Martha Gellhorn on Naples '44

From Semi-Invisible Man by Julian Evans:

On an early Monday evening in November Norman and Lesley made a rare trip to London together. The occasion was a birthday party at the Groucho Club for Martha Gellhorn, a few month younger than Norman. Both were now eighty-five. Lesley recalls that the dinner was "fascinating. Her coterie of young men [was there], John Simpson, Jon Snow, Nicholas Shakespeare, John Hatt. It was predominately a male occasion." Gellhorn had been asked, as had Norman, by the Daily Mail to write a piece about her best of all time travel book for its New Year's Day edition, and told him she had chosen Naples '44

Fighting mad in conman market

Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (Eland, £7.99)


THIS is the war diary of Sergeant Norman Lewis of the 312 Field Security Service. Lewis describes the Field Security Service as the dustbin where British Intelligence dumped linguists from redbrick universities or from none. His 12-strong FS section was attached to the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Army, though no one seemed to know why. They landed peacefully and absurdly at Paestum, south-east of Salerno, where the long grinding uphill Italian campaign began.

With no briefing, no orders, the small marooned British unit developed—and maintained throughout—its own interesting freelance lifestyle.

Three days after the landing, the Germans counter-attacked, causing extreme panic in the general commanding the Fifth Army, Mark Clark, the officers and the leaderless green troops.

"This afternoon distraught American ack-ack gunners brought down their third Spitfire," the book recalls. "In the belief that our position had been infiltrated by German infantry, they began to shoot each other and there were blood-chilling screams from the men hit by the bullets. What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos."

The three days of the German counter-attack are the only actual descriptions of warfare in the book. All the other jewel-studded pages are about Naples and the surrounding villages and the Italians living there.

Naples was a wrecked city, its people close to starvation. Lewis understood their misery, admired their fierce will to live, was surprised by nothing and enjoyed their society. He can be deadpan funny about military and civilian lunacies; he is a genius of exact observation.

There was no work in Naples. The two survival industries were prostitution and black marketeering.


SERGEANT Norman Lewis nailed the master crook in the penicillin black market, knowing that the smooth doctor would go free in the end. The same thing happened when Lewis and another FS sergeant winkled out the hospital director who sold certificates of health to prostitutes infected with VD. Penicillin was in short supply for the military; VD had become an epidemic among Allied soldiers.

The Italian-American Allied Military Government of Naples had weirdly hired Vito Genovese, a powerful Mafioso (on whom Mario Puzo based The Godfather) as chief adviser; he guaranteed protection for lucrative crime.

We oldies who remember the war in Italy know that Naples '44 is the real thing, pure gold. It has all the qualifications to become a classic: the ring of truth, superb writing and the magical lure of a book you cannot put down.

Originally published in The Daily Mail, circa 1995