On a personal note, that advice was borne home to me when I received out of the blue a few days ago an email from Argentina. The writer had contacted me after reading about a sad but inspiring episode during World War Two that I had described in my book Oundle’s War, published in 1995 and featured at http://oundleswar.blogspot.com/
Operation ‘Speedwell’ was Patrick Dudgeon's last mission. The plan was to reduce the rate of German reinforcements to the south of Italy by attacking rail communications between Genoa and Spezia, Bologna and Pistoia, Bologna and Prato, and Florence and Arezzo. Had the operation been properly supported in terms of aircraft and supplies, it has been argued, the strategic advantage gained would have been immense.
On 7 September 1943, two aircraft took off from North Africa carrying two groups of SAS men. By midnight they had landed successfully in the mountains north of Spezia, some hundreds of miles behind the German lines. Patrick Dudgeon set off with his six men to attack the Genoa-Spezia railway. Two members of his group succeeded in blowing up two trains on the Spezia-Bologna line, and finally made their way back to British lines. Patrick Dudgeon, with fellow-soldier Trooper Brunt, then ambushed a German amphibian and succeeded in killing a number of the enemy before being captured near Parma.
It was clear to the Germans from the explosives he was carrying that Patrick Dudgeon had been hoping to reach a further objective, but nothing could make him give any information about the target. In the presence of his staff the German General responsible for the interrogation expressed admiration for the British officer's courage, but gave the order for him and his companion to be shot the next morning on Hitler's orders.
News of Patrick Dudgeon’s capture and death came after the war in the form of a letter to his father from the German army Captain who had acted as interpreter at his interrogation, and who wanted to fulfil his pledge to the person he described as the bravest English officer he had ever met. (Right: Victor Schmit in 1943)
My Argentinian emailer turned out to be the grandson of the German officer who had befriended Captain Dudgeon shortly before he was executed. Attached to his email was a copy of the original letter that his grandfather Victor Schmit had written in 1945. I found it so affecting that I decided to reproduce it here:
May 11 1945.
By this letter I fulfil my word pledged to the bravest of English officers I met in all my life. This officer is your son, Captain Dudgeon, who fell for his country in Italy on October 3rd 1943. Before he died I had to promise him to give you information about the circumstances and the spot he was buried.
I was at that time a platoon commander in the 65th Infantry Division of the Germans. My unit lay in the Passo della Cisa about 30 miles west of Parma on the road Parma – La Spezia.
About 0100 o’clock a.m. I was wakened by my men who told me they had captured two English soldiers driving in the direction of Parma, their clothes were smeared with blood, in their bags they had about 40 pounds of explosives. I went down and found in the Guard Room two English soldiers, one of whom a captain. When I asked who they were they gave me their military cards. I reported to the Coy. Comdr. and later to the Division. The Divisional Officer on duty told me that half an hour ago a German Sgt and a private driving towards La Spezia had been shot and the car stolen.
This having happened several hundred miles behind the lines and the two soldiers carrying explosives they had to be treated as Greischarler (? Freischarler) and would probably be shot.
The battalion commander who had arrived in the meantime tried to get out of your son anything about his purposes, where he was coming from etc.etc., I being the interpreter. When the German insisted your son asked me to translate “If you were my prisoner should you betray your country talking about your mission?”
Upon this my captain told him that probably he had to be shot by an existing order of the Fuhrer. Captain Dudgeon took the news, answering something like this - “All right I’ll die for my country”.
When my captain had withdrawn I sat beside your son on the straw and we were speaking together all night long. He told me he knew little of Germany, that he had been during his holidays to Switzerland etc.
In the morning the Divisional Commander, General Von Zielberg, informed the Bn. That he would come and see the English captain before he was to be shot. I told him (your son) that the German officers were scandalized that an enemy who had behaved in so brilliant a manner had to be shot but were mightless against an order of the Fuhrer. To me the behaviour of the young officer of 23 years old had made such an impression that I couldn’t help telling him when we were alone “Your country may be proud of you. If you were not my enemy I should ask you to be my friend”. Captain Dudgeon gave me his hand saying “I thank you for telling me that”.
The interview with the General was quite resultless. At the end of it (all German officers were present) the General told me to translate to your son the following sentence –
“Sagen Sie ihm dass ich vor Seinen Haltung alle Achtung habe. Er wird, mit seinen Kameraden in einer Stunde erschossen.”
Your son saluted militarily and left the General. He asked me to stay with him until it would be over. He gave me your address asking me to inform you. He asked for a protestant priest. Before he died he asked to die with free hands and open eyes. He knelt down for a short while praying with his hands in front of his face.
Then he got up and died like a hero.
I wasnot allowed to give you notice of your son’s death by way of the Red Cross as the enemy was to have no information whatever regarding the efficiency of the parachutists. So I had to wait and keep the address hidden up to now. The grave of Captain Dudgeon is 200 metres South West of the Chapel on the Passo della Cisa going in the direction of La Spezia, 100 metres behind the last of the buildings.
I am, Yours sincerely,
C/o Veura Schmit - Zoller
pris de Luxembourg
And perhaps, after all, in my mind there is the vaguest connection with Budleigh. Shortly after settling here two years ago, while sunbathing on the beach, I was struck by the sight of 30 young men jogging along Marine Parade towards the coast path. On a weekday? Suddenly – it must have been the haircuts – I realised that they were marines from nearby Lympstone. Probably on a 30-mile jog, in training for Afghanistan. Possibly some would never return alive. And I thought of all the tragic loss of life of young people which I had described in my book: Patrick Dudgeon was only 23 when he died.