Extra chapters: Louis Nicholson in Italy

Louis Nicholson in Italy. These are chapters that were not used in the final version of Interrogating Ellie

They draw heavily on the account written by Norman Lewis of his time in Naples in 1943-4 (Naples ’44: an intelligence officer in the Italian labyrinth (Carroll and Graf, NY)).

Italy. April-July 1944

Louis Nicholson leaned on the rail of the naval launch carrying supplies to Capri and looked back at Naples. There was a mist over the town and the powerful colours of the city had faded to a distant grey. It was good to get away. His mind was filled with what he had seen the evening before. A string of little girls had been led into the restaurant where he had been eating. The girls wore black uniforms and their hair had been cut short so that they looked like boys. They begged for food, weeping as they bumped into chairs, wandering around the tables where the diners did their best to ignore them. He wondered why they clung to each other and then realised that they were blind. He was surprised at the pain he had felt at this sight. He had thought he had no more capacity for pity.

He turned away from the scene. Dashwood and the girls were eating white bread, the girls laughing as they threw crusts to the seagulls following the boat, which was nearing the Marina. He’d done this trip to Capri before and knew it meant a day in a magical fantasy, living in an illusion that the war did not exist. Getting a pass for the trip had not been easy.

The two women were dressed for the occasion, ridiculously he thought, in furs and straw hats decorated with glass fruits. Dashwood looked awkward in his pressed uniform, a polka-dotted scarf around his neck in an attempt to project a Desert Rat image that he clearly couldn’t carry off. As the boat drew in to the harbour side Nicholson watched him taking furtive glances at Susanna’s flowing breasts and buttocks as the women threw the last of the bread to the gulls and then teetered giggling on high heels across the swaying gangplank. Dashwood was clearly smitten.

They went up the hill and sat in a café in the Piazza. An American officer was at one table, his arms around two women, singing something from an opera. Nicholson ordered marsala for them all and the girls took bread from their handbags they had saved from the gulls, chewing it as they drank, laughed and chatted in rapid Italian. Nicholson noticed a man he had arrested in December sitting at a table alone who waved to him in cheery recognition. Dashwood nudged his shoulder to point towards a middle aged woman, but Nicholson couldn’t hear what he said about her as the municipal loudspeakers suddenly struck up with crackly dance music.

“Did they have to start that noise?” Dashwood said irritably, but then his red farmer’s face softened into a smile when he saw one of the women from the American’s table take her soldier friend by the hand and launch into a dance. Susanna beckoned to Dashwood who grinned somewhat nervously. “Suppose I ought to have a go” he said sheepishly, and shuffled around in front of the café tables with his arm around Susanna’s flowery waist, then pressing his body into hers.

Nicholson observed to Lola in English “She knows which side her bread is buttered” and grinned at her. She smiled back, understanding nothing of the Englishman’s talk. It was enough for him. He’d agreed to this trip when Dashwood proposed it, part of his big plan for seducing his lady love, but Nicholson wasn’t planning anything more than a picnic day out with Lola. If only Dashwood knew who was really the seducer, reflected Nicholson. Dashwood had had a religious upbringing in Dumfries and was an innocent at large. He had probably never thought a place like Capri could exist.

“What’s the fucking smirk for Nicko?” said Dashwood as he returned to the table, his face hot with effort.

“I was just looking at the fellow over there,” said Nicholson, pointing at a small, grey haired Italian at a table on the opposite side of the square. “Another one who looks familiar.”

“Can’t see why you’re so amused by him. He’s got an evil look on him.”

At that, the girls noticed the man and they both stood up, whispering anxiously to each other and went into the café. Nicholson went in after them, telling Dashwood to keep an eye on the Italian, who continued to stare. Inside, it was clear that the women had left through the back entrance and something was up. The men drank up and went in search of them.

The village was small so it wasn’t hard to find them, sitting together on a stone bench in an alcove near the boats. Nicholson listed as the words tumbled out of Susanna’s mouth in rapid Italian to explain their departure.

“What’s she saying Nicko, you understand the lingo better than me“ asked Dashwood.

Nicholson explained that she was saying the Italian with the grey hair was an old family friend who had developed a crush on her. She had told him a hundred times to leave her alone, but he followed her around like a dog, embarrassing her by turning up in odd places where she could be found. Nothing had ever happened between them. Nicholson didn’t believe a word of it but Dashwood swallowed the story. He offered to go back up the hill and confront the man, but Susanna persuaded him not to. She said he was a sorry fellow, she could manage the situation, she didn’t want them to fight.

On the boat back to Naples, while the girls sat inside the cabin, Dashwood asked him if he knew anything about the man. Nicholson was a couple of years older, had been out there longer and understood the place and the people. He felt obliged to let the younger man know the truth.

“She’s making it up I’m afraid Peter.”

“You mean there’s something between them?”

“Of course there is – or was up until recently anyway. I’m sorry if that’s disappointing news for you, but where do you think they got those handbags, the furs, the leather shoes? That sort of stuff doesn’t come without payment nowadays and Susanna’s only got one thing to sell.”

“But she loves me Nicko, she said so. She’s so beautiful and I….”

“Yes, she does I’m sure. But she’s got to look out for herself you know. You won’t be here for ever and Naples isn’t a place for the weak hearted. What’s she going to do when you go? Work in a sweat shop? Even if she wanted to do that, she have trouble getting a job unless she’s got a connection with the Camorra. She could starve, like so many do. You know they are eating all the cats in the city now, offal, anything they can get their hands on. I’ve heard there aren’t even any limpets left on the rocks down at the sea because the boys have taken them all. How could she live like that?”

These were the brutal facts of Neapolitan life and Nicholson couldn’t see why Dashwood shouldn’t face up to them. He must know what living circumstances were like in the city and how so many young women were managing to survive.

“That’s disgusting,” said Dashwood, his face turning red with distress. “I can’t believe what you say about her is true. Not everyone has such base motives you know.”

“Well that’s up to you old man,” replied Nicholson, “It’s your love life not mine. But remember, you’ve been warned” and he went below, leaving the other man standing mulling over his words at the deck rail.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that Dashwood wasn’t going to leave this alone. He went on seeing Susanna and he went on believing her, even though they, above all, were in a position to know about the prostitution problem in the city. They were both regularly involved in vetting the string of Italian women who wanted to marry British soldiers. Very few of these cases ended in anything but tears when the woman’s background was revealed. But Dashwood persisted: he thought this one had to be different.

Even when the penny partly dropped about Susanna’s Italian lover, as it had to eventually, he didn’t give up. He became convinced that if he could get this grey haired Italian out of Susanna’s life once and for all, it would all come right. He told Nicholson he didn’t blame her for lying to him. He told him they had become engaged.

“They won’t let you marry her you know.”

“What do you mean? She’s a nice girl who has fallen on hard times. She only did what she was forced to do. I know the score – she’d pass all the tests if I help her with the questions. I know a bit about that Italian bastard now and she’s been exploited by him. He’s a fascist you know, and I’m going to make sure he’s put out of the way.”

Nicholson held back from saying the grey haired man wouldn’t have been the only one in Susanna’s life and instead just warned him again, this time not to let his personal troubles interfere with his work, but he wasn’t sure Dashwood was listening. Maybe he was wrong anyway. Perhaps he had become too cynical after all that he’d seen. They say prostitutes are the oldest profession and we spies are the second oldest, he reflected. Maybe it will work between them, somehow.

Italy. August-September 1944.

The issue of Dashwood’s love affair with Susanna was parked for a while when three of them – Nicholson, Dashwood and the unit clerk Sergeant Harris, were sent into the countryside for a month in August. They were allocated a company jeep and a motorbike and drove out to Benevento in the hills west of the city. In Naples they had installed themselves in a palazzo, a grand house with walls and ceilings dripping with decorative carvings and murals of saints and floating cherubs. Benevento had nothing like that. Large areas of the town had been flattened by American bombing. The Hotel Vesuvio had a wall missing and several rooms uninhabitable but was functioning still, so they were billeted there, the three of them in one large room.

They were met by a man who introduced himself as Marshal Giovanni Muralto of the Italian police who told them he had been put in charge of the town by the authorities in Naples. Through him they met the town’s notables, including a man who, amongst other business interests, ran the local brothel. Muralto explained it had been necessary to keep this open under the occupation as there had been great demand for its services when the Canadians had been there. Of course, there had been the Germans before them, and then there were the local patrons who were loyal to the girls whatever the occupying power. He shrugged and grinned conspiratorially. It is a very well run place, he explained, very clean.

Nevertheless, Nicholson’s first task had been to deal with some local boys who had been beating up girls who had been bought by soldiers. Three lads shuffled into the office in the police station where the unit had set up shop. They didn’t try to defend themselves against the charge, only staring resentfully at the foreigners and uttering monosyllabic acknowledgements when the accusations were put to them. One of the girls was still unconscious as a result of their assault. The boys appeared to have no reaction to this news. They were led off for a week in the cells. Whether it would be longer would depend on whether the girl woke up.

The days were largely spent dealing with queues of Italian civilians with a variety of gripes and requests. Nicholson and Dashwood took it in turns to interview them, while Sergeant Harris kept the written records. They had an interpreter for Dashwood because of his poor Italian, a local woman who had been a teacher in the high school before the bombing had destroyed it. People needed permission from the military authorities for the most simple of things: to get spare tyres for cars, to set up a vegetable stall, to knock down a bombed building. A rotund but irate local aristocrat arrived one day and took some paintings out of a large bag. Look what the Canadians did when they came to my house, he said, there are these bullet holes in one, the slashed canvas of the other, these were his family heirlooms and they were irreplaceable. He wanted compensation for the damage, a fat sum. Nicholson expressed his sympathy, but remarked that if they were irreplaceable as the man said, no amount of compensation could make up for their loss. What place does culture have in these medieval conditions? he thought, where simple animal survival is the preoccupation for most people. The man got up and went away talking angrily under his breath.

Then there were the denouncers, whose stories so often seemed designed to embroil the military authorities in local feuds. One of these cases brought him into conflict with Marshal Muralto. A local resistance hero, a man named Pascarella, was said to be a bandit by the owner of a garage in the town. The garage owner said Pascarella had only ever been interested in loot and although he and his friends had attacked the Germans when they were there, later he had also attacked and robbed Canadians. Nicholson contacted the Canadian command who said nothing of that sort had been reported. It turned out the garage owner was making up a story, and when confronted said Muralto had put him up to it because of some ancient rivalry between him and Pascarella, who now feared for his life.

When Dashwood heard this tale he was outraged. Nicholson told him it wasn’t a good idea to tangle with Muralto, but Dashwood insisted on a confrontation and dragged Nicholson along. Of course, Muralto denied everything, but the friendly relations between the Field Security men and the Marshall went sour after that. They could see he wanted them out of his town. The tyres of the jeep were stolen one night. The Italian police with whom they worked would no longer look them in the eyes.

Later, there was an operation against some real bandits who were holed up in a farmhouse outside the town, betrayed to the authorities by a disgruntled gang member. The gang, including two American deserters, were having an orgy in there, he said. You will catch them with their pants down. The Field Security men, together with Carabinieri surrounded the place by moonlight and the Marshall shouted down to the house for the inhabitants to come out as they were surrounded, which they did. Men and women staggered out through the doorway in various states of undress and drunkenness. An excited policemen let off his gun and a man fell dead to the ground, at which other police opened up with their firearms and another man and a woman were wounded before the firing could be stopped.

The two Americans were bundled away in FSS custody, to be delivered to their military prison and just four Italian bandits remained after the women had been released, one of the bandits being dead. This presented a problem for the police as the law stated that banditry could only be established if those arrested were members of a criminal association of more than five members. The two Americans didn’t count. The four Italians had been caught with illegal arms, but it was likely they would get bail unless they could be charged with banditry, with the probability that lawyers would get them off the charge. The Marshall’s solution was to stop off at the house of a known criminal on the way back to the town jail and arrest him to make up the necessary numbers. The fifth man would later be released, explained the Marshall to Nicholson, if he played his part.

The end of the month saw them return to Naples and its stifling summer heat. Dashwood returned to his obsession with Susanna and her Italian lover. He was determined to see the man off.

“The man is a Fascist Nicko,” he explained, “It wouldn’t be right to leave him free to roam. He was in charge of a bank under the Germans.”

Being in charge of a bank wasn’t exactly a war crime, Nicholson responded. But he could not deflect his colleague, who pursued the case by having the Italian, whose name was Signore Castellano, arrested for black market activities. Castellano, of course, was soon released without charge as he knew the right people and now Dashwood had to watch his back at night as well as worry about Susanna. The arrest didn’t help his standing with her either as she expressed her displeasure with her naïve British lover by withdrawing her favours.

“She won’t see me any more Nicko,” bleated Dashwood, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t live without her.”

Nicholson was hot and tired after a sweat-filled week of dealing with petty criminals, liars and cheats. He had arrested small fry and watched the big men walk free. He had seen his efforts to crack down on illegal trading of stolen Army goods undermined by the corruption of the men running the warehouses. He had a return of the depression that filled his feelings as he picked his way through the beggars lining the rubble-strewn streets and, finally, he felt he had no more patience for his colleague’s complaints about his love life. All he wanted to do was make this fool Dashwood understand the depths of ignorance and inexperience that led to this stupid obsession with the woman.

“You know Peter, you need to get this bloody woman out of your head and move on. What do you think you are doing with someone like that?” he snapped. “You haven’t got a chance. She’s been running rings around you from the start and now she’s got you where she wants, panting at her feet. Give up on her and save it up for some nice Scottish lass from wherever it is you come from. Do the sensible thing for a change.”

The wounded look on Dashwood’s face alerted Nicholson that he had gone a step too far. It was probably the ‘wherever it is you come from’ he reflected; that revealed how little he knew or really cared about the younger man, who had considered him a friend until then. Things would not be the same between them again, he realised as Dashwood walked away. There were no more conversations about Susanna between them and Nicholson guessed that the relationship must have ended when the unit was posted to Rome in October, as the Allies continued their progress northwards to the mountains bordering Austria.

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