My childhood was filled with stories and the excellent thing about that was that they were all utterly bonkers and quite true:
- My father’s losing his lower lip to a swinging tank-barrel and having it reconstructed with a graft from his bottom, so he was always talking out of his arse.
- The man-eating lioness which he tracked and shot precisely and fatally in the anus, and which we had as a living-room floor rug and on the head of which I used to sit.
- Floating Land Rovers across rivers by wrapping them in tarpaulins.
- Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, who so loved my Mother that he ordered two silver rings to be made, gave one to her, wore the other, and smashed the ringmould in front of her so no more could be made
- He also offered to adopt my sisters – way before I was born – in the instance that anything should happen to Dad, though in the end he himself was brutally murdered in the 1966 Nigerian coup; Dad himself was on a number of death lists.
- That Kissinger was dad’s lunch buddy at Harvard.
- The shotgun-wielding nutcases who tried to usurp a Canadian campground.
…and so on and so forth; but one of the greatest stories is evidenced by the discovery below.
Not long after Dad died we were sorting out his things and found a heavy-grade envelope containing a rosary and two air-mail letters; for the youth of today the Post Office of the time enforced a kind of IPQoS where you could buy special prepaid lightweight paper, write a message, seal it as a letter and receive express delivery – and these were two of they.
I reproduce the letters below; for background you need to know that Dad was a rapidly promoted Captain in the 1st Battalion Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) which having fought their way up through Anzio and Cassino led to the liberation of Rome.
Wikipedia will also tell you that US forces took Rome 4 June 1944 under US General Mark Clark – because the Loyals were attached to the US Army at that point; further reading will provide a hint of what my father thought about Mark Clark:
At the time, Truscott was shocked […] He went on to write “There has never been any doubt in my mind that had General Clark held loyally to General Alexander’s instructions, had he not changed the direction of my attack to the north-west on May 26, the strategic objectives of Anzio would have been accomplished in full. To be first in Rome was a poor compensation for this lost opportunity”.
Over the next day, the rearguards were gradually overwhelmed, and Rome was entered in the early hours of June 4 with Clark holding an impromptu press conference on the steps of the Town Hall on the Capitoline Hill that morning. He ensured the event was a strictly American affair by stationing military police at road junctions to refuse entry to the city by British military personnel.
Unfortunately for Clark he missed someone; Dad always had a thing for historical military uniforms and – as a child – always harboured a wish to see the Vatican Swiss Guard… and he’d just arrived in Rome.
What else do you do when you’re a victorious Captain but requisition some transport and go sight seeing?
So I’ll let Dad pick up the story of Monday June 5th 1944; I’ve done what I can with the transcription but can only apologise for his lack of use of questionmarks, and anything in [brackets] or ******ed is where I can’t read his writing. Note also the censorship-approval stamps:
Capt. D J Muffett
1Bn Loyal Rgt
My Dear Mother,
Well well things have [moved] haven’t they? I suppose you hear quite a lot these days from the air force. However we will hold off from the Second Front a bit and see how it goes and I’ll tell you instead of a remarkable experience that I have had.
On Monday I went into Rome to see the sights and have a look round. Unlike most Iti towns it is quite remarkable and reasonably clean (which is surprising) and doesn’t even smell (which is more surprising). Well I and another chap had a look at the Coliseum and the Temple of Vesta and the Forum and then wandered into the Palazza Venetza where some Jocks were
playing themselves in as the massed pipes and drums. We were standing around watching when a lady (about 38-40) came up and said “Excuse me but are you English” we said “yes” and she said “oh I am so pleased, ten years ago I married an Italian and have been here ever since. I used to live in Barons Court.” She took us round the place and showed us the Tiber Bridge, etc.
Well we left her and chuntered into St Peters. Now comes the joke. We wandered around a bit and looked at the ceilings (Michael Angelo) and the statue of St Peter. Then I said I want to see a Swiss Guard. So we wandered outside and had a look at one (in his utility Blue uniform and got a [smashing] Present as a pike!! Well he said “straight up those stairs sir” and shot us inside where there were a couple more. (This time in full dress) who
passed us up another flight of stairs, and a third lot shot us into a room where there were some very comfortable chairs so we sat down. Then a very charming Irish Priest came in and said “His Holiness will receive you in a few moments” – I could have dropped dead!! There were [four] of us in there (one was the [******]) so we went into a huddle and [worked] out the [******].
About ten minutes later there was a crashing all along the corridor and in he came surrounded by the noble guard (magnificent uniforms). He came to each of us in turn (the correct thing is to drop on one knee and and kiss St Peter’s ring on the 4th finger R hand.) It is an enormous stone fully 1/2 inch sq. and Blood red. (I was quite adept at this.
The narrative will now be continued in another letter which I will send off at the same time as this.
Captain D J Muffett
1st Bn Loyal Rgt
Well to continue. He spoke to each of us in perfect english and asked how we were, and had we heard from our families and were they well, were we married and had we been particularly [******fortable] and then we fell out after he had given the Papal blessing. Incidentally he gave each of us a rosary which I will send you as a memento by sea. It really was a memorable experience. What with the Coronation and that I do [clock] for State occasions don’t I.
Well I am sure that you will be glad to know that I am unscathed and sound in mind and limb. A certain [******] impression will indelibly remain but on the whole I have been very lucky.
The weather has been very good to us and is still boiling hot. I am [waking] up a [*****] tan and am unfalteringly healthy. [Well*****on] please send me some Dettol. A tin if you can get it rather than a bottle. My love to Barney I suppose he looks grand. Encourage him to bring you things and perhaps about Sept Pa could arrange for him to go to a keeper for a month or so to finish off his [training]. Perhaps Mr Morton will know someone.
My love to Arthur and Joan and Maurice. Is he in the second front yet and haven’t they landed yet. Whatever happens you must keep your chin up and keep [smiling]. I am quite sure we will both be OK and anyway why worry.
I hope that the weather soon turns
you up and that you get fit and able to go out.
My only worry so far is that I have smashed my watch up which is a pity. However I will soon get another out here.
Well I have exceeded my quota this week by quite a lot this week and the well is beginning to run dry. So TTFN
All my love
That’s not all there is to the story – there is more, I have it on tape somewhere; he was the senior officer amongst the (ISTR) three British who were presented – and he had to order a Scots presbyterian who was “agin’ all this papist nonsense” to behave; I think one of the less-legible references in there is about them scrubbing-up prior to meeting the Pope; and then there was the American newspaper photographer who mid-ceremony shouted:
“HOLD IT, POPE!”
…when the pontiff raised his hand in blessing, so that he could get the perfect shot for the cover of (again, ISTR) the New York Times; and the BBC correspondent whom Dad later ran into in Nigeria, who had also seen and heard it all. I think that was Hugh Greene but my sisters will doubtless correct me if I’m wrong.
For a taste, perhaps not of the exact occasion but one around that time, I found a papal speech on the interwebs; but also there’s the US propaganda video on YouTube:
…and yes, there are Jocks.