One of the touchstones of my life has always been the story of how my dad met the Pope, in Rome, on June 5, 1944. Truth be told, my mother always pooh-poohed the whole thing a bit (not unusual for Mum to do something like that, especially for an event in which she wasn’t the main focus). And given Dad’s legendary story-telling abilities, we did sometimes wonder how much of it was really true, and whether he’d gilded the lily at any point.
I’ve told the following story on Ricochet before, more than half a decade ago. Many of you weren’t here, so perhaps those who were will forgive me if I repeat it. Those of you who liked it then, I hope you still do; those of you for whom it’s new, I hope you enjoy it, too. The accompanying black-and-white images (except for the one of Dad’s letter, which I took from my brother), are from contact prints of photos Dad himself took during the war. Apologies for the poor quality, but the initial prints are tiny (click to enlarge the images).
Dad’s Army career spanned the Middle East, North Africa and Italy (including Anzio and Monte Cassino). But it was on June 5, 1944, the day after Dad marched into Rome with Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, that one of the most extraordinary episodes of Dad’s war took place.
Dad was fascinated with history. And he also loved pomp, circumstance, and costumes (a favorite story of Dad’s teenage years was that of his role as the Pirate King in the school operetta, during which he swung his heavy velvet cloak with great abandon and knocked all the footlights into the orchestra pit. The curtain had to be rung down while the mess was cleaned up and the wounded were tended to. This is an early example of what I mean when I say (as I often do) that things didn’t happen to Dad–Dad happened to things).
Anyway, Dad decided that he wasn’t leaving Rome without seeing the Pontifical Swiss Guard in their funny costumes and finery, and being Dad, he led an expedition of himself and a couple of his buddies to storm St. Peter’s and live his dream.
We’ve known the story that follows, apocryphally, for half-a-century. But, some time after Dad’s death, my brother, sister and I were sorting out his ‘stuff’ and we came across a heavy envelope containing a couple of letters and a rosary. The letters were from Dad to his mother, my grandmother. The rosary was blessed by Pope Pius XII.
So I’ll let Dad himself tell the story of June 5, 1944, the day he ‘happened’ to the Pope. (h/t to my brother for interpreting Dad’s execrable handwriting, and for posting it, along with images of the letters, and some other Dad stories, here).
Capt. D J Muffett
1Bn Loyal Rgt CMF 8 June
My Dear Mother,
Well well things have moved haven’t they? I suppose you hear quite a lot these days from the air force. However we will hold off from the Second Front a bit and see how it goes and I’ll tell you instead of a remarkable experience that I have had.
On Monday I went into Rome to see the sights and have a look round. Unlike most Italian towns it is quite remarkable and reasonably clean (which is surprising) and doesn’t even smell (which is more surprising). Well I and another chap had a look at the Coliseum and the Temple of Vesta and the Forum and then wandered into the Palazza Venetzia where some Jocks [Scots] were playing themselves in as the massed pipes and drums. We were standing around watching when a lady (about 38-40) came up and said “Excuse me but are you English” we said “yes” and she said “oh I am so pleased, ten years ago I married an Italian and have been here ever since. I used to live in Barons Court.” She took us round the place and showed us the Tiber Bridge, etc.
Well we left her and chuntered into St Peters. Now comes the joke. We wandered around a bit and looked at the ceilings (Michael Angelo) and the statue of St Peter. Then I said I want to see a Swiss Guard. So we wandered outside and had a look at one (in his utility Blue uniform and got a smashing Present of a pike!! Well he said “straight up those stairs sir” and shot us inside where there were a couple more. (This time in full dress) who passed us up another flight of stairs, and a third lot shot us into a room where there were some very comfortable chairs so we sat down. Then a very charming Irish Priest came in and said “His Holiness will receive you in a few moments” – I could have dropped dead!! There were three of us in there (one was the doc) so we went into a huddle and worked out the drill.
About ten minutes later there was a crashing all along the corridor and in he came surrounded by the noble guard (magnificent uniforms). He came to each of us in turn (the correct thing is to drop on one knee and and kiss St Peter’s ring on the 4th finger R hand.) It is an enormous stone fully 1/2 inch sq. and Blood red.** (I was quite adept at this).
The narrative will now be continued in another letter which I will send off at the same time as this.
—Captain D J Muffett 1st Bn Loyal Rgt CMF
Well to continue. He spoke to each of us in perfect english and asked how we were, and had we heard from our families and were they well, were we married and had we been particularly uncomfortable and then we fell out after he had given the Papal blessing. Incidentally he gave each of us a rosary which I will send you as a memento by sea. It really was a memorable experience. What with the Coronation and that, I do clock for State occasions don’t I.
Well I am sure that you will be glad to know that I am unscathed and sound in wind and limb. A certain inevitable impression will indelibly remain but on the whole I have been very lucky.
The weather has been very good to us and is still boiling hot. I am working up a nice tan and am unfalteringly healthy. Will you please send me some Dettol. A tin if you can get it rather than a bottle. My love to Barney I suppose he looks grand. Encourage him to bring you things and perhaps about Sept Pa could arrange for him to go to a keeper for a month or so to finish off his training. Perhaps Mr Morton will know someone.
My love to Arthur and Joan and Maurice. Is he in the second front yet and haven’t they landed yet. Whatever happens you must keep your chin up and keep smiling. I am quite sure we will both be OK and anyway why worry.
I hope that the weather soon tunes you up and that you get fit and able to go out.
My only worry so far is that I have smashed my watch up which is a pity. However I will soon get another out here.
Well I have exceeded my quota this week by quite a lot this week and the well is beginning to run dry. So TTFN
All my love
. . . Rome was entered in the early hours of June 4 with Clark holding an impromptu press conference on the steps of the Town Hall on the Capitoline Hill that morning. He ensured the event was a strictly American affair by stationing military police at road junctions to refuse entry to the city by British military personnel (emphasis added).
Apparently, as many did, before and since, usually to their cost, General Clark reckoned without Dad.
**Regarding the Pope’s ring: His “official” ring, or the Ring of the Fisherman, doesn’t have a stone in it, as it’s a ring that can be used as a seal. From what I gather from doing a little reading, Popes rarely wear it any more, and Pius XII was known for wearing a few different rings, each set with a large stone. I’m assuming one of these is the ring Dad kissed, and that he just misnamed it.