‘Even to this day the diary has a slight aroma of cocoa,’ says Steve Dickinson about a diary kept by his uncle Robert Dickinson while a prisoner at Servigliano, an Italian war camp, in the 1940s. Substantial extracts from the diary have just been made available online at the Survivors of Camp 59 website, hosted by Indiana University.
A large holding camp was built at Servigliano, 60km south of Ancona, in 1914, at the start of the First World War, and was re-used from January 1941, a few months after Italy entered the Second World War. In September 1943, once Italy had signed the armistice with the allies, there was a mass breakout. The Germans, however, soon re-established control of the camp, using it not only for recaptured prisoners but for Jews too.
Robert Dickinson, a gunner with the Royal Artillery, was interned at Servigliano, Camp 59, from 23 November 1941 but escaped after the armistice in September 1943. He spent time with an Italian family in Gassino, northern Italy, but by October 1944, was fighting with the Partisans against the German army. He was killed in March 1945.
Some time after the war, Dickinson’s diary was discovered during renovations to the farmhouse in Gassino where he’d stayed. It was returned to his family, and is now held by Steve Dickinson, who has made it publicly available. The diary itself has a cover made of old cocoa tins (hence the smell) with a broadcast aerial design incorporating the title Servigliano Calling. It begins with his capture by the Germans in November 1941, and finishes, about six months before his death, in September 1944.
According to the Survivors of Camp 59 website, Dickinson’s diary details day- to-day activities and events at the camp, including football matches, camp cooking recipes, mail and food parcels received, special holiday activities, and escape attempts. There are many extracts on the site, including this one from 8 September 1943: ‘Continued evening! Playing bridge and in comes the long awaited news Armistice! Spoilt a perfect 3 trump hand; but why worry. Hit my fist such a whopper up the wall; skin off the knuckles. No sleep.’
Last year, a Servigliano survivor, Dennis Sweeney, was reunited with his diary - sixty years on, according to a Chicago Tribune report (originally sourced at the Allentown Morning Call, although I can find no trace of the story on its website). Like Dickinson, Sweeney had escaped after the 8 September armistice, but he then entrusted his diary to a fellow prisoner Carl Valentine. Valentine, in fact, escaped Italy, while Sweeney was recaptured and shipped to Germany (but unlike Dickinson, he survived the war). A few years ago, Valentine died, and his nephew inherited Sweeney’s diary, and eventually decided to trace the owner. Sweeney’s jottings - which end on the day of the armistice, 8 September 1943 - are not as entertaining as Dickinson’s. Here is one, thanks to Richard Annotico, from 29 May 1943: ‘I received my first letter. It was the first letter I received in 7 months and believe me I was the happiest boy in camp. I must have read that letter 10 times that day.’