This is the story of two journeys through Italy. The first was taken in the Second World War by my father, Patrick Maybin, who as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps treated injured and dying soldiers and civilians as the Allied armies moved northwards between 1943 and 1945. That journey gave him a lifelong antipathy to war and warmongering, but also left him with an enduring affection for Italy.
My father’s family was from the Ballyclare area about fifteen miles north of Belfast. His family’s home was in the tiny village of Clady, to the north-west of the city. When war was declared in September 1939, he had just moved from Omagh, County Tyrone, back to Belfast to start his second year as a house surgeon.
There was no conscription in Northern Ireland in either world war. However in February 1940, aged 23, he volunteered for war service. Several postings around Northern Ireland and the South of England followed. During these he was able to find time for extensive reading and also for writing poetry, much of which was later published. For around a year from mid-1942 he worked on a hospital ship off the north-west coast of Scotland tending to crew on the North Atlantic convoys including the survivors of several U-boat attacks.
In August 1943 he was sent to North Africa where he was eventually assigned to a casualty clearing station. Casualty clearing stations – which consist of about 120 staff including about 12 officers – are like mobile accident and emergency wards, typically located close to the fighting. They treat casualties brought in by Field Ambulance units and stabilise the more seriously injured before transferring them to military hospitals further behind the line.
In October 1943 his unit sailed to Italy where much of his journey northwards followed the current A14 road, which runs all the way from Taranto to Ravenna.
Initially his journey passed through places in south-east Italy that few non-Italians are familiar with – Foggia, Termoil, Campobasso – as well as better-known cities such as Taranto and Bari. The first few months of 1944 found him further west treating the wounded from the battles of Monte Cassino.
In May 1944 he moved from the casualty clearing station to command his own field blood transfusion unit. This provided him with a high level of autonomy within the army, which he appreciated in full. It took him to Naples, back to the Adriatic coast, and to the island of Vis where the Yugoslavian partisans were headquartered.
In September 1944 he rejoined the northward advance at Rimini eventually reaching Ravenna. In April 1945, probably with an eye to his post-war career, he joined the military hospital in Rimini until he finally left Italy in January 1946.
That was his journey through Italy. It took over two years. My journey took far less than that, but shares the same route: one route through Italy.