This is a diary covering the Freedom Trail, based on Servigliano in the Tenna Valley, from September 4th-9th, 2013, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Armistice with Italy, the event that precipitated the mass break-out of Allied servicemen from prisoner of war camps in Italy. The Trail was organised jointly by the Escape Lines Memorial Society and the Monte San Martino Trust. A photo album may be viewed at http://prod.msmtrust.org.uk/photos/
Starting in 2013, the Freedom Trail based at Servigliano, is the first of what is intended to be an annual event. It will run alongside other annual Freedom Trails in Italy that commemorate the bravery of the ordinary Italian people, the “contadini” (peasant farmers), who hid escaping Allied servicemen from the Germans and Fascists after Italy’s surrender on 8t September 1943.
Servigliano was chosen as the base for the Trail because it was the site of one of three prisoner of war camps in the southern Marche but the only one from which there was a mass escape. The other two were too close to the main cities and the camps’ Italian commandants thought it was too dangerous to let the prisoners go free. Moreover, the prisoners themselves thought the Allies were coming to rescue them and obeyed orders from London to stay put. A big mistake as the Germans simply arrived to round them up – as happened at many of the PoW camps in Italy.
At Servigliano, however, Captain David Millar persuaded the commandant to let the 3,000 prisoners go – and on the evening of 14 September, some six days after the Armistice, amid considerable chaos, the prisoners fled for the hills. Although some struck out in different directions to try to reach the Allies, who were held up by fighting in south Italy, the vast majority stayed in the Marche, being hidden by peasant families in a rural area then still characterised by subsistence farming.
The Trail’s routes took us through farms and villages where a large number of servicemen were hiding in 1943-44 – and where many families risked their lives by giving them refuge. Vendettas between partisans and Fascists were frequent and brutal. The memories of this period, we discovered, are very much alive.
DIARY Wednesday 4th Sept – Friday 6th Sept
By John and Katie Simkins
It is the eve of the first trek. We gather, slightly nervously, for a briefing by the chief organiser, Roger Stanton, secretary of Escape Lines Memorial Society, who has done most of the organisation, aided by Steve Sims, who – lucky him – is not going to walk but will drive the back-up vehicle.
Roger has been assuring us that we are embarking on a commemorative walk, not a forced march, but he cannot disguise the fact that he has planned three day-walks, each of about 25km, all starting and finishing at Servigliano.
We listen to speeches from the mayor of Servigliano, from Sir Nick Young, chairman of MSMT, who now delights in being addressed as “Il presidente”, and from Col. Mike Davidson, whose title is president of ELMS and is, therefore, a presidente already. We are meeting in the Casa della Memoria, a splendid little museum opened in the former railway station in 2012 to house photos and mementos of PoW Camp 59 at Servigliano. It was where prisoners of war were deloused before being taken to the camp. Much of the credit for the museum goes to Giuseppe Millozzi, son of the Trust’s administrator within Italy, Antonio Millozzi, who lives at nearby Monte San Martino.
After a short film telling the story of the camp –where MSMT founder Keith Killby was a prisoner – Giuseppe escorts us round the camp. We clearly see the repaired section of the wall which was by holed by members of Killby’s fellow SAS prisoners when they made a run for it on 14 September 1943. Attractive though the site is, ringed by hills, one of our number says that not too rosy a picture should be painted of life within the camp. His father used to say they were sometimes so hungry they ate grass.
We, however, are lucky enough to have an excellent dinner at the Hotel San Marco and then, as the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, would say: Home to Bed.
Thursday 5th Sept.
We gather at the war memorial in Servigliano, in preparation for a walk to Monte San Martino and back. We are a truly international gathering, Our number includes Duncan and Claudia McLaughlin-Wood from Canada, researching Claudia’s American father, Staff/Sgt Claude McLaughlin, who was imprisoned at Servigliano. There are representatives from all the constituent parts of the UK, ELMS members outnumbering those from MSMT. A particularly strong ELMS contingent has come from Yorkshire, some of whom are just limbering up for another trail commemorating ratline helpers and escapers in southern France in a week or two. Walk leaders carefully count the 43 of us as we set off. Oh good: Sims has dozens of bottles of water in the back of his car, as well as a number of wreaths to lay. It is hot, about 30 degrees. Our photographer, Ibrahim Malla is travelling in a Red Cross car (he works for them in Italy and is giving his time free this this weekend) and we also have the comfort of a “Guardia Civile” car accompanying us for medical back-up.
The going is not very difficult, much of the first couple of hours being along an overgrown trail through woods, single file. We cross the River Tenna, stepping gingerly over stones. We emerge into the open to stop at a farmhouse owned by Marino and Paola Marchese. They have set out tables of snacks and deliciously reviving drinks, including a cocktail of elderflower and mint. Marino explains that they have lived there for 30 years since they came from Bolzano. The farm’s main business is making excellent pecorino cheese. We do our best not to tread on the tiny kittens searching for crumbs.
Back on the trail, we pass a farmhouse on which is still legible a Fascist slogan of the 1930s: “Amate la terra (la madre), sorgente di vita, di forza e di felicita`” (Love the land (the mother), spring of life, strength and happiness). Nearby is the farmhouse, now disused, owned by a woman called Maria Levi, who was the first person to bring food to Killby in his hiding place, wading barefoot across a stream with a cooking pot balanced on her head.
On our way again, the “wallpaper” background to our walks is becoming clear. It consists of fields of sunflowers, tall and erect and going black as they near harvesting for oil, set against green, rolling hills with each one hosting a little village on its top. It is incredibly beautiful, even if the gaunt sunflowers remind us of a science fiction army on the march. The other ever-present is the barking of dogs.
We walk uphill to Monte San Martino for a late lunch in a former convent used by the municipality. This is a special town as it gives the name to our Trust, being near the place where Killby first tasted liberty after escaping.
At the entrance is a plaque recalling a terrible episode. A partisan had been killed nearby and in reprisal his companions raided the village. They could not find the Fascists responsible so killed four innocent people, one of them a woman.
More happily, the town is the home of Antonio Millozzi who on Sunday will receive his honorary MBE from the British ambassador to Rome for his work for our charity. We are given lunch by the mayor who welcomes us most warmly. We lay a wreath at the memorial.
After lunch some of us choose to return by car, so we are a reduced number of walkers – 22. The return is fairly uneventful though there is a river to cross at one point. Some take off boots and socks. Others balance precariously on stones.
We are going back a different way from the morning. But Giuseppe, who has been leading the walk, confesses that he has done several recces and that even today he is not quite sure of the best route. Near Servigliano we stop for a chat at the farmhouse of a delightful lady, born in 1931 but looking older because of her sun-creased face. She is padding around her yard in socks. Her name is Dina. Her family lived near the road and she remembers how frightened she used to be in July ’44, when the Germans were retreating, often drunk, blowing up bridges and shooting.
Back in Servigliano, all the walkers seem in good to shape after nine hours on the road, and the odour of wild mint refreshes. We split up to eat in different places and rest before the Day-2 walk.
Friday 6th Sept.
We meet at 8.30am at Servigliano, blissfully unaware that we shall be on the road for the next 10 hours. It is very hot. We are a smaller number than yesterday, more like 30.
Right away, we have to tackle a hill, leaving the former PoW camp on our left. Beautiful scenery unfolds. How many dogs are there in the Marche, for goodness sake? We have got to know each other reasonably well by now, and it’s a delight slipping up and down the line of walkers, talking to different people. There is some comparing of mosquito bites. A couple of walkers are developing some unpleasant rashes, perhaps the product of bites combined with heat.
Today’s walk leader is Ian McCarthy, a Brit who has lived in the area for 32 years and worked hard to make this Trail possible, along with Giuseppe Millozzi and Annelise Nebbia, the secretary of the national partisan memorial association, ANPI. In instalments during the day, Ian reads out sections of a fascinating story printed long ago in the USA services paper, Yank, about a soldier called Manuel Serrano. Serrano, from Brooklyn, had been a prisoner at Servigliano and after the Armistice he joined a group of partisans, though at first they didn’t want him. He became accepted and joined many of their raids against the Germans and conducted reprisals against local Fascists. It was a brutal period, with torture and hangings commonplace on both sides. After the war, Serrano returned to the US and married. Later they lived in Rome and after his death his wife moved up to live for a time at a house near Servigliano.
Our mid-morning stop is delightful, and also moving. We are at the house of Pancrazio Tulli and Margret Cornelius in the hamlet of Santa Lucia – husband and wife, though in the Italian manner Margret, German by birth, has retained her maiden name. Delicious slices of bread soaked in olive oil, along with water melon and cake and home-made red wine. Pancrazio makes a graceful speech of welcome and tells us that some years previously his son Luca and nephew David were students of MSMT in the UK. Luca was one day treated to excellent lasagne by the charity’s founder, Keith Killby, a relief after a month of London food. Pancrazio says he is glad to repay that hospitality.
Pancrazio tells a sad story. His maternal grandparents hid two escapers in the village of Smerillo. His mother, then aged 16, recalls that they were taken away by the Germans after a raid found them in a cave. His mother did not dare look the prisoners in the eye because to have shown signs of recognition would have incriminated her and her family.
As we walk on, a local drives slowly past us, proffering plums from out of his window. It is a steep climb up to the village of Montelparo. Lunch is in the town hall where we have sandwiches delivered by Sims. You have to find a partner with them, as they come in packs for two.
Afterwards, as the majority of walkers set off, a small party drives a mile or so out of the village to lay a wreath at an iron cross at the side of a lane. It commemorates an English soldier shot dead in 1944 by the Fascists. He had been hidden by the locals.
There are differing accounts of how he actually died – and of whether he was called David or John (unfortunately his surname is not known). The villagers have always revered his memory and put flowers at the cross. They would love to know – as would we – exactly who he was, poor boy.
Reunited, the walkers strap along downhill, to the village of Monteleone. Here we lay a wreath and listen to an emotional speech from one of the village’s councillors. “These were sad pages in history but we have to remember the Allied soldiers were fighting a just war,” he says. The mayor is there, too: Vittorio Paci. His father was for six years a prisoner at Cambridge after being captured at El Alamein. He was very well treated by the English, says Vittorio.
Our final encounter of the day is with an animated 95-year-old, Guerrino Balacco, who tells the story of his narrow escape. He had been serving with the Italian army in France but, after Italy’s surrender, he slipped back into Italy and home. One day the Fascists came looking for his cousin who was a Partisan. As the cousin wasn’t at home they took Guerrino instead. It looked grim for Guerrino because their leader was the notorious local Fascist, Roscioli. Luckily, one of the Fascists, who knew Guerrino, took Roscioli off for a coffee and Guerrino was taken to prison. A little later, the cousin turned up, and bravely gave himself up in place of Guerrino.
Guerrino then set about saving the cousin. He approached the priest, who wrote to the bishop. Eventually a ransom of 25,000 lire was agreed and the cousin was set free. At the end of the war, the cousin made sure his family got the money returned.
Curiously, Roscioli, whose name was linked to all sorts of barbarities, escaped retribution after the war. He was sentenced to 30 years in jail but freed by an Amnesty and died a natural death.
We eventually reach Servigliano. It is 7pm. A much harder walk than yesterday.
SATURDAY 7TH SEPTEMBER. Servigliano – Santa Vittoria in Matenano – Montefalcone – Smerillo – Servigliano
By Bella Gent
The sun is shining, our limbs are aching and we have a handful of Italian school girls joining us for the day. It is lovely to have such young people joining the group. I’m sure one young man, Charlie Gent, my brother, is very happy for their arrival. Ian McCarthy, again acting as our guide, starts off the day with a moving story about a prisoner called Frank Hilton who escaped and hid with the Baglioni family. Hilton was so grateful for their help that he changed his name to Franco Baglioni. In the sweltering heat, we take the main road from Servigliano to Santa Vittoria. This was a very important route as the Germans used to take the prisoners along it. Prisoners being hidden in the houses alongside it would escape through the forests.
We stop in the shade for a mid-morning breather. Paolo Gianta La Spada, a San Vittoria high school teacher, gives a moving account about the many homes in the town that were concealing prisoners. He stresses that the Italians were risking their lives. But it was not only their own lives and homes, it was also the lives of the whole village. A vivid example of this was at Petransieri where approximately 120 people were killed after a single prisoner was discovered.
This was not uncommon. It would seem that the decision to accommodate prisoners, therefore, must have been difficult. But Paolo says that decisions to do so were made without a second thought by the Italian population because they all had the same intention: to protect the individual. Paolo stresses the importance of their main motto: to “be connected”; one should be connected with the people, the territory and one’s origin, and remain human beings, even during the war. This is the reason why we are doing this walk today. We walk on, feeling almost guilty about the Italians’ generosity and kindness, and hoping that the British would have done the same.
As we continue on to Santa Vittoria, we approach a family that has cooked a wonderful array of tarts and cakes for us. What a lovely surprise! Everyone is feeling re-energised as we enter the town and lay a wreath beneath a memorial next to an old tank. We gather together for a group photograph in front of it and then walk through the pretty village along cobbled streets to our spectacular lunch spot. We sit beneath a large beautiful church overlooking the village and eat our lunches.
Anne Copley takes up the story at Santa Vittoria.
Ian McCarthy, our guide, stops us several times on the walk to Montefalcone to read parts of the story of Robert Newton and the Viozzis. Newton, from Indiana, was one of three American PoWs who were sheltered by Cesare Viozzi’s family for six months until they were discovered by the Germans and executed on 9th March 1944. Newton was training to be a doctor and was very popular with the locals. See http://camp59survivors.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/cesare-viozzi-on-sheltering-robert-a-newton/
We pass an inscription on a house wall in memory of a David Viozzi. Ian says that he was one of a number of boys who had been playing on the German vehicles and was shot as a result. It becomes clear that the Germans were at their most dangerous when they were retreating in June 1944.
More wreaths and a speech from the mayor at Montefalcone. I miss it because the last part of the walk is up a medieval cobbled “mule track” which is almost vertical. I am very grateful to Mike Davidson, president of the Escape Lines Memorial Society, operating as the back-marker, for keeping me company as I pause for breath many times!
After taking in the delights of the new bar (“The Sphinx” – because a rock formation viewed from the Belvedere looks like a Sphinx, so they say), the fantastic views, and more stories from Ian to conclude Robert Newton’s story and a coda from me about his friend returning in the 1960s, we set off through the woods to Smerillo. We pass the “caves” in which many PoWsm hid, and after a beautiful walk through nature we emerge at the edge of the village.
Dinner is at Le Logge in Smerillo, together with music and the wonderful sight of several ex-soldiers doing some excellent “embarrassing dad” dancing!
Sunday 8th September. Servigliano-Monte Urano
By Charlie Gent
We leave by coach to go to Monte Urano, which was the site of a large prisoner of war camp where Ken de Souza, the father of ELMS member, Ian, was imprisoned. The entrance is a distinctly ugly concrete arch and there are several huge warehouses, some of which are now used for a tannery.
We gather together with the mayor and speeches are followed by a tour around the tannery. We see the rooms that would have be packed full of hundreds of soldiers; a chapel remains there, with an original fresco. We then assemble at the gate of the camp and lay a wreath.
We climb back onto the stifling coach and make our way to the Brugnoni family’s farmhouse. This was where Ken De Souza hid after escaping from Monte Urano. Ken, who often returned to the area after the war to greet those who helped him, described his experiences in Escape from Ascoli.
Ken was hidden on the top floor in the attic area and was brought food by the family. When he saw the Germans coming, he jumped out of a back window and ran away through the fields. A neighbouring family of 17 people were caught protecting an Allied soldier –they were all shot. This really makes me realise how much risk the families put themselves through to protect Allied servicemen.
By now, it is 1pm. We go down the road to a pretty little park where there is a plaque for Ken De Souza. We are greeted by a full brass band, along with the mayor, a priest and many families. Ian and others lay a wreath and the brass band plays the English and Italian national anthems. We are then given delicious sandwiches, white wine and lemonade by the Brugnoni family.
At 2pm, we visit the Salvatore villa, originally a remote hunting lodge. It was extended into the next-door farmhouse by the Salvatore family. The father, at the time, was a philosopher who was anti- Mussolini and anti-fascist. It was a very isolated house away from main roads so was consequently ideal for saving patriots. A total of 152 prisoners of war filtered through this house to the main Allied pick-up point in Ancona. The soldiers were hidden in an attic area that was accessed through a secret trap door. On some occasions, German soldiers would be downstairs drinking tea while PoWs were hiding quietly in the loft. Germans knew there were soldiers in the area but could not pinpoint their exact location.
A speech was given by one of the family members and was followed by drinks and the usual delicious homemade cakes and home-grown plums.
Sunday 8th September concludes with a ceremony at Monte San Martino, where Antonio Millozzi, the organiser within Italy of the Monte San Martino Trust, is presented with his honorary MBE by the British ambassador. See News/Millozzi MBE
Read another splendid account of the Tenna Valley Freedom Trail by Claudia and Duncan McLaughlin-Wood, who were researching the story of Claudia’s American father, Claude McLaughlin, who escaped from Servigliano PoW camp. http//www.70yearson.blogspot.com