Satyen Basu, a doctor from Calcutta, joined the Indian Medical Service (the army medical corps) early in the Second World War and served with the Allied forces in Iraq, Syria and North Africa. His unit surrended near Tobruk in 1942 and he was transported to a POW camp in southern Italy, not far from Naples.
Many years after the war Dr. Basu wrote an account of his wartime experiences. Entitled A Doctor in the Army the memoir was privately published in Calcutta in 1960. Over the next few days I will post some pages from the book: Dr. Basu’s words are transcribed here just as they were printed, without any editing. This is part 4 of 4.
One was entitled to write two letters in a week, but for medical men it was a privilege that we were allowed to write four. Naturally loath to write letters, I did not know what to do with all those letter cards. But in the prison one is keen to hear from outside. For all these seven months I had been writing to every acquaintance whose address I knew anywhere in the world in the fond hope of getting a reply from some one sometime and thus make contact with the outside world. I had almost given up hope when one afternoon Capt. K our postal officer appeared with his usual frown on his forehead. He gave you the impression as if he was always annoyed at you. But it was just a feature of his face which belied the man. He did a good Samaritan’s job collecting all incoming and outgoing mail and helping the Italians in consolidating them. Air service had been introduced for outgoing mail since October, and Capt. K had to collect the stamp charges and stamp them. He had brought for me a post card from uncle B. This was the first contact I had with the outside world in eight months and I was so overjoyed to receive it that I even forgot to thank him. “Any luck with you?” I asked him a little later. “No,” he said with a sad face. In his ten months’ stay inside the prison Capt. K had delivered hundreds of letters but had never received one himself. Not that there was nobody to care for him. He had received once a clothing parcel from home. But his letters somehow missed their way. It took about two months for a letter to go either way, so one could expect a reply in four months’ time. Our letters used to go via Sofia and Istanbul. Letters bound for England used to travel via Rome and Lisbon. Air mail service was established and I was fortunate enough to receive all told half a dozen letters from India in another three months. But I think the most important letter that was delivered in the camp belonged to Capt. N, the gunner officer. He was in charge of the Red Cross parcels. His wife was in the family way when he was caught five months ago, and he had not heard anything since. An honest and efficient officer as he was, Capt. N was a bit fidgety and quick tempered, and this suspense and worry about his home had made him almost a neurotic, when came a letter with photos of his wife and newly born daughter. All the offrcers shared Capt. IY’s joy. I sent my felicitations to his people in a poem entitled To Miss Shiela N, which showed me out as a real sympathiser of Capt. N and did more than anything to cement my friendship with him.
As we were steadily settling down to this prison life more amenities were added. We knew that the prison authorities did nob provide them out of sheer benevolence. A Swiss representative of the international Red Cross used to visit the prison camps once in two months to check up if facilities given to prisoners were according to international convention. As they had the maximum number of prisoners of war belonging to a nationality, the Italians were rather afraid of reprisals. Wooden cupboards, stools, and chairs enough according to proportionate strength, had been provided a week previously. Fresh blankets and linen were provided for the bed in the medical inspection room immediately before the Commission’s arrival. The commander proudly showed him the nice stage we had made in the recreation room as if it was one of his achievements. But more facilities were added. A fenced paddock about 160 sq. yard in area and adjoining our camp area was made available to us in the day-time. We leveled up the whole area, and converted it into a rugby and basketball ground. Balls were available and the matches were extremely interesting and enjoyable not only because they created after a long time an atmosphere of freedom, but also because the games had to be played with more pluck than dash. For even if one did not mind a broken limb, one had to be careful about one’s clothes. From the paddock one could see the smouldering Vesuvius at a distance, and in the evening, even the flames.
But the most coveted blessing was the arrangement made for a hot bath. Used to daily baths in normal times, the lack of facilities for a bath had been the biggest scourge to an Indian in the desert. Now that water was available in plenty in the three bath-houses, we used to bathe daily even if it was freezing outside. But a cold bath, though refreshing, does not always clean. The dirt sticks to the grease on the body and cannot be washed away with cold water. They first made a temporary arrangement for a hot shower bath by fitting water pipes into a boiler lit by faggots. The whole room would be full of smoke, and not more than eight or ten men could be accommodated at a time.
Water was scanty and on rare occasion would suddenly stop when you had only half washed away the lather: from your body. With all that, the announcement for a day of hot bath was looked forward to with keen interest. Imagine our delight when geysers were installed and a big hall with arrangements for thirtyfive showers working at a time were now open to us. We could now all have a hot bath every week and there was plenty of water not only to wash our bodies but even to wash our clothes. An Indian does not normally take a bath naked in the presence of another person. The army life had helped us to get over it in most cases, though some of us were still shy. But thirtyfive persons in one hall, having a bath together with nothing on but their bare skin certainly gave them enough moral courage to do away with that silly prejudice. One thing we had to be particularly careful about-soap. Soap was rare in Italy and a cake of good toilet soap of the kind we used to have in our Red Cross parcels could not be had for any price. Naturally a night sentry could not resist his temptation if he discovered such a thing handy on the window-sill. He has no interest in the soap case. Or if you forget to carry your soap while coming out of the bath-room, you were sure to miss it even if you returned within a minute. The small bits of soap that were thrown away used to be carefully collected by the sentries accompanying us. That was precious stuff, they assured us.
In spite of our taboo we had by now mixed with Italians enough to know some of their characteristics. Monarchist or fascist, most of them disliked the war and never failed to express it when given a chance. The order forbidding an Italian sentry to talk to us, prisoners, was more a punishment to him than to us. For an Italian loves to talk, and talk with gesticulations of limbs and body. He was dying for a talk. Talk to him a few words and he would at first entreat you not to break orders but if you persisted, instead of getting annoyed with you he would blurt out and open his mind to you. “I am as much a prisoner here as you are, with this difference that whilst you can at least talk amongst yourselves, I can talk to none. I am longing for the day I can discard this army uniform,” a sentry confided to me. But a carabinieri sentry was more reserved. The Carabinieri was the peace-time police army in Italy. As policemen they are the very pick of the Italians, and can be depended upon by whoever he is serving under. Handed over from the old Royal army, they were an asset to Mussolini when he took over the reins of affairs from the king.
And again an Italian from the north is very different from the Neapolitans. He (the Neapolitan) speaks a different tongue altogether, has a good mixture of dark people and is generally exuberant in his feelings, while a Northerner is taller, fairer and more reserved. I had to go to the camp office on a few occasions. The office lacked dignity to our disciplined mind. For a Neapolitan can never talk quietly. He has to shout and gesticulate. Everybody shouting at everybody, it looked to me more like a fish market than an office. But it was normal with them. It also gave the accounts clerk an opportunity to talk to me officially. Eager to make friends, he immediately utilised this privilege in making my friend- ship. On a flimsy pretext he came to my room only to talk to me for an hour, when he showed me the picture of his sweetheart to be appreciated. But whether from the north or the south or whether a fascist or a monarchist, the Italians had one common sentiment – their hatred for the Germans. I gathered it was more a reaction of the German contempt for the Italian as an inferior race. It was apparent, the unity between the two peoples was very artificial and their fight as brothers-in-arms did not remove that feeling. As a matter of fact, the Italian happened to be ruled by the German even in his own country. We learned that all the anti-aircraft guns were manned by Germans-the Italians were not trusted for key jobs. There were two railway lines going on either side of our camp. We used to watch them and keep notes as to how many trains were travelling in which direction, and what stuff they werecarrying. And it was remarkable that Italians had mostly to travel in goods trains, for the passenger trains had to be allotted to the Germans.
The business that brought me to the accounts office was of course the rounding up of officers’ accounts. I happened to be the camp’s banker at that moment-a thankless job thrust on me by Major K for which I never ceased cursing him. I was terribly worried. In the night sometimes I would wake up in the midst of a calculation I had been making in my dreams. The figures haunted me like ghosts. After a month’s trial I gave up and was determined not to carry on, so that other people had to be found. But I received appreciation from my customers. In the concert show they nicely caricatured me as the worried manager of a liquidating bank. Of the Italian officers, there were as everywhere else good, bad and indifferent ones. But very few were really vindictive. Only on three or four occasions did any Italian officer complain against individual P.O.W.s for obstructing an officer carrying out his duties. I must admit that on these occasions the individual was mostly free from blame but the punishments given were only token punishments just to save the prestige of the Italian officer. The Italian officer interpreter was more of a crook, and in collaboration with the Italian Major devised all sorts of ways to extract money from us. There was a tall officer who was always absent-minded-it was apparent he did not tike his job. We used to refer to him as the philosopher. One day we became very curious and asked him what he had been doing before joining the army. And what a coincidence he was a philosopher and an art critic by profession. He was attached to Indian philosophy and tried hard to learn Sanskrit but gave up. “Malto difficile” he nodded. The Roman Catholic padre was of course the most respected officer of the camp. The few Catholics that we had amongst us must have found great solace in confessing to him every Sunday at the church service he held – for if I believed in sins and confessions, I certainly would have preferred a man like him to another. Seldom have I met anybody of a more sweet and amiable disposition. Most of the officers too were not at all happy at being involved in a war that compelled them to give up their civic life and join the army. “I have been practising in the bar,” one officer confided to me, “and was virtually kidnapped from my place and dropped into this blinking hole.”