RAF Club, Piccadily
22 November 2023
By John Simkins
Supporters of the Monte San Martino Trust gathered at the RAF Club in London’s Piccadilly on 22nd November 2023 to hear chairman Sir Nick Young spell out ambitious plans for MSMT’s future.
The occasion was the Trust’s annual luncheon, attended by 123 people, who were also treated to a vivid and entertaining address by the guest speaker, Dr Helen Fry, author of MI9, A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two.
Many of the guests were attending the annual luncheon for the first time. It was an honour to have the presence of Admiral Angelo Virdis, Defence Attaché at the Italian embassy, and his wife Nicoletta. Nick Young also singled out two special guests, both of them centenarians: Mildred Schutz, who served with SOE in Italy organising Allied agents behind the lines, and Roy Quinton, who served in wartime Italy with the Royal Artillery and worked as an interpreter between the Allies and the partisans.
Also attending were two former students of the Trust – Barbara Miandro (2012) and Federico Peretti, who came to England in 1999 and had fond memories of being cooked lasagne, in the Le Marche style, by the Trust’s founder, Keith Killby. Federico was accompanied at the lunch by his young son who was on holiday with him from their home in Germany.
Sharing plans for the future
Nick Young summarised the activities of MSMT over the past year, pointing in particular to the success of the 80th anniversary celebrations of the Armistice, which drew 70 Trust members and many local Italians to Servigliano, in Le Marche, in September. “It was a great opportunity to swap stories and family history, a lot of laughter and many tears,” said Nick. He led applause for the two trustees who had organised the MSMT part of activities, Nermina Delic and Anne Copley, and also for Roger Stanton, director of the Escape Lines Memorial Society, which ran the Freedom Trails. “Whereas we of MSMT were sitting comfortably listening to interesting Italian professors, Roger and his crew were yomping up hills and getting incredibly hot. We all served together!”
Celebrating strong partnerships
Nick went on to mention exciting current projects. One involves helping the Trust’s partner in Italy, the Parri institute, to further populate the website created by Parri that describes 60 prisoner of war camps. Another is a partnership with the American national archives to digitise the Allied Screening Commission’s claims of compensation from the brave Italians who hid escaping prisoners. MSMT is making its biggest ever investment, of £250,000, to this end. “We are incredibly proud of this huge project,” said Nick. He was also delighted to announce that the Trust’s own archive was shortly to be moved to a new permanent home, at Cambridge University Library. On the back of that, the Trust is to fund a researcher into aspects of the escape story.
Nick then introduced the guest speaker. Helen Fry began her talk by explaining that all British personnel sent into action went on a MI9 training course on escape and evasion. The first mandate, understandably enough, was “DO NOT BE CAPTURED”. Helen said that servicemen on the run in France were advised to equip themselves with a beret and a string of onions and that her all-time favourite training tip was “Do not walk in a British way”.
More seriously, said Helen, she was very surprised by what she discovered about Italy. In particular, to what extent the Vatican was involved in hiding British escapers and the fact that it bankrolled MI9 operations in Italy because MI9 had difficulty in getting money into Italy for the black market.
A key person in the Vatican’s involvement was Sam Derry, who later became head of MI9. Derry was in Chieti PoW camp and he escaped from a moving train while being transferred. He made his way to Rome where he was helped by Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty of the Vatican, known as the Scarlet Pimpernel. Derry and O’Flaherty headed up an operation that saved 4,000 Allied personnel in Italy. A price was put on Derry’s head and he was taken into the Vatican dressed as a cardinal. He had an audience with Pope Pius X11 who didn’t realise Derry wasn’t one of his own cardinals. The Pope knew about the escape operation and before escapers hiding in the Vatican were repatriated he blessed them and gave them a tiny coin.
Helen concluded by saying how incredibly brave ordinary men and women were in Italy in resisting an oppressive regime, and she congratulated MSMT for its work in preserving their memory.
A delightful surprise then occurred. Professor Robert Tregay, who has been separating truth from fiction in Eric Newby’s wonderful book, Love and War in the Apennines, presented Dr Sonia Ashmore, Eric’s daughter, with glasses used at a house where Eric sought refuge during his escape from Fontanellato. Read the full story here.
Winding up the event, Letitia Blake, the Trust’s secretary, thanked Maggie Simkins and Julia MacKenzie for managing the store of books on sale, and thanked the lunch organisers, who, in addition to herself, were Elly Evans, David Kettle and John Simkins.