“We have no secrets,” Carly Simon sang, “We tell each other everything.” That may be true of our contemporary confessional age but it wasn’t the case for the generation that fought and survived the Second World War. Our fathers and mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers and other relatives were very tight-lipped. There is a bit of anecdotal evidence to be gleaned, the odd dark hint, some unverified myths about the war and family members’ roles in it, but often not much more.
In my own case I know, for example, that two of my uncles had extraordinary wartime experiences: one was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for successfully outmanoeuvring three Japanese Zero fighters during their sustained attack on his unarmed artillery spotter plane off the Burmese coast. The other – a naval rating in his teens – was ordered to turn his heavy-calibre machine gun on hostile communist militia in Athens in December 1944 and open fire. He obeyed the order. I knew my uncles well in their mundane postwar life – one an engineer, the other a farmer – but they never, ever talked about what they had gone through as very young men.
Tim Clark, co-author (with the journalist Nick Cook) of this fascinating, quietly profound book, experienced the same reticence with his father, Robert Clark. He knew very little about his father’s war. He was aware that Robert had been in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Italy in 1944; that he had met his future wife then, a radio operator for his SOE unit based in the southern Italian town of Monopoli (hence the book’s title); and that he had been captured in late 1944 while on a mission behind enemy lines, serving out the rest of the war as a PoW. And that was about it. After his father’s death in 2013 Clark decided to see if these fragments could produce a richer narrative and embarked on an astonishing five-year quest, travelling through Europe and visiting various archives in an attempt to uncover more secrets. If the quest was astonishing then the story revealed was even more so.
Robert “Bob” Clark joined the Navy at the age of 18 in 1942. He saw service on a destroyer protecting Atlantic convoys. A year later, he was headhunted by the SOE – Churchill’s so-called “secret army”, a force created especially for subversion, sabotage and reconnaissance – and was trained for para-naval operations: the infiltration and exfiltration of agents by means of small boats and submarines. Clark was sent to Italy, to Monopoli, the regional headquarters of the SOE.
Italy had surrendered in September 1943 but the war continued unabated. After the surrender thousands of British PoWs had escaped from Italian camps and were roaming the Apennines. Also, many Italians then became partisans, determined to fight on against the Germans (and those Italian fascists who hadn’t surrendered). They needed supplies, communications, strategic objectives. Occupied Italy was the perfect terrain for the SOE.
Bob Clark duly participated in operations – rowing agents ashore under cover of darkness, surveying beaches for future landings, rescuing escaped British PoWs. By now he had reached the hoary old age of 20. It is important to register this fact; one forgets how incredibly young most soldiers are – both then and now.
While all this derring-do was taking place Bob fell in love with an equally young SOE wireless operator called Marjorie Lewis. There is a kind of wartime Romeo and Juliet aspect to Bob and Marjorie’s romance. The two married after the war and for the author, and their son, one of the great boons of his urge to uncover his father’s story was to discover a cache of letters between the young lovers – letters that he quotes frequently in the book. They fill in many narrative gaps and their ardency and their innocence are very touching. These two were barely out of school, remember. Bob would routinely leave Monopoli on clandestine SOE missions – missions that Marjorie, because of her job, was aware of. Their growing love for each other was undercut by an ever-present sense of awful danger and trepidation.
As the Allies slowly pushed the Germans back into northern Italy in 1944, the SOE’s priorities changed. Now agents were needed far behind enemy lines as the brutal war between the partisans and the Fascist Italians intensified. For every German killed in ambush, Hitler demanded ten hostages be executed. Atrocities were commonplace. Hiding in remote valleys, the partisans were truffled out, or sent fleeing, by sudden, ruthless counter-attacks known as rastrellamento – “rakings”, literally. It was into this ferment that Bob – now a trained parachutist, but still only 20 – jumped out of a Halifax bomber one night in November and began the next phase of his SOE life.
It was not auspicious. He broke several ribs on landing and was effectively a non-combatant for days. The partisan forces were in disarray – internecine fighting adding confusion to the shock and awe caused by the rastrellamento operations. Bob teamed up with other SOE men and they tried to set up some form of co-ordinated strategy for the demoralised irregulars. One of the first things he did was to get a radio message to Marjorie – “Bob sends love to Marjorie” – to let her know he was alive.
But their luck ran out quickly. As the SOE cadre themselves fled from the anti-partisan raids, they were betrayed and swiftly captured. This was fraught: there was no guarantee that the Germans would view SOE operatives as regular soldiers. Bob and his group had every reason to fear they might be shot as spies. In the event, Clark’s 21st birthday was spent in a Turin prison. He was harshly interrogated and, his son discovered, he had to suffer the humiliating terror of a mock execution by firing squad. Eventually, the group were shipped back to prison camps in Germany, where they waited out the eventual collapse of the Third Reich and liberation.
Monopoli Blues is a lucidly written, deeply researched and extremely well-structured account of Bob Clark’s and Marjorie Lewis’s war. Tim Clark skilfully interweaves the details of his own contemporary investigations with the chronology of his parents’ Italian wartime adventures. Slowly but surely the complex, hidden story is pieced together and duly revealed as the son tries vicariously to experience what his father must have undergone. It is a remarkable act of imagination and filial homage, but it contains its wider revelations also.
Paradoxically, after this considerable piece of sleuthing, Tim Clark probably knows his father better, now that he has died, than he did when he was living. It prompts the question: what do we really know of our parents’ lives – particularly if they come from that Second World War generation?
It’s a valid point in my own instance: I know very little of what my father did during the war (he was an army doctor). There are a few monochrome photographs, the usual vague anecdotal stories, but he never talked much about it; he never wrote it down. Monopoli Blues makes a subtle but very important point: wouldn’t it be better to learn about your parents’ or your extended family’s life stories while they were living? Isn’t there a responsibility on the older generation to share this knowledge?
Sometimes stoic reticence is not the best position to take. Subsequent generations need to know what members of their families experienced, suffered and doggedly endured. As this fine book establishes, such knowledge can be both revelatory and humbling and, moreover – in these strange, needy and complacent times of ours – not a little shaming.
William Boyd’s most recent novel is “Love is Blind” (Viking)
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special