By John Símkins
The annual MSMT/Fontanellato lunch, at the Royal Overseas League, London, on 30th October 2013 turned out to be fully worthy of the event it celebrated – the 70th anniversary of the Armistice with Italy.
The largest ever gathering of Trust supporters – 128 – included four PoW veterans: Major Mick Wagner, Mr Frank Unwin, Major Michael Lacey and the MSMT founder, Keith Killby, OBE, who, at the age of 97, was the chief speaker. The guests included the Italian ambassador, Pasquale Terracciano, and Mrs Karen Terracciano, and Lord Digby Jones, the former Trade minister, and Lady Pat Jones.
The tables were decked with small Italian and British flags and the printed menu contained a facsimile of the Alexander certificate granted to Italians who gave refuge to PoWs. As we took our seats for lunch, a loop of photographs of the Trust’s events in Italy two months earlier was projected on a big screen.
After Grace, said by Charles Gordon Clark, Letitia Blake, the Trust’s secretary, in her speech of welcome, regretted that Antonio Millozzi, the Trust’s organiser in Italy who had recently been presented with an honorary MBE for his services to MSMT, had not been able to come to London. She gave special thanks to Edward Gretton, the UK student organiser, and the team of “Greeters” – Trust volunteers who meet our students when they arrive at UK airports at the beginning of their month-long bursaries. We were glad that present at the lunch were Peter Williams, principal of CES Oxford House, which has taken our students since the bursary programme began, and his predecessor, Robin Vernede, along with Mrs Christine Vernede.
Taking over the microphone, Sir Nick Young, the Trust’s chairman, expressed pleasure that Ambassador Terracciano had been able to come to the lunch, maintaining the Trust’s link with Italy through the embassy.
He then referred to the Freedom Trail event that had taken place in September in the Marche, organised jointly with the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society: “Wonderful climbing and drinking, and epic eating.” No less successful was the weekend of commemorative events at Fontanellato, the site of the former PoW camp. Seventy Trust members joined in these events, including two PoW veterans – Michael Lacey, who had been imprisoned at Fontanellato, which is near Parma, and the “indefatigable 15-year-old Frank Unwin”, who had been interned at Laterina, in Tuscany.
The invitation to go to Fontanellato to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Armistice had been extended by Francesco Trivelloni, the deputy mayor. Nick read out a message from him that spoke of the town’s determination to build on the close friendship established with the Trust and mentioned that a new edition (in Italian) of the history of PG49 Camp at Fontanellato was shortly to be published.
Nick Young then introduced Nicholas Gent, “our wonderful Treasurer, who nearly ruined my walk in the Marche by announcing that he wished to step down”. In a moving speech, Nicholas told how he had first come across the Trust in a newspaper article in 1997. Although he himself did not have a family connection with prisoner of war camps in Italy, he had been keen to learn more and wrote to Keith Killby. “Keith responded with great alacrity and I had no option but to sign up.”
Nicholas added that, since then, his commitment had deepened. Two events stood out for him. The first had made clear to him the general suffering of the Italian people during the war. While on the Cisa Pass, which divides the Ligurian and Tuscan Apennines, he talked to an old lady who recalled how, during the war, when Germans were billeted in his house, the family had lost their calf. She was so emotional about something that had happened so many years previously that this brought home to Nicholas how ordinary people had suffered. The second event that Nicholas referred to was of a much more tragic nature: the massacre in August 1944 at Vinca, in Tuscany, where 174 civilians were murdered by Nazi and Fascist troops.
As he steps down after several years as Treasurer, Nicholas says that the Trust’s funds still have some way to go before they reach the level necessary to fund MSMT’s student bursaries for the long term. Funds currently total £950,000, boosted by the Appeal, under the chairmanship of Vanni Treves, which has raised £560,000.
It was entirely fitting that, in such an important anniversary year, Keith Killby, the Trust’s founder, should be the main lunch speaker. Peppering his speech with humorous anecdotes, he told the story of how, when serving as a medical orderly with the S.A.S, he had been captured four times. “My first view of Italy was through the periscope of a submarine at Sardinia.” Captured soon after landing, “I said: ‘Siamo tedeschi – but I wasn’t believed’”.
Transported to Servigliano PoW camp in the Marche, on the mainland, he escaped through a hole in the wall after the Armistice but was too weak with malaria to keep up with the main body of escapers. A pattern of being captured and escaping followed, until he found himself imprisoned at Regina Coeli prison in Rome, whence he was taken to Moosburg in Germany. Eventually he was rescued by the Americans.
The final speech of the day came from Christopher Woodhead, the leader of 12 intrepid climbers who crossed over the Alps in September to Zermatt, retracing the courageous escape of Christopher’s grandfather, Lt. Col. Hugo de Burgh, in 1943. In an amusing introduction to a film of their climb, which involved guides, ropes, crampons and refuge huts, he said that the “out of date order” issued to PoWs to stay in their camps at the Armistice was similar to orders habitually ignored by his own children. “The answer was to rope them up and lead them over a glacier.”
For reasons of health and safety, the expedition had to take a lower route from their starting point in the Ayas Valley than Col. de Burgh had followed. But the Theodul Pass was quite high and intimidating enough, with the party taking the opportunity to pick off the Breithorn summit, at 4,200 metres. It is one of 81 peaks in the Alps over 4,000 metres.
While Col. de Burgh had gone over in hobnail boots without the nails, and was starving and suffering from old war wounds, the modern-day climbers had excellent equipment and no injury worse than one septic toe. “But, if not totally authentic, we had some idea of what he did,” said Christopher.
The lunch ended with Letitia Blake giving the toast of thanks to the Italian people, and with Nick Young thanking the organisers of the lunch – Letitia, Elly Evans, John Simkins and their leader, Christine English.
The 2014 annual luncheon will be held at the Royal Overseas League on November 19th.
For reports of the Freedom Trail in the Marche and the Fontanellato celebrations, see News.
Keith Killby’s autobiography, In Combat, Unarmed, can be obtained from the Trust, for £10. The section that deals with his escapes in Italy can be read in Escape Stories on this site.
Christopher Woodhead’s account of the climb to Zermatt is in News/Champagne on ice. Col. de Burgh’s own story, Smugglers’ Way, is in Escape Stories.