As if he were my brother

Janet Kinrade Dethick summarises the research for her book, As if he were my brother, Italians and escapers in Piedmont 1943-1945, published in December 2021.

Some time ago, when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission put its concentration* forms on line, I decided to investigate the deaths of prisoners of war lying in the Commission’s Italian cemeteries.

Among the Milan forms was one that intrigued me – a group of men had been brought into the cemetery from the Val d’Isère, and only one of them was named. He was Welshman Haydn John Rogers, South Wales Borderers, date of death 12 November 1944. Given that he is listed in WO 392/21 (Italy: Imperial Prisoners of War. Alphabetical List. Section 1, British Army) as being present in PG65 Gravina, and knowing that this camp had been closed in the summer of 1943, I reasoned that he would have been moved to a work camp in Piedmont from which he would have escaped at the Armistice.

Disaster in the Alps

I followed a trail that took me from website WW2 Talk to a journalist on La Stampa, who put me in contact with author and researcher Professoressa Claretta Coda, who had written about the disaster in which Private Rogers and his companions had died in their attempt to cross the Alps into Switzerland. With a colleague she had involved a class of grammar school students in translating Alpine Partisan – the story of the only survivor, Alfred Southon, – into English. The group had been hit by a blizzard and Southon spent nine days in a snowhole before being found by a guide. He suffered the loss of the lower part of his left leg as well as part of his right leg and three fingers.

Professoressa Coda had also written one of the most important books, if not the most important, detailing the help given by the people of Piedmont to the escapers from camps 106 Vercelli, 133 Novara, and above all the work camps of PG112 Turin, who found themselves at large in the region following the Armistice. The research for her book was chiefly based on the Claim Forms submitted to the Allied Screening Commission by some, though by no means all, of the helpers. Co-ordinating the submissions, at the request of the Committee for National Liberation, was bilingual Italian Fulvio Borghetti. The original claim forms are held in the ISTORETO Archive in Turin in the Fondo Borghetti, and were all scrupulously photographed by Professoressa Coda.

Interpreting the forms was not without problems. The escapers left notes giving their details to the families who helped them, but often details were missing or the handwriting was virtually illegible. Notwithstanding this, together we have managed to identify all but a handful of these escapers and my book contains a list giving for each his name, rank, number, PoW camp as registered in WO 392/21 and his final destination. I decided that I would translate the original testimonies of the helpers in order to make this invaluable information – which has lain forgotten for over 70 years – available to a wide audience. The book is the result. Its title comes from the fact that more than one account relates that the escaper was treated like one of the family – as if he were their child or brother.

Love and care

In conclusion, I would like to quote the claim put in by Maria Colombatto, of Fiano Torinese, whose love and care is poignantly described in the simple phrases she submitted. She gave assistance to 4453546 Private Harry Jorgenson, Durham Light Infantry (Ari), 915436 Gunner Kenneth H. Bailey, Royal Artillery, 112312 Private Mervyn J. Brooks, Union Defence Force (Gim), and “Davide” (unidentified). Her claim is dated 31 May 1945.

February 1944

At 10 in the evening I went in search of my husband who was at Signor Rigobello’s house and it was there that I found Ari, an Englishman suffering from pneumonia, as Rigobello told me following a medical examination. Rigobello was doing his best to find someone who would take him in, but was having little success, as given the risk of nazi-fascist reprisals no one dared to have him in the house whilst he was still ill. (Rigobello organised the help given to the escapers in the Fiano area; author’s note).

I asked for some further information, and they told me that he and his companion Davide had slept for several nights out in the open under a bridge, whereas previously he had been in lodgings with a family but for some reason he had left, and therefore in inclement weather was forced to sleep under this bridge. Without saying more, thinking only of his own good, I took him in whatever it might have cost me.

With a bed belonging to an evacuee, and with my own mattress, best sheets and blankets, I made him comfortable. I sent for the doctor, who diagnosed pneumonia and neuritis and assured me of his continuing secret support. After about ten days the doctor declared that he was cured, so I informed the family in whose house he had been staying previously and they agreed to take him back… however they wanted from me the assurance that should he fall ill again they could send him back to me. I consented and gave them a small sum of money so that they would treat him better. Ari stayed with that family until he left for France, and before he left I wanted to prepare a little lunch for him and his companions. My reward was that he respected me.

March 1944

At 9pm the Englishman Ari showed up with some others including a sick South African named Gim. Immediately, without my husband’s knowledge, I invited them in. The doctor was sent for and found he was suffering from bronchial pneumonia. I tried to do everything the doctor advised, given that he was a very decent man who never wanted any money for his visits, neither for this Englishman nor for the previous one, offering his services for free. After the 7th day he (Gim) began to improve and as soon as he could he wanted to return to the partisans so as not to compromise the families who had helped him, preferring to live that life despite its discomforts. Rolandino, his commander, wanted to pay me, but I wanted nothing because I did it all for charity.
At this moment in time I would just like to have some news of these fine youngsters, and I think their families will be happy with the treatment I gave their sons when the situation was critical for them and no one was prepared to risk having them in the house.

Family links

In December 1945, Maria received a letter from Diana Brooks, Gim’s mother, thanking her for her kindness, telling her he had crossed into France and arrived home safely. Mrs Brooks ended her letter with these words: I can never thank you enough for what you have done for our youngsters and I am sure God will bless you.

Maria supported another claim submitted by a relative who had helped 4123072 Lance Corporal Robert Heath, Cheshire Regiment. In this submission she gives the name of the doctor:

At 11 in the morning I heard the doorbell ring, I answered the door and saw Pietro Colombatto of Grange di Nole beside himself with worry, and so I asked him what had happened. “I don’t know who to turn to,” he told me, “I’ve had an Englishman in bed in my house for seven weeks, I’ve already had the village nurse come several times, but he’s not available at the moment. The Englishman is reduced to a living skeleton, it pains me to see him.” I recommended him to go to the doctor in Fiano, Alessandro Massocco, who had already healed and treated many of these prisoners in secret, saying he would not refuse to come. Pietro Colombatto went to Dott. Massocco’s and the latter told him that he was out of fuel and it was too far to walk. Pietro came back to my house and my husband Francesco Dollean gave him some petrol, and so we and Pietro accompanied the doctor to the sick man. The doctor healed him within a little over a week. Everyone was happy, and celebrated the fact that the Englishman had got better, and I was happy to have done my bit towards his recovery.

Jane Bradburn with Maria Colombatto
Jane Bradburn with Maria Colombatto

The link between the helped and the helpers in the Fiano area has been re-established. Jane Bradburn, the daughter of Kenneth Bailey, has been visiting the village of Varisella for 20 years. She has walked the route successfully taken by her father to France in the autumn of 1944. The photo shows her with Maria Colambatto, who died in 2003.

* There were two types of war cemetery in Italy.
1. Battlefield cemeteries. The men were buried near to where they had fallen or were brought in from a short distance away. They weren’t “concentrated” from further afield.
2. Cemeteries set up on land given to the Commission by the local community into which cas-ualties were “concentrated” from a wide area.