A joyful reunion: Ted Todhunter

The letters below were written in December 1944 by Brigadier E.J. (Ted) Todhunter to his wife. They describe a visit to a number of peasant families in villages near Camaldoli, in Tuscany, who, at great risk of retribution from the Germans and Fascists, had sheltered him and fellow PoWs the previous year during their escape. They are a remarkable record of a time of great suffering and courage – and of a joyful and triumphant reunion. Brigadier Todhunter’s family has kindly allowed the Trust to publish them, unedited. The only change made has been to split the letters into paragraphs, for easier legibility. Originally they were written as one paragraph, to save space.

Michael Todhunter gives the following background information about his father, who died in 1976:

My father was born in 1900 and was captured at Mechili  actually by the Germans, by whom he was well treated, but was later handed over to the Italians, because technically the Western Desert was their “theatre”. When he was captured he was with General Gambier-Parry, but a number of other generals were taken at the same time  including Neame, O’Connor and Combe.

“E.J.T.was held, together with other high-ranking officers, at Campo 12 at Castello di Vincigliata at Fiesole and escaped at the time of the Armistice [September 1943]. He and the other generals were put in a special train to Arezzo and from there they were taken by bus to the Monastery of Camaldoli. They fanned out into the hills where they were looked after by peasant families and assisted the partisans commanded by “Libero” [Riccardo Fedel]. In May 1944, E.J.T. and Major General John Combe made their way over the mountains to Porto San Giorgio from where they sailed down the coast to the Allied lines.

“They were sent by General McCreery to General Alexander in Naples and from there to General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson in Alexandria, who arranged for them to be flown home and straight to Winston Churchill at Chequers to brief him on the strength of the partisans in northern Italy. E.J.T subsequently joined the staff in Rome.”

 Letter No. 27 17/12/44

 My own Darling,

I am afraid I have not written for a few days not because I am idle or because I have stopped loving you but because I have been up in the mountains seeing my friends.

I set off on Wed: with toys for 22 children about 1,000 cigarettes and some soap and razor blades. I knew that the roads were difficult but I made enquiries and was told that the shortest way from here was allright. I got to within 5 miles of the road I wanted and within sight of it when I got stuck because the Arno was up a bit and I could not ford it in the jeep. This caused a bit of delay as I had to go 90 miles round to find a bridge only to find other bridges pulled up and to get the car to S. Sofia where I proposed to start walking would have meant another journey round of 200 miles. As a result I stayed the night at the monastery al Premmo where I found Don Leone who did so much for us in Sept 1943 and he luckily offered to come and walk with me.

It was bitterly cold and snowed quite hard during the night but we started off next morning at 8 a.m. We tried all sorts of mountaineering feats with the jeep, but bridges down, roads blown and snow and mud finally beat us and at 11 o’clock we had to make up our minds to give up or walk. I must say that my Christian charity and general Boy Scout mood was wearing a bit thin as it was snowing hard and very cold, a really long hard walk looked most uninviting. However my better nature triumphed after a bitter struggle with sloth and we packed the presents and a razor and pyjamas into a pack, which weighed a ton, but luckily Leone volunteered to carry it, which I let him do as his is 15 years younger than I am.

The first hour was all uphill and on the top there was about 8 inches of snow, with fine snow, bit luckily not much, falling all the time. We then went down hill for another ½ hour to find two families: the Rossi’s with whom Pipol (?) and the Air Marshal and Rudolf lived in Sept and Oct of ’43 and Ubaldo (?) with whom John and General Dick lived at the same time. Their own houses and almost everything they possessed had been burnt by the Germans as a reprisal after a Partisan battle but luckily they were warned and cleared out in time. As a result they were living in even greater squalor than usual 1 ½ hours walk away from their farms.  Although the Rossi men and girls were away and only Granny and the children were at home there was a great welcome, a fore taste of what was to come, and we had lunch of bread and cheese and wine.

The toys were a great success, so were the cigarettes and soap and I saw my godson called Guiseppe after me: a most revolting snotty nosed brat of 8 months; even I could not find him attractive. I took some photographs and we pushed on about 1.30.  Lyford and the jeep had been left to the tender mercies of Leone’s sister who is married to the Contessa Senni’s gardener at Badia Priataglia.  Luckily the rain had stopped but it had become very muggy; we had ½ an hour downhill, very muddy to the river which we managed to cross dry shod and then 2 ½ hours solid steep climbing about 2,000 feet, very tiring and I sweated off about a stone. After that an hour downhill took us to Maurigio’s mill where G.P. and Guy lived for a long time.

I left Leone there and went on about 20 minutes to Sandrino’s house where I lived last Dec, Jan and Feb: they had just finished supper and when I walked in there was a gasp of surprise and then the whole family fell on me (I must go on on another card) Ted

Letter No. 28 17/12/44

My own Darling,

(This is a continuation of No. 27 so it won’t make sense if it arrives first)  Both arms were nearly torn off and everyone had to be kissed: I had never imagined such a welcome and they all said “We knew you would come back: you said you would and you have always kept your promises”.  After a very talkative supper the toys were produced, rifles for the boys, small dolls for the girls except my sweet Maria for whom I had found a big one.  I asked her if she remembered that I had promised to bring her something and she said “Yes a doll” so I told her to look in my pack: she pulled it out and unpacked it with her eyes getting bigger and bigger and when she finally found it she looked at it quite silently for about ½ a minute and said very solemnly “It isn’t really true it’s for me” so I said “Yes” and she just came like a whirlwind onto my lap gave me an enormous kiss and burst into floods of tears.

However it was all a great success and as I was very tired and stiff I went to bed about 9 o’clock after paying a short visit to Pips woman, a Rossi sister next door.  Next day I made a sort of triumphal progress to the Gregoris at Rio Salso (?) where John and I lived in Nov 1943. By this time the news had got round that I had arrived and at every house we passed there were cheers and pressing invitations to eat and drink. I managed to avoid most of it by saying I would call on the way back but even so I found 1 ½ hours walk a pretty arduous ????.  At Rio Salso I had an enormous lunch, pasta, roast pigeon and fried potatoes and cheese and got rid of some more toys and a great deal of talk.

We started back again about two o’clock but it took a very long time as every house on the way had got something special ready to eat or drink or both.  By the time I got  back into the valley I was simply stupid with food: however I bravely went on to the house where John lived to find another huge meal being got ready: the very best of the old wine, kept from the Germans by being buried and things they call ‘Parading’.  They are made of eggs and flour and bicarbonate and fried very quickly in deep fat so that they puff up like inflated batter and you eat them hot out of the pan dripping with boiling grease, a most indigestible form of food made worse by having oceans of cold and very strong red wine slung down on top of them.  I managed to eat a few and I am afraid they thought I was a pretty poor fish, but my unfortunate and maltreated stomach would take no more.

After two or three more visits I got back to Sandrino’s house at 6 o’clock where a vast supper had been prepared in honour of me and Leone. We had tortelli, which are made of dough and potatoes, rabbit, sausages, cheese, apples and nuts, a really outstanding ‘festa’ and afterwards crowds of people came to pay a call and talk. I counted 60 people in the kitchen at one time and they had come for miles. The next morning darling old Granny had baked a special sponge cake in case I was hungry on the journey and food was thrust on me from every angle  I was lent a so called horse, an animal as weak as a ???? with a huge and uncomfortable contraption to sit on (goes on in 29) Ted

Letter No 29 17/12/44

 My own Darling

This is a continuation of 27 & 28 and makes little or no sense without them. The animal was attached by a piece of string to a small boy in front so I had no control at all especially as my feet would not go into the irons, the leathers would only support a rabbit and were miles too short and of different lengths. I picked up Leone on a very scrawny donkey and we got off about 7.45. Our transport stuck it for about 2 hours of the journey but I was terrified all the time on these narrow steep rocky mountain paths and Leone took a proper jerk when the donkey sat down and slid on a slab of steep rock and he was decanted over the stern.

Two more hours walking mostly in snow got us back to Badia Pra Faglia and the car.  Leone then had to say his Mass so I talked to the Priest of the village a first rate chap who had done a lot of Partigiani work. He was arrested by the Fascists with Leone’s brother in law and the two Senni girls and was actually tied up waiting to be shot in the square at Arezzo when a German officer arrived and insisted skipping the whole show because they had not had a trial. They were then carted off to Florence, released after a few weeks for lack of evidence. What an experience !

Later we had a colossal lunch with Leone’s sister and I got back to Florence in time for dinner. The whole thing gave a good deal of pleasure to a lot of people. On the whole they have suffered very little damage and are as well if not better off than anyone in Italy as there is very little change from their pre war standard of living. I was amazed that in all the houses I went to I was never asked for anything except to take a letter to Rome and to write a letter to say that a chap was not a deserter: there was no sign of cadging. The warmth of my welcome really did surprise me and the really long distances people walked just to shake hand and have a crack. One warrior walked 2 ½ hours each way to the village, found he had missed me when he got there and cheerfully walked another 2 hours each way just to say how glad he was that I had (??????)

The photographs of you and the children had a howling success: yours was specially admired and it was agreed that you were a ‘bellissima donna’ and had worn wonderfully well for your age and four children!  In case your head swells I must tell you that beauty is judged largely by weight in these parts and one old granny after gazing at you for some time said ‘What milk she must make !’

I am going back to Rome on Thursday to continue my battle but with Jim Gammell (??) and George Clark gone home my affairs are a bit upset. I got some early Dec (?) letters yesterday and I entirely agree with all your plans for Tuffy and I think you are marvellous as usual. I have seen a lot of the Dungs (?) and tell Bobkin (?) I am still robbing him at piquet ! Darling I hope you are not bored with this rather dull recital of my doings. I took a lot of photographs and they may amuse you if I ever get them home. I adore you more and more every day.

All my dearest love to you all,