A diary… and a photo

Research by MSMT supporter Anne Copley has thrown new light on the experiences of non-commissioned soldiers who became Second World War prisoners in Italy.

Although there is a considerable body of literature relating to officer PoWs, few books have been written by members of Other Ranks. Work by Anne, who lives partly in the UK and partly in the Marche, near to the OR camps of Servigliano, Sforzacosta and Monte Urano, has helped to expand our knowledge of what they went through.

Researcher Anne Copley
Researcher Anne Copley

At the annual lunch of the Monte San Martino Trust, in November 2014, Anne – the guest speaker – told the fascinating stories of two of these soldiers, each with the aid of an historic “prop”. The impact was both enlightening and emotional.

The first artefact she showed us was a diary entitled “Servigliano Calling”, which now belongs to Steve Dickinson, who was present at the lunch. Steve is the nephew of Robert Dickinson, a bricklayer from Lincoln who served with the Royal Artillery and was known to his mates as “Brickie Dick”. Robert was captured in North Africa and held at Servigliano camp. During his imprisonment, he produced a diary, with bindings made out of old Red Cross cocoa tins (which even now have a distinctive odour) and bearing the logo “Macaroni ad infinitum”.

The diary has a chronology from the time of Robert’s capture, and writings, drawings and poems by himself and fellow prisoners. Right down to the poem about the camp’s dog, it is a work of art.

Not the least surprising aspect of the story is that the diary survives to this day, given the circumstances and Robert’s own, unhappy fate.

After the Armistice in September 1943, Robert escaped and was hidden by an Italian family. It cannot have been an easy time as he had to stay quiet for fear of alerting neighbours to his presence. He then set off to join the partisans but, before doing so, he hid the diary in the house.

Sadly, Robert was killed in a skirmish, battered to death. But the diary was subsequently found and sent back to the Dickinson family in England.

Steve Dickinson, left, and Michael Lacey, his uncle's commanding officer
Steve Dickinson, left, and Michael Lacey, his uncle’s commanding officer

At the MSMT lunch, Steve Dickinson was very excited to be able to meet Major Michael Lacey, who had been Robert’s commanding officer and was himself a PoW at Montalbo and Fontanellato. Michael and Robert, his Signalman, were captured together. After the war, Michael followed up all his men and was aware that Robert hadn’t made it safely home. In a highly emotional moment for Steve, he was able to have his photo taken with Michael.

Anne then moved on to tell the second story, with the aid of a photo handed to her by Alfredo Antognozzi, from Montelparo in the Marche. The photo is of a young woman, stylishly dressed 1940s-style, who according to Alfredo was an actress named Doris and the sister of an escaped prisoner known as Antonio, or Anthony, Swingler.  Antonio had escaped from Sforzacosta and was sheltered for eight months by the family of Alfredo’s uncle, Gino Antognozzi, aged 17 at the time.

When Antonio departed to meet up with the Allied forces at Ascoli in July 1944, he gave the photo to Gino, who had accompanied him. On the back of the photo were inscribed “Salute, Antonio” and the name Anthony Swingler, with his address, 74 Highgate Road, NW 5, London.

Anne was tasked with finding out about Antonio and Doris. Eventually, she contacted the Ham & High newspaper and posted the resulting article on the WW2 Talk website, thus galvanising a breakthrough in research.

It transpired that the Swinglers had indeed lived in Highgate Road and that Anthony’s real name was Sydney – he had clearly used Antonio as a nom de guerre. Anne contacted the Swingler family who  confirmed that this Antonio, aka Sydney, was their father who, like so many, had never spoken much about his experiences in the war.

However, all Sydney’s children were aware that the few artefacts that he had brought back from the war were very precious to him. They included a rosary that was given to Sidney by the Antognozzis and a wonderful photo of Gino, aged 17. This photo was exchanged with Sydney at the moment of parting in July 1944. It had remained in the possession of the Swingler family ever since, in the same way that Sydney’s photo of Doris remained with Gino. For the first time in 70 years the two photos were reunited.

The Swingler family meet the Antognozzis in Montelparo: from left, Peter, Gino, Alfredo, Annunziata, Sheila and Colin
The Swingler family meet the Antognozzis in Montelparo: from left, Peter, Gino, Alfredo, Annunziata, Sheila and Colin

Doris and Gino never met but their lives were nevertheless intertwined in the story of the Swingler family. So much so, that on discovering the link, the Swinglers paid a visit In November 2014 to 88-year-old Gino in Montelparo, where they were given a fantastic reception, shown all the sights and fed so well that they “don’t have to eat again until Christmas”.

The Trust was delighted that Sydney’s children, Colin, Brian, Peter and Sheila, together with Colin’s wife Alison, were all present at its annual Luncheon. We are immensely grateful to Anne Copley for having researched both these stories and for sharing them with us.

A  report of the 2014 lunch can be found in the Fontanellato Luncheons section at msmtrust.org.uk/fontanellato-luncheons/fontanellatomsmt-lunch-2014/.

John Simkins