The scenes from Rome during the TV coverage of the election of Pope Francis earlier this year brought back memories of my only visit to the Eternal City in October 1946.
I was serving with the army in Austria when a notice appeared on the camp notice board inviting applica- tions to take part in a Rome historical course. The prospect of a trip to Rome appealed to me and I submitted my name.
To my surprise I was the only applicant from my unit and in due course I boarded a train for the overnight trip to the Italian capital.
We were housed in a camp on the outskirts of the city and were transported around in an army 3 ton truck.
The course was conducted by a Major and a Sergeant from the Army Educational Corps. The Majors fanatical interest in Roman history convinced us that he retired to bed at night clad in a toga!
We had talks in the mornings and visits to various locations in the afternoons, such as The Forum, The Coliseum and The Pantheon. We could hardly miss the Memorial to Victor Emmanual known appropriately as the Wedding Cake due to it’s appearance.
One day was set aside for a visit to the Vatican City where the uniforms of the Swiss Guards made us feel that we were stepping back in time. We saw through the Basilica of St. Peter, marvelled at the roof of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo and climbed up to the dome to enjoy the view. We finally ascended a ladder which took us four at a time into the ball which is surmounted by the cross. The Vatican museum contains a virtual treasure trove of gifts presented to the various Popes throughout the centuries. The most poignant memory however is of a visit to the Ardeantine caves which lie just outside Rome. During the latter stages of the war a bomb attack by members of the Italian Resistance movement killed 35 German SS troops.
In retaliation Field Marshall Kesselring, the German Commander in Italy, ordered that 335 Italian hostages from all walks of life, be rounded up and taken to the caves and shot. The caves were then sealed up. The War Graves Commission were responsible for opening up the caves, which when we saw them were lined with plain wooden coffins, each one a shrine to the unfortunate victims of this atrocity. A tragic reminder of the brutality of war.
Following the end of the course we had to wait several days for a train to take us back to our various units and as a result we ran out of money. The solution was to draw our daily free issue of fags and sell them to the locals which enabled us to survive.
The fact that I have never returned is probably due to the fact that I was either too skint or too mean to toss a coin into the fountain of Trevi! Bob McDonald.