Why did you want to make this documentary?
I actually first discovered this incredible story about my grandfather a few years ago, when I filmed an episode of Who Do You Think You. However the episode had so many amazing stories to cover already, they didn’t have the chance to feature this one on that particular occasion. But when the same production company approached me about making a documentary about my grandfather’s time in the war and to explore this particular Italian campaign, I knew this was something I had to do.
To be honest I had absolutely no idea my grandfather was even at The Battle of Monte Cassino, and after doing a bit of research on the Italian campaign I realised perhaps that many others might not know much at all, if anything, about this time in World War II. It’s the kind of story that hadn’t been told, well not as frequently as say D Day. Plus, with the ‘D Day Dodgers’ label I wanted to tell the story to see what my grandad and thousands of others like him did for our country.
Do you have a favourite memory of your grandfather? What kind of man was he?
He passed away when I was in my early 20s, but from what I can remember he was a lovely guy. He played a bit of golf, he was a very good golfer, and he was always a really engaging, smiling personality. I used to remember he was always eating Polos (laughs). Yes, he always had a packet of Polos and he smelt of Polos. I don’t remember him ever speaking about his experiences in the war and it was obviously very grim, so I can understand why.
How did you first find out about your grandfather’s war service? Did he talk with anyone in the family about his experiences, perhaps in later life?
I found out when I was approached by the production company actually. I had no idea about his war time experience, he never spoke about it. It obviously must have been hellish having gone through that as young man. As I started to follow his journey and during doing the research for filming, what emerged about that Italian campaign is just unimaginable - so I totally understand why he probably wouldn’t want to talk about it. And I think that’s similar with so many veterans from that campaign and the rest of the war.
What did you learn about the so-called 'D-Day Dodgers' during filming?
I hadn’t heard that saying before the show, but obviously as we progressed with filming the more it emerged that the phrase couldn’t have been further from the truth. The famous song D-Day Dodgers is actually much more self-deprecating than many might know. The actual truth of the matter is that the campaign was incredibly grim, enduring and tough. Plus, so many people lost their lives and they would have seen some incredibly awful things. So it was almost a joke at their own expense. But because of the Normandy landings that happened just after they captured Rome, it kind of usurped them in news and headlines etc.
What was the most surprising or shocking thing you learnt during filming?
So much of it really. My grandad was in the Medical Corps, so he was one of the first people to get on the beach when they landed and he helped set up the camps and the medical aid sites. To discover how treacherous even the landing was like - being shot at by all sorts of things, very similar to what it was like landing on the beaches in Normandy. But because I knew so little about it, everything that I discovered was educating and also sometimes very upsetting. But there were uplifting moments as I learnt what they actually managed to achieve against all the odds.
What was the most emotional part of filming for you?
It was funny really, as it got me right towards the end when we were filming one of the stories about how they had to get across one of the rivers. When we got to the other side and I could work out exactly where my grandfather would have been in the ambulance medical aid tent, and knowing that only just a few yards from where I was stood absolutely harrowing scenes would have been happening in the river. The river was literally running red with blood. Knowing that my grandad would have just been a few yards away from that spot really got me and I found myself a bit emotional.
Also by doing this film, and shining a light on the bravery of my grandad and all those thousands of other real heroes, I just wished my mum had been alive to have seen this programme. She would have been so proud.
What kind of people did you meet along the way?
I met two amazing guys. One was 104 year-old, William Earl, who flew out to Italy to meet me, and the other was Fred Mason who was 95 years old. Their memories were incredible! They really evoked how incredibly difficult and awful it was, but at the same time they were so humble. It’s staggering really that they were so eloquent and their memories were so strong, they had amazing stories to tell.
Fred (95) climbed about 90 steps with me because he wanted to do our chat on the top of the hill at the battlefield - I think I was more out of breath than he was! A couple of things he said really stuck with me. I asked him if his was you scared during his time in the war? And he replied: "All the time. And anybody that says they weren’t scared is a liar." That resonated with me.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
I think the most important thing for me is getting the story out there. Although it’s a story about my grandfather, it’s also the story of thousands of other people from this country and from America, Poland, India and New Zealand. To go through Italy as they did, through these mountainous positions with the Germans on the top of the hill constantly firing at them is just unimaginable. I don’t want this to take anything away from the incredible bravery that the soldiers showed during D Day, but I want to give a little bit more respect for the people that lived and died in this battle. Obviously on behalf of my grandfather but also on behalf of all the others that were there.
Is there a moment that sums up the film for you/lingers in the mind?
When we were on the beach we actually found bits of old shrapnel. Which was bizarre as we were there surrounded by people sunbathing who might have absolutely no idea what really happened there. It just really struck me how much has changed in 80 years.
Any other thoughts and reflections, things you learnt?
I learnt so much, it’s funny when I was asked to do it I deliberately veered away from trying to learn too much about it beforehand because I wanted to learn as we went along. So times when I was climbing up the mountain and foraging around for shrapnel and old bullets, I just thought that even my generation, which is not that far behind those that fought in that war, are all pretty ignorant about the real horrors of war and the true bravery of the men that fought in it.