Book Review: Come back to Portofino


“The general public could not comprehend what their boys had gone through or how the war had changed them,” writes author James Bourhill at the conclusion of “Come back to Portofino – Through Italy with the 6th South African Armoured Division”.

“The amusing anecdotes told by the returned soldiers [after the war], the majoriy of whom had not seen te front line, added to the misconceptions which censorship and propaganda had already inculcated in the national consciousness. In South African folklore, the Italian campaign is perceived as a great adventure, and the volunteers are justifiably proud to have taken part. But those few who experienced mindnumbing violence and fear, or comforted a friend in his final death agony, wanted nothing more than to forget. Life carried on and the images of Italy became hazy through the mists of time”.

The 6th South African Armoured Division was probably the most powerful field formation South Africa ever fielded. Formed in February 1943, it entered combat in May 1944 and served under the British 8th Army and then the US 5th Army until the final days of the war. Afterwards, while awaiting repatriation – only finally achieved by March 1946 – the division was posted to northwest Italy to perform border safeguarding and peacekeeping duties.

Bourhill, whose father served in the divisional artillery, laments that today “few traces can be found of the deeds of South Africans during the war in Italy. Even in those towns liberated or destroyed by the 6th South African Armoured Division, the locals seem to suffer from selective amnesia. Visitors don’t ask questions about the war. At Castello di Brolio, the massive wooden gates which were holed by shells from the Pretoria Regiment’s tanks are covered with sheets of metal. The staff can tell you about the castle’s history from medieval times but no nothing about what happened there in 1944.”

The title, incidentally, refers to a small fishing village near Rapallo, the post-war divisional headquarters. Here gunner Bourhill “had an affair that was more than a mere fling with a girl called Giulia Vitorello. … She called him ‘Stefano’ and wrote to him after a year, pleading with him to come back to Portofino”, their special place.

This fine work, refreshingly written from the point of view of the division’s fighting men, is a excellent stab at wiping away at least some of the amnesia and stirring some old memories. It is thus thoroughly recommended.

James Bourhill

Come back to Portofino – Through Italy with the 6th South African Armoured Division
30 Degrees South Publishers