I called my parents last night, and much to my joy, my dad remembered some more details about my grandfather's life on the front!
As I mentioned in the original post, Nonno (that's "Granddad" in Italian) was lucky enough that he knew how to read and write. Many of his fellow Calabrians were illiterate, coming from one of the poorest regions in Italy. You have to keep in mind that Italian soldiers in North Africa couldn't simply phone their families. Writing was their main lifeline to their loved ones.
One of the men in Nonno's unit requested his help to read the letters he received from his girlfriend — and of course also needed him to write the replies. You can imagine how weird it must have felt to write passionate letters for someone else. It got to the point where my grandfather told the guy, "Listen dude, this is getting awkward. How about I show you how to read and write instead?" There's not much to do to kill time in the desert, so Nonno gradually taught his comrade, until one day he could read and write on his own. The man was crying for joy. Now he could write his own "sexts"! 😄
After marching an entire day, following what they assumed to be the tracks left in the sand by friendly troops preceding them, my grandfather's unit began stumbling upon pieces of their own discarded equipment and trash. Yup, the old classic where you think you're following a straight line in the desert, but in reality, your path is ever-so-slightly curving to one side, and you end up where you started, exhausted and thirsty. It's not just in movies. Fortunately some Germans eventually drove by in a Kübelwagen and said something like, "Need a lift? Stay here, we'll send a truck to pick you up".
When I told my father how I singled out the unit to which Nonno must have belonged, I asked "He was in El Alamein, right? So he must have been on the receiving end of an artillery barrage that lasted an entire night?" To which my father replied, "Three! Three days and three nights, uninterrupted! The noise of guns never paused for a second. Nonno wept and trembled every time he told the story." So yeah, definitely PTSD.
When the Axis front collapsed, 27th Division "Brescia" escaped encirclement and began retreating. But as my grandfather and his men were pulling out, a heavy artillery shell landed frightfully close to their position, heaving tons of sand into the air. Instead of being killed on impact, they suddenly found themselves buried alive, desperately clawing their way out from under a dune that wasn't there ten seconds earlier. When they emerged, the first thing they saw was British rifles pointed at them.
Nonno was an NCO (he held the rank of caporale) which meant that the British did not require him to perform manual labor. But again, because life in a POW camp is fantastically dull and monotonous, my grandfather insisted on being handed some task or other, to keep himself busy instead of just chain-smoking. He was assigned to a warehouse which stored mechanical parts, hardware, tools, etc. There he assisted a technical quartermaster by the name of Churchill (no relation to the Prime Minister) in keeping things neatly sorted and inventoried. The two soon became good friends, and when came the time to part ways, Churchill wanted my grandfather to have his leather wallet as a gift — empty, mind you. 😄
In fact, Nonno said that he was treated better as a prisoner of the British, than he had been as a soldier in the Italian infantry. And that's in no small part why I'm telling you this story in English and not Italian 😉.