Armed with old photographs, Fiona Battle set out to research her father’s escape. As she relates below, she had more success than she ever thought likely
For a number of years I had been thinking of visiting Italy to try to find the village where my father, Bill Bass, and his fellow officer Larry Holroyd, had been hidden for six weeks, after walking out of Fontanellato PoW camp at the Armistice.
My family had very little information about my father’s time there, but we had a few photographs taken when he returned to Italy in 1949 with my mother, and I remember as a child packing up Christmas parcels to send to “Luigi Franchi” and his family.
One photograph had the name Spiaggere on the back of it, and my mother had told me this was near Bardi, which is in the upper Ceno valley south-west of Parma. An invitation to holiday with friends in Italy in 2012 gave me and my husband Robin the opportunity to investigate further.
After visiting Fontanellato, we drove to Bardi, an attractive hill town. We drove down the steep hill out of Bardi to the valley bottom and up the other side. Within half an hour of driving up the mountain, we reached a sign to Spiaggere.
After another fifteen minutes’ drive up a very rough track through small fields and scrubby woodland we were in the tiny village. This consisted of about five dilapidated houses with farm buildings and I immediately recognised Luigi’s house and the village water trough from my photographs. There was a cacophony of sounds – dogs barking, chickens clucking, and guinea fowl squawking, but no one appeared. One of the houses showed further signs of occupation: a vegetable plot, some cats, and several enormous (thankfully, kennelled) dogs.
We climbed up the hill behind Luigi’s house to look at the other buildings. One was built against the hillside with a door at the upper end into the loft. Comparing this with a photograph of my father showing my mother where he had been hidden, we could see the lintel and stones above the door were the same. It was an extraordinary feeling standing in the same place, nearly 70 years later. I undid a piece of wire holding the door shut and it swung open to reveal an empty loft. It was incredibly exciting to have found the place where my father and Larry had been hidden. I searched the beams just in case my father had scratched his initials there, but found nothing.
We left a copy of the old photographs and a note outside the door of the occupied house. Back at the valley bottom, I wondered if perhaps we should have visited the nearest village to Spiaggere. We had a long drive ahead but decided we would regret not trying, so we drove back up the mountain, past the turning to Spiaggere, to the village of Lezzara.
Being siesta time there was no sign of life. But just after we had turned around and begun to drive slowly out of the village, a child appeared. In halting Italian I asked if her parents were in the house. “I am English,” she replied. She fetched her mother and I explained that I was trying to find information about Spiaggere, where my father had been hidden in the war.
“Well you have come to the right place!”
We were welcomed into their house and Maria told us her family were from Lezzara. She had married an Englishman, but they return for holidays. Maria’s father, Signor Sidoli, and his brother had been partisans and their homes had been safe houses for PoWs.
Domenico, Maria’s cousin, was immediately telephoned and soon he, and his wife Mirna, arrived in great excitement, carrying an album of wartime mementos of his father’s. Domenico had been a small child during the war but he had kept his father’s album and other wartime memorabilia. He had, after the war, worked in London for a few years, as had many from the Bardi area, so luckily spoke fluent English.
I started leafing slowly through the album. I turned a page and there was a familiar photograph of my own parents on their wedding day, and on the opposite page, one of my father and his best man, Larry, who had stayed together throughout the war. This caused great excitement. A bottle of wine was opened, bread and cheese produced. Domenico looked at the photograph of my father and said: “This man was at Spiaggere.”
He told me my father and Larry had stayed up at Spiaggere and, if the coast was clear, they would sometimes come down to Lezzara in the evening. He showed me the path down the mountain, still called “Il sentiero degli Inglesi”, and he showed me his house, virtually unchanged since the war, the table where my father and Larry would have had dinner, and the shelf where the radio had been as they listened to the BBC broadcasts.
My father and Larry were not among the lucky ones who got home. Larry injured his leg (probably, we learnt, from being shot at by one of the local fascists) so they had to give themselves up to the Germans so as not to endanger the lives of those who had sheltered them. They spent the remainder of the war in German camps.
Domenico identified other people in my photographs, including the uncle of Bruno Franchi, who farms and occasionally stays in the “occupied” house at Spiaggere. Before we left, he showed us, in his shed, an American jeep that had been left behind, complete with bullet holes!
With much hugging and promises to keep in touch, Robin and I set off south for the rest of our holiday, overwhelmed by how much we had managed to find out. We have since visited the National Archives at Kew and found my father’s Liberation Questionnaire, together with a letter he wrote to the War Office telling them about the help he had been given by Luigi Franchi and Signor Sidoli.
I now have more information with which to carry on my research. The next step is to try and contact Luigi’s granddaughter in Milan.