The story of the 4ft 10in soldier who won the VC – while his father was interned in an English camp.

COOL as you like, recent columns have recalled the North-East’s Anglo- Italian ice cream men.

Both Michael Clark and Margaret Rochester express surprise that we failed to mention Dennis Donnini.

“If he isn’t the most famous then he certainly should be,” says Mike Clark, a Stockton councillor.

Alfredo Donnini, Dennis’s father, arrived in Britain in 1899 and in 1915 settled in Seaside Lane, Easington Colliery. The Northern Echo described him as “confectioner and billiards saloon proprietor”.

Alfredo married Catherine Brown from South Moor, Stanley. Alfred, their younger son, was captured at Dunkirk and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

Lewis Dino, the second son, died of war wounds in 1944. The two daughters served with the ATS in County Durham.

Dennis Donnini, a 19-year-old just 4ft 10ins tall, posthumously became the youngest VC – and very likely the smallest – in the Second World War.

Despite it all, Alfredo had been removed to a prisoner-of-war camp at Harperley, near Wolsingham, by authorities suspicious that his proximity to the sea meant he would send messages to enemy craft.

Easington colliers, so local legend has it, formed up to try to prevent police taking Alfredo away. They regarded him as one of their own and, besides, he made jolly good ice cream.

Dennis spent time at St Anne’s school, in the Weardale village. Mike Callaghan also recalls that he was a pupil at St Aidan’s Grammar School in Sunderland, which he himself attended.

“In the dark corridors of the old school there was a framed portrait of Donnini. Every year a Mass was said for him.”

Two months after the highest honour was announced – the citation spoke of “superb gallantry and self-sacrifice” – his parents were invited to Buckingham Palace to receive it.

The king, it’s said, had to give personal permission just to get Alfredo through the gates.

The monarch asked how he kept his business going when two sons were dead and a third a prisoner of war. “I don’t,” said Alfredo. “I am forced to live away from home in a camp.”

“Go home,” said King George, by which he meant Easington Colliery.

Amid bitter-sweet emotions, Alfredo Donnini obeyed at once.

DENNIS had been unhesitating in obeying Britain’s call to arms. “When I get there, I’ll finish the war,” he told his mother.

“He was a lovely little soldier, like a little drum major,” said one of his sisters after his death.

On June 18, 1945, his Royal Scots Fusiliers platoon led an assault on German positions in the Rhine Valley.

Donnini was knocked unconscious by a ricocheting bullet, recovered and charged down the road to throw a hand grenade through the window of a house occupied by German storm troopers.

The enemy retreated to a trench, Fusilier Donnini and his comrades to the shelter of a barn 30 yards away.

When a comrade fell, Donnini went out at once to rescue him.

Again he advanced upon the Germans, machine gun firing, his bravery allowing others to overwhelm the German position.

“He drew the enemy fire from his comrades onto himself,” said the citation.

He paid the ultimate price, when a bullet exploded the grenade he was carrying. Fifty years later, Easington Colliery held a special service in his memory. The ice cream man’s son is remembered affectionately yet.

LONG in cold storage, memories continue to arrive about the itinerant army of ice cream men. The recollections are strong and clear, almost all hand-written, only the spelling open to question.

Internment may not have been uncommon.

Mrs E M Smith, now in Northallerton, recalls that it was the fate of Peter Janarelli who had a shop in Skinnergate, Darlington.

Peace at last, he returned to the Danby Wiske area but then disappeared, perhaps gone back to Sorrento.

Bill Hodgson, also in Northallerton, writes of his father’s small farm and milk round at Catterick Camp (as then it was), supplying Julio Pacitto’s café, the “lovely” ice cream made behind the shop in Hildyard Row.

John Pybus in Middleton St George, near Darlington, tells of Albert Paleschi, whose shop and factory were in the Five Lamps area of Thornaby but who’d visit MSG with his pony and trap and enthusiastically be welcomed. Mrs M Elliott in Ingleton – t’other side of Darlington – remembers the Panicco family in Coxhoe before the war.

“When school broke up in 1939, the girls said they were going to their grandparents in Italy for their summer holidays. They never returned.

I often wonder what happened to them.”

Like Pacitto’s ice cream, it’s lovely that so many should take the trouble to write. Thanks to you all.

ONLY gently stirring it, last week’s column recalled Camp Coffee, pondered the changing role of the kilted officer on the label and also how the word “camp” had come to mean effeminate.

Brenda Boyd in Newcastle reckons always to have been more puzzled by the thing on the Scotsman’s lap – “I suppose it must be a sporran, but it’s always looked to me like a white parrot with black markings” – while Alan Vickers in Sunderland recalls drinking Camp Coffee as an apprentice in 1949, its being preferable to canteen tea.

At home they had the real thing, freshly ground coffee from Newbottle Co-op.

Particularly, however, we are taken by a call from Derek Jago in Escomb, near Bishop Auckland.

Could camp’s connotations, he wonders, be from camp comedy – like the doolally drag trade in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Could Derek have the answer?

SIMILARLY, if not quite parrot fashion, Brenda Boyd also wonders about the familiar Cerebos Salt logo – “see how it runs” – of a boy chasing a chicken. Why, she wonders, were chickens especially afraid of salt?

Cerebos was originally also from Newcastle, founded in 1884.

Wikipedia suggests that the logo had something to do with the saying “If you’re close enough to put salt on the tail of a bird, you’re close enough to catch it.”

Readers may take that with a pinch of whatever they wish.

WITH some incredulity, last week’s column repeated the claim that if anyone in the world took the last two digits of his year of birth and added them to the age he would be this year, the answer would always be 111.

With the proviso that they mustn’t have been born in the 21st Century, or be older than 111, it’s true. Robert Bacon in Wolviston offers the requested “simple” explanation.

Unfortunately he uses algebra, and brackets, and other things of an O-level mathematical nature. “Now,” adds Robert, “do you wish you’d been paying attention?”

…and finally, the Stokesley Stockbroker forwards a letter from the Telegraph about toilet euphemisms.

“At theological college,” says the writer, they called the lavatory the summer chamber.”

This, apparently, is a reference to the third chapter of the Book of Judges in which Ehud – “a man lefthanded” – stabs King Eglon “while he was covering his feet in the summer chamber”.

The letter is signed by the Rev Dr Peter Mullen. “I believe,” adds the Stockbroker, “that this gentleman may be known to you.”