Rest in peace: The War Cemetery at Salerno (all images courtesy of Celia Montague)
I have been spending a lot of time in Venice since 2010, and passing through the railway station one day last year I saw a train about to depart for a place called Salerno. Venice to Salerno by train. Suddenly a desire, an obligation long contemplated, seemed easy to fulfil. My uncle, Brian Sinclair, my mother’s elder brother, is buried there.
When she died in 2002 I discovered the exact location of his grave from her papers, which included a dented wartime forces issue chocolate tin containing letters to and from and about her brother. He had been studying engineering at Imperial College, London, when war was declared. He volunteered to join the Royal Engineers. After three years training, and lecturing, and rescuing people dead and alive from bombed buildings in England, he was posted to bomb disposal, which was what he had wanted to do.
Allied troops landed at Salerno, which is about 30 miles south of Naples, in September 1943. They were met with a ferocious German counter-attack. The invasion of Italy was principally intended to draw German troops from the fighting with Russia. In Salerno itself now, in 2015, there is practically nothing to remind one of this great human endeavour. All that I came across was a notice stamped in bold black paint on the arch of an entrance to a passageway, somewhere below the Duomo, which read “OUT OF BOUNDS”. As I was looking at this, an elderly Italian woman told me that it was from the Second World War, and intended to deflect Allied soldiers from the district where the prostitutes hung out.
Today’s town is a mixture of ancient, at one end of the vast bay, and modern towards the other: pretty down at heel, I thought, with globally identical youngsters dressed in cheap “cool” and preoccupied with their mobile phones and motor scooters. People are mostly warm and courteous. Everything is much cheaper than in Venice. Along the bay the old tramlines which once carried people the great distance from one end to the other survive under the shade of the palm trees, though here and there they are cemented over. The modern route is a hot, busy road which runs parallel, past decaying grand buildings, tacky shops and then, further out, high-rise hotels and blocks of modern flats. The thirtysomethings who run the bed and breakfast I stayed at had to Google the War Cemetery to find out its location. Some 1,900 young men, most of them British, are buried there.
I arrived in Salerno on September 16. On the 17th I went, accompanied by my husband, Stephen, to the War Cemetery about 15 miles out of town on the road to Pontecagnano. On the 18th we took the train back to Venice, and I wrote to myself and my two sons.
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