Left -Letitia Blake, Christopher Woodhead, Sir Nicholas Young
Right – Rear-Admiral Virdis, Signora Nicoletta Virdis, John Simkins, Anne Copley
THE Trust and its sister charity, the Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS), have fulfilled a long-held desire to establish a permanent memorial to the brave Italians who rescued escaped PoWs. A stone memorial, bearing a dedication plaque on Italian marble, was unveiled during a magnificent ceremony at Eden Camp museum in North Yorkshire at the end of April.
The museum, itself a former PoW camp that held Germans and Italians, has a rich collection of Second World War artefacts displayed in the prisoners’ huts, and is the ideal place to honour the memory of the Italian helpers. Dedication of the memorial, which stands between an ELMS stone and the guard tower, took place as part of the ELMS service which coincides with the organisation’s annual reunion at York.
The ceremony began with a march by the Corps of Drums and Bugles of the Yorkshire Volunteers and attendees were welcomed by Roger Stanton, director of ELMS. In his speech of dedication, Nick Young, Trust chairman, recalled the challenges facing the 50,000 PoWs who escaped into the Italian countryside following the Armistice in September 1943.
“They had no maps, no idea which way to go, no suitable clothing with winter approaching, virtually no knowledge of Italian, and no idea how to disguise themselves so that they looked even vaguely like locals, in a countryside swarming with inquisitive farming families, fascist sympathisers and bounty-hunters and, increasingly, German patrols. Only around 10,000 made it home. Many were recaptured by the Germans almost immediately.
“The escapers approached small mountain villages for assistance, seeking help from tiny family farms and avoiding the larger farms which they feared might be fascist.
The farmers who helped them were mostly share-croppers, a pernicious system which required them to share fifty per cent and more of the meagre crops they grew with the landlord – or face immediate eviction. They had nothing and lived in conditions that seemed to many escapers medieval. But still they took them in, these contadini invited them into their homes and farms, shared what little food they had with them, treated their wounds and gave them a bed or a barn for the night.
“After the war, few if any of those brave Italians were formally recognised for their courage and generosity. If they were lucky, they got a piece of paper (an Alexander Certificate) to hang on the wall and a few lire by way of compensation. The Monte San Martino Trust was formed, by our founder Keith Killby and other former prisoners, to try and compensate for this lack of recognition.
“Now, at last, we and ELMS are proud to unveil, in the 80th year since the Armistice, the first memorial in the UK to the contadini of the Italian countryside, and to the people in larger towns and cities who also played their part. We will remember them.”
The occasion was honoured by the presence of Rear-Admiral Angelo Virdis, defence attaché, representing the Italian ambassador, and his wife Nicoletta. Bidden by Nick Young to “make himself at home, admittedly in a prison camp for Italians”, Admiral Vardis told the audience: “We thank you for keeping the memory of the humanity of those who helped the prisoners. Young people have to remember the difficult path we had to follow to find freedom.”
There were, in fact, 18 young Italians present, all students of a school at San Benedetto del Tronto, on the coast of Le Marche, from where many escapers were extracted by sea. Their visit was sponsored by ELMS, who had also invited students from a school in Spain’s Basque country, which played an important role as the end-destination of escape lines from France. Among the Spanish students was the 17-year-old great-niece of Fiorentino, a hunter and smuggler who became a guide for the Comet Line and took over 200 airmen and French and Belgian agents over the Pyrenees to safety.
The ceremony continued with readings, performances by the Yorkshire Volunteers and a closing address from the Rev. Canon John Manchester, the ELMS padre. He paid a tribute to the brave men and women who suffered imprisonment and ill-treatment for the help they gave escapers and evaders. “These valiant helpers paid a terrible price but they emerged emaciated from the camps with their heads held high.”
This important day in the life of MSMT was marked most appropriately at Evensong in York Minister when the Trust was included in prayers for all prisoners of war and those who put themselves in danger to help them.