British military history
Oct 22nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Where the Hell Have You Been? Monty, Italy and One Man’s Incredible Escape. By Tom Carver. Short Books; 356 pages; £16.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
WHEN General Montgomery’s stepson Richard Carver was captured by the Afrika Korps two days after the battle of El Alamein in November 1942, he had every reason to be worried. If the Germans had established the family connection, he would have been sent to Colditz, with other prominent allied prisoners. Yet they never discovered the link, so instead he was sent to a prison camp in northern Italy, from where he and 600 other allied prisoners were released, minutes before the Wehrmacht arrived, by the commandant when Italy left the axis in September 1943.
Richard Carver’s gruelling three-month journey of over 400 miles (650km) on foot, from the prison north of Parma to the allied lines south of the Sangro river, forms the meat of this book written by his son, Tom, a former BBC correspondent. He had to dodge German pursuers, sleep in caves, rely on the hospitality (and courage) of Italian villagers, go hungry for days, sleep rough and trust his home-made compass to get him back to safety. When he was reunited with his stepfather over a year after he had gone missing, Monty’s first words were “Where the hell have you been?”
Yet this book is more than an adventure story: it is also a moving detective story about finding the locals who had helped and a poignant memoir of a taciturn war-hero father. Who would have guessed that the favourite limerick of that flinty, austere field-marshal would have been:
There was an old soldier from Lyme
Who married three wives at a time
When asked why the third
He said, one’s absurd
And bigamy, sir, is a crime.
“Radiate confidence,” Montgomery would tell his staff. “That’s the first duty of a top commander.” Yet it is evident that in private he could feel sadness, loneliness and worry. The letter he wrote his stepson after the death of his wife (and Richard’s mother) is raw in its pain.
Mr Carver has an arresting turn of phrase. He writes of a fellow prisoner “who had been the last man to make out of the [submarine’s] emergency hatch, leaving his companions to drown in the dark, oily water that sluiced greedily through the opening.” On the next page he notes how: “Occasionally, a prisoner would receive a letter from someone who was dead, like the light from a distant star that has since vanished.” The closest equivalent are the works of Eric Newby, who was held in the same prisoner-of-war camp as Richard Carver had been. Though the book is short, it is wonderfully readable.