Rome, January 1943
Barnabas had dropped a grenade in the middle of my settled, simple life…
“I think I’ve found you employment as a photographer in Fosetti Brothers, one of Rome’s great photographic studios… ” He had said.
I was astonished. No, I was well beyond astonished! For a Calabrian goatherd to become a real professional photographer in Rome… in the studio of one of Rome’s best photographers… Yes, I was at least astonished!
“But Father… Does he know how I live?… How I’ve earned my living here?
“Not perhaps in detail.” He smiled. “But they know that you worked with Dom Fontinella. They know enough to know what your skills may be worth… ”
“Father, I don’t want to sound ungrateful… but will I be able to afford to quit Monte Caprino? The work may not be respectable… but it pays well, and this small apartment isn’t cheap!”
“My boy, first decide if you wish to make this change… Then… afterwards… we can work out the details of how to make things work… Do you wish to become a photographer… perhaps a photographic artist some day?”
I rushed across to where he was sitting and threw my arms around him…
“Yes, Oh yes Father, more than anything… We MUST make it work!”
“Very well… I will speak to them… How much is your rent and food? We must cover that for a start… We can think about luxuries later!”
“Father,” I whispered while hugging him… “I won’t have to give up my trade completely will I?”
“I hope you will. The whole idea is to save you from the life you’ve been leading! Which of your customers are you scared to cut off?”
“Just one Father… I think that he couldn’t… not without me.”
“And, he is?” He was looking stern, prepared to tell me to not be so silly…
“You Father!… One day I’ll be too old for you… but, until then my… I’m yours!”
I said the last bit quietly, almost to myself.
Then I burst into tears!
He went to see the owners of Fosetti Brothers next day, and when he returned he was looking very pleased with himself. He had negotiated a starting salary that almost matched what I could earn in a good week on Monte Caprino… and not all weeks there were good!
On the Friday, He took me to meet the Fosettis. I suppose it was an interview. As I had never had a job before I wasn’t aware that interviews even existed… until afterwards… Father said that the interview had gone well, and I had to ask him what an interview was!
The Fosettis were very nice… Among others, Father had used Lewis Carrol’s Alice books to improve my reading. The Fosetti brothers reminded me of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They even finished each other’s sentences. It helped me relax, although it didn’t help me concentrate.
They asked me a lot of questions about the Dom’s photography. They had me stand beside one of his framed portraits and discussed how much I had grown up since it was taken. Fortunately they had never seen the ones with bare bottoms… the bare bottoms were of course Luigi’s, but I feared guilt by association.
Then they had me arrange the lighting for a studio portrait of Tweedledum, while Tweedledee looked at the camera screen.
Finally, they brought me the plate of a photograph of the Colosseum. They had me expose and develop a print from it. I didn’t like my first attempt and I wasn’t much happier with the second, but the third was as close to perfection as I could have hoped for.
In chorus, they said how pleased they were that I hadn’t offered them the first two and had insisted on a third attempt…
“Paper is cheap…” Said Tweedledum…
“Compared with a disappointed customer!” Said Tweedledee.
All this time the Father sat quietly in the corner, smiling benignly and nodding approval at my better answers.
There were moments when he held his breath… They asked me what I would do if a client asked me for a naked pose. I answered… “I would bath and shave with care.” Father went pale but the Fosettis burst out laughing… at my joke.
“You would refer them to one of us so that we could refuse politely… always refer delicate questions to us… though we like your answer… It would certainly give you time to think!” and they laughed again, and sent for coffee. The Father breathed again!
So, that was it… In the first week of March 1943 I became a “Photographer” at Fosetti Brothers of Rome. They treated me as an experienced worker at once. I had never had someone treat me as an educated adult before. It was astonishingly different to baring my arse amongst the juniper bushes of Monte Caprino.
Meanwhile, I had received news of my Luigi in Cosenza.
I had asked the Father if there was any way we could contact him. He said that he had already written to the priest that had replaced the Dom in Cosenza. He knew him well, they had been seminarians together. The new priest was an amateur photographer. Although not as good technically as the Dom, he had a good eye. The Cardinal’s secretary that I had delivered the albums to had arranged the appointment to Cosenza, so that the Dom’s darkroom and equipment would not be wasted… and perhaps… to keep the supply of beautiful boys flowing onto Vatican walls.
We waited to hear from him.
I wondered if Luigi had found a girl, and whether he was a father by now. There was no chance that he had entered the church. He was unable to read when I left.
That also meant that when he replied he was unable to write. The priest had spoken to him, given him the message that I was well and living in Rome, and asked him what he would like me to be told… was he well, happy, married? In short what had happened in the nearly two years since I had left Cosenza so suddenly.
His reply was cryptic. He said that he was well, that he was not married, that he still lived as we had been taught by the Dom. He said that he missed me a lot, although he was friends with some goatherds that he met occasionally on the mountain. From this I deduced that he was well, as queer as a three lira note and getting it (or giving it, now that he was older) regularly… on the mountain where we used to do it.
I assumed that his priest was simply being discrete. I hoped that Luigi had been confessing regularly and that the priest knew exactly what happened on the mountain… perhaps also in the sacristy… Luigi was clearly acting as a model for his photography… who knew what else he did for the new priest.
I sent a message back, saying how much I had missed him, that everything the Dom had taught me had helped me earn a living in Rome, that I was an altar-boy again and that I was soon to start working in a photographic studio… as a photographer. I also said that I had a small apartment and that he was welcome to visit.
Father Barnabas said that the last bit wasn’t well received by his priest. He said that Luigi had many duties in Cosenza. I took that as a warning that the priest didn’t intend to lose the services of his model and bed-warmer… I hoped he was gentle… thinking of the black-priest.
I still thought of him as the black-priest… when I prayed for his immortal soul. I feared that I had consigned him to a long period in Purgatory… if he ever left there… Being a priest didn’t guarantee that he would reach Heaven.
I feared that the Cardinal had sent the priest to Cosenza because he was unsuited to a more genteel posting. That night I thought to sharpen my knife for the first time in many months.
The priest at Cosenza didn’t seem to object to handling letters between Luigi and me. He had to write Luigi’s of course, so he knew every word that we exchanged. I was careful to avoid suggesting anything that threatened his enjoyment of my friend.
We spoke of my continued success at Fosetti’s and of Luigi’s successful season breeding his goats. They were now his herd… his parents had become too old for them. Our worlds were now much more than three hundred miles apart.
Then in July… there came devastating news of the war. It had gone badly almost since the beginning. Our army had made fools of themselves in North Africa, and had needed to be rescued by the German panzers. Then the British achieved success at El Alamein and started to drive the Germans out of Africa. It was in July 1943 that British, Canadian and American forces invaded Sicily. There were amphibious and airborne landings at the Gulf of Gela and north of Syracuse.
It was bad news for Italy, and worse for Sicily, but… my fear was for Luigi.
The Straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy are only seven miles wide. If the enemy succeeded in getting a foothold in Sicily then there was almost nothing to stop them crossing to the mainland… Calabria and Cosenza were less than a hundred miles from there… and… what if they landed further north, at Salerno or Anzio… I would then be cut off from Luigi, while the battle raged around him. I feared for his safety.
At first, the British were stopped by fierce resistance in the rugged hills south of Mount Etna. The Americans made a wide advance northwest toward Palermo to get round them. They advanced north, cutting the coastal road, and then north of Etna towards Messina. Amphibious landings on the north coast brought the Americans into Messina just before the first British got there.
All this was happening very fast and I knew that I needed to act quickly if I was to rescue Luigi before he was trapped.
There was no doubt in my mind that he would be safer with me in Rome, the problem was… his priest. His priest wouldn’t want him to leave, and I couldn’t guess how angry or nasty he might get if I invited Luigi. In fact if he knew that I had invited him he could keep an eye on him, to watch for any sign of him preparing to leave.
If I couldn’t pass a message through his priest then who could I use. I couldn’t involve another villager… like Luigi they generally couldn’t read or write… that’s what the priest and the school-master were there for. I needed someone I knew and trusted, and who could read.
That was when I thought of the priest in Atena Lucana, the one to whom I had confessed killing the black-priest. He’d said that he couldn’t reward me, but had only given me two Hail Marys as a penance. Perhaps he could now repay the debt that he had said the children of the village owed me.
I wrote a letter to him. I remembered the name above the confessional, and the name of the church. I was taking a risk that he was no longer there. He had seemed good and competent, so there was a risk that he had been moved to a larger town… but he was all I had. For Luigi I was prepared to take a risk.
Do you recall the boy who came to confession? You said that the children owed him a debt and only gave him two Hail Marys as a penance, despite his sin. You said that you could not reward him. Then you hurried off to look after the altar boy.
The boy you spoke to that day now needs your help. My friend Luigi Santoni, in Cosenza should come to join me in Rome, before the Americans or Germans kill him in the fighting that must come soon to the south. If you meant it when you said I had done the children a service, I ask that you see Luigi quickly and discreetly… I believe that his priest will try to stop him from leaving.
Please tell Luigi to sell his goats quickly, immediately… the Americans or the Germans will steal and eat them anyway. Then tell him that he should come to Rome as quickly as possible.
I will wait for him on Sunday and Wednesday evenings in Monte-Caprino park at the Tarpeian Rock.
Please, there is no time to be lost. If the Americans and British land at Salerno or Anzio he will be cut off. I need him with me in Rome.
Please act quickly Father.”
I sealed the letter in an envelope and gave it to my friend Fr. Barnabas to send with his church mail. I thought it safer than using the ordinary mail.
He wanted to know why the envelope was sealed… What didn’t I want him to read?
I explained to him that there was a sin in my past that I had confessed to the priest in Atena Lucana and that what was in the letter related to what had passed between us in the confessional. That satisfied his curiosity and virtually guaranteed that he would handle the matter with great secrecy and discretion.
He confirmed next day that the letter was on its way… all that I could now do was wait.
Each Sunday and Wednesday evening I went to wait for Luigi in Monte Caprino park. It was no hardship… there were a lot of Germans in Rome by this time. I never saw the blond boy again, but I saw a lot of men who could have been his father!
In those days it would have been unwise for me to approach any Italians with offers of sex for money… there was too much risk of them seeing me in Fosetti’s and causing unpleasantness.
German officers were different. Even if they saw me at Fosetti’s studios they probably wouldn’t have enough Italian to tell on me, and why should they? So, while I waited for Luigi I supplemented the already generous salary that Fosetti Brothers now paid me.
Becoming respectable had diminished my opportunity for sex, and I missed the fun….
Fr. Barnabas was nice, but he was a very gentle lover, I was getting older and enjoyed a bit of rougher handling… occasionally… but not too rough!
I was now frankly worried about Luigi’s situation. If he didn’t hurry things would be difficult for him. The Germans were now more aggressive and more active in Rome. Fighting in Sicily was fierce. We had suffered setbacks in our defence of Sicily against the invaders.
Things had gone so badly that in July the Fascist Grand Council voted no confidence in the Duce. King Victor Emmanuel then removed him from government… and had him arrested!
Arresting the only other European leader that Hitler was friends with might seem a tactless thing to do… and it was.
Trouble was coming to Italy… There was a steady flow of German troops towards the south. Italy was now more or less an occupied country. Rommel had originally been prepared to defend a line north of Rome. But, Kesselring was working to create defences south of Rome, as far south and as far from Berlin as possible. That meant that he was working on a line between me and Luigi… so I hoped Luigi hadn’t stopped to haggle a better price for his goats!
I need not have worried. Luigi could see a storm coming and had moved fast.
He arrived two weeks later. It had taken a week to sell his goats. To be more precise, it had taken a week to drive the goats to Atena Lucana where my priest had given him an immediate fair price. He would find a poor goatherd for them later. The money was to be paid to Luigi’s parents. The priest pressed into his hand the train fare to Rome, saying that it was the reward due to the friend he was travelling to meet. At the time it was an explanation that made no sense to Luigi, but he accepted the train-fare gratefully. Some rough travel was required for him to reach the train but Luigi was used to that… It was the train he was not used to. Fortunately the priest had arranged for another of his friends to see Luigi safely onto the train.
It was early evening, and I was just pulling my pants up after a more than enthusiastic professor from the university had satisfied his needs… before another week of beautiful students of all sexes tested his ability to resist temptation.
Luigi spotted me where I was standing at the top of the rock. I was using it as a vantage point to scan the park. I ran to him, buttoning my trousers and shouting his name… startled faces looked out from behind bushes and trees… a lot of coitus was interruptus’d by the time we collided in a huge hug and enthusiastic kiss… on both cheeks.
I took him behind a juniper bush and showed him how pleased I was to see him… No, not that… I was too happy to see him to want sex. I just wanted to cuddle and kiss him. I wanted something more personal and private than sex.
Eventually we emerged, flushed and grinning from ear to ear.
“So you escaped your priest?” I asked.
“Yes, he will have to do without me. The youngest altar-boy will have a sore bottom by now!” He grinned… not in the least sorry for him.
“You couldn’t wait for me?” He laughed… “Were you making someone happy?… obeying the Dom’s instruction to love your neighbour?”
I laughed, I was too happy to tease him back.
“Yes, exactly… and he’s made my landlord happy!”
“You were… for money? I thought you worked at a photographer’s studio!” He looked worried.
“I do… I do!” I hurried to reassure him. “I’ve a respectable job now… I just miss the excitement… and the sex. This was where I earned my living until I returned to photography last month. My priest arranged it… the photography I mean, not this. He was keen to get me away from doing this. But, I miss it… I miss the way the men need me! I like being wanted by them… enough that they are willing to pay… It makes me feel I have a place in things… being wanted!”
“Well, I suppose this is where I shall need to work until another job comes vacant… I had wondered where I would herd goats. You enjoy it?” He smiled to show that he wasn’t too upset by the prospect.
“It isn’t bad… I don’t need to go with anyone I don’t want. You and me, we’re young and we can choose… and we can charge well.” I assured him.
“It was only the priest’s idea that I give it up. Once he had taught me to read and write he wanted to get me a respectable job… and as he said, my good looks won’t last forever.”
Then I said…”He was right… There’s a much prettier boy in the park now… I wouldn’t stand a chance!” I gave the much prettier boy a soft kiss.
When we returned to my apartment Fr. Barnabas was waiting. I introduced him to Luigi, and they greeted one another with some caution.
“Come on you two!” I rushed to fill the gap. “You’re the two most important people in my life… I want you to be friends… the best of friends! … I want to need to buy a bigger bed!”
I wanted to make clear to them how much I wanted them to get on well together.
It’s bound to be difficult when an older man meets his young friend’s even younger lover. Fr. Barnabas was twice Luigi’s age and more to the point… Luigi was half that of Fr. Barnabas!
It may seem greedy but I wanted both of them… for different reasons.
Luigi was my first love, and I wanted my future to be with him.
Father I loved because he had taken such good care of me… He had taught me to read and write and… found me a career in photography that suited me perfectly. He’d earned his place in my bed, and my… well he had!… he had earned them!
If I had been a different person it could have been a problem that Fr. Barnabas would also want Luigi… Luigi was young and the good father liked his acolytes young… but not too young. It wasn’t a problem… honestly it wasn’t. I loved them both… and I knew that I had Luigi’s heart. It didn’t matter if Fr. Barnabas had his bottom from time to time… he deserved that. It was another gift that I was free to give… to say thank you.
I also knew that Father wanted me because… well because he was used to wanting me. Taking him into my bed was the best way that I could show my gratitude for all that he had done… and we all like to be on the receiving end of real gratitude. He positively glowed each time I said thank you… just as he entered me.
When the novelty of our situation merged into domesticity we settled into a quiet relationship… Luigi went out to do business in the park in the evenings while I showed gratitude to my mentor. Luigi, and Fr. Barnabas? Many a day, when I returned from Fosetti’s I knew from the glances between them that neither of them had got much work done that afternoon… They had been working too hard at what they had in fact been doing.
We three always spent Saturday afternoons in bed together. Luigi and I teamed up to tire out the priest. We called it “Preparing Father for Sunday”. By the time we had finished with him: he was exhausted, we were bow-legged and the choir-boys were perfectly safe for another week.
It was a public service that Luigi and I happily performed for his young flock.
It was now the height of summer again, with warm and humid nights and blisteringly hot days. When I was working in the studio I often envied Luigi… as he stood more or less naked in the scented shade of juniper bushes in the park.
He too became very good at what he now did. His popularity meant that we could afford to move upstairs to a larger apartment… with a large double bed and shuttered windows that were not overlooked. The three of us would lie there naked, the shutters thrown back… only the cats on the roof opposite were able to watch our athletic and enthusiastic couplings.
Barnabas… had made us stop calling him Father… He didn’t feel old enough to be our father… and, he said that sodomy was bad enough without adding incest to the mix.
I liked his sense of humour, and I liked his honest approach to sex.
Meanwhile, the war was going as badly as expected.
In the middle of August the last Italian and German troops left Sicily. There was a slight pause and then on 3 September, our General Castellano signed an armistice with the Allies on behalf of Marshall Badoglio, now Prime Minister of Italy.
On 8 September 1943, the armistice document was published by the Allies… before Badoglio could inform the Italian armed forces… as a result they were unprepared for German action to disarm them. In the early hours, Badoglio, King Victor Emmanuel, some military ministers, and the Chief of the General Staff escaped to Pescara and Brindisi seeking Allied protection
The Germans were very unhappy about all this and now treated Italy as an occupied-enemy, although it wasn’t until October that Badoglio officially declared war on Nazi Germany.
By that time chaos had really broken out…
On 3 September the British Eighth Army landed at Reggio di Calabria in the ‘toe’ of Italy at its nearest point to Sicily, supported by heavy artillery from Sicily… only 7 miles away across the Straits of Messina.
Within the week the Allies landed again further north, at Salerno and Taranto.
I was glad that I had got Luigi out of Calabria in time! But, I was worried about our families. They were old so hopefully the Allied soldiers would just ignore them as they rolled past.
This was a difficult period for me personally. I was confused once more… I enjoyed business with Germans in Monte Caprino park. For me Germans were special… I admired their pure white skin and blindingly blond hair… and their vigour. But… according to our new government, they were no longer allies…
We were no longer an Axis power. Officially the Allies were welcome to enter Italy. They were here to rescue us… to rescue us from the Germans who were appearing in Rome in increasing numbers and bringing Luigi and myself increasing business… and pleasure.
How was I supposed to react? I found it difficult to see the Germans who came into the shade of the juniper bushes with me as any different to how I had seen them before. I liked their money as much as they liked my bottom. Their skin and hair were as attractively Nordic as they had always been.
I decided to leave politics to the politicians, in much the same way as I had decided long ago to leave matters of religion to the priests. I would enjoy the Germans as long as they lasted. The Allies’ advance up Italy suggested that things wouldn’t last forever… or even for long.
The abrupt change of leader had left our government with a big problem… a political problem… They had Mussolini locked up somewhere… no-one knew where. Wherever it was, forces loyal to the new government were guarding him… to keep him away from the Germans.
If the Germans could make him head of state again… we would be back in the Axis… and that would now be the losing side!
It was a complicated business, firing and then arresting Hitler’s best friend.
It would perhaps have been more sensible to have killed him… in the heat of the moment… while resisting arrest. Keeping Mussolini around was asking for trouble… Our Medici popes would never have left him alive!
Meanwhile, the new government, even if in exile, was taking every opportunity to show their independence of their old Axis partners. Fosetti Brothers received an urgent and discreet visit by an official with a request all the way from Badoglio’s office. The new government wanted formal portraits of Benito Mussolini, showing him as a well-treated prisoner. Together with the news of the armistice it would underline the change of regime… even if Rome was still full of German troops.
Mussolini was secreted “somewhere in the mountains” we were told. Transport to carry our equipment would be provided, but… we should be prepared for the altitude! The official looked with some disapproval at the portly, elderly Fosetti brothers…
“Do you have someone you can trust?” He asked me, looking with rather more approval at my leaner and fitter physique. “We need someone you can trust, someone capable of helping you to move equipment about… and to look after your bosses if the thin air gets to them before we’re finished!”
“Yes… I do… Luigi would be perfect!” I said “We’ve been together since we were kids… I would trust him with my life!”
“You may well be doing… If news of this leaks out and the Germans get wind of where we are holding Mussolini your lives will indeed be at risk. We imagine Hitler would do anything to get him back… to form some sort of puppet government.”
The brothers Fosetti were looking pretty sick by this time.
“Do you really need us there?” Tweedledum said.
“If you have Carlo and his friend Luigi… you have what you need… Carlo’s an excellent photographer… He’s worked here since the spring and before that he was Dom Fontinella’s assistant… responsible for many of his most famous prints… Oh yes, you don’t really need us… Honestly, we should just be in the way!” Said Tweedledee.
The official looked relieved rather than disappointed at their lack of patriotic zeal. I guessed that he had been told to commission Fosetti Brothers, because we were a famous studio… but the elderly, almost infirm, brothers were really not what he needed.
“Very well, but the pictures must be credited to Fosetti Brothers! That is important!” He conceded.
“Oh yes, we are proud to be of assistance… Yes, yes, Fosetti prints… certainly Fosetti!” The brothers chorused, with evident relief.
Next day, a car arrived at the studio and we loaded our best portable portrait camera. Not the small Leica but the fine mahogany and brass, glass plate camera such as the occasion deserved. Actually, I had the small Leica packed as well, but this was a prestige occasion, so the Leica was hidden at the bottom of the bag.
Eventually, when we were well out of Rome and headed up into the Appenines, the driver got tired of Luigi’s continual questions… Mussolini he said was being held at a ski resort, high in the Apennine Mountains. He was surprisingly close to Rome, just on the other side of the mountains that divide Italy down the middle. But, the mountains are high… so it was still quite a journey on wartime roads
When we arrived in Gran Sasso we discovered why the official had looked so uncertain about the brothers, and why he had so readily agreed to leaving them behind. The road didn’t go all the way to the hotel. It stopped at the bottom of the valley and from there to the hotel was by cable car. If the cable car was switched off there was no way to reach the hotel… other than by mountaineering or by crash landing an aeroplane on the mountain!
So, the cable car it had to be. The driver telephoned the hotel and there was a grinding and rumbling as the cable car groaned into life.
Half an hour later we were sitting on the terrace of the hotel, surrounded by equipment and enjoying the view… and a glass of beer. The captors of ex-leaders of Italy lived well!
There were two hundred Carabinieri guarding Mussolini… which should have been sufficient to fight off any attempt to rescue him. The Carabinieri could afford to relax… as I said only mountaineers or planes could get to the hotel.
So that’s what they did! The Carabinieri relaxed and the Germans came by plane!
The first we knew was a series of soft whooshing noises as one after another nine gliders landed… crash landed would be more accurate… on the mountainside by the hotel. As they slid to a halt, doors opened and German soldiers poured out. Out of the last but one plane there also came an older man, in a rather smart Carabinieri uniform.
Our driver had been sitting with us and as the Germans raced towards us he raised his hands in surrender… Luigi and I quickly followed his example!
The driver knew more than we did because as the Germans poured past us he said quietly in a strained voice “Shit kid… that’s Otto Skorzeny and the uniforms are Waffen-SS and paratroopers… that’s trouble kid, that’s trouble… don’t move a muscle till it’s over!” So, I didn’t!
I had heard of Skorzeny, he was the famous SS… troubleshooter… If the Germans needed someone rescued or killed, Skorzeny was the man. If he was here then Mussolini was either being rescued or killed… if it was killed, then they wouldn’t leave witnesses! I prayed it was a rescue!
At that point the Carabinieri who were supposed to be guarding Mussolini poured out of the building. What they hoped to achieve by coming out to confront the Germans that they couldn’t have done better from cover escaped me… but then I wasn’t a soldier… perhaps our Carabinieri weren’t either!
The Germans grabbed the Carabinieri officer that they had brought with them and shoved him to the front.
“Silence!… Men of the Carabinieri, I am your General Fernando Soleti. I order you in the name of the leader of the Italian Social Republic… Do not resist these men. They have come to release the Duce, the legitimate leader of Italy. Resistance or failure to obey my orders will be treated as treason.”
Whether he was entitled to say these things was neither here nor there. He said them, the Carabinieri heard them… and obeyed. Not a single shot was fired by either side.
While all this was going on Otto Skorzeny and a few soldiers had raced into the building. The sound of things being smashed came from inside the building… but still no shots.
Their quick action meant that the Carabinieri’s radio link to the outside world had been severed before any great use could be made of it. No-one was coming to interrupt the party!
Benito Mussolini appeared… escorted by nervous looking Carabinieri. He looked a trifle uncertain as to the motives of the Germans. Hitler had been furious that his only friend had been foolish enough to get himself removed from office.
Skorzeny solved his worries for him. He saluted the Duce and said loudly…
“Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free!”
Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend would not forsake me!”
When things calmed down I found that I was in demand from all sides. I was only sixteen and a photographer… but I spoke more German than almost any Italian on the mountain… and infinitely more Italian than any of the Germans.
First the Italian General said that I must take photographs of the released Duce. He said that it was one thing for the Germans to record their rescue… it was quite another for an Italian to record his leader’s victorious return to his people.
I was more than happy to comply…Fosetti Brothers would own the copyright of the photographs and if I could get some of them back to Rome rather than hand them to the General then our studio would even have an exclusive! So, I took a lot of shots… the Duce was happy to pose, some were plates for the formal shots, the rest I took discreetly with the Leica. I hid the Leica and a few plates in my luggage!
After the photography… there was eating… and drinking! I noticed that the Carabinieri were drinking a great deal more than the Germans… perhaps they had nothing to lose… They had already lost the Duce!
The German soldiers were impressive, tall blond and tough. More than once I found myself wishing that a particularly fine specimen would find his way behind my favourite juniper bush on Monte Caprino. Once or twice I got the impression that they were thinking the same thing.
“Do you still work on Monte Caprino?” A voice said quietly, in my ear.
He was tall and muscular… and I recognised him. He had been a wonderful afternoon at the height of summer. He had needed to pay twice… it had been a very long afternoon, deep in the shade of the junipers… keeping his blond skin away from the sun.
“Are you still afraid of the sun?” I replied, with a smile.
“German paratroopers are afraid of nothing!” He joked, and then added… “Your German has improved!”
“Yes business was good after Sicily… particularly with Germans. Then, when I got employed as a photographer the park had to be just a part-time job. I only go with Germans… They don’t turn up at the studio wanting family portraits! The money from the park is still very welcome… rents in Rome are crippling now, and transport gets worse all the time. Anyway, I enjoy the … meeting German men.”
“Your young friend… does he speak German?” He asked.
“Not yet, but he is learning… My juniper tree by the rock has become his classroom”
“His prices are the same as yours?” He asked with a laugh.
“Yes. Well, prices are higher now, but he carries on my business… just as he did at home when I left the south!”
I was giggling… not very dignified but it suited my mood. “Check your pockets… you may have enough small change… he doesn’t seem … occupied, at the moment. You may need to be quick…that corporal has been eyeing him!”
Unfortunately, this time my laughter attracted attention from the Carabinieri.
The Carabinieri needed a translator… urgently. I was dragged away from my German to help them sort out a disagreement with Skorzeny…over weapons and who should hold them!
As I left with them, I saw my German take Luigi by the elbow and escort him out of the room!
I smiled… business was picking up.
Negotiating the extent of the disarmament must have taken quite a while. I returned to the entrance just when Luigi re-appeared with a smiling German. To my surprise it wasn’t my German… it was the corporal. Luigi was already on his second customer!
I watched the German corporal shake hands with Luigi. He thanked him formally for his assistance, saluted and strode off. As he did so I noticed he looked towards a young… a very attractive young soldier who was standing by the door. The youngster raised his eyebrows in question and the corporal paused to speak to him. The soldier looked surprised, asked a question… received the answer and smiled, first at the corporal and then at Luigi.
Luigi smiled back and turned to go out by the door that led to the hotel rooms. The beautiful blond youngster silently followed. Luigi paused at the door, looked at me and smiled wickedly. He was clearly working on improving his German. I hoped he was charging a premium rate… he was giving the men quite something to remember about their mission to rescue the Duce!
Eventually more photographs were needed… of the departing rescued Duce.
We heard a roar of aircraft engine as a small mosquito-like aircraft flew over the hotel. Skorzeny had organised crude markers on the flat area beyond the hotel. We all held our breath as the pilot flew back, into the wind, cut the engine and glided in to a very slow, and to my eyes, precarious landing at just about walking speed. The engine fired again as he taxied over the rough ground. The SS ran to secure the plane against the buffeting wind on the mountain-top. The pilot jumped out and ran towards where we were still taking our last photographs. He stopped and saluted Skorzeny.
Skorzeny with, what I thought mock formality, introduced the pilot to the Duce.
“Excellency, allow me to introduce Luftwaffe Captain Walter Gerlach. He is going to fly us out of here… or die in the attempt… as shall we.” He said this with a wolfish grin. The pilot returned the smile, ignored the joke and saluted the Duce… “It will be an honour to serve the Duce… the Fuhrer is keen that we should make a success of this take-off… This way Duce.”
When Skorzeny made to follow the two of them the pilot stopped and said “Just one passenger sir!”. Skorzeny ignored him saying “Just open the throttles more and lower the flaps a trifle, we shall be perfectly safe!”
The pilot clearly decided not to argue with the man who was becoming known as “the most dangerous man in Europe” and they continued out to the plane, a tiny Fieseler Storch . The three of them fitted into the cockpits with difficulty… Skorzeny and the Duce would know each other much better by the time this flight was over.
The engine fired, the little plane trundled down wind, turned, while a paratrooper held a white silk ski-troop scarf as a wind-sock. The plane lined up into the wind, the pilot opened the throttle wide… the noise was terrifying and the overloaded plane began to roll.
It had the headwind in its favour and a slight downhill slope, nevertheless it really only took to the air when the land fell away from below it. The pilot dipped the nose and it gathered speed in a dive. When it was about to reach the valley bottom the pilot pulled up in a dive-bomber manoeuvre and the nose rose sharply as he flew away down the valley. Skorzeny had been right… the Fieseler Storch did take three of them, but the safety margin seemed very slim to me… but what did I know? I was only a photographer!
The newspapers were full of it the next day…Mussolini and Skorzeny were taken to a military airport near Rome, where they transferred to a Heinkel He 111 and flew on to Vienna… where Mussolini was given a hero’s welcome.
The newspapers also told us that more or less everybody in the German party received some form of Iron Cross from Hitler. He had been delighted by the daring and success of this operation. Skorzeny received the Knights Cross from Hitler’s own hands. I even clipped a newspaper photograph of all three of them; my German, the corporal and the cute young one… all in a line, being introduced to Hitler to receive their medals…If Hitler had only known… the last person to have them one after the other like that was my Luigi!
When he heard about the awards for bravery Luigi remarked drily “I would have charged double if I’d known… I was making heroes of them!”.
It was actually quite funny. I had seen the cute young soldier talking to Luigi later, and said to my German… “The pretty one… is he?”
He replied “A virgin? Well he was the last time I tried, but perhaps your young friend has persuaded him otherwise… They make a very pretty couple. The corporal will be pleased, perhaps the lad will be less reluctant in future!”
I was about to suggest a quick bundle… for old-time’s sake, and because the thought of the two youngsters together had made me exceptionally horny… but… that was the moment it was decided that we should pack the automobile, and to do that we first had to take everything down in the cable car.
My German smiled ruefully… “Maybe next time I’m in Rome?”
I replied quickly…“Sunday afternoons at the Tarpeian Rock… The first one will be free!”
Then we parted swiftly… not even handshakes… we were hardly friends. I wasn’t sure… we might even be enemies,
I hoped not!
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