When Professor Peter Jones came across the war diary of his father, Albert, the discovery motivated him not only to write up the story but to track down the contadini family that had sheltered Albert in the Marche after his escape from a PoW camp at Sforzacosta. Here he tells a heart-warming story.
I came across my father’s war diary only after his death and then my eldest son, who was helping with clearing the effects, collected that and other war artefacts into a file. It was some years later that a casual conversation prompted me to open the file and read the diary. And that was just the beginning.
My father, Albert, was a young, East End lad who left school at 14 and was a bank messenger before volunteering for the Army in 1939. He was evacuated from Dunkirk having been wounded when strafed by enemy aircraft. Once recovered, and promoted to Corporal, in May 1940 he was transferred from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to the 50th Battalion Recce Corps for deployment to North Africa.
He was captured at the Battle of Gazala Lines when his entire battalion was virtually wiped out. His diary, started when a PoW, records the boredom of the camps, the minutiae of the days, the importance of the Red Cross and the parcels, the tensions among the prisoners and the lead-up to the British “stay put” orders to PoWs after the Italians declared the Armistice in September 1943. It was this event that triggered his escape from PG 53 at Sforzacosta, near Macerata, and a flight across the foothills of the Apennines. He evaded capture and was given sanctuary by the Marzialetti family.
He lived with them for 11 months, working on the land and becoming a member of the family. He was originally one of four escapers, but two were recaptured by the Germans and sent to the Stalags in Germany and not heard from again. To escape detection and survive, he needed to become part of the local community, learn the language and become a contadino. Always on the lookout for an opportunity to get back home, he made a number of attempts but they were either foiled by German intelligence or just bad luck. In his diary, referring to contact with an SAS officer, he suggests a connection with Operation Simcol, which was a parachute mission behind enemy lines in October 1943 to evacuate Allied servicemen. But an attempt to rendezvous on the coast near Pescara to be taken off by the Royal Navy failed.
The diary refers to a number of occasions when he had to evade the Germans and the local Fascists, involving long journeys to safe houses of other members of the extended Marzialetti family. As the Allies fought their way north up the spine of Italy, the diary becomes silent on the specifics of the activities and for a long time it was hidden and lost following a surprise raid by Germans. Found again, the diary, written in a school exercise book, was brought home among the very limited possessions he had. Repatriated via the 2nd Allied PoW Repatriation Camp in Naples, he arrived back in England in September 1944.
Once I had come across the diary, I was determined to track down the Marzialetti family. The only reference in the diary to the location of Casa Marzialetti was some local place names. My father had once returned to Italy, in 1963, but there was no record of that visit, nor any contact details for the family other than a poor-quality photograph.
However, in 2011, with the help of Antonio and Giuseppe Millozzi, of Monte San Martino, I was able not only to find the actual farmhouse but even the children of the family still alive who remembered “Alberto” and the impact he had on their lives.
The Marzialettis have great affection for the memory of my father and I visited the family again in September 2012, to visit the archives in Rome as well as those of Macerata. The family are always very welcoming and I have been able to add colour and context to the diary through those visits. I am now in the final stages of the research having recently found valuable additional material in the National Archives and the Regimental Museum. I intend to start the first draft later this year. So far I have one publisher interested in the story.