Background to the Novels

Italian Campaign in WWII

Like many of my generation I knew little about the Italian Campaign until relatively recently. I had heard mention of Monte Cassino and the D-Day Dodgers, but that was about it. 

However, the 60th anniversary of the landings in Italy in 2003 led to media coverage about the campaign and several new books were published. I was particularly moved by Matthew Parker’s Monte Cassino, which graphically recorded the desperate conditions in which the armies fought. Click here to read my background notes regarding Trauma in War.

Shocked that I had been so unaware of these events, I read many other accounts of the campaign. I found Italy’s Sorrow by James Holland a particularly valuable source especially for the later stages of the campaign and its impact on the Italian population. With regard to Allied support for the partisans, I read several accounts including The Secret War in Italy by William Fowler. 

For information about the military campaign in the Po valley, I found no better source than The Road to Trieste by Geoffrey Cox (later Sir Geoffrey Cox) who had served as the chief intelligence officer with the 2nd New Zealand Division.

Regarding conditions in Naples in 1943 and 1944, Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 provided an entertaining guide. But I also benefited from reading L’Odore della Guerra by Sergio Lambiase and G Battista Nazzaro and Polvere di Piselli  by Paolo De Marco. 

The best novel I have discovered about Italian life in the 1940s is Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel.

San Carlo Theatre

I became aware of the re-opening of the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1943 from an article by Richard Morrison entitled One Man’s War – A Fight for the Opera which appeared in the T2 section of The Times on 6 November 2003. In it he outlines the role played by a Lieutenant (later Captain) Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery.

As part of my research I visited the beautiful San Carlo theatre where the staff helpfully provided material about the theatre during the war although most of the records had been lost. They also referred me to the great three volume history Il Teatro di San Carlo 1737 – 1987 by Bruno Cagli and Agostino Ziino.

I then read the short history of the San Carlo Opera House by Lieutenant KG Cleveland RA that was included in programmes for the 1944/45 opera season. This confirmed the role Peter Francis had played in the re-opening but on 18 January 1944 he had returned to his unit and Captain B Grayson RASC took his place.  

Theatres of War and Embers of War are works of fiction

The characters in the novels are invented and are not, in any way, based on the real soldiers referred to above. Furthermore the scenes described are entirely fictional. 

Nonetheless, as far as possible I have respected the background events that occurred from 1943 to 1945.

When it came to the battle scenes this created a dilemma, as I was determined that nothing should take away from the bravery and sacrifice of the men who fought in the actual battles. I therefore invented the 3rd and 4th Battalions and the engagements in which they fought at Salerno, Mignano Gap, Monte Cassino, the Gothic Line and the Senio river. But whilst the accounts in the novels are fictional, they are intended to mirror real battles.

There are mentions in the novels of Allied and Axis generals but they play no part in the stories. Harold Macmillan is referred to in his capacity as UK High Commissioner to the Advisory Council for Italy. Alistair Horne’s biography of the future Prime Minister also recounts the part played by Andrei Vyshinsky, the intimate of Stalin, who arrived in Italy in January 1944 as the Soviet representative to the Advisory Council. However, the suggestion in Theatres of War that Mr Macmillan planned to entertain Vyshinsky at the opera is my invention.

The description in Embers of War of his encounter with Beniamino Gigli is fictional. However, his autobiography “The Gigli Memoirs“ does refer to an encounter with an unnamed English officer who in June 1944 came to investigate accusations that he was a traitor.

 © rjjhall 2020