In July last year I blogged about a book by Eric Newby called A Small House in Italy. Newby was a British POW held in Italy in 1943 when during a brief armistice when Italy withdrew from the war and the Germans arrived in Italy in force, allied soldiers walked out of their camps and attempted to get either to Switzerland or more often to try to reach the Allied line in the South.
It is 70 years since the last British prisoner of war was helped by an Italian family to escape or more often sheltered to await the advancing troops. Winston Churchill wrote in his History of the Second World War ” “some 10,000POWs in German occupied Italy were fed, hidden, and guided by the Italian people,often the poorest from the Italian countryside. Many were shot for this great spontaneous gesture of humanity”.
Alexander Chancellor in his article in The Spectator describes the experiences of the late Liberal M.P. Mark Bonham Carter who walked 400 miles in 6 weeks to the Allied lines. He said he was lucky to have a pair of sturdy shoes and had two rules, never to walk on a road and never to stay anywhere more than one night. So for 42 nights he was put up by Italian families. His policy was to knock on the poorest looking house he came across. Large farms were owned by Fascists he reckoned. He was never turned away but it was normally the woman of the house who ensured he was invited in. Most had sons who had gone to war and were happy to help others in danger whatever their nationality.
The Italian family faced incredible dangers by doing so. Under a German proclamation, the same rule applied to the Italians as the rest of occupied Europe. For anyone caught assisting escaping or evading allied troops, the men would be shot, and the women and children sent to concentration camps. They forgot to add that they would be harshly interrogated and tortured first, their homes burnt to the ground and their livestock killed. The escaper could expect to return to a PoW camp.
It is estimated that 4 Italians died for every Allied PoW that made it to Switzerland or the Allied lines in the south.
In 1989 Keith Kilby a former British PoW who with some 2,000 other British prisoners escaped from a camp at Servigliano founded a charity to reward the descendants of the Italian peasants who did so much and risked so much to help the PoW escape.
He named it after an area near his camp called Monte San Martino .
The Trust awards English-language study bursaries to Italians, aged 18 to 25, in recognition of the courage and sacrifice of the Italian country people who rescued thousands of escaping Allied PoWs after the Armistice in 1943. The Trust is a registered charity, number 1113897, and is supported by PoWs, and the second and third generations of their families, many of whom research their ancestors’ stories and keep in touch with Italian families who gave refuge to the escapers.
The bursaries are usually granted for four weeks’ study at language schools in Oxford and London. The students come from schools in Italian regions where prisoners were on the run. The Trust relies entirely on donations to fund these bursaries.
It also supports Freedom Trail walks in Italy, the most recent of which took place in the Marche, eastern Italy, in May 2014. This followed a trail in the same Tenna Valley location in September 2013 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. Both trails were organised jointly with the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society. The Trust’s trails all run along routes taken by escaping prisoners aiming to reach Allied armies in south Italy, or neutral Switzerland.
There is also an annual Fontanellato luncheon, named after the PoW camp near Parma from where 600 officers escaped. In 2014 it will be held on November 22nd. MSMT issues an annual newsletter and its archive contains more than 300 books and manuscripts by those who were “on the run”. Keith Killby has received the awards of OBE and, from the Italian presidency, Cavaliere Ufficiale. Vanni Treves, chairman of the Trust’s Appeal, also received the award of Cavaliere Ufficiale, in 2014. Signor Antonio Millozzi, who has been the Trust’s organiser within Italy since MSMT was founded, was awarded an honorary MBE for services to charity in 2013.
As I said the Trust relies entirely on contributions and is at present holding a £1.4 Million fund raising campaign . They have reached £775,000 so far mainly from individual contributions, others trusts and big names like Rocco Forte the son of Charles Forte an Italian who came to Britain when he was 3. He hated it when Englishmen would talk about Italians as cowards and always held up, quite rightly, the Italians mostly the poorest and least able to help who bravely did so in 1943/4.
If you are someone living in Italy, planning to come to live in Italy, or just someone who loves the country and want to help you can donate by clicking here
This is Sir Nicholas Young, the Trust’s chairman’s story.
“Nearly 70 years ago, a young man came down a wooded hillside and into a clearing in N Italy. He had been a prisoner in Fontanellato Prison Camp, having been captured in N Africa in March 1943. He was on the run; this was his first night of freedom; he was looking for somewhere to hide. The camp had been cleared at the Armistice, after the Senior British Officer had disobeyed an order from London to stay put: he told the men to go before the camp was overrun by the Germans.
The man knocked at the door of a lonely farmhouse, was taken in and sheltered. This was the pattern of his life for the next 6 months, through the long bitter winter of 1943/44, when there was 7 ft snow on the ground. Meanwhile, the Germans were scouring the towns and villages, looking for escapers, so the man had to keep to the high ground. He had to rely entirely on the generosity of poor Italian farmers, the “contadini”: on the kindness of strangers who were risking their lives to help him and the other escapers, moving south towards the Allied lines.
The man was always on the move, occasionally meeting up with other escapers on the run, thousands of them, all in the same boat, all thinly disguised as Italians.
He developed pneumonia and had to spend over a month in a tiny shepherds’ hut in the mountains. A small boy brought him hot soup and food with his father, under the eyes of the Germans. Eventually, he was fit enough to move on. He met up with 3 partisans, Italian Jews, including a brother and sister. They guided him through the German lines, the minefields and up to the American lines. Shots rang out. The girl and her brother were killed.
The young man got through thank goodness.”