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A page in Robert Dickinson’s journal,”Servigliano Calling,” is dedicated to “next-of-kin” parcels received.
Relatives of Allied prisoners were allowed to send one package four times a year to their loved ones. How this process was conducted in Canada was described in an Ottawa Citizen article about the services of the Canadian Red Cross Enquiry Bureau on April 26, 1944:
“There are 6,365 [Canadian] prisoners and internees on record whose next-of-kin are issued quarterly labels for personal parcels by the Department of National War Services….
“As soon as a man is officially declared a prisoner of war, another pamphlet is sent [by the Red Cross Enquiry Bureau] advising the next-of-kin what to do about parcels and enclosing the latest postal regulations.
“The bureau also receives reports from the supplementing committee of the Red Cross by which it is enabled to keep in touch with the next-of-kin who have difficulty in making up their quarterly parcels. One of the duties of the Red Cross is to see that the parcels are up to their full weight and it is through these reports that the liaison officers of the Red Cross branches are able to offer help to those in need of it.”
Red Cross Parcels distributed in Axis camps during the war were essential to the Allied POWs’ survival.
Robert Dickinson describes the eagerly awaited parcels in his diary; it’s clear that interruptions in parcel distribution were times of anguish.
Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi, in his dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, notes the following:
“English, Canadian and also New Zealand Red Cross sent to POWs various parcels some that contained clothes, tobacco and other necessities but the most important ones were food parcels that helped POWs to survive with the meagre Italian rations. Parcels coming from Canada and New Zealand were the richest as in those countries there was no food rationing such as in England that was under the constant threat of German bombing.
“Food parcels that had reached the camp were not enough for everybody and therefore they were divided among POWs. During the distribution of them, the Italian authorities usually punched food tins to prevent any the POWs from storing them for use in an eventual escape. POWs use tins of food, tobacco etc. as exchange goods; furthermore they recycled all the empty tins as the metal was very useful to construct a great variety of utensils.”
Robert Dickinson recorded parcels of cigarettes received in his “Servigliano Calling” journal.
His girlfriend Ida was the primary supplier of cigarettes. Others came from his family and from his regiment in Lincoln, England.
Player’s brand tobacco was manufactured by John Player’s tobacco company in Nottingham, England. Higgs Bros. was a tobacconist shop in Lincoln.
Comments below in italic are from Robert’s diary.
No. 1. Received July 23rd. 200 Players From Ida.
Jul 23rd  First big parcel, just right have got no cigs. 200 Players from Higgs, no senders name.
Read the rest of this entry »
Received 21st. August 1943.
Girl in the Dark.
Murder for Christmas
Grapes from Thorns
The following passages from Robert Dickinson’s diary in “Servigliano Calling” convey the importance of books to the prisoners. The nighttime reading aloud of books in Robert’s hut was welcome escapism—even worth risk of punishment!
Denis and I bought a Penguin book “Crump Folk going Home” costing 20 Lira. A good investment, have now access to practically all the books in the camp. Reading aloud at night because of the bugs not letting one sleep; starting at 10pm till midnight.
Daily Ration Scale W.E.F. 22nd. December 1941. (In grammes per head daily 50 grammes = 1¾ oz.}
Daily Ration Scale W.E.F. 13th. March 1942.
This page with two charts from Robert Dickinson’s journal, “Servigliano Calling,” shows Robert’s awareness of basic nutritional needs and his meticulous effort to ensure those needs were met.
The food categories in the first chart (December 22, 1941) are:
Meat, rice or macaroni, oil or fat, tomato, grating cheese, table cheese, vegetable, sugar, coffee subs., biscuit, bread, and wine.
The food categories in the second chart (March 13, 1942) are slightly different. Vegetables listed are in dried form, and the chart lacks biscuit and wine categories.
On March 12, 1942, Robert wrote in his diary, “News of drastic cut in rations.” And on the following day he recorded, “Rations cut by more than half!!” The second chart reflects that severe cut.
It’s alarming to see the drop in rations for several categories from one chart to the next. The second chart, for instance, lists a reduction of meat from servings on five days a week to only two, and the portions on those two days are smaller. Rice or macaroni servings and bread are substantially reduced in the second chart. Oil or fat are a little reduced, but quantities of tomatoes, cheese, vegetables, sugar, and coffee are similar in the two charts.
Do the charts reflect what Robert actually consumed in a given week in the camp, or the balance he hoped for, given the scarcity of food in the Camp 59? The reference to “grammes per head” suggestions that he had his “chums” in mind as well as himself.
Denis Crooks, photo taken in Camp 59.
In February, I received a note from Maggie Clarke in England.
Her father, she explained, was Denis Crooks, one of the servicemen whose poetry was included in Robert Dickinson’s “Servigliano Calling” prison camp journal.
Maggie wrote, “I have just downloaded and read the ‘Servigliano Calling’ camp poems of Robert Dickinson and had to write to let you know that Denis Crooks, who wrote three of them, was my father. I was so excited to read these poems, as I never knew that he wrote poetry—he certainly never wrote any after the war—and even my mother was not aware he did this.
“We have all my Dad’s POW letters written home and Bob is mentioned in so many of them. They were so close and I know he was devastated when they were split up. I’m sure they kept each other going in those bad times.
During this time of year, as we devote time in our kitchens to preparation of holiday meals and mouthwatering pastries and desserts, consider for a moment how our imprisoned soldiers craved their favorite foods from home—probably more during this season than at any other time of year.
It is any surprise that the prisoners attempted to recreate some of these dishes, using their daily camp rations and items from the precious Red Cross parcels?
Three pages of Robert Dickinson’s journal, “Servigliano Calling,” are devoted to recipes, ranging from a compote and spreads to pies and fig pudding.
The situation called for some invention—fruit pie crust made of a paste of grated bread mixed with margarine for example.
Cooking was done handily on the camp cook stoves built by fellow prisoners from scraps of tin and shoelaces.
Although Robert titled this section of his journal “Campo 59 Cookery,” the last recipe, “Campo 53 Rarebit,” is evidence that the culinary experiments continued after his transfer to Camp 53 Sforzacosta in January 1943.
One of the poems in Robert’s journal, “Thoughts,” by C. G. Hooper-Rogers, contains a list of sorely missed foods from home. Of his yearnings, Hooper-Rogers writes:
“All I’ve got to do is think, / Of all I used to eat and drink, / And the phantom foods I used to like, / Haunt me all the blinking night.”
Red Cross Compòte
¼ spoonful of sugar
1 spoonful of milk powder
2 spoonfuls of cocoa
(Custard or jelly powder can be added)
Break up the bread into coffeé mug and just cover with water. Soak well until soft. Add other items separately; stirring in well. When finished allow to set (if possible!!) Sugar may be added as desired.
1 spoonful cocoa
1 spoonful milk powder
½ spoonful sugar
Mix the milk powder and the cocoa in the coffeé mug and add water, stirring well into a stiff paste add sugar.
Coffeé Spread (Method as for Chocolate Spread.)
1 spoonful coffeé
1 spoonful sugar
3 spoonfuls milk powder
Robert Dickinson kept a diary, titled “Servigliano Calling,” from the date of his capture by the Germans until six months before his death (November 23, 1941 to September 3, 1944).
Robert arrived at Camp 59 on January 18, 1942, and a year later—on January 24, 1943—he was transferred to Camp 53 in Sforzacosta.
Robert’s log for his year in Servigliano is a fascinating, candid record of daily life and events in the camp.
I first learned about “Servigliano Calling” though e-mails from Robert’s nephew Steve Dickinson in April 2008.
Referring to Camp 59, Steve wrote:
“My uncle spent some time there during WW2, but was later transferred to another camp in Northern Italy. At the time of the armistice he walked out of that camp and fought with the Italian partisans until his death towards the end of the Italian Campaign.
“However, during his stay at Servigliano he kept a diary like many of the POW’s. This was found during renovations in a farmhouse [in Gassino, Italy] where the partisans had been hiding him some time after the war and returned to the family. It details the day to day events in Servigliano, football matches, escape attempts, cooking recipes, poetry, etc….”
This poem by Cpl. D. Nevitt brings to a close the posts of prisoners’ poems recorded in Robert Dickinson’s “Servigliano Calling” prison camp diary. There are 34 poems in all in Robert’s journal.
In this poem, “To the Editor of Picture Post,” Corporal Nevitt expresses dismay at the complaints of soldiers at home over the deprivations they feel they are suffering.
Compare their situation to the lot of soldiers at war, Nevitt says, to realize where true hardship lies.
To the Editor of Picture Post
The other day, whilst on an O.P.,
One of your pages I happened to see;
An article there gave me such a surprise,
That at first I could hardly believe my eyes.
“Twas from a poor soldier way back o’er the sea;
I’m sure we all send him our deep sympathy;
He’s twelve miles from town, that’s a long way, I’ll say,
For I walk almost that for my food every day.
It’s not just for one but for others I speak,
For I’ve heard they only get one dance per week;
Now one week itself is a long time I know,
For the last dance I went to was twelve weeks ago.
They must sleep on the floor, which causes them aches;
We’re lucky, we only get scorpions and snakes;
Sugar is scarce, so their tea’s not too grand;
They should see what’s in our tea—both sugar and sand.
But sarcasm aside, it takes me to tell
That with their ack-ack guns they’ve done very well;
But next time they moan they should hold back their horses,
And think of the boys in the Middle East Forces.
Note: O.P. is perhaps a military operating procedure. Ack-ack is slang for anti-aircraft fire.
This poem by H. Stewart is a rousing defense of the reputation of the British Army’s Seventh Armoured Division. The division was known as the “Desert Rats” and its mascot—a red jerboa—is displayed on its insignia.
“The ‘Seventh Armoured Div’” is one of three poems by Harry Stewart in Robert Dickinson’s journal, “Servigliano Calling.”
The “Seventh Armoured Div”
I once wrote a poem, which brought forth comments,
From different fellows in tank regiments,
Who said I was sadly deficient of sense,
Just because I stood up and put it to you,
That the Seventh Armoured Div. was out on the blue.
And one fellow, quite heated became,
And said ’cos you’re captured, you’ve no cause to blame,
This famous old Div., and subtly its name,
In vain I protested that all of us knew,
That the Seventh Armoured Div. was out of on the blue.
He said he was joy-making back at the base,
Persuaded a second we were holding this place,
Whilst we were retreating six different ways!
“You Machilé yes-men”, he said, “couldn’t do
Half that the Seventh Armoured Div. did out on the blue.”
He said “To point out the fact that he’s here,
Showed the Seventh’s life ain’t all skittles and beer”;
But he left his Mark 2 back at Agadabia!
The fact that he’s here is quite clearly true,
But the rest of the Div.’s still out on the blue.
However, we’re hearing queer stories again,
About loosing our tanks, and generals, and men,
But all good “prigioniere” are sifting the “gen”,
And if all the rumours are true—good enough,
At last the Seventh Armoured Div. is doing its stuff!
Note: The phase “all good ‘prigioniere’ are sifting the ‘gen’” seems to mean that the attentive prisoners are weighing incoming information about the war.