Myself and other members of the family have been pestering my father to add to his story. What happened at the end of the war, and how did he meet our mother?
In October 2013 my father aged 92, kindly obliged, and the following, is exactly what he hand wrote word for word. Thank you Papá for being so honest about what was once a very sensitive subject. Rina Gent October 2013
The fighting in Italy ended for us at Bondeno on May 3rd 1945. We had fought our last action and killed a few unlucky Germans, but all the bridges over the River Po had been destroyed so were unable to continue our pursuit of the enemy. A few days later on May 8th, the Germans surrendered and the war in Europe was over. We were still south of the river Po and our tanks were lined up along the flood-banks. We wondered where our next destination would be and the main topic of conversation, would we be going home at last?
We celebrated the armistice quite spectacularly. the explosive experts in the squadron broke open the H.E. shells and extracted the cordite, which looked like spaghetti, and buried handfuls along with 'Very Light' cartridges in a field close by. Long (very long) fuses were attached and ignited and the resulting display, with deafening explosions and red and green lights blown high into the air, was tremendous! Local Italians, many of whom had stayed to protect their homes (regrettably, looting was not uncommon) must have thought the fighting had flared up again!
We enjoyed our first weeks of peace in Italy. Relaxed , no parades, no fear that the next bullet or shell might have your name on it. A shower unit arrived and was fixed up with their system of pipes etc., in a nearby field. We went in groups, stripped naked and reveled in the hot water. There was no screen around the showers so Italian signorina's passing close by were treated to full frontals and raucous invitations which they chose to ignore.
Best of all though,was the arrival of a Field Bakery so we had delicious, freshly baked, crusty white bread. It was manna from heaven after eating hard biscuits for months.
Towards the end of May, the 26th Armoured Brigade was ordered to go to Klagenfurt in Austria. The convoy must have been an immense and impressive sight as hundreds of Sherman Tanks, Honey's and other vehicles drove on the roads (or, where possible, along the side to avoid damage by the metal tracks). 'B' Squadron's final destination was Eisenkappel, a picturesque little village where we occupied several empty houses. Soon after our arrival we handed over our tanks and in exchange we were given Staghound armoured cars, with a top speed of 70m.p.h. and far more suitable for patrolling the surrounding area.
Life was pleasant and relaxed in Eisenkappel. During our all-to-brief stay there we were all, in turn, granted a fortnight's stay in a 5 star hotel on the shore of the Wörther See, a large lake just outside Klagenfurt. For most of us this was two weeks of sheer, unadulterated luxury such as we'd never known. All the staff, male and female, wore uniforms i.e., mornings suits, bow ties, lace-trimmed pinafores and caps, and were quite deferential. We had been 'roughing it' for so long, more than two years, sleeping on the hard ground and under or at the side of our tanks most of the time, so this was bliss. The beds had spring mattresses, real cotton sheets and pillows and there was no timetable. You could to to bed and get up when it pleased you, even stay in bed all day (some did at first) and food was 'buffet style' which you helped yourself to at any time. I swam in the lake, enjoyed long walks on my own until, all too soon, I was back with the squadron and preparing for our next move. This was to be to Cusano Milanino, a suburb of Milano and a very different journey than the previous one. Instead of a hot and cramped 30mph in a Sherman or Honey, we had Staghounds.
The squadron had taken over several large and lovely villa's in a cul-de-sac and we soon settled in. It was mid-July and our free and easy life continued, parade and roll-call after breakfast, and then dismissed for the rest of the day, the only exception being the occasional morning spent on vehicle maintenance.We passed the time writing letters and reading or taking a ride on the local tram service (free for us) to Milano centre about 10 miles away. There was one thing we did not like, Guard Duty. Sentries had to be mounted every night to patrol the ranks of vehicles. The desperately poor Italians would steal tyres if given half a chance to sell on the black market and buy food. Sadly, the Allies did not help the civilians. Guard Duty involved 6 men and an N.C.O. As a corporal I was the Guard Commander and one might in August it completely changed my life.
I had posted the first two sentries and left them outside the front gates of the H.Q. villa. It was a beautiful warm night so I stayed outside sitting on some rockery stones in the front garden. Just then a girl rode up on a bicycle with a young boy on the crossbar, she stopped and started talking to the sentries. I was fascinated by her. She was so lively and vivacious, I was utterly enraptured, but it might have all so easily ended there when, suddenly, she looked across to where I was sitting in the gloom and said, 'Len?' She knew Len, though not all that well, and was aware he had been away as a guard on the Mail Train to Calais, and thought he was back. We were both tall and fair so I made the most of the opportunity and strolled across to here and said, 'No, io Frank'. The sentries told me they sold her cigarettes, knowing she took them to Milano to sell for a higher price and enabled her to buy food for the family. conversation was difficult as we only spoke a few words of each others language but, with the aid of gestures and sign language I was able to convey that I wanted to see her the next morning. She agreed and also told me the boy was her fratello (brother) Sergio, whom she had brought along as a kind of chaperone.
The love of my life -Fulvia Liliana Schiff
At 10 o'clock the next morning I was ready and waiting by the gates when I saw a procession coming along the road towards me. It was led by Liliana (she had told me her name) followed by six young children; two younger sisters Luciana, Silvana, her brother Sergio and their friends. I was flabbergasted! We turned and walked back the way they had come with the kids trailing along behind. There were quite a number of my pals around and you should have heard the whistles and comments, Pied Piper of Hamlin, etc., but most too obscene to repeat! I was so embarrassed I stopped and gave Liliana an ultimatum, 'Either they go or I go'. We did not know how a simple yes or no could change our whole lives but, thank God, she said, 'Yes'. Well, really it was a compromise, she would send four of them home provided I bought them all an ice cream first. It cost me about a weeks Army pay but, in retrospect, worth every lira and the best deal I've ever made.
It was love at first sight for me and I somehow knew we would never ever be separated. It was not the same for Liliana, she said she like me, yes, but she also felt a bit sorry for me because I was shy and a loner. I was infatuated by her and it was not long before we were seeing each other every day. One night after a few drinks and a dance at the local bar I walked her home to 26, Viale dei Tigli where the family lived on the ground floor. I took her in my arms, said 'Buona notte' and gave her the usual peck on the lips. Liliana lost patience, pulled my head down, and before I knew what was happening I felt her tongue slide between my lips and into my mouth. It was like an electric shock and I shivered from head to foot. It was a new experience for me and although I remember the kiss as if it were yesterday I have no recollection whatever of walking back to my billet.
We spent more and more time together over the following weeks, often having a lie down and a cuddle on my bed but it never went any further. Until, late one afternoon after a long and passionate embrace Liliana said 'If you want me, take me'. It was the first time for both of us and I saw stars, flashing lights and the earth most definitely moved for me!
It must have been so obvious we were in love and inseparable that when my pals saw my beloved approaching the villa they would call out, 'Frank, Mrs Gent's here!' Christmas came and went and then the news we dreaded, the 2nd Lothians Regiment was being disbanded on January 20th, 1945. The one's who had served the longest would remain in Milano while the remainder, including me, would be transferred to the 1st Lothians who were in Germany. Many of the lads had girl friends in the area, despite a few having wives back home, and there was much weeping and wailing from the Italian ladies as we piled into the back of 3-ton trucks and said farewell to Cusano Milanino.
Liliana, with her mother Rina (Back right), and her brother Sergio, sister Luciana (front right), sister Silvana (behind her) and baby sister, Loredana, in her mother's arms. Milanino, 1946
Life with the 1st Lothians was much the same as it has been with the 2nd. The war and the fighting was over, at least in Europe, and discipline was relaxed. Before I left Milano I had asked Liliana to marry me. It was rather amusing really, my bed was in a large room with several others and we used to lie on it because there were no chairs. We respected each others privacy and turned a blind eye to what might be going on. Well, it was late afternoon and I said to Liliana that I wanted to ask her something. I think she guessed what it was but time after time somebody would clump into or out of the room or come over to speak to us (I said we were on the bed, fully dressed, not in it) Poor Liliana was becoming quite frustrated until, at last, the chance came. I remember I said, "I want to marry you but only if you give up your family, your home, your religion and our country and come to live in England."
It was grossly unfair of me to make such a demand and it would have served me right if she'd refused. After 67 years together, mostly happy, I'm so glad she said yes!
I said 'mostly' because there was a 'bad period' of 20 years in the middle when I was drinking heavily (an alcoholic in fact) but thanks to Liliana's understanding, tolerance and forgiveness I came out of the dark tunnel in 1972 and it has been sunshine ever since, even better than the first years of our marriage.
Soon after our arrival in Germany we received our first mail. There was a letter from Liliana (translated for her by and English lady living in Cusano) containing the disturbing news that she was pregnant, I was not upset, just worried that she would have to cope alone, so I requested permission to speak to the Commanding Officer. He sat behind his desk tapping his pencil whilst I explained the reason for my request for compassionate leave to return to Milan to marry my fiancee. He was silent for a minute or two and then said, "Corporal, you've been away from England nearly two and a half years so it's not surprising you've struck up a relationship with an Italian girl. But these wartime romances are not a good foundation for marriage. I'm going to offer you two weeks leave in England and when you see how attractive English girls are I think you will change your mind. Dismiss." I saluted, turned smartly and left. Of course, the lads told me how lucky I was and I suppose I was, but it wasn't really what I wanted. However, it was obviously a dead end in Germany and I reasoned I might be able to do more while I was in Manchester.
It was wonderful to see my family again and I had a real stroke of luck. St. Margaret's church was less than a mile from where we lived at 16, Manley road, and the vicar was Reverend Ethell who, by a remarkable coincidence, was also Chaplain for the whole of the North West Forces. He readily agreed to help me and was kindness itself. He organized everything, writing to Liliana's parents to assure them we were a law-abiding , respectable family, putting my residence as G.F. Holding Ltd., 11 Withington road, the firm where I worked, because Manley road was just outside his parish and with that address he could marry in his church. He also arranged for a ticket to be sent to Liliana so she could travel to England as soon as I was demobilized. Again, luck was on my side. I was informed that because I was in the building trade I was eligible for early release and would be leaving the regiment early in May.
I traveled to a demob centre in England with many others and was given a ready-made civilian suit, shirt, shoes and underwear. We were allowed to keep our army uniform, greatcoat and boots, and so I traveled to Manchester to return to my family. I phoned Frank Holding and told him I was available and he said I could start anytime. My parents had told me I could have the ground floor front room and the largest of the attics and I decided to spend some time decorating them ready for Liliana's arrival. At last I learned that she would be leaving Italy on June 27th and I believe there was a very tearful farewell as the whole of her family saw her off on the train to Calais in the Stazione Centrale, Milano. It was a long and tiring 24 hour journey in those days and then she had to get the ferry to Dover where I was waiting for her.
My heart went out to her as she walked down the gangplank. It might have been June but it was cold and raining and all she wore was a white two-piece suit, (her family could not afford to buy her a coat, her father might have been a Director of the Banco di Sicilia and a wealthy man but his Jewish blood meant that he had lost everything under the Fascist regime and the family had become refugees). All I saw was her petite figure and lovely face framed by dark hair, God, I loved her so much.
We took the train to London and decided to stay the night there. My family had always been poor, struggling to make ends meet so we always looked for the cheapest price....or did without. We trailed around the back streets until I found a really grotty looking hotel. I've no idea of it's address but I'll never forget it's name, The Craven. It was grim, badly lit, our room was on the top floor, (no lift of course),cracked and worn linoleum on the floor, a shilling-in-the-meter and an old iron bed that creaked loudly if you moved! What an introduction to England for poor Liliana but we fell asleeep locked in each others arms.
We were together. And it was to be for life.
After introducing her to my parents we went to see the Reverend Ethell who said he would marry us the next day, June 29th. to say it was a quiet wedding would be an understatement. My wife-to-be and I walked to St. Margaret's church accompanied by my parents, sister Lyn and brother Philip. the only others present were the vicar, the organist and a couple of strangers sitting in the rear pews! Then we returned hom, stopping in the Odeon cinema café for a pot of tea.
In retrospect I am ashamed that I did not appreciate my parents kindess in accepting their Italian daughter-in-law and giving up part of their home for us. After all, the Italians had been our enemies and, even worse, from their point of view, Liliana was half-Jewish and brought up in the Catholic Faith! But they were tolerant and understanding, especially my mother who by means of sign language, taught Liliana the rudiments of housekeeping and cookery and English words in everyday use. My dear wife was intelligent and a quick learner, being already fluent in French and Latin. In fact, she and our doctor conversed in Latin during the birth of our first child, Valerie, on October 4th, at home in the front room.
Wedding Photo of Frank and Liliana
I resumed work at G.F. Holding Ltd. as personal assistant to F.F.'s son, Frank Holding and the future seemed bright. Our second child, Stella, was born just over a year later on December 6th 1947. She was a delightful little girl adored by my father who, on his return from work would peep round the corner to where she was sitting in her pram and then dodge backwards and forwards while she gurgled and chuckled with pleasure. Stella appeared well but put on hardly any weight, then the hospital gave us the heartbreaking news that she had a congenital heart defect and would not live long. On the evening of 10th October (in her tenth month), I was nursing her and trying to soothe here to no avail, so I thrust her into Liliana's arms. Suddenly, little Stella threw back her head and was gone. Her tiny body, just 10lbs, was free at last from suffering but ours was just beginning. I did not cry at first, even when we accompanied her to Weaste Cemetery but that night in bed, I sobbed my heart out as my wife held me tight. I couldn't speak except to say, "I want another baby".
Nine months later, on July 24th our much-wanted son, Frank, was born. He has undoubtedly inherited his mother's intelligence.
Stella Grace Gent
Taken in the afternoon of the day she died, October 10th 1948
R.I.P. Little Angel
Early in 1951 Liliana appealed to our doctor and the Council for a new home. My much loved younger brother, Geoffrey, had special needs and at times his outbursts could be quite alarming, and she was worried about our children's safety. Although Geoffrey was not directly violent to anyone, it was a worry that someone could get caught in the 'crossfire' unintentionally....and it was far from an ideal situation for very young children to be growing up in.
I didn't have much hope but within a couple of months we were given the keys to number 6 Painswick road, Woodhouse Park, Wythenshawe, a new three bed- roomed Council house, rent 27s/6d per week. About the same time I gave my notice to G.F. Holdings even though Frank Holding said he was disappointed as he had great plans for me. However, I could see my father needed my help so I joined his small Painting and Decorating business. Rina, blonde and vivacious and so lively, was born on November 12th at 12.30am just missing her grandmother, Nonna Rina's birthday by half an hour.
We were happy in our new home but life wasn't easy. I could not afford wallpaper except for a dado in the lounge where, to relieve the plainness, I painted a life-size Bambi. It became well-known in the district. All the rest was painted with Emulsion Paint, even the treads and risers on the stairs, because we could only buy one carpet, a 3x2 yard for the lounge. All the ground floor consisted of a brown composition which Lilian polished. In those days work in the decorating trade was seasonal so we were unemployed most of the time from October to March. I had a wife and three children to support so I 'signed on' at the Labour Exchange and received the meager sum of £1-7s-6d a week, not enough to live on. If you were offered a job and refused it your dole stopped. I was told I could go to Cumberland painting gas storage tanks with graphite.....in January! Fortunately, Liliana had a good name with our local grocer who put her purchases 'on the slate' and in the summer months I worked long hours, often 8am until 8 or 9pm, to pay our debts and put a little on one side.
Mam and Dad with Geoffrey. Mam always worried about Geoffrey but he was eventually placed in a wonderful open home in Devon where he lived many happy years before a peaceful death in his 70's.
On January 7th Dana arrived, possible the prettiest of our girls. That was in 1957 and a year later my mother asked us to return to Manley road hoping it would push Dad into agreeing to go to Devon to join my sister Lyn and brother, Philip, who had bought a farm there. Dad was reluctant to leave Manchester but Mam's strategy worked.In January 1959 my parents walked down the steps and Dad turned round, looked up at the house and said, "Well, Dennis, this is all yours now", then they got into my car and I drove them to Piccadilly Station en route for Mons Hall Farm, Dowland.
I inherited a good business from my father but I was not a good 'boss'. Unfortunately, the man who had worked for my father for many years took advantage of my inexperience. I had started drinking whilst in the Army but stopped after the war (at least, most of the time) because I could not afford it. Now, with more money in my pocket I started again, and it wasn't long before I became an alcoholic. Things went from bad to worse until, in 1966, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
I was working on my own now and started a very big job in Anglesey. Liliana came and stayed with me two or three times. The result was that early in 1967 she told me, disbelievingly, that she was pregnant. I was ecstatic and welcomed the arrival of my little boy Adrian, who had been conceived in Wales. There were complications, Liliana was now in her 40's and had a difficult pregnancy and had to spend a lot of time in St Mary's Hospital. She started in labour on a Monday morning and it was three days before the stupid doctor decided an emergency caesarian section was necessary. During the operation, my precious wife actually 'died' and did not breath for several minutes, and to this day has problems with her throat caused by oxygen tubes being forced into it.
But the reward was our beautiful baby boy, Adrian, who we adored from the minute we saw him.
Regrettably, I did go back to drinking several times until, after a binge on whiskey and beer I was so ill and incapable I had to be taken home. The shame and disgust was unbearable and I haven't touched alcohol since.
I was also smoking 50-60 cigarettes a day, damaging my brain and body and heading for an early grave. I gave up smoking in 1963. I started paying off my debts and giving my family the love and care they deserved. Without their loyalty and devotion, especially my dear and faithful wife, who never gave up hoping I would again become the man she fell in love with, I would have gone under.
The last half of my life has been wonderful.
We celebrated our Diamond Wedding in 2006 attended by friends and family.
This year we celebrate 67 years of marriage, 3 years to go until our platinum wedding anniversary.....watch this space!!
Thank you darling Liliana xxxxxx
Us now.....and I still adore my beautiful and vivacious Italian wife....Liliana
Written by Frank Dennis Gent October 2013