Il POZZO D’ORZO – THE BARLEY PIT

Un episodio, accaduto durante la seconda guerra mondiale in Africa Orientale, che ha avuto per protagonista mio padre:  Il pozzo d’orzo .

English Version:

This episode, told by my father many, many times, describes events which had really taken place in Eastern Africa during the Second World War.  June 29, 1941, the Day of Saints Peter and Paul, in Whalchefit, North Gondar, Amhara, Ethiopia. A plateau, with a rich water supply, overlooking a vast valley.

The Italian troops are under assault by the British and the Abyssinians. They had been in control of the valley since the 2nd of April, keeping the Italian soldiers in check.  Help would always come from above. Few food supplies and the mail were dropped by paratroopers and courageous Italian Air Force pilots. Small airplanes, great risks. Antiaircraft was always ready to score. The war, for the Italians in the Horn of Africa, is not going well and supplies are scarce. Near the battlefield, between the two vallies, there is a plateau where the Abyssinians grow barley.

The harvest is stored in deep pits dug in the ground. Provisions for the Italian soldiers have been rationed already and are running out. During the last few days, the hungry soldiers, at the suggestion of the army physicians, have boiled any kind of weed that they could find in the surroundings. They eat just about anything. Anything at all.

During their search for food, the soldiers find the decaying carcass of a donkey.  It doesn’t matter… It’s boiled and eaten without worrying about the the worms floating in the pot.  And there’s lots of them.

Raffaele, 27-year-old machine gunner, spends his day at his outpost, where he is stationed with his friend and countryman Paolo Olivo, from Cutro. Both are ordered to shoot on sight at anyone who is in the valley. Be it enemies or fellow Italians. On the 29th of June Raffaele is on duty.  It is 10 o’clock and Paolo, whose nameday is today and who probably hopes to calm the pangs of hunger, goes towards him with an empty sack and says: “Raffaè, I’m going to the barley pit.”

The other soldiers, their buddies, have already gone to the barley pit that morning.  Paolo had seen them.

Raffaele, who hasn’t eaten in days, responds without hesitation: “Wait for me! I’ll get a sack and come with you.”

So he abandons his post, without thinking about the imminent danger. Abandoning the post means only one thing, according to military law: desertion! Raffaele and Paolo could be shot in the back because of this, but the hunger and the need to survive drive them towards the pit.  Paolo doesn’t really want to get Raffaele involved just in case the endeavor fails. But Raffaele follows him and both of them go down the hill, trying not to be seen by enemy troops.  After half an hour or more they get to the plateau near a bush, which is more than a meter high and wide as an umbrella and they find one of the pits. Raffaele lays his rifle there and his sack which holds 21 mags and 7 handgrenades.  The entrance to the pit is small and the inside is dark and one can’t see how deep it is or how much barley it contains.  Paolo, astute and sharp, turning towards his friend, says “Raffaè, jump in”.

Instinctively, without thinking, Raffaele jumps into the tight opening.  The pit has a diameter of about 2 meters and is 2,5 meters or higher. Raffaele doesn’t know how much barley is under his feet.  One thing is for sure, that with every movement his feet sink deeper into the crop. He immediately realizes he has made a grave mistake, nonetheless he still catches the 2 empty sacks: he is about to fill the first one when suddenly he hears a terrific machine gun burst near the pit…

The enemies.  They found them!

Paolo, at the moment outside the pit, immediately begins running as fast as he can and reaches a gutter and rolls into it, hiding from the enemy.  Raffaele, instead, is still in the pit!  “What should I do now?” he’s thinking.  Instinctively, he tries to jump out but instead he sinks deeper into the barley.  He realizes the situation is terrible.  He tries another 3 or 4 times but nothing changes and each time he becomes more tired. 

In those endless moments he thinks about the atrocious death that would strike upon him after the arrival of the Abyssinians: after shooting or slaying  him, they would amputate his genitals and put them in his mouth!

With these awful thoughts he begins to pray the Madonna of Porto, in Gimigliano, Catanzaro, to whom he is devoted. “Dear Madonna, give me the strength to jump for one last time; I am too weak!” Raffaele tries the last jump, placing his foot against the wall of the pit to boost himself upwards and not knowing how, he is able to grasp the edge of the pit with his bare nails.

At this point, with a final push and a thrust he manages to spring up (“as if I only weighed a few kilos; I myself couldn’t have done that” he would tell me later). So he thanks the Madonna, who literally hoisted him up and thinks “I’m safe.”

But, just as he gets out of that damn pit, a burst of British machine guns were waiting for him.  As one would say, “out the frying pan into the fire….”

Without hesitation, he starts running and reaches the gutter as well, where Paolo is hiding. However he immediately realizes he left his rifle and ammo near the pit, by the bushes.  One thing is clear: without rifle and ammo you can’t get back to fighting and so the only thing to do is try to pick them up again. Cost what it may.  The bullets miss him many times but he manages to save himself once again, albeit momentarily.

At this point, the two friends decide on the best path to take to get to the camp towards their outpost.  Paolo says that they must follow the natural flat path leading them to the hill where they will be out of enemy range. Raffaele doesn’t agree, however.  “Paolo, if we follow the little path the British will kill us… Listen…”, he continues ”We must go up this steep path (about 20 or 30 meters)…” and  he points his finger, “We might be under fire until we go past it, at that point we will be out of range and safe.”

The strategy they decide to adopt roughly involves going up the hill and, while one of them stands and walks up a short path, the other should crawl and viceversa. And so it was. Both leave for the hill by themselves.  Raffaele is able to get through the dangerous pathway and save himself while getting almost shot.  The ground, in that point, slopes in the opposite direction, so the bullets can’t hit him anymore.  While Raffaele waits for Paolo, he sees an Askari passing by with a donkey carrying 2 sacks of barley (the Askari are Abyssinians who collaborate with the Italians).  He turns towards Raffaele and says “Sir, where be your friend?”  This question makes him wonder if Paolo has fallen under fire.  What to do? Go back by himself or try finding the body by risking his life?.  Without any doubt, he decides to go back and try to find Paolo’s body. He sets out and after about 10 meters he sees his companion.  They breathe a sign of relief and reach a safe position.

Raffaele asks, then, why Paolo had been late: “Raffaè, after jumping like we said, the sack got tangled around my neck and I did a backflip and lost my breath.  I felt disoriented and dizzy and this made me waste time.”

At this point, Raffaele saw the connection between his friend’s story and the Askari’s question who had seen his friend fall down in a weird way and imagined that he had been hit. 

Now, finally, the two could reach the outpost near the tent without a problem.  In the meantime, the enemy fire towards the barley pit had alarmed the Italians and in a short while the commander found out that nine of his soldiers had abandoned their posts and went down the cliff to steal the enemy’s barley.  They immediately made a list of “deserters” but there was a name missing…. Paolo Olivo!

In truth, the barley had been stolen by ten soldiers , not nine. So Raffaele’s friend was definitely safe.  The other nine, instead, were ordered to prepare their backpacks because they were to be tried immediately and then shot.  In the meantime, they find  out that one of the nine hadn’t come back and so probably had been killed.  The commander, then, decides not to try the soldiers, but tells the eight unarmed soldiers to go get the corpse as a punishment.

This time, Raffaele, whose heart is beating fast, is convinced that the 29th of June, as fate would have it, would be the end!

The day was rather cloudy and now in the afternoon, a thick fog has set in so they didn’t know if their search would be fruitful or not but at least the fog would hide them from the enemy.  The order to go get the corpse is official and so, with their hearts in their throats, the eight soldiers set out in this new and risky operation.

Suddenly though, the fog clears up and the sun starts shining on the cliff.

That’s not good news.

On the other side of the cliff, in fact, the Abyssinians see the eight soldiers and blow their horns to give the alarm.  They are convinced that that group of Italians are going to the barley pit. At this point, the Italian commander, from the top of the cliff, realizes that he is literally sending his soldiers to die, and so, without delay, he orders his soldiers to retreat immediately by yelling and gesturing.  By having come back they have saved themselves.  The only other problem left is to recuperate the soldier’s corpse.

After a couple of hours, the commander tries to find at least a volunteer who wants to find the corpse.  Two of the soldiers volunteer and so they begin the search quickly going towards a precise direction.  It’s evident that at least one of the two has seen the soldier fall in that unfortunate and desperate undertaking.  After about 60 meters, the soldiers turn to their companions pointing to where the soldier is.  At this point, the commander orders the other four soldiers to go and help. Finally the corpse of the poor soldier is brought to the field and buried.  The soldier, even if he was a deserter is declared killed in action so his family could receive compensation eventually.  But in reality, none of the “barley thieves” were declared deserters.  Their hunger was a sufficient reason for the commander not to execute the eight soldiers.

The siege continues for another 3 long months and finally on the 26th of September 1941, after the negotiation with the British, the Uolchefit stronghold surrenders to the British troops, receiving the highest honor granted to the enemy: full honors of war.

The Italians surrender their arms in front of the British platoon standing to attention to honor the enemy.

Those were the days!

(Many Thanks to Rosaria Torchia for the English Translation )

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