The Trust is used to assisting individuals researching their relatives’ time in Italy during the second world war, but the ceremony that took place on 10th May 2014 in the small hilltop town of Montelparo, in the Marche, east Italy, was perhaps extra special.
It arose from research prompted by the Freedom Trail in the same Tenna Valley region in September 2013, when the walkers came across a small iron cross said to mark the spot at which a certain “Giorgio” had been killed. Anne Copley, who is a member of the WW11 Escape Lines Memorial Society as well as of MSMT, took up the challenge of investigating further. With the invaluable assistance of Dennis Hill of Indiana University (http://camp59survivors.wordpress.com/) and British researcher Brian Sims, the whole story has been revealed. In parallel, Roger Stanton, director of ELMS, also worked on the story.We now know that “Giorgio” was in fact Signalman Sidney Seymour Smith, captured at the fall of Tobruk and imprisoned at Camp 53 Sforzacosta. How and when he escaped is unclear, but by November 1943 he was hiding at the house of the Mazzoni family, just outside Montelparo. The War Crimes file at the National Archives contains witness statements from the Mazzoni and Viozzi families (among others), from which the story of his murder by the S.S. can be pieced together.
Sidney came from Old Kilpatrick, near Glasgow, and was a clever and studious boy, having studied geography and philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His parents (his father was a plumber) were clearly proud of his achievement, as evidenced in the recital on his war grave at Coriano Ridge Cemetery, which includes a reference to his Masters degree.
In cooperation with the authorities of Montelparo, and its mayor, Marino Screpanti, on the opposite side of the lane from the old iron cross, a memorial stone has been placed holding a plaque giving brief details of the events that unfolded on 21st March 1944.
The unveiling ceremony on 10th May was preceded by a marvellous lunch, in a beautifully cool crypt, laid on by Montelparo Comune for at least 70 people. They included many local Italian residents, about 16 students from a school in San Benedetto, and walkers on the 2014 Tenna Valley Freedom Trail, which took place from 7th -12th May. The lunch was greatly welcomed by the latter two groups in particular after a strenuous uphill walk to Montelparo.
The guests included Raimondo Illuminati, who was a seven-year-old pupil at Montelparo Primary School in 1943, to whose class Sidney would read stories in Italian. Also present were Palmino Viozzi, 12 years old at the time, who witnessed some of the events leading up to Sidney’s murder, and Lt Col Peter Stoddart of the Royal Signals, who had driven up from NATO offices near Rome to assist in the unveiling of this monument to one of his own.After lunch, Raimondo gave a very moving account of his memories of Sydney, who was about 6ft tall. “He was friendly and kind, always smiling. We were very fond of him and always behaved well when he read to us. He spoke Italian and was different from some of the other prisoners of war because he was a graduate. He himself had chosen the name ‘Giorgio’ for when he was in hiding.”
Palmino (whose sister gave evidence to the subsequent War Crimes investigation and whose statement still lies in the National Archives), then told us of the events leading up to Sidney’s death.
It appears that two Germans appeared at the farm where Sidney was staying and took him away. One German left to go to another farm to collect another PoW. Sidney and his captor then stopped at the Viozzi farm nearby and Palmino witnessed Sidney asking for water. A jug was brought to him and, after taking a couple of gulps, he turned and hit his captor over the head with the jug. A struggle ensued but unfortunately Sidney was overpowered and on the return of the other German (the other PoW having escaped out of a window) he was led up the road leading to Montelparo.Palmino did not see what happened next but other witness statements on file show that they were met on the road by a band of about six Germans (probably from the S.S. Brandenberg Division). On hearing that Sidney had attacked one of his captors they started to beat him. When he fell to the ground he was shot several times and his body was left on the road.
Palmino and his father went up a few hours later and saw Sidney’s body, which was given a post-mortem by a local doctor and then buried with due ceremony in the Montelparo cemetery. (The body was moved to Coriano Ridge war grave later.) Raimondo recalled that all the schoolchildren followed the procession to the cemetery. Both the Viozzi and the Mazzoni families were lucky to escape the usual fate of those who assisted Allied PoWs, namely the burning down of their homes and outbuildings.
Very moved by the warm and emotional recollections of Sidney offered by the local Italians, everybody walked for 15 minutes out of town to the site of the memorial. The mayor said that, although until recently his real identity had not been known, the people of Montelparo had never forgotten Sidney. They had kept fresh flowers at the site and always made the sign of the cross when passing it.
Geoff Cowling, chairman of ELMS, read out a letter from Keith Brown, MSP, Minister for Transport and Veterans in the Scottish Government, registering his pleasure that the Glaswegian soldier was being honoured. He said: “The unveiling is a wonderful gesture that will put in place a lasting tribute telling the story of this brave Scot and the Italian families who gave him sanctuary.”
Anne Copley then gave an account of her research into Sidney’s background and family. He only had one sister, who never married, and so far no living descendants have been found, although publicity has been given by Glasgow University and the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/memorial-to-honour-scottish-pow-shot-by-ss-70-years-on-later.23652981. With no family of his own, it is all the more poignant that his memory has been kept alive by Italians with whom he shared only a short few months of his life.
The “Silenzio” (Italian version of the Last Post) was played and a wreath was laid by Cristina Franca on behalf of the Comune of Montelparo. Cristina and her mother and grandmother before her have been responsible for the flowers at the site for many years – remembering, too, Cristina’s great-uncle, Giuseppe Biribei, who died a PoW in Germany on 5th April 1945 and is buried at the Italian war graves cemetery in Hamburg.
Wreaths were also laid by Steve Sims on behalf of MSMT, Mike Davidson for ELMS, Lt Col Stoddart on behalf of the Royal Signals and Roger Stanton on behalf of the Royal Signals Association. Roger read the Ode of Remembrance.
Nearby, the little church of Santa Maria, dating from the 16th century, had been opened especially and filled with fresh flowers. It offered a fitting opportunity for a few minutes peaceful reflection after a very emotional day.
The wording on the plaque (in English and Italian) is: “On this spot on 21st March 1944 2372205 Signalman Sidney Seymour Smith, Royal Corps of Signals, aged 34, known as “Giorgio”, was shot by the Nazifascisti. He had been sheltered by the family of Giuseppe Mazzoni from November 1943 until his death. This stone is to commemorate him and all Allied PoW Escapers who passed through Italy 1943-44, together with the Italians who, despite the danger and sacrifice, sheltered, fed and clothed them. Your children and grandchildren honour your memory.”
A video of the event, filmed by Nick Forestier Walker, who lives in Montelparo, is on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfAZy2J-RPI
Update: In November 2014 a cross was laid at the memorial by the descendants of Sydney Swingler, an escaped prisoner from Sforzacosta who was known as “Antonio” by Gino Antognozzi, who hid him at Montelparo. It is clear from a recorded interview with Gino that “Giorgio” and “Antonio” were friends.