I almost missed it.
At the time, Nelson Mandela was in hospital, and we in the media were expecting the worst.
So an anniversary slipped by without me noting it.
On June 26, eighty years ago a camera caught the black and white image of a young lieutenant in Turin, Italy.
He is all but a ghost now, a nameless man who looms large in my family’s lore.
All I have is a story, told by my grandfather William Findlay Smillie of how he had taken this photograph and nine others off an Italian prisoner of war in World War Two.
He said he never took personal effects from prisoners of war, but this Italian officer had pissed him off.
The officer had spat at him as he came to accept his surrender, and my grandfather had taken the butt of his rifle and slammed it against the man’s face.
That is all he told of this incident, that took place somewhere in the Western Desert.
And now I want to know who this man was, but finding him is proving difficult.
But there are clues to the man’s identity and they lie in that 80-year-old black and white photograph.
It took an expert to find them.
That expert was Hamish Paterson, a military historian at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.
With magnifying glass in hand he picked up the threads of a story.
“What you have here is a newly minted lieutenant,” he said, “this picture was taken just after he was commissioned.”
From the number one on the man’s kepi, Hamish could tell that this new officer had been assigned to the 1st Divisional artillery regiment as a 2nd lieutenant.
The 1st Divisional artillery regiment, explained Hamish, were apart of the 22 Infantry Division Cacciatori delle Alpi
They were known as the Hunters of the Alps. During World War Two they served in France, Yugoslavia and Greece. Interestingly they weren’t in the Western Desert.
“What you are looking at here is a very special moment in someone’s life,” said Hamish.
Those looted photographs would have meant a lot to him
Back then in fascist Italy the young lieutenant, would have trained at the Military Academy of Infantry and Cavalry in Modena then would have spent two years at the Military Academy of Artillery and Engineers in Turin. He would have entered at the age of 17/18 and would have probably been 22 when the photograph was taken. The other man in the photograph, believes Hamish was his younger brother.
“Look at their noses, “they are the same.”
“By the outbreak of war, he was possibly a captain, by the time he was captured he might have been a major,” explained Hamish.
“There can’t be too many guys who graduated then.”
Find a photograph or a list of graduates from June 1933 and you find the man.