A Village and a Plain

Presenzano MapShortly after his arrival in Presenzano, Patrick Maybin wrote:

“We’ve come down out of the mountains and are in a broad flat river valley, with the hills rising steeply at the sides. The high crags still have snow on them, but here it’s sunny and windy and there are violets and primroses. Corn fields and vineyards and olive groves all around. We’re under canvas again, so fortunately it gets rapidly warmer.”

Presensano, a commune of around 1,800 people, had been selected as the forward Allied headquarters for US Fifth Army for the Battle of Monte Cassino.  The army camp was located on the plain that you can see below the village in the picture.  It was here that Patrick Maybin worked.

Presenzano from the plain
Presenzano from the plain below

The battleground itself was about 30 Km to the north-west, beyond the mountains that rise behind the village.  With Allied air superiority this provided good protection from the German forces to the north.  However, it did not provide protection from friendly fire.  During the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in February 1944, sixteen bombs had struck the Fifth Army compound and exploded only yards away from the trailer where the commanding general Mark Clark was doing paperwork at his desk.  Wherever they were in the war zone, everyone was at risk.

If Patrick Maybin’s time in Campobasso had been too quiet, he was now fully occupied.  The War Diaries for 19 CCS in April 1944 report between 100 and 160 casualties being admitted from the front every other day, totalling around 1,800 for the entire month.   The manpower in 19 CCS was augmented by about 40% with the addition of multiple field surgical units and field transfusion units.

Even by the middle of April the mud and rain that so characterised the Battles of Monte Cassino had not entirely abated.  In a letter that also bemoaned the international outcry over the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey, he wrote:

The protests about Monte Cassino cause a certain amount of mild irritation here. Men are expected to live in mud and cold and monotony and constant danger of violent death and spend a large part of their time blowing strange Germans to pieces – and then all this fuss about an old monastery, and talk of sacrificing hundreds of their comrades lives to save it. I think myself that human lives are much the most important things; destruction of works of art is a pity; one should have thought about that sooner.

I seem more than usually solemn this evening, Thunderstorms and rain and thick sticky mud have created a certain amount of depression. But most of the time we have sun and high windy days with cloud shadows on the blue crags and wildflowers everywhere; the lizards have woken up and bask in the heat in the dry ditches.

My half day in Presenzano

Monday 16th April was the first day I could legally drive on higher ground without winter tyres. As I headed out of Campobasso into the Apennines the mist and clouds lifted. The road swept between the higher mountains, eventually following the valley of the Volturno river.  With the Biferno river in the east it had provided the Germans’ first line of defence in Autumn 1943. Today the Volturno’s forces are harnessed in a hydroelectric plant about a kilometre to the east of Presanzano village.

I had no idea what to expect at Presenzano.  It was obvious from the map and from the absence of any hotels in the area that it was a small place.  Maybe a few farmhouses built around a crossroad surrounded by fields?  Instead I arrived at this lovely sunlit village on a hill, overlooking green fertile pastures that stretched out below to distant hills.

From the Piazza dei Caduti in the village there was a wide view over the plain where the army camp was located.

The Plain from Presenzano
The plain from Presenzano village

Outside the church in the piazza itself was a memorial that included the names of all those from Presenzano who lost their lives in both world wars. Above the piazza rose narrow streets and alleyways that continued nearly to the top of the hill.

Presenzano War MemorialPresenzano War Memorial

Presenzano alleywayPresenzano alleyway

Once again in Presenzano I was frustrated by my lack of spoken Italian. An elderly couple stopped to talk: as an outsider and particularly as a non-Italian I must have appeared an oddity in their village. When I had finally communicated why I was there, they were delighted and wanted to know far more. Alas I was unable to tell them.

The village ended close to the top of the hill, and beyond there stood the ruins of a castle from the Norman era.  These ruins were inaccessible when I visited but the climb and the views were well worth the effort.

Presenzano Norman Castle
Presenzano Norman Castle

Patrick Maybin’s departure from Presenzano

Despite the many casualties arriving every other day in Presenzano, April marked a 1944 lull in fighting.  After the ineffectiveness of the Third Battle of Monte Cassino, the Allied forces were preparing for the fourth and final battle, which in May would see them oust the German forces from Southern Italy.

But before this took place, Patrick Maybin’s rôle was to change. On Wednesday 3rd May he received the following order, and by the weekend he was in Naples.

Patrick Maybin's Posting Orders 3 May 1944Patrick Maybin’s Posting Orders 3 May 1944

This was a welcome change from the lack of privacy and autonomy in the casualty clearing station.  On 3rd May itself, he described his new job to John Hewitt in a letter.

I’ve been given a Field Transfusion Unit … I’m greatly pleased about this – no promotion or extra pay, but very many advantages. An F.T.U. is one Medical Officer, two R.A.M.C. orderlies, a driver, a truck, and all the equipment for doing blood and plasma transfusions etc. We are attached to other medical units whenever they’re likely to need a lot of transfusions, but apart from that are completely independent responsible only to the Base Unit and to the Corps or Army D.D.M.S. … I’ll be sorry to leave 19 C.C.S.; but we’ve had a lot of changes recently, and though as long as I stayed here I was sure of doing what I wanted, I might have been posted at any moment to any job.

So when the Fourth (and final) Battle of Monte Cassino started in mid May, he was no longer directly treating its casualties, but instead collecting the blood needed to keep many of them alive.

My departure from Presenzano

Patrick Maybin’s journey splits from mine for almost five months here.  The summer of 1944 found him in Naples, Vasto, Bari, and Vis in Yugoslavia. I’ll cover it in a later post.  Meanwhile I was headed for Cassino and the site of the most crucial action of the Italian Campaign.

Patrick Maybin: 29th March 1944 to 6th May 1944
Neil Maybin: 16th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 3 April 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 11 Apr 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 3 May 1944
Capture of Campobasso, October (Canadian Divisions’ website)
The Battle of Monte Cassino (Wikipedia)



Campobasso City

Campobasso MapThe city of Campobasso is located in the foothills of the southern Apennine Mountains, about 70 Km inland from Termoli. Like Foggia, few outside Italy have heard of it. But also like Foggia, it’s a provincial capital. Its name comes from its location, on the ‘low field’ below the Castello Monforte fortress, which rises some further 90 metres (300 feet) above it.

The city was captured early on 14th October 1943 by the 1st Canadian Division; by the end of that month they had taken the area surrounding it. The battle secured a key part of the east to west route across Italy from Termoli to Cassino. However, it also destroyed many of the city’s public buildings, including many built in the previous two decades by the fascist government.

Patrick Maybin in Campobasso

Campobasso New Town from the Castello Monforte fortressCampobasso New Town from the Castello Monforte fortress

Patrick Maybin described the city shortly after his arrival there at the end of January 1944:

… we’re very high up in the hills – a moderately large town, new and old quarters, the old part as usual built steeply up a hill. On all sides are high mountain ranges topped with snow. The air is so clear one is conscious of it. The old town is the usual picturesque slum with one or two churches with very Papish interiors – nothing remarkable. The new town is well built, and has several of the Fascists’ large new buildings – some blocks of flats quite good.

His time there appears to have been quiet. At the end of February he wrote that his unit hadn’t done any real work for over a month. The fighting at Monte Cassino was still some 100 Km to the west, and news of the battles was only filtering through slowly. In March 1944, the eruption of Vesuvius was 100 Km away to the south across mountains 2,000 metres (nearly 7,000 feet) high. It doesn’t appear to have affected the city, as he mentions its aftermath only in passing in a later diary entry.

The city itself was still recovering from the fighting. Patrick Maybin remarked on how the corruption of the defeated fascist government together with pitifully low wages led to a climate of bribery and a thriving black market, and how the diversion of resources to support the advancing armies was testing the civilian community to the utmost.

My route to Campobasso

I drove to Campobasso from Termoli on the SS647 state highway. Most of the way this follows the River Biferno, which was crossed near the sea in the Battle of Termoli. The route rises from the plains at the coast, through hilly country, and into the foothills of the Apennines. It crosses the River Biferno in both directions in about twenty places: indeed for several kilometres it actually runs through the Lake Guardialfiera reservoir on a viaduct, the bases of its supports immersed in the water below.

The weather became cooler and mistier as I drove further into the mountains. Eventually by late morning I arrived in Campobasso. This time my strategy of heading for the main square in the New Town turned out to be far less effective than in Taranto: the area was pedestrianised and around it the streets were packed with parked cars. It took a full half hour to find a parking place for my own car.

Campobasso’s New and Old Towns

View in Campobasso New TownCampobasso’s New Town was developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It has many good examples of early twentieth century public architecture, including some from the fascist era. However, my interest in it was dampened by the mild but persistent drizzle that had started to fall: what we in Ireland might call soft weather. And as on the previous day in Termoli, it proved impossible to find anywhere to eat a weekend lunch after 1pm. So I made my way slowly to the Old Town where my bed and breakfast was located.

The Old Town is adjacent to the New Town, no more than ten minutes walk away.  Its narrow streets and confusing alleyways cluster round the base of the hill of the Castello Monforte. My room was in a disused palace, which sounds far grander and far more expensive than it actually was.

By evening the thoroughfares of the Old Town were almost empty and lit with yellowing lamps, accentuating their medieval origin. There wasn’t a single Italian restaurant open, but I eventually managed to eat at a small German beer cellar: hardly a local experience, but no less welcome.

Campobasso Old Town view - daytimeCampobasso Old Town
Campobasso Old Town view - nighttimeCampobasso Old Town

The Castello Monforte fortress

I had limited time just under 24 hours in Campobasso, and so the following morning I climbed to the Castello Monforte on top of the hill overlooking the city. From the castle there were wide views over the built-up areas and also beyond to the snow-covered Apennine mountains. The next stage of my journey would take me through those mountains.

The Apennines, from the Castello Monforte fortress

The Apennines, from the Castello Monforte fortress

Patrick Maybin’s departure from Campobasso

On 13th March 1944, the following notice appeared in 19 CCS’s daily orders.  it solicited ideas for how best a casualty clearing station should be laid out in tents on flat open ground.  For the first time since they were in North Africa, it looked like 19 CCS would be back out in the open air.

Tent competition Notice, 13 March 1944

On 22nd March, 19 CCS moved on to Presenzano, where the US Fifth Army was headquartered for the Battle of Monte Cassino.  Patrick Maybin stayed behind in Campobasso for a while, officially to look after the nurses:

I had quite a good time – most of it, other people were looking after the Sisters, so I had a holiday – a pleasant Italian town high in the mountains – breakfast at nine, lazy mornings, walks into the hills over the snow, cinemas, tea dances, rather riotous dinner parties at the local Officers Leave Hotel. However a week was enough, and I wasn’t sorry to rejoin the C.C.S.

A week after most of the unit moved he followed 19 CCS to Presenzano.

Patrick Maybin: 29th January 1944 to 29th March 1944
Neil Maybin: 15th to 16th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 4 February 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 26 February 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 22 March 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to Roberta Hewitt, 3 April 1944
Capture of Campobasso, October (Canadian Divisions’ website)



Patrick Maybin’s arrival in Termoli

Patrick Maybin arrived on Saturday 14th November, around five weeks after the capture of Termoli. By that stage the Allies were crossing the River Sangro some 50 Km to the north-west. Just beyond the Sangro, the cold, rain and mud of winter would stall any further advance until the spring. Patrick Maybin was to spend almost eleven weeks in Termoli, including Christmas 1943.

Termoli MapTermoli is situated on the Adriatic coast, just under 100 Km north-west of Foggia. On 3rd October 1943, Allied special forces and marine commandos landed overnight in torrential rain.  By 8am they had captured the town. Despite a formidable German counterattack over the next three days, the force held out until 6th October when the main British advance reached the town.

The early and quick capture of Termoli gained a valuable harbour for the Allies’ supply routes. It also accelerated the Allied advance up the Adriatic coast.

19 CCS in Termoli

19 CCS was based in a seminary next to Piazza Sant’ Antonio, a square that now has the town hall on one side and on the other wide views over the sea and Termoli old town.

San Antonio de Padua SeminarySan Antonio de Padua Seminary

Just over five minutes’ walk away the Caffè Bella Vista near the station was used for regular distributions of cigarettes and special distributions of food. The unit baths were also located near Termoli Station.

Termoli Station todayTermoli Station today

The War Diary for 19 CCS in Termoli includes orders covering the buying of alcohol by its individual members.  Only wine served in restaurants at lunch and dinner times was permitted.  Off sales of wine and any purchases of spirits were forbidden.  Wine from Foggia was to be avoided entirely following the theft of supplies there that had been contaminated with diphosgene.  Coming up to Christmas a strong message was issued forbidding drunkenness and misbehaviour on public streets.

Other preoccupations included army vehicle damage to telegraph poles (and hence communications), discipline in saluting when out and about in the town, and the small number of troops attending church services.  In early December all the barber shops in the town had to be placed out of bounds until they had been inspected because of the risk of skin infections and lice.  Civilian accidents with petrol were also a problem, as some military personnel were selling it to them on the black market.

Patrick Maybin’s life in Termoli

A couple of weeks after arriving, Patrick Maybin wrote:

What more can I say on this confined space? I’m working quite hard, and in spite of my rather gloomy letters, happier than I’ve been for a long time. Our chief hardship here is lack of news – there’s only about one wireless in the town – and of course all papers are two months old. “8th Army News” doesn’t reach us at present. (I sent you a copy.) Books are rare … Rumours are plentiful – nearly all easily enough discounted at sight!

In late December he described a typical night shift:

The time is 2.30 a.m. (its my night on duty – one in four) the place my department – the pre-operation ward. At dusk this afternoon, the ambulance convoys appeared in the twisting, crowded, muddy streets of this little town, and with grinding gears drew up one after another at the C.C.S. door. All evening the usual routine of sorting out patients and disposing of them to the proper places (we call this “triage” – it sounds better than sorting), went on. The latest arrived soon after midnight, and I don’t expect many more before dawn; chaos is reduced to order, the surgeon is hard at work in his theatre, and my patients lie in a neat row on stretcher trestles, all suitably X-rayed, diagnosed, dressed, and resuscitated (another nice army word) as required, waiting their turn for his attention. Half of them are sound asleep already, overcome with the luxury of lying in dry blankets on a stretcher out of sound of the guns (the battle has receded from us since I wrote last, so that we don’t hear even the heavy guns in the distance.)

At Christmas, four days of leave was offered for pairs of men to visit Naples, though by mid January an outbreak of typhus meant that the city was now out of bounds to off-duty staff.

By that time, the influx of injuries was abating. Patrick Maybin wrote:

Our work has slackened off for the moment, and I find myself wishing we were busy again – conditions prevent any coherent reading and I find myself wishing we were busy again – I’ve no private life whatever. But even with the lull in fighting there were civilian injuries to be tended: A short time ago I had an Italian youngster of 10 brought in – land mine casualty, arm blown off, compound fractures both legs, eyes blown out, face pulped. Fortunately he died in spite of all the resources of modern science. I don’t know whether Vickers or Krupp made the mine. This happens quite often, children being so curious about strange objects in the fields.

Termoli Today

Termoli today is now far larger than in 1943: the original fishing port with its old castle and walled town has expanded inland and it feels more like a small city. It’s become a destination for Italian tourists from the surrounding provinces, though not from outside Italy: I saw few if any non-Italians there. It is still as monocultural and monolingual as Foggia, though the effect of this is diluted by the presence of so many from outside the town.

I arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon in mid April, and soon found the seminary where Patrick Maybin had worked. From my guesthouse it was a five minute walk to the end of the main shopping street, Corso Nazionale, which runs from the town’s large main square down to the sea near Piazza Sant’ Antonio.

Corso Nazionale is wide and pedestrianised. It feels laid-back with relaxed-looking people ambling between the cafés and shops, and buskers strumming guitars. Beyond its end lie the castle and old town, on a point overlooking the harbour.

The Castle and Old TownThe Castle and Old Town, from near Piazza Sant’ Antonio

The streets of the old town are narrow and twisty; the old town includes the narrowest alley in Italy, A Rejecelle, at just 38cm (15 inches) wide.

The Castle and Old TownTwelfth century The Castle and Old Town
in the Old Town

Courtyard in the Old TownCourtyard in the Old Town

On the other side of the northern end of Corso Nazionale, a long sandy beach extends to the west.

Termoli BeachTermoli Beach

An Italian Town

On the Saturday morning, Corso Nazionale was busy: the whole world seemed to be outside enjoying themselves. But at 1pm my impression that the town was fully cosmopolitan was rudely corrected when I attempted to find a restaurant for lunch. By then the streets were largely empty and all the restaurants were full or already booked: the only available places were in cafés and patisseries. I clearly still had much to learn.

I also found my almost nonexistent Italian combined with the almost complete lack of any English in the town was a challenge: not for practical matters, as the friendliness of everyone I met there always overcame communication barriers for day-to-day needs. But talking with people who were interested in my journey and project could be frustrating. My landlady’s appetite for information was so extensive that in the end we had to enlist a local waiter as interpreter to enable me to satisfy it.

Patrick Maybin’s Departure

The First Battle of Monte Cassino started on 17th January 1944 while Patrick Maybin was still in Termoli. Elsewhere in Italy over winter 1943-44 fighting had diminished as a result of the cold and wet weather. The focus was now to the west and on 29th January 19 CCS was on the move again, this time almost half way across Italy to Campobasso, towards Monte Cassino.

Patrick Maybin: 14th November 1943 to 29th January 1944
Neil Maybin: 13th to 15th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 29 November 1943
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 18 December 1943
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 13 January 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 4 February 1944
Operation Devon – the taking of Termoli (Wikipedia)



Foggia in the Second World War

Foggia MapFoggia, a city and provincial capital that few outside Italy have heard of and few from elsewhere in Italy appear to visit, had served as a communications and transport hub for Axis forces. Around half the size of Coventry, it included a major railway junction, and was also the centre of a complex of more than twenty airfields located within a radius of about 40 Km.  Capturing these would mean that Allies could bomb targets in the Balkans and southern Germany.

Given its strategic importance, Foggia was very heavily bombed. At the end of May 1943, the railway station was destroyed, and almost as many civilians were killed as on the main night of the Coventry Blitz in November 1940. But this was neither the most destructive nor deadly raid that summer: there were eight more. Raids on 22nd July and 19th August each resulted in the deaths of more than ten times the number killed in Coventry on the main night of the Coventry Blitz.

Where Patrick Maybin worked

Foggia was occupied by British troops at the end of September 1943. The first casualty clearing station to arrive there in early October (7 CCS) was posted in the building of the Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone at 1 Via Marchese de Rosa, about a kilometre west of the city centre. The fondazione had been established to house the elderly poor of Foggia. However, the building had already been in use as an Italian military hospital since 1941, and its residents and nuns had been evacuated during the course of the 1943 bombing raids.

Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia BaroneFondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone

The war diary of 7 CCS describes the building as it was at the end of the first week of October 1943:

“The building here is spacious and the rooms large, but the roof is much damaged and several of the rooms on the upper floor cannot be used. There is no water or electric light and the sewers in the town are disorganised. There are several large craters near the building.”

By 24th October, when they handed over the building to 19 CCS, Patrick Maybin’s unit, 7 CCS was able to report that:

“… the building occupied by the C.C.S. is now in fairly good order, the roof is nearly repaired and the electric lighting working.”

However, the destruction of the rest of the town was all too evident.

Patrick Maybin’s Arrival

On Monday 2nd November 1943 Patrick Maybin made his own way from Taranto to Foggia to rejoin his unit. This was his first active posting abroad, his first experience of working in the makeshift settings that follow in the wake of war, and his first experience of the near total destruction of a city.

In a letter to his friend John Hewitt the previous week he had described what a CCS was:

“A Casualty Clearing Station … is a kind of small very mobile hospital where casualties get their first specialist treatment …. There are 8 M.O.s and 8 Padres, which I think is a poor reflection on the competence of the medical staff.”

In a subsequent letter in early November he described conditions at the Fondazione building:

“We’re in Italy now – in a building in a much bombed town; a charitable institution of some sort, with a large marble staircase and terrazzo floors and high bare windows with most of the glass blown out, and crucifixes hanging in odd corners. The room I sleep in has a gruesome print of the Sacred Heart above my camp bed. We find it very cold here after Africa, and it’s rather luxurious to be in a building again. I write this in what was probably the Mother Superior’s private sitting room; next door my colleagues are sitting around an odd assortment of furniture reading six months old copies of “Punch” and the “Saturday Evening Post”, and a bridge four is in progress.”

The comfort of the interior of the Fondazione contrasted with the bleakness outside. One of his last poems, Italian Moonlight, juxtaposes the destruction of war with the straightforward normality of non-metropolitan life:

… … …Others that had
passed uneventful years here, thoughtlessly
counting life certain in this little
town found death impartial.

Foggia today

Foggia today is a modern provincial capital, with a population of around 150,000. It remains a communications centre and has some industry, but its agricultural sector is still significant. Foggia Railway station retains its importance as a junction of several main and branch lines. Its clean façade dominates a piazza at the north of the town centre.

Foggia Railway Station
Foggia Railway Station

About half a kilometre south of the station are the city’s two central squares.

Four major roads meet at the city’s main square, Piazza Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour, where a narrow park almost a kilometre long extends eastwards.

A little to the west is the smaller Piazza Umberto Giordano, where the composer’s operas are celebrated by a statues of his characters.

Piazza Umberto GiordanoPiazza Umberto Giordano

Foggia also has an attractive cathedral, originally dating from the 1170s, and several other churches that have been well restored since the war.

Behind the attractive public buildings lie seemingly endless small streets, mundane, a little dusty, and somewhat chaotic.  Pavements are narrow and occasionally cracked, with the odd weed edging the kerbstones.  Patrick Maybin’s adjective for the town – ‘uneventful’ – seems to apply as much now it did 75 years ago.

Via Graticola, FoggiaVia Graticola, Foggia

My arrival in Foggia

My drive to Foggia included a two-day stay in Bari; I spent two days in Foggia also. As Bari belongs in a later part of Patrick Maybin’s journey, I’ll cover it in a future post.

Northern Puglia is flat or only very gently rolling: easy country for an army to advance over, and hard to defend. It was only on approaching Foggia that I saw my first high ground. Over on the right, ahead of me was the Gargano Peninsula, the spur of on the ‘boot’ of Italy.

My two days in Foggia

I stayed at a small and pretty guesthouse near the Piazza Umberto Giordano, where even my very poor Italian and the proprietor’s lack of English did not get in the way of what communication was needed. Add to that the unexpected discovery that they did an outstanding dinner: no menu, just pasta, main, and cake courses. In particular the pasta had a sublime texture: I learnt what al dente really means during my stay there.

My main objective was to locate the building of the Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone, which still provides accommodation for the elderly who need it. However, the rest of the town was of interest to me because in its gentle ordinariness it seems representative of Italy. As well as the railway station, squares, park and churches I visited the civic museum (where the staff were immensely pleasant and helpful) in the hope of finding out more about Foggia in the Second World War.

It was at the museum that I fully realised the extent of the destruction of the city by Allied bombing: the old museum had been very badly damaged and many of its contents destroyed in Summer 1943; what collection there is today has been built up since then; and the ground floor includes many fragments of statues from the town that were damaged in the bombing.

Back out on the street two marches were taking place.

The first of these was a formal police parade accompanied by a brass a band.  It traversed a route of about half a kilometre and culminated in a ceremony in Piazza Cesare Battisti, one of the smaller squares. Due to my lack of Italian, and the fact that even the most basic of tourist English is not spoken in Foggia, I never did find out what the occasion was. However the band and the parade provided a colourful half hour.

Police parade, Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018Police parade
Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018

The second was more visceral. I heard it from several blocks away: angry shouting and loud music. This moved to an assembly point near the Piazza Umberto Giordano, where its purpose became clear. Unlike almost all the other inhabitants of Foggia these people were black Africans, agricultural workers exploited by crooked gangmasters. One of the Italian agricultural unions, the USB, had taken up their case and they were there to make their voices heard.

USB Agricultural Workers’ March Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018USB Agricultural Workers’ March
Foggia, Thursday 12th April 2018

Patrick Maybin’s departure

Patrick Maybin was not to stay long in Foggia. The Allies were making brisk progress up the eastern coast. Termoli had already been taken in October in a daring raid by British commandos. The front had already moved to around half an hour north of there, between the Trigno and Sangro rivers.

Less than two weeks after his arrival in Foggia, the Colonel commanding 19 CCS issued orders orders that included the following:

“Unit 3-ton Lorry will collect N.A.A.F.I. stores on Tues. 16 Nov. and remain loaded. Sister’s valises will be loaded on this lorry, which will proceed in rear of ambulance conveying Sisters, (date and time to be notified).

Capt Maybin R.A.M.C., will travel to new location on unit 3-ton lorry mentioned above.”

My departure

The road journey from Foggia to Termoli takes about an hour. I diverted to visit the seaside town of Manfredonia on the way. As Manfredonia also belongs in a later part of Patrick Maybin’s journey, I’ll cover it in a future post.

Patrick Maybin: 2nd to 14th November 1943
Neil Maybin: 11th to 13th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
WO 177/633 – 7 CCS War Diary, September to July 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 27 October 1943
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 6 November 1943
Foggia Airfield Complex (Wikipedia)
Fondazione Pia Maria Grazia Barone (Foundation website via Google Translate)
Italian Moonlight – poem by Patrick Maybin
Agricultural workers demonstration (USB website via Google translate)



Arrival of 19 CCS in 1943

On Saturday 23rd October 1943 at 5:30 pm after a four-day voyage from Bizerte in Tunisia, 19 CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) arrived in Taranto. At 10:00 am the following morning the unit commenced unloading: some were to travel the 220 Km or so to Foggia by road, the main body of troops and stores by train.

One recurring feature of the descriptions about Allied army life in the Italian Campaign is the forced communal living as part of a fighting unit. Some writers, such as Spike Milligan (Mussolini – His part In My Downfall), revelled in it and were bereft when it ended for them. Others, such as Eric Newby (Love and War in the Apenines) and Dan Billany (The Cage), found it far less agreeable. Up until he joined his unit in Sfax, Tunisia, Patrick Maybin’s war had allowed him substantial time for intellectual solitude: on army bases in England where he had time to read widely and write poetry; at the Military Hospital Inveraray in Scotland after his service on the Hospital Ship St Andrew; and even during his six weeks at the reinforcement camp in the cork forest near Philippeville (Skikda) in Algeria.

The revocation of his privacy and much of his personal time over his first three weeks with 19 CCS must have come as a shock. Its effects resulted in him being admitted to 70 General Hospital in a one-time sanatorium about 5 Km outside Taranto.

Fortunately this was only temporary, an despite everything he experienced subsequently, never reoccurred. Of his nine days in 70 General Hospital, he simply wrote:

We’ve been working very hard, which is interesting but rather exhausting after my 3 months holiday – hence the rather sombre quality of this letter, coupled with the fact that I’ve been a little overwhelmed by first contact with war in earnest. However, I’m coming up for air now, and return rapidly to normal.

Taranto Today

Taranto Map

Taranto today still has its docks, naval base and extensive industrial areas. These are on the west side of the city’s inland sea, the Mare Piccolo.  The Old Town is located on an island at the mouth of the Mare Piccolo, and dates from the first millennium. On the mainland to the south east is the New Town, which was planned and built from the nineteenth century onwards.

My Arrival in 2018

On a dull Monday lunchtime in early April I flew into Brindisi airport.  It was silent and almost empty, and by the time I had walked the five minutes to the open air car park I was on my own.

I was hoping to have a neat little Alfa Romeo for my journey: just within my budget and very practical for both motorways and congested towns. In their generosity, Europcar provided me with a VW people carrier. I took a deep breath, loaded my minimal luggage, and set off.

Car hope versus car reality - the Alfa versus the VW

Knowing little of Taranto I aimed for the biggest square nearest the centre.  My 80 Km drive took me through nondescript flat and slightly rolling countryside across the heel of Italy.  There were no significant hills and few noticeable trees.  I wondered whether perhaps this was simply a consequence of being on a motorway.

Nearer Taranto, the landscape became drabber.  The motorway into the city was edged by scrubland.  Driving across the bridge over the Mare Piccolo my view was largely obscured by the motorway barriers.  And then I was in Taranto itself, a potentially stressful drive through city streets averted by the absence of any significant level of other traffic.

I parked in Giardini Piazza Garibaldi and faced the first of many Italian motoring challenges: where could I pay to park? I discovered that in Taranto this question did not have a straightforward answer for a newcomer. In the end a handful of euros in the hands of a scruffy young man ensured that I was ushered into the one available space ahead of a couple of other drivers, with the implication that my car would be well looked after until my return.

Taranto New Town

Giardini Piazza GaribaldiThe most significant building in the New Town is in the Giardini Piazza Garibaldi, where I had parked. The Palazzo del Governo’s rust-red façade lowers over the square, as was no doubt intended by its Mussolini-era creator. Perhaps symbolically reflecting both the fate of Italian fascism and also the predicament of Taranto itself, this once-proud building now appears dilapidated and in a state of perpetual renovation.

Near the square is a highly rated archaeological museum.  With more time I would have visited it.

Elsewhere in the New Town, the shopping on offer reflected Taranto’s status as a provincial capital, but it had an incompleteness about it that perhaps resulted from the relative poverty of the region and a population that has declined by about 20% over the past four decades.  Around half the shops were closed for Monday.  The streets were quiet, apart from a few small groups of schoolchildren on their way home, crowding round little cafés and ice cream parlours.

Taranto Old Town

Old Town Panorama

The ancient Old Town could be picturesque but for its pervasive atmosphere of poverty and resignation. Within it run numerous shabby alleys whose emptiness is belied by clothes drying on lines wherever you look upwards. It would feel edgy, except that any energy to do harm has long been spent.

Old Town Views

It does not take much research to discover the cause of this. Taranto is the most polluted city in Western Europe. Its steel plant alone produces 8.8% of the total dioxins emitted in Europe, as well as large amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Local schools sometimes have to be closed because of this pollution. Cancer rates are 15% above the national average. Livestock are not allowed to graze within 20 Km of the steel plant, and indeed on driving northwards the landscape had the same wasted appearance as the city itself.

But often in the drabbest of places some people will make an effort. Several parts of the Old Town are decorated by bright, imaginative, murals. I liked these so much that I’ve used a selection of these as a header for this blog.

Railway Station

Taranto Station

The railway station is located in the docks and industrial area on the mainland to the west of the Old Town. It’s from here that Patrick Maybin would probably have travelled on Tuesday 2nd November 1943 to re-join his unit – and the war itself – in Foggia.

My departure from Taranto

The SS7 road that leads northwards to the main A14 autostrada that traverses the east side of Italy as far as Bologna begins in the docks and industrial area below Taranto’s railway station, just over the bridge from the Old Town. This was the real start of my journey, but it presented two challenges: where were the signposts, and which roads were one-way?


I took a guess that fortunately was correct, and was safely on my way.

Patrick Maybin: 23rd October to 2nd November 1943
Neil Maybin: Monday 9th April 2018

WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary 1943-44 (The National Archives)
Spike Milligan – Mussolini: His part In My Downfall
Eric Newby – Love and War in the Apenines
Dan Billany – The Cage
WO 177/1332 – 70 Gen Hosp (Br) War Diary 1944-45 (The National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 5 November 1943
Palazzo del Governo (translation of Italian Wikipedia entry)
Museo Nazionale,Taranto (Tripadvisor reports)
Italian town fighting for its life over polluting Ilva steelworks (Guardian, 2012)

Pollution closes Taranto schools (The Local, 2017)