Sharing the untold stories of the war
Patricia Rigg (Pat) from South Shields, has spent recent years following in the footsteps of her late husband, Brian Rigg, exploring a brutal but often over-looked chapter of World War Two.
The Italian campaign played a key part in the Allies’ victory in WWII, but whilst Pat was always aware Brian had served in Italy with the Fourth Indian Division, she knew very little as her husband rarely talked to her about that time.
To discover the true story behind her husband’s war experiences, Pat, a homeowner at McCarthy Stone’s Seymour Court in South Shields, has made several trips to Italy with friends and as part of organised tours as well as with the Monte Cassino Society, following the Italian campaign from the first landings at Salerno – which nearly ended in disaster – to the seemingly endless months of gruelling fighting over mountains, through torrential rivers, mud, snow and rain.
Along her journey Pat has met many veterans from the campaign who have shared their vivid memories with her, bringing to life the unremitting reality of combat in Italy.
As Pat learned just how relentless and grim the battle was she has come to understand why her husband was reluctant to share what must have been harrowing memories.
Pat is a member of the Monte Cassino Society, an organisation which aims to raise awareness of their story and to make sure their huge contribution isn’t forgotten.
Since downsizing to her retirement apartment at Seymour Court, Pat, a keen writer and poet has had much more time to put pen to paper, and has recently paid tribute to all the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice by writing a poem to honour them.
Pat’s poem called Old Soldier is about the many war veterans she has had the pleasure of meeting. Whereas Pat would usually travel a great deal, she took the opportunity to put pen to paper from the comfort of her home, while travel restrictions were in place. The poem was due to be read out at the National Arboretum at the Monte Cassino Society’s’ Commemorative Remembrance Ceremony, but Covid-19 meant the event had to be cancelled.
Pat explains: “After doing some research on the Italian campaign I realised perhaps that many others might not know about this time in WWII.
“Going to where Brian fought, meeting veterans and standing in the Commonwealth cemeteries, surrounded by the shadows of those who have gone before, has been deeply emotional, and in a way, has brought me closer to, the man I was married to for 40 years.”
Despite their heroic fighting, the Italian veterans became known as ‘D-Day Dodgers’. Their story was overshadowed by the D-Day landings, which happened two days after the Allies in Italy took Nazi-occupied Rome.
Pat learned that the soldiers self-deprecatingly embraced the label, penning a song that made fun of the term. To vent their frustration, the song sarcastically refers to how easy life in Italy was, whereas it was anything but.
Early in her teaching career, Pat moved to Germany where she taught at Prince Rupert School, a boarding school for the children of British forces based in Germany. It was here she met Brian.
“We met on my very first day in Wilhelmshaven,” she describes. “I’d been locked out of my flat and Brian came to the rescue. He produced a step-ladder and climbed through my bedroom window. He had such a big smile and he was always there for me whenever I had a problem or needed a lift home from a party. I guess you could say that’s how he won my heart.”
After Germany, Pat and Brian lived in Lincolnshire where she taught for several years, before moving to South Shields in April 2019. She is finding much more time to write after moving to Seymour Court, a McCarthy Stone Retirement Living development in South Shields, where she is enjoying having made new friendships and the support of a tight-knit community around her.
“I have much more time to write now I’ve been able to downsize to a retirement apartment and I don’t have any of the maintenance or upkeep of a large house. My next project is to transcribe some of Brian’s old letters, letters he sent to his mother when, as a young officer, he was first posted to Italy.
“It’s important to me that the words and the experiences of these men live on and I want to tell the story so others can know what my husband and thousands of others like him did for our country.”
Pat continues: “Raising the profile of Monte Cassino is very important to me as at the time it was pushed out of the pages by the Normandy landings, although it was no less significant. In fact, the Battle of Monte Cassino was probably one of the most blood-thirsty and savage battles of WWII.”
Presenter and former England football captain, Gary Linekar, has recently been involved in a programme: Gary Linekar: My Grandad’s War for BBC One, which follows him as he discovers his grandfather, Stanley Abbs, fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino. He first discovered the story about his grandfather when he filmed an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The documentary is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.