A newspaper story miraculously served to link up a Scottish family with the descendants of an Italian who rescued their grandfather from the Germans and the Fascists.
Back in 1944, Modesto Damiani hid sixteen Allied soldiers in the village of Lucignana, high in the mountains of north Tuscany, after they had escaped from prisoner of war camps.
The Damiani family were betrayed, however, and Modesto only just managed to warn the soldiers in time, pulling on his coat over his nightclothes as he dashed out in the early morning to warn them. Modesto, who spoke English as he had spent some pre-war years in Australia, himself also escaped. His family was threatened by the Germans and Fascists, but Modesto’s whereabouts were not revealed.
The bravery of Modesto, and documents testifying to his courage and the successful escape of the soldiers, came to the attention of the Monte San Martino Trust in 2016 through contacts with the Lucca branch of the Istituto Storico, which was researching the fate of partisans and prisoners of war in north Tuscany in 1943-44. Damiani’s son, who was also called Modesto and who had been 11 years old at the time of the rescue, got in touch with the Monte San Martino Trust and asked if it were possible to trace relatives of the soldiers who were rescued.
Andrew Adams, a Trust member, accordingly placed news stories about seven of the PoWs, whose names had been handed down, in different British newspapers, with the rather remote hope that these names would ring bells. He struck lucky after a story naming James Devaney, of Possilpark, Glasgow, was published in Scotland’s Daily Record.
Mark Logan immediately contacted the Trust. He said: “I was overwhelmed when reading the article as the PoW mentioned in the article was my late grandfather James (Jimmy) Devaney. I had grown up hearing this incredible story from my mother and grandmother, how he escaped during a march from the camp and was aided by the locals of an Italian village who sheltered him from the Nazis until his return to the allies.
“It is incredible to hear this story again after all these years. My brother Daniel, who serves with Royal Highland Fusiliers, and I would appreciate being able to thank Modesto and learn more about his father and how he saved the life of our grandfather and others.”
After the war, in 1949, Modesto Damiani senior wrote his own account of how he had helped prisoners of war, and saved a group of them when the Germans raided his house. His testimony came in the form of an address to his local council, Coreglia Antelminelli, in which he applied for a permit to make and sell ice cream.
Newspaper stories published in Shropshire and Cheshire about the PoWs also produced leads. Geoff Crump, the Cheshire Regiment’s researcher, gave information about Lieutenant Thomas Hungerford Keith Forgan, who had been wounded and taken prisoner in North Africa. It appears that Lt Forgan escaped from a PoW camp in Italy but was recaptured and taken to Stalag 8A (Gorlitz) in Germany. He died in 2002.
After the war both Modesto and his son worked in London for a few years, in their capacity as craftsmen working with chalk.
Modesto Damiani, Junior, died on 27 December 2020 in his home village of Lucignana, scene of the dramatic events in 1944-45 described above. He was a stalwart supporter of the Moral Courage award and spoke of his family’s experience at the inaugural meeting of the award programme in the Ducal Palace in Lucca.