REST PERIOD - HOTEL MINERVA, SORRENTO, ITALY
Following the mission over Rimini MacIsaac and his crew were granted seven days leave. One such "rest period" was given to aircrew of 205 Group during a tour of operations. Ideally it was given at the mid-point of a tour, but it was also not unusual for crews to get their leave near the beginning or end of a tour. 205 Group aircrew spent their rest period at RAF’s No. 2 Rest Camp - the Hotel Minerva in Sorrento.
The journey to the Rest Camp was something of an adventure in itself. Before leaving the airfield crews would pack up their belongings. What they took with them was packed into haversacks and what they left behind was packed up to be placed in locked storage so that the local thieves (a continual problem at the airfields) would be deprived of an easy target. Once their tents were secured in this fashion, they would set off in a truck for the railway station at Foggia for the journey to Naples.
The train was an old, decrepit Italian engine pulling old fashioned wooden carriages equipped with wooden bench seats. Some of the seats were reserved for the locals, but it was for all intents and purposes a troop train. British and American Military Police were everywhere, and the journey was, by all accounts, slow and uncomfortable. Leaving the station, the full devastation of the war was apparent to all those on board. The marshalling yards at Foggia had been the target of several raids before it was captured by the Allies. There was virtually nothing left of the station itself, the engine sheds and warehouses were in ruins, and damaged rail cars lined the tracks.
The train station at Foggia
From their seats in the rail cars, as the train twisted and turned on its journey across the hills and valleys on its way to Naples, the crews got a good look at the poverty and desolation of southern Italy. The landscape was rugged and barren, dotted with ramshackle farms and derelict cottages. There was virtually nothing for the native population to scrape a living from. What little livestock that could be seen were thin, undernourished and uncared for. Chickens, goats and pigs rummaged around the vineyards or olive groves searching for food. Dirty children in ragged clothes, underfed and bloated wandered aimlessly around or huddled together in the dirt. Everywhere there were small well-kept shrines built into the rock face or at the sides of the roads and train track. It is easy to imagine how a man like Mussolini was able to whip up enthusiasm among the people of this region by simply promising them a better way of life. Unfortunately, the prosperity experienced by the industrial north of Italy seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the south.
Arriving in Naples the crews were put up in a "transit camp" for the night. This afforded the airmen a day to tour Naples, not to mention the opportunity for the first decent wash and shower since being posted to 37 Squadron. Most crews eagerly set out for the Royal Palace which the Allies had commandeered and converted into a giant canteen/leisure complex. There they could enjoy their first decent meal since arriving in Italy, and check the notices announcing various entertainments available for the evening.
Walking the backs streets of Naples was often a shocking experience for the airmen. They saw families with their bedding and their few possessions living in absolute poverty on the streets. Italian veterans, crippled in the war, were a common sight. Some played cards, some begged, while the women looked on hopelessly. The same ragged children with their pot bellies that they had seen in their barren homesteads in the country were everywhere in the city, now huddled on the pavement or begging for money, cigarettes or candy. The crews could hardly walk a few paces without being accosted by prostitutes and women offering their young daughters for bars of chocolate. For most airmen it was a great relief to leave the squalor of the city for Sorrento the next morning.
The Hotel Minerva - Sorrento, Italy, 1944.
Maurice Lihou of 37 Squadron described his experience at Sorrento during 1944:
"[Leaving Naples] we were bound for Sorrento in a commandeered coach. Reaching the coast, the sea lay below us. The Italian driver did not alter his speed at all as we started to descend, but continued to drive down towards the coast at what seemed to be a breakneck speed. The road twisted and turned and, at each turning, a new vista opened up before us. The views were breathtaking as the cliffs plunged ever downwards towards the sea, their tree lined chasms blending with the splendid outcrops of rock and foliage.
"The sea nestling below the cliffs was a picture: deep Mediterranean blue sparkling as the sun danced lightly over the crests of the otherwise almost unnoticed ripples. Each time we went round a corner a new and magnificent scene greeted us, vying with the previous one to impress us with its beauty. Several times the driver took the coach perilously near the edge of the road as it corkscrewed its was down, causing raucous shouts and laughter as we swung in our seats, clutching each other in anticipation of the next corner. Many times the bonnet seemed to go over the edge of the cliffs, momentarily suspended there as the driver struggled with the steering wheel to take the coach around the sharp corners.
"We passed through tiny villages of white painted cottages and houses, each full of flowering shrubs and window boxes. There were lush olive and orange groves and gardens with flowers growing everywhere, giving the impression they were all inextricably intermingled with each other by nature trying to bring joy to eyes of the weary traveler.
"It was a scenic paradise and most uplifting to our tired spirits. It was hard to imagine the bloody battle that had taken place at Salerno just around the headland and the poverty we had just witnessed at Naples.
"We arrived in Sorrento, which was situated on a cliff overlooking a small beach. Its quaint narrow streets, shops and vino bars gave it an air of antiquity, and we felt as if we had moved back in time to a different age. The coach driver took us to a hotel, taken over by the RAF, in which we were billeted. Joy of joys - there were only two to a room with real beds. Len and I shared a room. A quick wash and brush up and soon we were joined by the others and were sitting on the patio looking across the Bay of Naples sipping cherry brandy and drinking vino.
RAF aircrew in the dining room of the Hotel Minerva, 1944.
"Lunch was served in the hotel restaurant by young Italian waiters and waitresses: soup followed by fish, salad and chips, washed down with a glass of vino. This was followed by an orange trifle. The battle front seemed very far away.
"It didn’t take long for a pattern of relaxation to appear. Between swimming, walking and messing about in a small sailing boat someone had managed to acquire, we were able to forget the cares and squalor of war and enjoy our holiday. We were determined to enjoy it. None of us were heavy drinkers, but we did enjoy ferreting among the bars, sampling the local wines which seemed to appear mysteriously if the price was right. It was amazing how none of the Italian men liked Mussolini or the Germans. They had - all to a man - changed loyalties, particularly when trying to sell you something!
"A dance organized in the hotel proved to be a very humorous affair. All the women present, reputedly of good reputation and brought in by the entertainments officer, seemed to be either an ex-countess or the wife of a count who had been captured by the Allies. Which countess did you dance with? was the favorite joke the following day.
"There was a day trip to Pompeii organized for us by the Entertainments Officer. I was enthralled with the way in which this ancient city had been preserved and was captivated by its historical connections. The crew had a great deal of fun with the grubby little Italian guide who sidled up to us and, in broken English, offered for a few extra Lire to take us to see things concerning the goings on in the past in the city which were normally kept out of view of the ordinary tourist. He took great pleasure in showing us the lewd drawings, which were kept in locked frames out of sight of pre-war tourists. A trip to the edge of Vesuvius’s gaping volcanic mouth with its acrid smell of sulphur ended a tiring but most enjoyable day.
Maurice Lihou (second from left) with friends in the car they hired to explore the island of Capri.
"A day out on Capri with a visit to its famous Blue Grotto was another occasion for complete relaxation and fun. Favored by the Roman Emperors, Capri was another demi-paradise of narrow streets with white buildings garlanded with flowers and looking breathtaking in the glorious sunshine. Some of the lads in the hotel managed to acquire an old open backed car capable of carrying eight at a squash. It was in this was that we were able to regally tour the mountainous island. A "must" was a visit to see Gracie Fields’ villa and to see the homes of the Italians who were formerly wealthy under Mussolini.
"The days were passing too quickly. We had tasted the good life and were now due back to reality. The final evening arrived; we were due to leave for Foggia the next day. The smoke-filled bar of the hotel was crowded. New crews had arrived and were mingling with those about to leave. Talk amongst the crews centered around other crews who had just been on leave and who, on return to ops, had bought it on their first trip out. Rumors also abounded in the rest camp that losses were much higher than they, the powers that be, would care to admit. Cheerful lot, I thought.
"The following morning we boarded the coaches for the journey back to Naples, and the crews were in good spirits and most of the conversation centered around what a jolly good break it had been. The RAF had done us proud, as if to appreciate what the lads were doing out there and conditions under which we lived. We had good food, comfortable accommodations in an excellent hotel and it had not cost us a penny. The RAF had really excelled themselves, and all agreed that we could not have been better cared for. There was no discipline and virtually complete freedom of movement and activity. What was more we all had a lot of fun.
RAF aircrew on the beach below the Hotel Minerva at Sorrento
"I felt great; the swimming, walking, fresh air and exercise had done me a world of good. I had slept well and, except for the last night, we had hardly talked about operations at all. As a matter of fact, it had been taboo in the mess. If anyone had dared to start talking about them, shouts of ‘shut the hanger door’ were hurled at them from all directions, more often than not colored with more expressive expletives.
"The journey back up the coast road was even more nerve racking than the journey down. When, at last, we reached the top, a final look at the beautiful scene that we had just left brought a sense of nostalgia... "
The Hotel Minerva withstood the onslaught of frustrated RAF aircrew during the war and is still open today to guests and visitors. Built in 1875, it was renovated in 1993 and 1999. The hotel is located about 8 miles from Pompeii and Capri and has a four-star rating.
A photograph of the view from the patio of the Hotel Minerva taken in 2002.
The dining room of the Hotel Minerva in 2002 - it still has the same tile floors as it did in 1944.
The Hotel Minerva - 2002
After their seven day vacation at Sorrento, for W/O MacIsaac and his crew it was "back to work".
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From the No. 37 Squadron ORB...
September 24, 1944:
FIELD GENERAL COURT MARTIAL - A Field General Court Martial convened by order of Brigadier J.T. Durrant (S.A.A.F.), Air Officer Commanding No. 205 Group, Royal Air Force, assembled at Headquarters, 1322 R.A.F. Regiment Wing, Foggia, for the trial of 1549609 F/Sgt. Griffiths, P. accused of offences under Sections 4 (10) and 5 (8) (alternative to 1st charge) of the Air Force Act.
September 27, 1944:
COURT OF INQUIRY - A court of Inquiry into a fire and explosion on 28th June 1944 which destroyed Wellington Aircraft LP.182 and MH.351 of No. 37 Squadron assembled at No. 231 Wing in accordance with instructions issued from HQ MAAF.
September 28, 1944:
DISCIPLINE - The sentence of the Court in the case of F/Sgt. Griffiths was promulgated. He was found guilty on the 2nd charge for W.O.A.S. - when under orders to carry out a warlike operation in the air, through default failing to use his utmost exertions to carry such orders into effect, in that he, in the field, on the night of 17/18th August 1944, when as a wireless operator in H.M. Aircraft Wellington No. MF.118 he was under orders to carry out an operational bombing sortie to Ploesti, through default failed to use his utmost exertions to carry out the sortie as ordered and did not in fact carry out the said operation, and sentenced to undergo 91 days field punishment. Sentence was confirmed by Brigadier J.T. Durrant (S.A.A.F.), Air Officer Commanding No. 205 Group, Royal Air Force.
September 30, 1944:
MESSING - During the month, following the requisitioning of an Italian farm building at the Domestic Site, a new Airmans Mess was arranged in a large barn, together with new cookhouses, ration store and preparation room. This step had become an urgent necessity as a result of the non-arrival of Flambau or other type of hutting which had long been promised to the Squadron to replace tattered and totally unserviceable marquee tentage. Great difficulty was experienced in obtaining the necessary building material - bricks, cement, and corrugated sheeting etc. - but by dint of persistent foraging sufficient quantities of these items were gathered to put the scheme into effect. Most commendable work was done by Squadron personnel who turned their hands with remarkable skill to bricklaying, carpentry, painting and the like. A "house-warming" party was held in this new mess on the night of 30th Sept. 1944 attended by a large number of airmen who expressed their grateful thanks to the Commanding Officer and others for the vast improvement in their messing arrangements.