Where Great-grandfather trod

As reported in the Monte San Martino newsletter in spring 2008, Pippa Wentzel, a pupil of Benenden School, planned that summer to retrace the escape of her great-grandfather, Brigadier George Younghusband, from an Italian prisoner of war camp to Switzerland after the Armistice in September 1943. Armed with his diaries, and after researching the National Archives at Kew, Pippa carried out her intention, along with two companions, Hattie Gough and Frances Howe. Below, she reports on a successful and uplifting journey, during which she was able to thank descendants of those who had helped her great-grandfather.

Pippa, Hattie and Frances also raised the magnificent sum of £4,328 in sponsorship for the Monte San Martino Trust, for which the Trust is enormously grateful.

“We began our trip in Piacenza, near Milan, in the hope that we would be able to locate Camp 29 where my great-grandfather had been held at the time of the Italian capitulation in October 1942. On our first full day we set off into the hills armed with a map and a very poor grasp of Italian, looking for the tiny village of Veano where we knew the camp had been.

The countryside was beautiful but the sun merciless as we embarked on what we feared might be a wild-goose chase; after all, we were not even sure the camp still existed, or that we would be able to identify it. After several hours, however, we arrived, and quickly made for the most imposing building in the village.

Just as we were giving up hope of knowing for certain that the building was the one we sought, an elderly Italian emerged on a motorbike. We eagerly flagged him down and, despite our linguistic shortcomings, managed to gain confirmation that the ‑ rather beautiful – building had indeed been first a monastery, then a prisoner of war camp. He even offered to show us around the inside of the building, and he pointed out the places where escape attempts had been made, and where the captives would have slept and eaten.

The next day we took an early train for Lake Como, and from there we travelled by boat to Moltrasio, the small fishing town further down the lake, where George Younghusband had been met by his guides and taken over Mount Bisbino. The village really was extraordinary and seemed simply to grow out of the steep mountain which plunged directly into the water. Due to its narrow streets and sharp angles no cars could enter the village, meaning that the place can’t have changed much since 1943. The following morning we had the unusual experience of being welcomed to Moltrasio officially by the local authorities including the mayor, the British Consul from Milan and even the local press. It was certainly exciting to see our story in print the next day!

The Moltrasian community had been hugely active in organising the passage of Allied servicemen over the mountain and into Switzerland during the war, despite the seriousness of the risk. I don’t think we had quite realised before this event the depth of local feeling surrounding the war and the resistance to the Germans.

The fact that we were taking an interest in the role of the community clearly meant a great deal and we were showered with presents and mementos from Moltrasio. A surprisingly large number of locals came to meet us, and all of them wanted to thank us for coming back after all these years, while of course we were the ones who needed to be thanking them!

The nephew of the guide who had led George Younghusband over the mountain was also present and we were glad to have the opportunity to express our gratitude. Later that day we learned that the guide, Signor Del Vecchio, had actually been shot by Fascists in 1945 for helping people in the same situation as my great-grandfather, which made the whole experience far more poignant.

That afternoon, we set off for the mountain refuge where we believe, judging by his diaries, that George Younghusband stayed the night before crossing the border. The next morning we were introduced to three men who were old hands at crossing the border into Switzerland – the eldest was 84 years old – who had kindly volunteered to show us the path. Every now and then one of them would stop and point to the ground saying ‘Bisnonno, ecco’ (‘Great-grandfather, here’ – indicating that he would almost certainly have trod exactly the same path as we were taking. The rusty remains of the border fence were still there and the guides explained that there would have been soldiers stationed along it, making the crossing both difficult and dangerous.

Once in Switzerland we made our way to Chiasso, a fairly large Swiss city near the Italian border, where we stayed the night before heading back to Milan the next morning for our flight.

The visit was a greater success than any of us could have expected, and really confirmed the importance of the work of the Monte San Martino Trust. We saw how important the community’s wartime experiences still are to it, and realised what a debt of gratitude we still owe to the countless ordinary Italians who so selflessly helped those like my great-grandfather, despite all the risks and dangers.”

Below: Pippa Wentzel (centre) with Hattie Gough (wearing cap) and Frances Howes, pictured with the men who guided them over the mountains into Switzerland in the footsteps of Pippa’s great-grandfather, George Younghusband