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1944 - “A Perilous Search for Beer”

By WGCDR “Nicky” BARR, MC, DFC and Bar.
- Commanding Officer, 3 Squadron RAAF, May/June 1942.  3SQN’s top-scoring “Ace”.
- POW and inveterate escaper.  - Awarded the Military Cross for his activities behind Enemy Lines.

[Published in The Argus newspaper, Melbourne; 24 Nov 1945.]

- I had three months behind the German lines in Italy, functioning in a negative sort of way with Partisan forces and Allied Paratroops, and, in all, two and a half years of existing on Italian vino.
- After that, beer becomes almost an obsession with you.

It was winter - the worst here for over 15 years - and a great coat of snow, feet deep, covered the oddly-shaped Apennines of Central Italy.

Still, even in winter, beer's still beer, and I decided to infiltrate at night (when the Moon had crusted the snow) over the northern crest of the Maiella Range, which I thought would be sparsely defended because of the formidable contours.

The Maiella Range under snow.

Rumour said the Germans on the Adriatic sector were shooting infiltrators on sight, as well as anyone carrying firearms or grenades.  - Cheering thought…

Rumour became fact in the first village I passed through, Tocco da Casauria, alive with Germans of the 26th ‘Hermann Goering’ Division.  There, on the snow-covered piazza, were the bodies of an Italian partisan and a New Zealand Sergeant, shot for carrying grenades. 

I moved off quickly, with an involuntary shudder of my stomach, against which nestled my flat German 6.35mm revolver.

I skirted the village of Bocca Caramanico, and commenced to scale the north-western side of the mountain range.  Hell, my luck ran low in the next six hours.  I must have kissed a cross-eyed married woman that week - though I don't remember it.

I rested a while, giving my digestive system a thorough thrashing with a hearty meal of salami, sheep cheese, and corn bread.  Snow was only moderately successful as a thirst-quencher, but a nip of Vermouth saved the day.  Thus encouraged, I pointed myself toward the hump, on the other side of which lay the Adriatic, the Front Line, and - I hoped - lashings of beer.   - Well, a pint or two, anyway.

But the hump proved to be one of those visions which have no substance, and I found myself kneeling in the snow looking at the crisp panorama of Guardiagrele-Orsogna spread out before me. 

A quarter mile below me was a supply train of 300 mules moving toward Pallombaro, laden with ammunition and food.  It was suicide to be caught taking a “Cook's Tour for One”, so I submerged myself within the column.  Then for two hours I climbed and slithered beside a mule, shouting some nonsense at it every now and again, to imitate the German muleteers about 50 yards in front of and behind me.

By this time we were rapidly approaching the real war, and when a Wing of low-flying Kittyhawks joined in, I decided there were safer places, so I slipped unnoticed into a roadside vineyard cassetta

When all was quiet, I went in a more southerly direction, where there seemed to be less movement.  Coming on to firmer and more open ground, I estimated from the gunfire that I was two miles from my pint of beer.
In front, the area was crammed with movement. 

A column of horse and mule-drawn artillery was being whipped into position 400 yards away.

German Flak gun near the Gustav Line.  [IWM MH 6320]

A battalion of ski-troopers with the now familiar SS insignia were scouting everywhere.  I froze to the spot, and endeavoured to look like one of the horses.  Apparently I succeeded for 25 minutes - it seemed long enough for the sun to set three times!


Then, so quickly I could not discard my revolver, an avalanche descended upon me.  An avalanche in the form of four ski-troopers with their Sergeant.  Mentally I was saying, "All is lost, all is lost," and pictured the scene a few minutes later with my blood freezing as it coloured the snow.  Very harrowing that.
Murmuring something about, "If I die, think only this of me…“ to strengthen my morale, I suddenly realised my hands were above my head, and a trooper with fair hair and blue eyes was ripping my white raincoat from me, to reveal a blue RAAF uniform with all the trimmings. 

They appeared to be impressed, and I surreptitiously mumbled a prayer.

Then things happened. 
…The Sergeant, with a cannon-sized Luger directing, gave orders, and the other four ‘rough-housed’ me until I couldn't stand.  Then, as I lay on the ground, a trooper slammed the butt end of a tommygun into my ribs.  I shall never forget the Sergeant's grin when I looked like clenching my fists.  - I got the impression he wanted me to do just that…  So he could use his gun.

They dragged me to my feet and searched me after that.  (Isn't it strange that people rarely pat your tummy when searching you?)

After an interminable day of forced marching, with only one rest, I was placed in custody of an Austrian Captain near St Valentino d'Abruzzo.

I remained for four days, during which I was well treated, and eventually began to see out of my eyes and to move my body without creaking.  I was depressed at my dismal effort, and my outlook didn't improve when I was transported that night to an Italian jailhouse at Navelli.

I was pitched into a cell, in which another prisoner was awaiting transportation to Aquila.  He introduced himself as a five-feet-one-inch Gorbal Die-Hard, from a slum near Glasgow.  I did not know what that title implied, but my education soon began.

Main difficulty was his Scots burr.  I just couldn't understand him, so thereafter, humorously enough, we discoursed in Italian.  It appears that, before the war, wee Georgie was a leading light in one of Glasgow's most profitable street gangs.  Razor blades placed in the peak of his cap were a weapon that somehow appealed to me, and I reminisced on stories of bike-chain and bottle-fights in the 'Loo.

Now Italian keys are massive, and invariably protrude through the door a good inch or two, so with the wire that was holding wee Georgie's soles to his uppers we made numerous half-hitches, to form a handle which eventually turned the lock.

George had a wonderful sixth sense, so, saying, "Lay on, Macduff," I proudly and closely followed him to comparative safety…

…But not, I regret to inform you, to that pint of beer!

Later that winter, in March 1944, Nicky made it back through the Gustav Line...

(left) talking with 3 Squadron groundcrew members at Cutella, Italy, March 1944.  [Colin FAEHSE collection.]

In Memory of Nicky BARR.  Died 12 June 2006, aged 90.

See also our article on Nicky's Career in 3 Squadron, including links to the fantastic action animation "Desert Dogfighter".

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