By Tommy Hood, writing in 1996

A year ago we were celebrating 50 years of the Second World War ending.  One aspect of those war years has been hardly mentioned: the part POWs paid to the war effort, working on our farms.

Italian prisoners of war like these two worked on farms in Hatley during World War II – image from The Times/PA.

Italian prisoners of war like these two worked on farms in Hatley during World War II.

My father farmed at East Hatley and in those first years of the war, he relied on the men from the village to increase the production output of the farm.

He was directed to grow potatoes, even though Hatley clay is not ideal for this crop, produce more milk, wheat and to grow enough oats for the milking herd.  The children from Gamlingay School were relied upon to pick the potato crop, which commenced soon after their return to school in September each year.

In early 1943 we had both German and Italian POW camps set up in the area: the Germans at Tetworth and the Italians at Royston.  Initially, they were trucked out to the farms in gangs to cope with the seasonal work, and later in twos and threes to each farm on a regular basis.  After a month or two the Italians (not Germans) were allowed to stay on the farms, providing the farmer had suitable accommodation.

My father arranged for three Italians to live in, as both my sister and I were away, leaving bedrooms to spare.  Two of the Italians took over the running of the milking herd and the third drove a tractor.

Initially, the allocation must have been organised by our own military as one of their surnames started with an ‘A’ and two with a ’B’.  The other coincidence is that they all came from small adjacent villages south of Turin.

My father found them very hardworking, efficient (because of’ their farming backgrounds) and happy boys to have around.  They sang to the cows and on Mondays helped my mother with her laundry.  They had exactly the same food as the rest of the household – and the rations they received from their weekly visit to the camp were pooled and shared as a family.

Since the war, my wife and I have visited them in Italy on various occasions and we have been treated as part of the family, as my father and mother did to them in those war years.

In June 1995, I arranged to take my sister (the late Pat Foster) to see them and as she was about 13 years old when they returned to Italy after the war, she had many happy memories of their stay at the farm.

We stayed with all three families in turn, and to describe the hospitality we received would fill the whole of this issue of The Gazette.  We have had visits to England from all of them – one visit has had a most interesting consequence.

In the early 1970s, one of them came to stay with us at Hatley, bringing his son-in-law and the son-in-law’s best friend.  The friend was very keen on birds, so we took the three of them everywhere connected with birdlife: Sandy RSPB, the Peakirk Reserve* near Peterborough, Bedford Washes and RSPB Minsmere – where we arrived just as the gates were being closed.

On asking the warden how many members were in the RSPB, he told us approaching one million (at that time).  I told him I had two members of the equivalent Italian organisation, LIPU, and they had less than one hundred members.  At that point, he unlocked the gates and gave us a conducted tour.

When the son-in-law’s friend returned to Italy, he persuaded his father to allow him a piece of the farm and ponds to cultivate this interest in birdlife.

He has now made over most of the farm to wetlands and in conjunction with LIPU is breeding many rare species, including the white-headed duck, and has returned the stork to Italy after 20 years’ absence.  He has convened the farm buildings into display areas and gets both coach loads of school children in the week and adult visitors at weekends to see the variety of birdlife.

* Peakirk closed in 2001 – it is now a housing estate.

Gamlingay Gazette, October 1996

Photo credit: The Times/PA.

First re-published on the original Hatley website in August 2006; minor changes for this website, October 2018.