From 7th-9th September, 2018, 90 supporters of the Monte San Martino Trust gathered in Fontanellato, at the invitation of the Mayor, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Armistice and the escape of prisoners of war into the Italian countryside. John Simkins reports on a magnificent weekend – but one tinged with sadness. Photos by Ibrahim Malla.
Friday, 7th September: It is 6pm and supporters are assembling at the Ghiacciaia, where historically the town stored ice, to register. Our party of 90 includes members from the USA, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as from the UK. The weekend programme has been devised by Fontanellato, with Francesco Trivelloni, the Mayor and a former MSMT student, and Barbara Zambrelli, the town’s Culture Assessore, to the fore. As events prove, it is a splendid programme and we owe them a huge debt of thanks.
Already on Friday afternoon, there has been a conference, held at the majestic Rocca San Vitale, featuring various talks. One, on escapes, is by Prof. Marco Minardi of the Historical Institute at Parma, and another, on the bravery of the contadini who hid PoWs, by Eugenio Corbino of the Tuscany Historical Institute. A third talk, given by Shaun Hullis of St. Benedict’s School, London, tells the story of tunnelling out of the PoW camp at Veano.
Dinner at the Ghicciaia is the first of three sit-down meals that Fontanellato will provide, all of them delicious. The wine and chat are flowing freely, as members get to know each other. Also present – to mutual and pleasant surprise – is a seven-strong party from Wells in Somerset, which has also chosen this weekend to visit. There was an Italian PoW camp at Wells, which is Fontanellato’s twin town.
During dinner we espy two athletic New Zealanders who look as if they have been on a long mountain bike ride. They have indeed. Angus Henderson and Quinton Moss have just completed a ride of 1,000 km. from Fontanellato to Isernia, in the Molise region, in 28 days. This monumental achievement by the two Kiwis requires our full attention so we get Angus to address us at the end of dinner. He explains that they had retraced the escape to Allied Lines by Angus’s grandfather, Major George Norman Girling (known as Norman), of the Green Howards, and three companions in 1943. The four men took 53 days on foot and would not have succeeded if they had not been fed and sheltered by the contadini. Quinton’s uncle, Private Charles Moss, was killed at Faenza and is interred at Forli war cemetery. (See pdf below to read more).
The evening is far from finished. We then walk to Fontanellato’s charming theatre for a spectacular concert of arias by Verdi and others performed by a brass quintet from Parma Brass, with the soprano Daniela Zerbinati and tenor Luca Bodini. On a balmy evening, with the doors open and the voices of passing citizens in the background, it is Italy at its most charming.
But at the end of the concert, the mood suddenly changes. Nick Young, the Trust’s chairman, comes on stage to announce that he has heard that Keith Killby, MSMT’s founder, had died that very evening in his London home, aged 102. In fact, as we learn from Letitia Blake, Trust secretary, who had stayed in London to look after Keith, he died immediately after we had raised Three Cheers to him at dinner, and he had been aware of the affection to him emanating from Fontanellato. It is a poignant moment, but somehow appropriate that Keith’s passing should coincide with such an important event – one that would not have taken place had he not founded the Trust.
Saturday 8th September: We assemble at the Ghiacciaia and go by bus to Podere Roveto, near the Bund, or canal ditch, where the 600 PoWs hid for the first couple of days after marching out of Camp PG49 at Fontanellato. The Italian commandant, Eugenio Vicedomini, after doing a recce of the Bund with Col. Hugo de Burgh, the senior British officer, ordered the wires to be cut and advised the prisoners to leave before the Germans arrived. In doing so, they were ignoring orders from London to stay put, but de Burgh concluded that the order was out of date as the Allied forces were held up in south Italy by stiff German resistance. The prisoners marched out in German formation, to deceive aircraft spotters, and hid in the undergrowth. Escorted by Prof Minardi, we walk along the Bund and then to Soragna, stopping at different points to hear readings from extracts of prisoners’ diaries. One is from Col. Dennis Gibbs, who accompanied George Girling on his trek and who was later to describe their route in Appenine Journey.
We are joined at Soragna by those who had not wished to walk, and tour Soragna Castle, still owned by the Princes of Soragna. Prince Diofebo Meli Lupi joins us for a group photo. Nearby we survey a bullet-ridden wall where partisans were shot dead. A picnic is served, carefully chosen to include the food that the prisoners would have come across in the countryside in September.
Back in Fontanellato for a brief rest, and then it is time for a tour of Rocca San Vitale, and dinner in the castle courtyard.
Sunday September 9th: This is the day of the formal ceremony. But well before that takes place in the courtyard of Cardinal Ferrari Centre, the former Camp PG49, we line up outside the Rocca at 9.30 and march in procession behind an excellent band to the Santuario for Mass. We are led by Mayor Trivelloni, Nick Young and Hugo de Burgh, the son of Col. de Burgh.
The basilica is already full when we arrive towards the end of Mass, as planned, and including us the congregation numbers about 1,000. The Prior makes a welcome address to us; two of our number, Hugo de Burgh and Karen Grigor, from Vancouver, read prayers in English.
By now it is about 11.00 and we walk the few hundred yards along the road to ex-Camp PG49 where, under a blazing sun, we listen to two extracts from prisoner diaries, read by Christine English and John Simkins, and speeches by Mayor Trivelloni and Nick Young, who presents a plaque. Nick reads out messages from the British and Italian ambassadors, Keith Killby, and the Escape Lines Memorial Society. The Mayor makes a point of welcoming those present who are descended from Italian protectors. In the same vein, a message thanking the contadini is read on behalf of 98-year-old Frank Unwin, the oldest surviving PoW in the Trust’s membership. Frank, who was imprisoned at Laterina, has “tunnelled out” of hospital more times than he can remember to participate in events such as this. He has defied increasing immobility to travel to Fontanellato with his son, daughter and daughter-in-law.
Lunch is taken at the back of the Centre, under cover from the sun. As it nears its end, we are treated to a fascinating talk by Brian Lett, former chairman of the Trust, about his research among documents of the Allied Screening Commission, which was set up after the war to identify Italians who had helped prisoners on the run. He reminds us firmly how much they had to lose if caught: if they had assisted PoWs they were offered immediate freedom if they gave information. Otherwise they were likely to be tortured and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp.
Among 62,000 helper families in Italy, only 149 people were awarded medals. Britain refused permission in 1947 for them to be presented but Brian has had replicas made as a private initiative. He had hoped to present a replica of the King’s Medal to a niece of Doctor Giuseppe Sambataro, of Fontanellato, but as she was unable to attend he presents it instead to the Fontanellato council. Dr. Sambataro used an ambulance to take prisoners to safety but was arrested in December 1944 and imprisoned until the Allies liberated the area.
Back again at the Rocca, we attend a presentation of a book about Wanda Newby Skof, who met the author Eric Newby after his escape from Fontanellato and later married him. It has been written by Graziella Buccellati, who was taught by Wanda as a young girl, and is entitled Nascere in Slovenia, vivere a Fontanellato 1922-1945.
Last, but not least, Giuseppe Millozzi, the son of the Trust’s representative in Italy, shows the film Four Officers in Garulla, an account of how MSMT supporter David Lax returned to the village in the Marche where his father had been hidden.
The events at an end, many of use relax in the evening sun in bars outside the Rocca. All in all, a remarkable weekend.
Read more, below, about the 1,000 km mountain bike ride undertaken by Angus Henderson and Quinton Moss