Four countries, four different stories
Your grandparents' war stories
Chiara’s grandfather fought for Mussolini
Osama’s grandfather was forced to fight against the Japanese
Franziska’s grandfather fought for the Nazis
Tom’s great-grandparents helped in the war industry
‘What happened to my grandfather in prison?’
In an old photograph, several soldiers stand crowded together on a plain in El Alamein, Egypt. One soldier stands straight, arms and hands stretched down his side, slightly leaning forward as a medal is pinned to his uniform. According to the caption on the back of the photograph, it’s July 18, 1942.
Antonino Mancuso was born in Palermo, Sicily, one year before the First World War. When the second started, he was old enough to fight. He fought in several countries in Africa, as well as in Albania. He survived a bombing attempt from an English airplane and as a commander he successfully led his company in fighting off a British attack in Egypt, earning him the decoration.
Soon after, he had to lead that same company into a battle they could not win. They were short on manpower and ammunition and the British army quickly overpowered them. Antonino was taken to Cairo as a prisoner of war. Because of his decorations, the British were convinced he was an important figure in the Italian army and would know the location of the Italian and German troops. He didn’t.
We’ve been putting things together from what my dad heard from his father
The British couldn’t take all of their prisoners of war back home, so they divided them among the colonies of the empire. Antonino was taken to Palestine, and then to India in September 1942, where he stayed until January 1946. On the long-awaited journey back to Naples, they fed him fish for breakfast every single day. It’s one of the few details Antonino told his son, laughing every time he did so.
Second-year history student Chiara Mancuso and her father, Antonino’s only child, are left with many questions. What happened to Antonino in those four years? What camps in India had he been in? How many times had he made the trip to Africa? And why did he fight? Antonino passed away twenty-two years ago, when Chiara was just one year old. She never got to ask him these questions.
‘We’ve been putting things together from what my dad heard from his father, and what my grandmother told me’, says Chiara. They know the dates from Antonino’s military papers. As to what happened in India, they can only guess. Antonino told his son he’d been in a camp near Bhopal, in the middle of India. They also know he was in a second camp, and believe this was in Yol, close to what would later become Pakistan. This camp was known as a prison where most war officials were held.
In India, Antonino was presumably treated a little better than the other prisoners because he was a commander. He was given different food, and even had the opportunity to leave the premises once in a while. But he still slept on a bed without a mattress and got his leg hairs caught in the iron bed springs just like all the other men in the camp.
Chiara remembers asking her grandmother about the war just twice. The first time was when they’d just discussed the topic in history class. Her grandmother didn’t say much, but showed her that picture from 1942. ‘Back then,’ says Chiara, ‘I wasn’t mature enough to ask the right questions. When I was, it was too late.’
The second time she asked her grandma about the war, they were in the kitchen making dinner. Chiara, who was sixteen by then, had mentioned they were studying the war in school. Could her grandmother tell her husband’s story again? Her expression had said everything as she curtly summarised it in one sentence: ‘He fought and was a prisoner in India for forty months.’ Chiara never tried again.
I wasn’t mature enough to ask the right questions
Antonino Mancuso was sixteen years older than his wife. They had fallen in love when he was on leave in 1941. Twenty years later, after their wedding, she followed him to the north of Italy, where he was still working for the army. ‘I think she was so in love with him that talking about him and the pain he must’ve gone through was too painful.’
The stories about her grandfather on her mother’s side, Dino Bassignani, were very different. Even though grandma Bassignani had never talked about the war, and Chiara’s grandpa passed away when she was ten or twelve, her great-aunt, Dino’s sister, had told her plenty. For Chiara’s final history project in high school, she interviewed her great-aunt and five others from her grandfather’s village.
Dino was only eight years old when the war started. He lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. When they heard the Germans were coming, all the men in the village packed up their cattle and hid on the mountain. They knew the Germans would kill the men they found, who they assumed were part of the resistance.
They were incredibly lucky, because the army passed through the next valley on the other side of the mountain. Dino’s family was lucky, too. The Germans left them most of their food, because Dino’s mother was pregnant with his sister, Chiara’s great-aunt.
‘She was fine telling me all this, because she was only telling me what she’d heard. She had no memories of being frightened.’ Her great-aunt could laugh heartily at the visual of her father hiding from the Germans in a bucket full of grapes. She’d never actually seen it herself.
It’s weird to know he was in prison for four years
But it’s frustrating to not know exactly what happened to Antonino. ‘It’s weird to know he was in prison for four years, and it’s especially not easy to not have heard it from him directly.’ Chiara feels like her grandfather’s experiences are less close to her. ‘I couldn’t see the expressions on his face when he told his story, I didn’t have all that.’
In the future, she and her father will go to Palermo, to see the material the Italian army archived in the city where he was born. Her father has also written to the National Archives in Great Britain, to see if they have more records of his father’s whereabouts.
‘I want to know about my family history, I want to know how the war influenced my grandfather.’ She thinks it can make things click, ‘like, that’s the reason why this happened’. For instance, they think Antonino was really focused on his son mastering the English language, because he himself couldn’t communicate when he was in India.
Chiara is proud of her Italian heritage. She is proud that her grandfather fought for his country, and that he got back from being imprisoned for so long. ‘Even though he didn’t fight for the right side, I still have his story to tell.’
‘My grandfather was forced to fight a war that was not his’
Osama Arshad’s grandfather Shafi Cheema had a hard time during the war. But whenever he told his family about his experiences, he would do so with a smile. ‘He suffered a lot, but he decided to remember it smiling’, says Osama.
Osama, who studies international and European law at the UG, has a complicated background. He was born in Italy, but his parents are from Pakistan. However, his grandfather experienced the Second World War in India, which was a British colony at the time. In 1941, when his grandfather was only twenty years old, fate came knocking.
Two policemen came to the farm in Sahowala where Shafi and his father worked. They took him and many other young men from the region to the police station. It soon became clear that they had been selected to represent the British Indian Army and would be fighting the Japanese – an ally of Nazi Germany which sought to conquer, among others, the British colonies of Burma – now Myanmar – and Singapore.
Shafi was allowed to say goodbye to his family, with a soldier watching him so he would not escape. He was then sent to a city in eastern India – now Bangladesh – where he received military training for three months. ‘My grandfather had a rebellious nature. He refused to take orders. The soldiers had to wear boots, but Shafi did not lace them. He had never learned to lace his shoes and he did not feel like doing it now’, Osama says, laughing. ‘But the British would treat the Indians like slaves and beat them up when they did not obey. Eventually my grandfather realised he just had to put up with it.’
He would sometimes drive for 24 hours without eating or sleeping
He was recruited as a driver. ‘Back then no one could afford cars in India, so my grandfather had no idea how to drive! When the British officers told him he had to drive the truck the following day, he practised all day and night until he somehow managed.’
Shafi became part of the service corps, which provides ammunition, food, clothes, and other necessities to the frontlines. ‘My grandfather would drive at night without his headlights on, through forests, sometimes going twenty-four hours without eating or sleeping, because he had to avoid the check posts. If he was found out, he would be stopped and killed. He learned a lot of discipline and how to survive and taught us this later as well. He would say that it doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is how you behave and react when it does.’
After one or two years as a front-line soldier in Singapore, Shafi was moved to Burma with his unit, where he was once again put to work as a driver. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States started bombing Japan, and the Japanese planned a final attack on the territories of the Indian Army.
My grandfather was shot in the thigh when he tried to save his comrade
As the Japanese airplanes were approaching, Shafi was ordered to drive his truck elsewhere to save as many supplies as possible. But the trucks stood no chance in the daylight. ‘Imagine this: your truck is being hit by bombs, the only option is to get out and run. But then the Japanese ground forces attack… One of my grandfather’s comrades freaked out. He cried that they were going to die, that they had been forced out of their houses, away from their families, to fight in a foreign country where nobody would find them. My grandfather tried to calm him down, but as he was running towards his comrade, he was shot in the thigh’, Osama tells.
Shafi’s comrades managed to take him to the forest, where they hid for days. Shafi was losing so much blood that he finally passed out. Fortunately, his comrades eventually found another British army group which took him to a field medic. ‘They never got the bullet out. Whenever we travelled by plane, he had to sign a document which stated that he was a veteran and that he had a metal bullet in his body.’
Osama’s grandfather recovered, but the injury had taken its toll and he was slower than he used to be. However, since the war wasn’t over, he had to go back into service. One day, Shafi and some other men were separated from the rest of the group when they were on an expedition. They got lost in the Burmese jungle and were ambushed by the Japanese. Two men were killed and one was injured. Shafi and his companions took their injured friend and walked around the jungle for eight days without food or water.
‘This is the only moment my grandfather said he was afraid to die’, Osama recalls. ‘One night, the man who had been injured thought he heard a sound like a train track. The others said his exhaustion made him delusional and refused to check. The man died that night, but the next day the others found the train tracks, which led to a village. The injured man could have survived.’
It was only there in the jungle that he was afraid to die
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the war in August 1945. ‘My grandfather and his comrades should have been happy; their enemy had capitulated. But it was just too awful. All those children and women had nothing to do with it.’
A week later, the British left India, leaving one part of the country to become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the other the Republic of India. But this liberation did not mean an end to the trouble in India.
The British created a religious conflict that had not been there before, says Osama. Mass migrations started as Muslims clashed with Hindus, Sikhs, and other groups. Houses were burned down, and many people were raped and slaughtered. ‘One family my grandfather knew was massacred. After everything he’d been through, my grandfather concluded that violence is totally useless. He told us he had wasted his younger years fighting for a lost cause. He urged us to work for something that is worth it’, Osama says. ‘It still makes me angry that he was forced to fight a war that was not his to fight.’
Fortunately, Osama’s grandfather did not hold a grudge. ‘But he did want us to be aware that my people were oppressed, and that they fought for their freedom. He taught me freedom can always be taken away. I suppose this is why I monitor politics closely. Someone like Matteo Salvini in Italy might destroy our freedom.’
‘My grandfather felt very guilty he fought for the Nazis’
Franziska Benning’s grandfather never talked about the war. Even though he survived, as a German soldier he fought for the ‘wrong’ side and felt extremely guilty about it. ‘He only told his story to my brother and mother’, says the German-born UG psychologist Franziska Benning.
However, she doesn’t blame him for what he did. ‘We don’t know how he was influenced’, she says. ‘There was group pressure among the soldiers. He was told that the Allies were the enemy, so he fought them. Many people say that the German soldiers had a choice. But we weren’t there.’
Franziska’s grandfather was born in Germany in 1918. His father died on the battlefield during the First World War. His mother remarried, but his stepfather was a hateful man. Little Heins Pappert was not a happy child.
As a young boy, Heinz Pappert became involved with the Hitler Youth, where he finally felt free to express himself. ‘It was like a second family to him’, explains Benning.
The Hitler Youth was like a second family to him
When Heinz was eight years old, the Hitler Youth gave him a medal for being able to carry a heavy backpack on an eight-mile hike. ‘We found that medal in a box with his old things’, she remembers. When the war started in 1939, Heinz Pappert joined the German army. He was twenty-one years old.
Heinz survived the battlefield, but was arrested by the Russians in April 1945 . He was put on a train to Siberia. Fearing the worst, he kept a close eye on the guards in the train. When they finally dozed off around three or four in the morning, he managed to jump from the train near the border between Poland and Germany. He fled to Northern Germany.
‘Somehow he managed to get hold of a Dutch soldier’s uniform’, Franziska says. Because he spoke Low German, a dialect that is very similar to Dutch, the Allied Forces believed he was Dutch and didn’t arrest him again.
But then he met a Dutch soldier, who immediately realised that this dialect was not Dutch. Miraculously, he let Franziska’s grandfather go. ‘I think he realised my grandfather was in a horrific situation. He was still young, only twenty-six. Thanks to this soldier, my grandfather survived’, says Franzeska.
Nevertheless, Heinz never returned to the Netherlands. ‘He always felt guilty for pretending to be a Dutch soldier.’
Franziska’s grandmother, Margret Benning, had a completely different experience in the war. She was only three years old when it started. However, she still remembers many events as if they happened yesterday. ‘When she talks about her experiences, you can definitely hear her voice changing. She becomes sad.’
The beginning of the war was relatively quiet for Franziska’s grandmother. She and her aunt were sent to the countryside, where they lived for a few years. ‘There, they were safer than in the big city, which was often bombed.’
She just wanted to sleep peacefully for one night
She couldn’t stay in the countryside forever, however, and she was in Bochum on November 4, 1944, during one of the worst bombings of the Allied forces. She and her family fled into a bomb shelter. ‘They nearly didn’t make it inside. They were literally the last to get in.’
The bombings deeply affected little Margret. On her birthday, she had only one wish: to wear pyjamas to bed and sleep through the night. Because of the constant threat of the bombing, she always had to sleep fully clothed. ‘She just wanted to be able to sleep peacefully for one night’, says Franziska. ‘That story gives me goosebumps.’
She always carried a piece of paper around her neck with her name and date of birth, says Franziska. ‘If there were bombings, and she lost her parents, she could be identified.’ After the war, she would start shaking every time the air sirens went off on the first Monday of the month.
These days, sirens are abolished in Germany. Franziska realises how lucky she is to have the freedom to go wherever she wants, when she wants. ‘I don’t have to flee into a basement in the middle of the night, at risk of my own life. We are lucky to have been born in this moment of time.’
‘My grandmother has a childlike perspective of the war’, Franziska says. ‘As a child, you don’t really know what’s going on. She had no idea of right or wrong.’
When English soldiers came to Germany after the war ended and Margret wanted to run to them, people warned her to stay away from them, that they would try to kidnap or shoot her. Franziska: ‘Of course they wouldn’t. But my grandmother didn’t know that.’
Both Margret’s parents survived the war. But when she went back to school, she found that only three other children still had both parents. ‘The other children’s fathers were all missing or had been declared dead.’
My grandparents were all traumatised after the war
It all sounds like a movie, says Franziska. ‘But for my grandparents it was real life.’ They all struggled with alcohol addiction at some point in their lives, she says. ‘There was no real therapy at the time, you couldn’t talk about what happened to you. They were all traumatised.’
Everyone who lived through the war felt guilty, not just the soldiers like grandpa Heinz. Franziska notices that there is still a stigma attached to being German. ‘It is a difficult subject, which has certainly influenced my sense of national identity.’
She is sometimes hesitant to tell people that she is German. ‘I have experienced enough negative comments towards my person simply for being German. I’ve even had it happen in Groningen once or twice. I get it, but I had nothing to do with it.’
She is just as old as her grandfather was at the end of the war. ‘He was lured into the Hitler Youth and the Hitler regime’, she believes. ‘He had no choice.’ She, on the other hand, does. ‘I’m sitting here right now, making my own choices. I am very grateful for that.’
‘I’m lucky that it’s cool now to fix your own clothes’
‘I am a young version of my grandad. There is nothing original about me’, laughs Tom Grant, a third-year student of European culture and politics at the UG.
Tom was born near London, but he grew up close to Manchester, where he had a close relationship with his maternal grandparents ‘Nana’ and ‘Guy Grandad’. Nana is the one ‘who wears the trousers in the family’, he says. Grandad keeps more to himself. Like Tom.
He was around ten years old when he became aware that his grandparents had lived through the Second World War. He started asking questions and found his grandparents to be cheerful storytellers. ‘They speak about it with fondness and gratitude’, says Tom. ‘We would sit with my grandparents and talk about their memories, sipping tea. My great-grandfather would be there too, but he was a bit deaf, so Nana had to translate for him.’
Like many others, Tom’s great-grandparents worked in essential services during the war in mines, munitions factories, and the Spitfire industry. ‘My grandad remembers his dad always tipping the wings on the plane when he flew above the house, so the kids could see.’
My grandad remembers his dad tipping the wings on the plane above the house
Tom’s great-grandmother worked in the munitions industry together with thousands of other women, who finally got a chance to join the workforce when Britain found itself short on millions of workers. ‘Nana also describes the war as a significant defining moment for women’s rights as many of the jobs that previously would have been done by men were all of the sudden done by women’, says Tom.
Both his grandparents grew up in the countryside, which meant that they did not have to be evacuated. ‘But grandad remembers the routine hideouts under the staircase in their family house during the air raids. His parents would always bring him a bottle of milk to keep him calm.’
People in the bigger cities did have to be evacuated, like nearby Coventry where nearly six hundred people died in 1940 during the Coventry Blitz. ‘There are speculations that Winston Churchill did not issue a warning, despite knowing about the attack beforehand, because it would have alerted that the allies had cracked the top-secret Enigma code.’
Stories like these matched what Tom already knew about the war. ‘It’s as if I can slot them into what I have learned from television shows and movies.’ Like Goodnight Mister Tom, a movie he saw about a boy who moves to the countryside during wartime.
Other anecdotes are more personal in scale, like the oft-told story of the family piglet, which Tom’s great-grandfather had won in a bet. ‘It was raised alongside the dog, so when someone would come to the house, the dog would run to the door barking. The pig would follow with squeaks.’ The pig became so much part of the family, the story goes, that it was never slaughtered, even though resources were scarce and rationed.
Rationing, Tom says, left its mark on his grandparents. He thinks it shaped their humble ‘make do and mend’ approach to self-sufficiency. Tom inherited this attitude to a large extent. ‘Hearing these stories made me appreciate the little things. I don’t require extravagance. They still divide receipts after every shopping trip. Despite being married for sixty years, they don’t share bank accounts.’
We didn’t talk about why my grandfather was crying
The current trend of minimalism and second-hand shopping is in line with what Tom’s grandparents practised their whole lives. ‘I guess I’m lucky that it’s cool now to fix your own clothes and grow your own vegetables.’
The war also shaped the nation as a whole, which has once again become apparent during this Covid-19 crisis. British people tend to endure hard times with a ‘stiff upper lip’. ‘We have this idea that we stood alone before, so we can do it again. Many in the UK will tell you that while European countries struggle through together, the UK will be just fine on its own.’
Tom saw this on a smaller scale too, when a family member was dying. One day, he found his grandad crying in the kitchen. He knew, however, that he wasn’t supposed to acknowledge it. ‘I just walked over to ask him if he wanted a cup of tea. We didn’t talk about what was wrong.’
But despite this myth around WW2 soldiers, Tom believes that the reality of those who lived through the war is not solely defined by bravado and traditional ideals of masculinity. ‘The caring aspects and appreciation for community is what resonates with me the most when I hear my grandparents’ stories.’
For Tom, the main takeaway is to appreciate the simplicity of life. ‘It’s about the little things, like the freedom to go for a walk and not have to stop at the border.’