Friday, 9 October 2009

Roger Moorhouse in conversation with Tom Carver

by Roger Moorhouse

Earlier this week, I had the honour of interviewing Tom Carver, former BBC correspondent in Washington and elsewhere and the step-grandson of Field Marshal Montgomery. His book Where the Hell Have You Been? was published in the UK last week.

I began by asking him what the book was about and what had prompted him to write it:

Tom Carver: It is a story about fathers and sons, about my relationship with my father and my father’s relationship with his (step)father who was Field Marshal Montgomery. Because Monty’s fame loomed so large in my childhood, my father never talked about his own wartime experiences. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he had been captured at El Alamein after being sent on a suicidal mission by his stepfather, and that he had escaped from a prison camp and walked 400 miles down Italy and had lived for some time in a cave hidden by a very brave Italian family.

So at its heart, it is a surprising adventure story. But I also wanted to try to understand that Second World War generation who did such extraordinary things but rarely talked about them afterwards.

Roger Moorhouse: How did you come to uncover your father's story?

TC: When I was 11 years old, my father took us on a family holiday to Italy. It was the first time I had ever been abroad. We did the usual sightseeing but then suddenly he drove us up to an imposing looking building and announced that this had been his prison camp. It was the first time I was aware that he had been a prisoner and that day he told me a couple of extraordinary stories, including the account of how 600 prisoners managed to escape from the camp without a single one of them being caught.
After that whenever I asked him about the war, he would tend to dismiss the conversation, saying what he did “wasn’t much”. He was acutely aware – as many of the survivors of the war were – that so many others had suffered much more than he. It wasn’t until many years later, long after he had retired, that he began to open up. One day as I was sorting out his papers, I came across a battered looking tin in his study which contained a tiny compass made out of a safety pin and a metal coat button. He told me how he had built it in POW camp and used it to navigate his way down Italy back to the Allied lines.

RM: What do you recall of Monty when you were a child?

TC: I have very clear childhood memories of Monty – I was 15 when he died and formed part of the honour guide at his funeral at St George’s chapel as part of my school cadet force. When I was 9 and 10 I used to be taken by my parents to visit him. I remember one lunch being told to play in the garden and coming across the two caravans that Monty had used as his command posts throughout the war. I lay down on his bunk and stared at the portrait of Rommel that Monty kept on the wall throughout the desert campaign. There was also a large map of North Africa which I could see still had his battle-lines on it from the battle of El Alamein. Once I confess I took a chinagraph and added a couple of lines of my own going out into the Mediterranean! Fifty years later when I and my father went to visit the caravans in the Imperial War Museum, I noticed that the lines were still visible!

RM: What was your father's experience growing up with Monty as a stepfather?

TC: My father’s true father was killed at Gallipoli right out of Cambridge and until the age of 11 my father was brought up by his mother Betty. Then in 1926, Betty met a colonel by the name of Bernard Montgomery. At that stage of course he was just another officer in the British imperial army. They were married for 10 years very happily – I think it was probably the happiest period of Monty’s life – but in 1938 Betty died very suddenly from an insect bite which she got on a beach in Devon. Monty had a huge amount of energy and would always join in on any activity that my father and his brothers were doing, and Monty had a great deal of affection for my father – the fact that he wanted him nearby during his great test as Eighth Army commander was an indication of this. But Monty also had a very dominating personality and I think my father would probably not have stayed in the army after the war if Monty had not been so insistent.

RM: How did he manage to escape from the POW camp?

TC: On September 7th 1943, Italy pulled out of the Second World War. At that moment there were 80,000 Allied POWs in Italian camps. MI9, a branch of military intelligence, had sent a coded message to these camps telling the prisoners to stay put, which had disastrous consequences for the camps which obeyed the order – 50,000 troops were needlessly rounded up by the Germans and shipped by train to Germany when they could have escaped.
Fortunately in my father’s camp PG49, the Senior British Officer decided to ignore the order. The camp was also lucky to have a compassionate commandant who had fought alongside the British in the First World War. Two hours before the Germans arrived to take over the camp, he cut the wire to give the prisoners a head start. The instinct was to run as fast as possible but a number of the senior officers, including my father, decided instead to hide the prisoners right next to the camp where the Germans would least expect to find them. And for two days and nights, 600 men hid in a huge drainage ditch while the Germans drove around and around wondering where they all gone! It was a very risky thing to do but it worked!

RM: What was it like going back to find the family who looked after him in the war?

TC: It was an extraordinary moment. After my father died I decided to track them down; the only thing I knew was their name – the de Gregorios – so I trawled through the Italian phone directory calling every de Gregorio I could find, asking them if they remembered sheltering a British prisoner in the war called Richard Carver. Eventually one man said yes – he turned out to be Alfonso, who had been a boy of 14 at the time and had actually been the member of the family who found my father. He had been intending to ambush and shoot a group of Germans who had stolen the family’s only pig when he tripped over my father hiding in a bush! He was now in his 70s but still living in the same village in the Abruzzi. He laid on a huge celebration lunch for me and my family and we walked up into the woods where he showed us the cave where my father had lived for several weeks.
At one stage I toasted Alfonso, saying “thank you for saving my father’s life”. “No,” he replied, “you don’t understand. He saved ours. Had I actually shot the German patrol, the Germans would have destroyed my family’s home and executed my family.” This caught me completely by surprise but it was because the Germans in Italy used the old Roman system of suppressing the local population – kill ten of them for every one soldier killed by civilians. “Stumbling across your father” he said, “turned out to be an intervention from God.” It was a very humbling moment.

RM: What do you think drove the de Gregorio family to protect him?

TC: The contadini (peasant farmers) of the Abruzzi have always displayed a fierce sense of independence throughout Italian history, so I think it was partly that they liked anyone who was bucking the system or on the run. Had the tables been turned and Germans were fleeing from a British occupation, I suspect they may well have assisted the German POWs. In addition to that, they were motivated by a curious symmetry: several times my father was stopped by people and told that they had a son who was a POW in England and they hoped that if they looked after my father then somehow their son would be well looked after in the UK. Finally, the elderly in particular retained some affection for the British army, having fought alongside Britain against Germany in the First World War. In fact, the commandant of my father’s POW camp (PG49, the same one that Eric Newby was in) had fought in the First World War.

RM: What new aspects do your book, and your father's experience, tell us about Monty?

TC: I think it reveals a compassion in Monty that does not come through in the history books. After El Alamein when he became a household name Monty allowed his ego to run away with him which made him insufferable in many ways. But before the war, when he was raising a family and was an unknown officer, my father remembered him as a fun-loving and engaged parent. He was very much in love with Betty (my grandmother) and when she died suddenly, in 1937, he was heart-broken. I found in my father’s papers a very moving letter written by Monty to my father on the day of her death in which he talks about breaking down and being unable to go on. You see a very different man there than the common image of Monty.

RM: The title of the book Where the Hell Have You Been? is the first words that Monty said to your father when he returned from captivity. Could it also be seen as your own question to a father who was largely peripheral in your life?

TC: Yes. It could indeed. After being captured at El Alamein, my father escaped from the POW camp and walked 400 miles down Italy towards Monty who was advancing slowly up from Sicily. In December 1943, more than a year after he had disappeared, he finally stumbled back into Monty’s HQ and Monty’s first words to him were “Where the hell have you been?” which was his rather curious way of showing affection for his stepson! But the phrase does also refer to my father who was not very present in my childhood. He struggled with life after the war was over; I think he was rather overwhelmed by having to look after six children and couldn’t find a career he enjoyed. He also never talked about the war, conscious of the huge shadow cast by his stepfather. It wasn’t until late in his life when he was retired that I became close to him and he started to open up.

RM: It strikes me from reading your book that perhaps your father was most at home – and perversely at his happiest – whilst on his Italian odyssey. Do you think that is a fair assessment?

TC: Well, he never said it like that – on the surface he saw it as strictly duty, the need to return to one’s own lines as fast as possible and get back into combat – but for much of the way he travelled with another prisoner who was a wonderful epicurean figure and who loved the experience of being in this beautiful countryside and meeting amazing figures. And I think he helped my father to appreciate the moment and the uniqueness of the experience. And in later years I think those weeks of being on the run took on a sort of dreamlike quality for him – the consequence I suppose of being in disguise and living a life utterly different from the norm.

RM: Tom Carver, thank you very much.

Where the Hell Have You Been? is published by Short Books.


susanjane said...

What an amazing story. I have been following my Dad's path thru Sicily in 1943 and his regiment in the U.S. Army, under Patton's command. The 39th was then under Mark Clark's command for the invasion of Salerno, Italy. My final quest is to locate where he was injured -- Sicily or Italy? If my research completes with a published book, there will certainly be a mention of your Father.
Kind regards,
Susan Bohdan, daughter
Pvt Lloyd D Troyer
39th Engineers Combat Regiment
2nd Battalion, Company D
North African Campaign
Invasion of Sicily

susanjane said...

I went down to NARA in St Louis to the research room. In a round about way, I located where Dad had his incident. . . . defending the San Fratello line that divided west from east Sicily!

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