Archive for April 4th, 2012

An Indian POW in Italy: Part 3 of 4

April 4, 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 3 of 4.





It was a rare spectacle in the army, to see a child smile not to speak in the prison. The Italian girls were quite interesting too. One waved back when they waved at you with a smile, but you had to be careful that you were not caught by the camp Major in the process, or you were sent to the ‘clink’. It was but natural for the camp authorities to discourage intimacy between a prisoner of war and an Italian citizen – lest it helped our escape. We slowly picked up the gesture language they used. If a girl poked her cheek with her forefinger, it meant “I love you”. If she drew a line on her cheek with her forefinger from head to chin, it meant, “What a nice boy”. Or if she brushed the under surface of her chin from behind forwards with her fingers, it meant “Get away, I don’t like you.”

To our list of occupations for passing the time were added practical jokes though they were naturally never appreciated by the victims. (And to think that those who protested vehemently their captivity had by now developed that stable temperament to indulge in jokes.) They were not any the less interesting for that and worth mentioning.

One morning Capt. M the seniormost doctor in the camp received a letter from a friend that he had been promoted to the rank of a Major, which news he had been expecting to receive for some time. The letter had experienced the censor’s scissors as usual, but that portion was discernible. An officer happened to drop in when Capt. M was reading the letter from his friend and naturally Capt. M told of his recent promotion. The story spread, so we all in our turn went and congratulated Major M who even promised to entertain us with a party. He was furious when he learnt that the letter had been forged, and complained to the camp commander that the culprit must be brought to book. In vain did Major K remonstrate with him that the wisest thing was to ignore such trifles. But the matter did not roll further.

The joke on Major A was more interesting – and here again Lt. S, the perpetrator of the ‘majority’ joke and incidentally our catering officer was the culprit. When prices were high and means were small it was not unusual for several officers to collect and pool their money for a thing they would share. So Major A with two other officers bought shares in a chicken. They were waiting for a big day to kill it for dinner, and in the meantirne left it in charge of I-t. S to feed it from leavings in the pantry. One morning Lt. S produced an omelette for an officer at the breakfast table. An egg was a rare sight in the prison, and everybody was curious to know as to how it came. But Lt. S announced that the chicken in the pantry has started laying eggs. Major A and his friends were interested. The egg must be theirs then. One of the share-holders of the chicken who had since intended to sell his share, seeing now that the chicken had started laying eggs, abandoned the idea. But Lt. S was quiet. Next morning he produced another omelette for another officer at breakfast. Major A was casting sidelong glances at the omelette. The sight of other people enjoying the eggs from his chicken was too much for him. He wanted an explanation from Lt. S, but he coolly replied, that as the catering officer, he had the right to dispose of the eggs. “The chicken is yours for the killing” he argued, “but the eggs are purely at my disposal for I have fed it from the pantry leavings”. Major A took the matter up to the camp commander. In the enquiry it was found out that the omelettes had been prepared from egg flakes that were sent in tins in the
Canadian parcels, through the Red Cross. This was the first time that egg flakes came. The chicken never laid the eggs-as a matter of fact it was a rooster. Major A was furious at this slight at his dignity by a petty subaltern. But the joke was worth it and I am sure in his quieter moments he had enjoyed it himself.

Incidents like these made Major K’s task of managing or commanding the camp certainly no easy matter for if he was flouted by a subordinate, his only court of appeal in the circumstances was the Italian authorities. And that would never raise us, Indians, in the estimation of the Italians. It was up to the officers not to allow any such occasion to arise. But unhappily not all people realised it. And those who did were often the victims of other people’s unscrupulousness. There were other troubles too. A suggestive hint from the Italian camp Major that Subhas Chandra Bose could come and talk to us if we wished was just waived aside. The news leaked out to .us though that there was a Marhatta L.-Nk. who was working for a Free Indian army and he had already made a dozen converts. Then there was the talk if we would do away with the British National Anthem GOD SAVE THE KING and replace it by Iqbal’s song at the close of Indian concerts. A compromise was finally arrived at and both were sung. Major K’s difficulty in handling the situation could only be understood in that particular context. The situation has now entirely changed and many such problems would not now arise at all.

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