Archive for April 3rd, 2012

An Indian POW in Italy: part 2 of 4

April 3, 2012 in An Indian POW in Italy | Comments (0)


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 2 of 4.






Since December it had been freezing cold, yet we had no winter clothing. People used to go about wrapping themselves in blankets. With only two blankets and not quite good stuff at that, the nights were spent mostly without sleep. With two cotton bed sheets and two blankets we attempted all sorts of experiments to make ourselves warmer but in vain. Finally we just wrapped ourselves with two layers of blankets with the bed sheets in between the blankets-and that helped. I had purchased a pair of cotton gloves from ordnance people.That did not prevent chilblains on my fingers. Every night it was a problem with me whether to sleep with gloves on or not. To get up early in the morning to attend the parade was a regular ordeal and quite a number of people including doctors started faking sickness just to avoid the morning roll call. Soon we were in the middle of January, the bitterest cold part of the year. In the morning, the ground first soaked in dew used to freeze hard like rock. The icicles hanging from the corrugated roof of our bungalow and snow streaks on the Vesuvius in the distance were lovely to look at. To go about without winter clothing was not so pleasant. But at last, thanks to the good old Red Cross, the winter clothings did arrive. Woollen vests, drawers, jerseys and gloves, serge battle dress and greatcoats. Here again the stock was limited and one could only have what he did not possess. And here again responsible King’s Commissioned Officers did not flinch to tell a lie if only to have an extra pair of gloves, not to speak of a greatcoat.

It was slowly revealed to me that this prison life was really not so bad as I at first apprehended. Of course, man is adaptable, we Indians possibly more so than others. For centuries we have been used to an autocratic rule, good or bad, and quietly submitting to fate seemed natural to us. To me, personally, it was not at all an uncomfortable life. Normally my needs are small and food, now that the Red Cross parcels were regular, was just enough for me. Not being used to a fast life, I did not much mind the restrictions to our movements. After all even in the field one does not go about a lot. It was a life free from responsibility and comparatively free from danger. I could now quietly get into my corner and read a book. As regards books, we were in happier position than the other camps. That was because we had our quota through the Red Cross in proportion to our strength, and as the bulk of our members consisted of V.C.O.s only a few of whom could read English. When I spoke my mind to Lt. Y the Cavalry officer and asked him how he felt, he replied that it was in this prison that he had spent some of the best moments of his life. Never before, he declared, was he so free from worries and allowed to follow his own pursuits – books. Most of the other officers used to protest about their sad plight. But even those were not so dejected as not to make the best of the facilities available.

For instance the camp commander did not object to our purchasing from him a dilapidated wooden hut for Rs. 5000. They also lent or sold us some carpenters’ tools and our sappers erected a magnificent stage with sliding screens in the recreation hall. The pugri cloth offered by the Sikhs made beautiful saris and some clever V.C.O.s used to make nicely designed dress from the paper packings and tinfoil wrappings from the food parcels and cigarettes. We had bought a few musical instruments and received one as a present from His Holiness the Pope. So we started a full-fledged Indian concert party. There was not even a dearth of playwrights. Soon it became a regular fortnightly show. Starting with small pieces, we later ventured on a full-length drama which, with our limitations, was a grand success. The Gurkhas particularly gave us another surprise. The most disciplined soldier in the world, the Gurkhas are generally associated in the Indian mind with military repression during mass upsurge. It is difficult to imagine they had an artistic mind or that they appreciate art. But they gave some notable demonstrations of the Indian dance.

There was a talk of putting walls round our camp so that we might not be exposed to the curious gaze of Italian civilians from outside. From our point of view, we did not mind at all being seen by other people, though we were inside the barbed wire fencing. As a matter of fact, this afforded us the opportunity of seeing a few civilian faces and we liked it. We were forbidden by the prison authorities on pain of punishment to communicate even with an Italian sentry, not to mention a civilian. But we frequently circumvented that order, and the Italian sentry did not mind much. And the Italian civilian was generally of a congenial temperament. It was interesting to see an old dame trying to convey her sincere sympathy to us by her gestures and her grandchild corroborating her sentiments. It was then our turn to throw a bit of chocolate that we had from the Red Cross parcel just to see the child smile. And how ardently it conveyed its joy on receiving that bit of chocolate! They were poor villagers and in these days of ration they could not usually afford chocolates.




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