Rehearsals completed with John Beck we were now in the lap of the Gods! I flew to Frankfurt on Thursday night arriving in Karlsruhe and glass of wine in hand by midnight. I couldn’t but help think about the upcoming gig on Thursday in what we had been told was an open air festival in Rome! We’d prepared a 90 minute set which we thought more than enough to deal with a festival headliner slot.
I spent the days leading up to the event trying to sort out the Amazon Germany deliveries which were becoming a frustrating lesson in how to unravel red tape in 3 different languages and finding a way through a maze of automated responses. John Reid was on point duty with Simone and I on regular party calls with him on Google trying to make sense of it all. It was supposed to be easy. It wasn’t!
I was flying with Ryanair from Baden airport on Wednesday night. We were still trying to process the delivery up until I left around 7pm. The drive there from Durlach took less than 45 mins. I’d taken a small piece of luggage and my satchel so as not to get in a tussle with Ryanair check in staff. Yatta had booked me a piece of hold luggage which cost around 90 Euros above my ticket. As I was traveling texts started coming in from Yatta telling me that a strike by baggage handlers at Rome airports meant that Ryanair were advising passengers to take carry on luggage only or get another flight. A re think was required. We arrived at the ex military airbase with 2 hours to spare before I flew. As expected there was no one there to advise and when I did eventually find Ryanair staff they knew nothing about any strike.I decided to play safe and go with hand luggage only cross packing essentials like stage clothes, lyric book, laptop, basic toiletries, spare underwear and socks and a shirt taking it all down to a bare minimum before checking the size in the “size guidance” box. It passed! I said farewell to my lady and went through security to the unwelcoming former military surroundings that was airside. I had an hour and a half to kill.
There was only one food and drink outlet and everything else was closed. Not that there was much of anything else anyway! I went for a sandwich and a couple of miniature bottles of wine that managed to fill the paper cup I was given. At 6 Euros a bottle I would be drinking slowly. The one thing Baden airport had going for it was an outside smoking area so I took up a position there and hunkered down with my book. Yatta and the others had already arrived at the hotel after getting lost with their driver. I recognised the mad laughter and my request for a sea view and a jacuzzi added to his hilarity. At least we were all in a good frame of mind to deal with it all. The skies darkened just as the crackly tannoy announced the strike in Rome and “indefinite delays”. There was a storm coming in and I didn’t want to be stuck here for hours or taking off between bolts of lightning. The heavens opened and I bought more wine. Again forward thinking from Yatta had bought me “priority boarding” and a reserved seat, 1A, right at the front with leg room. The skies cleared and I finally got on the plane just after 10. The Italians meeting me knew about the delays so I slumped back into the seat with my book and let it all happen. I have to admit it was one of the better Ryanair experiences although another couple of bottles of wine during the flight dented the wallet but enabled me to catch some zeds on the way down.I woke just as the endless carpet of lights that is Rome appeared in the window.
I was met by Gianluca and our Italian agent Daina and actually surprised them as I was first off and through customs with the plane not even having been designated as landing yet. The drive to the hotel was short and sweet and I arrived to find Robin, John Beck, the FTC and a welcome crowd of Italian fans sitting outside at tables making their way through a carry out. The others had retired so I sat down and joined the waning party for a few glasses to catch up with what had been happening.It was good to meet up with the circus again although it was a strange feeling playing this one off gig after all that had gone on in recent weeks. John Beck was confident and that reassured me as I had been having nightmares for the last few days that contained just about every possible thing that could go wrong. I checked in and headed to bed suitably dosed up on white wine but away from the edge of a potential hangover next morning. Mario and some of the other Italians had offered to take me to Anzio the next day and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I declined the thoughtful room service trolley parked in my room that had been left for me by the hotel knowing I was arriving late. If I’d checked in and came up to my 7th floor room instead of being sidetracked by free bevvy downstairs I might have availed myself but I was wary of a warm seafood salad at that time of the night!
I’d been told a few weeks ago that the venue had changed from an open air to an indoor and then that venue had changed because of “health and safety” issues to the club I’d seen the web site pictures of. It looked to all intents and purposes a night club and it looked very shiny! The fact that we had an environment under our control would help but as always any gig in Italy is a step into the big unknown and things don’t always mean what’s said on the proverbial tin! Not only was it now an indoor show but it also wasn’t a festival and we were the only artists on the bill! The 90 minutes we had were going to have to stretch a bit further.
The hotel was a round tower, reminding me of a smaller version of the Capitol records building in LA. It was pretty stylish and modern which meant that it took me about 10 minutes to work out how the lights worked and I still ended up shutting the bathroom door as I couldn’t figure how to switch them off there. The curve of windows had electronic blinds who’s switch I eventually found but they only went halfway up meaning I couldn’t open the windows unless I removed a blind from it’s runners. A previous occupant had obviously had the same idea so I followed his example and opened a window inwards under the partially torn blind. I hit every combination of bedside switches until I was in darkness.
Up at 11am and fruit from the trolley for breakfast. A bottle of still water stolen from a used breakfast tray in the corridor and downstairs for coffee and a band meeting. I re jigged the set-list with the guys, John B confident he could deal with the alterations and add ons. We had a longer soundcheck than anticipated later that afternoon but crew were already at the venue taking equipment down and prepping the hired in gear. I wasn’t needed until around 3.The weather was scorchio!
We weren’t actually in Rome but in the town of Aprilia around 35 k South of the city and 15k from Anzio. It had been built along with around 4 other major towns by Mussolini in reclaimed swampland in the late 30’s and along with many other places in the area was destroyed during the bitter and bloody battles that occurred here in 1944 when the allies landed at the Anzio and Nettuno beaches in an attempt to cut off German forces further South who were holding up the allied advance on the Gustav line which took in the bleak beleaguered mountain tops including the infamous Monte Cassino. I’d seen the 1968 Robert Mitchum movie when I was a kid and was aware that it was looked on as a bloody debacle by a lot of British soldiers many of whom blamed bad leadership for the enormous casualties.I’d read books on the Italian campaigns, Kesselring’s redoubtable defence systems, the deadly slopes of Monte Cassino, the river assaults the winter stalemates as the offensives got bogged down in WW1 conditions of entrenchment. The sign on the road to Anzio indicating “Campo de Carne” – “the fields of flesh” where locals say there were more bodies than blades of grass, a small innocuous road sign saying “many thousands of men died here” lost amongst the advertising hoards.
The allies took 43 000 casualties with 7000 dead, the Axis forces 40 000 with 5000 killed in a space of less than 5 months.It was an horrendous place on earth to be in early 1944 with nearly 300 000 troops from both sides committed to battle by the time the allies broke out of the beachhead to meet up with the advancing 5th Army group and take the deserted city of Rome left by the Germans as they moved to consolidate yet another defensive line further North. Debates have raged amongst military historians as to the effectiveness of the Anzio landings. Accusations of flawed conception ,gross ineptitude, bad planning and execution as the allies landed and instead of forging into the surrounding mountains consolidated the beachhead and missed the chance are often raised. So are accusations of glory hunting as American generals turned North to Rome to be captured on movie reels rather than eastwards to block and capture the retreating 10th German Army who would regroup and hold them up for another year in Northern Italy. It remains a contentious episode.
One of the men killed at Anzio was Eric Fletcher Waters, company Z of the Royal Fusiliers and probably many people have heard of Anzio through the lyrics of his son Roger Waters in particular “When the Tiger’s Broke Free” from the “Wall” album and movie. It was strange seeing hoardings on the road into town with pictures of Roger on stage welcoming him. I know he had visited the area and dedicated a small monument to his father’s unit earlier this year after discovering from military historians where the company had been left to fight a useless rearguard action against advancing German tanks, the company decimated in the process. I wonder how he felt about it all? His lyrics on the “Wall” and “Final Cut” are testament to his anger, sense of loss and the effect it had on his Life as a young boy and beyond but I couldn’t help thinking that the posters and hoardings welcoming ” a fellow citizen” somehow undermined the solemnity of it all. I wondered how I would feel in that situation where celebrity status is tied with such a traumatic personal event. I’m sure no disrespect was intended but it felt like an intrusion by strangers on something very private. It felt uncomfortable.
The beaches now are edged with hotels and restaurants, the battlefields unrecognisable as buildings were replaced and towns expanded to swallow the surrounding countryside in a concrete sprawl. The American cemetery was not easy to find if you didn’t know where it was. We careered around Nettuno through dusty side streets and hot shadowed back streets till we found our destination and it was something to behold. To give it it’s proper name, the Sicily- Rome American war cemetery, takes in about 77 acres and contains the graves of nearly 8000 American soldiers killed during the Italian conflict with the chapel inscribed with the names of over 3000 missing personnel. It was somber reading the gravestones as I walked alone in the manicured grounds on sun bleached lawns and under the shaded relief of the cypress trees.
I think what struck me the most were the surnames on the gravestones. I recognised Scottish, Irish, English, French, Scandinavian, Polish, German and Jewish family names all serving together under the American flag from across every State of the Union and in every corp.The occasional small American flag or wreath placed at the foot of gravestones reminded me that this wasn’t an old conflict and that the cemetery was visited by people who served in that war. It was a haven of tranquiity in a loud and bustling Nettuno and we all spent some silent time walking in amongst the headstones. We made our way up to the memorial chapel where the missing were inscribed on the wall. I came across a Robert Dick who was from New York and who served with the US Navy. He couldn’t have been family as it was the Campbells from Glasgow on my grandmothers side who moved over to the Chicago area way back in the early 1900’s but just seeing that name, the same as my father’s, carved in the cold marble touched me somewhere deep.We paid our respects and wandered around the building visiting the “map room” where large diagrams on the walls gave a brief overview of the Italian campaign and the Anzio and Nettuno landings.
One showed the campaign as it moved North and the reach of US bombers from their base in Foggia where the 15th US airforce conducted bombing raids throughout Southern Europe.These were the bombers that conducted raids on Karlsruhe pictures of which I’d found in USAF archives on line. To see the reach across the Balkans, France, Germany and Italy and beyond gave me a shiver when I thought of what they could deliver into the cities and towns of Europe.
We all made our way to the entrance of the cemetery as time was becoming short. The visit to the Anzio museum was sadly missed out and despite goodwill plans to visit it the next day before I left I knew it would have to wait until another time as my journey home was in the other direction. I left there with a far greater understanding of the events but with no real conception of what the men on both sides had suffered and endured.It must have been truly horrific on that beachhead surrounded by mountains bristling with artillery, under constant shell fire, aircraft strafing and bombing raids and with the sea at your back. The conditions must have been horrendous.
We were all very quiet as we left the cemetery all holding our own personal thoughts and all grateful that we have never experienced the horrors of war.
We had one more visit to make on the way back as I wanted to visit one of the small British and Canadian cemeteries known as Beachhead Cemetery. It was completely different from the American memorial. Instead of the long curved ranks of crosses that stood proud from manicured lawns splayed out from the central avenue that hit you with “shock and awe” with the sheer size of it all, the numbers, the scale; the British and Canadian cemetery seemed far more personal.
The entrance felt like going into a park and I was immediately struck by the tenderness of it all. The ranks of graves, about 1500 in all, were arranged in sections and at first I thought they were defined by regiments. On closer look it was mixed units and I found myself paying more attention to the inscriptions than I had done earlier. Maybe it’s because they were British units and I recognised a lot of the regiments involved. Sherwood Foresters, Highland Fusiliers, Gordon Highlanders, Seaforth Highlanders, Royal Artillery, Irish, Scots and Grenadier Guards amongst many others. The ages as always in these places hit me and one grave of a 20 year old Gordon Highlander pierced me as I wandered amongst the graves.The release was welcomed.
I think what made a profound difference were the roses growing at the foot of every headstone and the pergolas brimming with flowering wisterias and dripping with water thrown by sprinklers dousing the lush close clipped lawns.It felt more welcoming and engaging and a genuine place of rest for those interred. The shaded walks and the living flowers providing an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility.
Again the Italians in the company, my German friend Sven and I all walked separately taking in our own thoughts. Sven was visibly moved by it all and afterwards we had a long discussion about what had happened here. His grandfather had fought on the Eastern Front and had been captured by the Russians at Stalingrad and didn’t get home from prison camp in Siberia until 1956. He had his own questions and thoughts.My father had thankfully been too young for WW2 and was called up for national service after the war in Kenya and Tanzania. My uncle had been involved in France where he was rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk before being shipped out to Burma to fight the Japanese after invading Madagascar and training in India.His experiences he never discussed and only rare occasional stories with my Dad opened a tiny chink of light on his war. Seeing these names and inscriptions, as with my time at the Somme, really brought it home and I was deeply moved by our visit and grateful for being given the opportunity by my Italian friends for the experience .
The temperature was now hitting 35 degrees and we were running late. I had a soundcheck to negotiate.The journey was relatively quiet as we took stock of our surroundings in a very different light. I thought of getting a photo of the hoarding sporting Roger Waters in rock star pose and decided against it. After all I’d seen that morning it just felt wrong.
for anyone interested in discovering more about the landings and the battles around Anzio and Nettuno you can go to this link