THE ANZIO PIANO
By S/M Terry White
Immediately following the virtually unopposed amphibious landing at Anzio in January 1944, LSTs began a twenty-four hour ferry service to and from Naples, bringing in tanks, troops and equipment and taking off German POWs and civilian refugees. I was the Jack Dusty of LST 423, one of those involved in this operation which continued non-stop day and night for weeks.
The beachhead hotted up noticeably within the first forty-eight hours, once the element of surprise was lost, and an enormous field gun was trundled out of hiding whenever we appeared, which pounded the harbour before retiring from sight.
Nettuno, at the Western end of Anzio where the Brits made the initial beach assault, had been a holiday resort with a long line of majestic seafront hotels alongside a promenade. I figured there was a chance that one such now battered building might well still house a piano, unlikely to be missed for a very long time, so I decided a week or so after the initial landings, once unloading was completed and we waited on the tide to kedge off, to slip ashore and check out this idea.
A word with a patrolling American GI, heavy laden with a variety of small arms, assured me that all life was now dozens of miles inland (fat lot he knew!) so I made a tour of several once smart hotels. In next to no time I ran the prize to earth, in a room with half the outside wall missing on the first floor of the third or fourth hotel I checked out, a German Klingmann upright, dusty but quite unscathed! The ornate marble staircase had several hazardous gaps but I reckoned that an enthusiastic body of men could overcome such a minor problem.
I made it back to the ship with all speed and reported my find to the lads. There was an immediate “down tools” and an exodus of all the muscle I needed. Oddly, no one bothered to request leave of absence from anyone in authority.
This ad hoc working party doubled smartly along the sea front with yours truly in the lead. The piano was man-handled to the head of the hotel stairs, across the frightening gaps without mishap, and out of the building. Fortunately, its castors still functioned and sparks flew as we scurried back to the ship.
All sorts of Brass Hats, Red Tabs and Scrambled Eggs turned their backs and chose to be quite unaware of our very existence on the return journey. One old shipmate still perpetuates a myth that the blind onlookers included the Military Landing Officer, a certain Major Denis Healey, but I think he’s merely name-dropping after the event. In no time at all the piano was trundled up the ship’s ramp, through the bow doors and aft the length of the tank space. Someone rigged a block and tackle and our prize was swung up and through the watertight door onto the mess deck.
Halfway through this operation Number One’s head appeared in the hatchway, and I feared the worst.
“White, how much did you pay for this piano?”
“I need to know just in case the Captain should ask.”
“Oh, yes, of course, sir. Er, one thousand lire.” I discovered that in an emergency I could lie with the best.
“Jolly good. Carry on.”
There was no comment about the fact that the ship had been totally deserted for the past half hour, when he must have wondered what had become of practically the entire crew, and whether he was in sole charge of the Marie Celeste, but no further enquiry was ever made.
Our “liberated” piano became a regular feature of mess deck life. The ship’s company had tolerated months of my burping away on the trombone I’d acquired in New York and they were ready to welcome any musical variation. The instrument survived Normandy and was still on board when we paid off a year later in Falmouth, lashed securely in place against the worst seas that Biscay could come up with or storms in the Channel, suffering the effects of condensation from steam pipes but making its contribution to Victory in Europe.
I’ve never known its ultimate fate. Perhaps it was still on board when the ship was handed back to the US after the war. It was half a century before I came across another Klingmann, this time a baby grand, which I played frequently in the frightfully posh Pelican restaurant in St Martin’s Lane. I greeted the instrument with delight and I’m happy to report that it was a pleasure to play, but on every occasion I had to banish a guilty thought about “winning” the Anzio piano in ‘44.