5 out of 5 stars
The invasion of Europe to fight back against the Nazi’s began in Sicily in July 1943. A couple of months after that the allies had reached halfway through Italy, Norman Lewis was one of those who landed in Paestum, Southern Italy in September 1943. Just before he disembarked from the Duchess of Bedford they were given a lecture by the intelligence corps who could have saved everyone a lot of time by just saying that they knew nothing about what was happening…
Passing the corpses of those that had died earlier that were laid out neatly was an eyeopener for him. He and eleven others had been issued with a Webley pistol with five rounds of ammunition and no orders on what to do or where to go. Sleeping overnight in a wood he woke and heard German voices nearby, they soon faded out and he went back to sleep. The battle arrived with a vengeance the following day though, sitting in a farmhouse they watched a line of American tanks pass and not long after that they were back, but fewer of them and then lots of people running around wearing gas masks and running around panicking. The battel was to rage until the end of the month, and then Lewis was admitted to hospital with malaria. This was just the beginning of what was to be one of the most surreal experiences of his life and he was finally to set foot in Naples in early October.
As he recovered from his illness he watched the newly liberated population as they lived their life outdoors in the late autumn. They hadn’t advertised that they were the headquarters for the secret police, but word soon got out and they were to have a steady stream of people with information to offer. They had scant information rather they were there primarily to declare loyalty to the new regime. The information that they did gather sent them on various wild goose chases and they came to realise that a lot of the information being provided was personal vendettas and grudges being played out on an official level.
It is still a dangerous place, bombs have been left as booby traps, and in the chaos that happens as one authority changes to another, there is space for the rise of the organised crime to fill the gaps once again. The culture of silence was almost suffocating, he would hear about a murder, see where the body had fallen and there was nothing left but a few drops of blood and a denial of anything happening by those in the vicinity.
This shattered city that had pretty much been bombed back to the middle ages, people were starving, crime and corruption were endemic. If it wasn’t nailed down it would go missing. Whilst he did what he could given the meagre resources that they had, he tried to be fair and just in his work. He came to realise that his refusal to accept the token bribes offered by the population counted against him in the end. And yet with all this, it was fairly peaceful, his weapon would remain unfired throughout his stay.
I liked the diary form as you can follow the ebb and flow of people and life as it happens to him during his year in the city. He witnesses the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, deals with the menial, trying to find who had been cutting cables down or stealing army blankets to vetting whether a resident can marry a British soldier or not, a life-changing decision for some people. This is an excellent account of post-war Naples though at times it can be heartbreaking to read.