this.
After 4 or 5 days at sea he was picked up by the French ships Gloire and Annamite .and Dumont-d-‘Urville . These ships were sent by the U-boat 156 Commander who had sunk the Laconia.Three other submarines assisted the shipwrecked. U506 , U507 , and Italian sub Capellini . France had earlier surrendered to the Germans , so Germany controlled these ships. All the U-boats were sunk in their next action due to advances in Allied sub detection , with all lives lost.
Dad was transported to a prisoner of war camp in Arlesey.
He met my grandmother Alma outside a dance in the womens Institute. He was moved to several different POW camps in Northants before being repatriated after the war in 1946 .Getting back to England tho was one hell of a struggle. He sent about 100 love letters and there was 2 years of anguish before marrying my mum Alma in 1948.She had got fed up of waiting thinking he was stringing her along. She was only 2 weeks away from marrying someone else. But this new fella wanted his barren sister , to have Mum’s baby my brother Roger , and he and Alma to start together fresh
You might think why would a local girl get mixed up with the enemy. But if there were loads of young italian girls stationed in Arlesey , and I was a young man would I not have been interested in them? not many!!
It was much harder to immigrate in those days , you had to have a job , somewhere to live and a Professional person to be responsible for you if you got into trouble. That man was Arlesey vicar Mr Bevan. He let my dad lodge in the vicarage , got dad a job on the local Cityfield farm and agreed to be responsible for dad ..
He lodged at the old vicarage for 6 weeks with Reverend Bevan before he got married. He had to work on the land at Cityfield Farm for farmer Rawlins and then at the London Brickyard.
I was shown where rev Bevan was buried. It is an unmarked grave at his request. I don’t agree with this . He was a good man and his grave should be marked .I believe he died in active service in the late 1940’s. I have marked his grave with a small wooden cross and a brass name plate saying JBJ Beavan ex vicar of Arlesey.