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Our war was no Italian picnic; About 100 World War II veterans have been invited to a reunion at the Imperial War Museum in London tomorrow to mark the 60th anniversary of the surrender of German forces in Italy. Reg Clifton, the only Birmingham veteran invited, shared his memories with Emma Pinch.

Byline: Emma Pinch

D-Day Dodgers. That's what politician Lady Astor belittlingly branded soldiers in the Italian campaign.

Sunbathing and drinking wine while their brothers-in-arms risked their lives on the beaches was the claim.

For Reg Clifton it is a sting that still smarts. He even has a copy somewhere of a letter his comrades sent back to her.

'That was very hard-hearted,' he said. 'We'd already done two invasions by D-Day. Someone wrote a letter and told her how many were wounded and didn't come back.'

Reg was a 20-year-old meat counter assistant at a provisions store in London when he was called up to join the Royal Fusiliers.

A few weeks later he was dropping, with a blow-up rubber ring round his waist, into the seas off Sicily.

Napoleon Bonaparte said an army marches on its stomach, and Reg's mission was to fill that collective stomach - 30 soldiers, to be precise - as best as he could.

July in Sicily was as different from the meat counter as Reg could have imagined. Shimmering heat, dusty whitewashed villages and the chirrup of crickets all about.

But with the enemy all around, Reg had to keep his mind on the job at hand.

'The main problem was that there were no ingredients,' he said. 'We were three months without bread. We had haversack rations of hard biscuits and corned beef.

'For lunch it was a tin of vegetables with bits of meat in. It was horrible stuff. There was no salt and pepper and everything was covered in dust.'

The regiment's mission was to capture airfields from the Germans so that Spitfires could use them for refuelling.

'Sicily was very nice, but very dusty,' said Reg. 'I remember the smell of it, getting up your nose.

'We had sackfuls of meat and vegetables that were dehydrated. I went on an Army cookery course that didn't show me anything like that. I had to use my head a bit.'

The Italians would swap three or four eggs for a tin of corned beef. But the fresh, juicy oranges hanging temptingly about the soldiers were forbidden.

'We were told not to touch them because they were booby-trapped,' he said. 'After a meal one day, one man went to clean his mess tin in a river 200 yards away. A shell came over and killed him instantly.'

Reg's most terrifying experience happened one night in Catania. They were bedding down in a field, while RAF servicemen slept in an adjoining one, when overhead came the roar of German planes.

'They started dropping flares and they lit up the place like daylight. They bombarded us with shells, they were dropping yards away from us.

'I crawled underneath a steamroller. Two or three of my colleagues got killed down there and the RAF were severely chopped up. It was very frightening.'

In September, they were moved on to Salerno in southern Italy, pushing back the enemy, capturing airfields, and fighting in the rubble of the monastery on Monte Cassino where the Germans were making a last stand.

Reg's most vivid recollection of the war coming to an end is standing in one of the airfields his unit was making useable, and witnessing the might of the Allied airforces heading for Monte Cassino.

'I was in that airfield and seeing hundreds, literally hundreds, of aeroplanes going to Monte Cassino. They shut out daylight. It was incredible.'

Reg learned that the Germans had surrendered while on a leave day he was spending in Rome.

'I wasn't really expecting it so soon,' he said. 'I got the news at the YMCA I was stopping at. The Italians were not overwhelmed. They took it in their stride, I suppose.

'I was pretty pleased. I hadn't seen my family for three years. My mother was a widow and when I was called up I was just beginning to earn a few shillings. I wasn't much good to her over here.'

After the war he married his wife Minnie - who passed away 18 months ago - and moved from London to Erdington where her family were based, and became a chef.

He has been back to Italy twice, and seen the restoration of the monastery. They were occasions to reflect on a life-changing year. Sunbathing and Italian wines did not feature large in his memory of it


Reg Clifton at his home in Turfpit Lane, Erdington; Reg Clifton holds

an image of himself taken in 1941
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 3, 2005
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