John Allan Chaplin (Jack) Pearce
My uncle Jack Pearce and his Italian wife, Lella, divided their time between London, Florence and Viareggio (a seaside resort in Tuscany), where they made good use of the beach in the summer. He was the youngest of the four children of J W E Pearce and Irene Pearce: my mother being the eldest, then Edward, then Phyllis – who married an artist, Edward Eade – and lastly Jack, born in 1912. Like Edward, he went to Oxford University, but found it most attractive for its social life in the nineteen thirties – academic studies came second. When the war started in 1939 he was 27. He wanted to join the RAF as a pilot, but was turned down for medical reasons, and joined a tank regiment instead. So it was that in 1942 he was in the North African desert, fighting Rommel. He has written an account of the Battle of Alam el Halfa in which he took part, on 31 August 1942, shortly after General Montgomery took over command of the Fifth Army, and shortly before the Allied victory at El Alamein which was perhaps the turning point in the Second World War. The photo of him standing beside a wrecked German tank below was used by the government for propaganda purposes.
After the war he worked in London as a solicitor for the Church Commissioners, and made a shrewd purchase of an large and beautiful house divided into flats. His hobby was painting, and when he was 85 he became interested in computing, and at 90 in digital photography. He died in Italy on 15 September 2006.
Jack and Lella had two sons, John Lawrence and Charles, both of whom are bilingual in Italian and English: Charles lives with his mother: Lawrence and his wife Elizabeth live in Anglesey. They have two daughters, Katherine and Emily.
JAC Pearce’s first cousin once removed was Gwendoline Steward, who had married Marchese Strozzi before the First World War, and lived in the Strozzi palace in Florence during the Second World War. After the Allied invasion of Italy he spent some time under canvas beside the River Arno in Florence as a liason officer with the Americans. He wrote this account of his meeting with his elderly British-born cousin:
“I saw Gwendoline in 1944, when I was a Captain in the Eighth Army serving in General Mark Clark’s headquarters, then located in Florence. At that time the Germans were gradually being pushed back to their defence positions on the Appenines, called the Gothic line. We were held up that winter for several months, and I made a point of visiting Gwendoline now and then, partly as a relief from army life. She was living in a large bedroom on the third floor of the Strozzi Palace behind the Duomo, which was full of refugees. When I entered her bedroom she took a moment to recognise me, and on my saying that I was her cousin she said “Oh, I’m so glad that it’s you. I thought you were a British officer come to requisition something! This week I had several visits from British officers who took the furniture, two weeks ago we had the partisans who took the wine and cheese, and before that we had the Germans who took the peasants.”
After this rather curious welcome we had a pleasant talk, although Gwendoline, being an ardent fascist, was very sad at the condition of Italy. After some minutes of conversation we talked more easily, and Gwendoline showed her true feelings when she finally said to me “You British and Americans have ruined Italy. Mussolini was the best thing that ever happened, and now we have nothing,” – waving her hands round her large bedroom hung with masterpieces by Titian, Rembrandt etc. By now I was beginning to get a bit hot under the collar, feeling that I was a crusader come to liberate Europe from the tyranny of Naziism and Fascism, but I managed to keep my temper. Listening to her tragic comments though I could not help but compare with her life my life in a tent beside the Arno, with two inches of snow outside and a camp bed with a broken leg inside! Certainly, talking to someone so civilised was quite a welcome change from the usual Army life, especially as I was then working as a junior officer in the mixed Anglo American HQ, in the G (Plans) section under a rather colourful American Colonel called Aaron M Lazar, a very dynamic and brilliant officer of German Jewish extraction, who was quite a contrast to Gwendoline’s aristocratic refinement, more like a character out of Damon Runyan. I saw her several times that winter, and I think the only occasion when she seemed really cheerful was during Von Runtdstet’s successful offensive in the Ardennes at Christmas 1944. I remember she said to me “My dear, I’m afraid the news is not very good for you just now. It looks as if the war may go on for another ten years.”