The bravery of Virgilio Panozzo in hiding PoWs proved eventually to be his passport to a new life after the second world war in Australia. Here he tells his story. See also in the Escapes Section the story by his wife, Floriana Betello-Panozzo. It is entitled Growing up in wartime Italy.
Towards the end of 1943, German cars with soldiers aboard were making daily visits to the hills surrounding the area of Tresche’ Conca, a little town on the plateau of Asiago, in the province of Vicenza. They surveyed the hills facing the plains of the Po valley.
One day I decided to find out what they were doing. (It was only years later that we found out that they were the “Geologists of Himmler” and that they had been preparing the construction of a new line of defence, called the “Blau Linie”, as the last bastion in case the Gothic Line collapsed).
I put on my skis and left home in the direction of Monte Cengio, via Val di Gievano and a little hill known as Forcella, so as not to encroach on the Germans’ route. On the way up to the Forcella I went past a deep depression, at the bottom of which was a dilapidated cowshed with dry stone walls and a rusty metal roof.
I knew the area well from minding my family’s herd in the valley during the summer and was surprised to see four young men sitting in the sun, reading.
After 8th September (the Italian Armistice) even the mountains of Asiago had become the place of abode for young people who refused to listen to the serenading of the Fascists and the Germans, inviting them to join the new army (of the Republic of Salo`) and continue the fight against the Allies advancing from the south. They became the backbone of the partisans.
I approached the young men with a “Buon Giorno”. One of them replied, and his accent told me they were strangers. I asked where they had come from. The answer was “Milano” in a clear English accent. That confirmed what I had suspected.
I assured them that I would not do anything against them and attempted a bit of conversation in English. I soon realised that my English was just as good as their Italian. I knew my grammar but I needed practice. We still managed to get by.
They told me the bit of their story they could tell me: they were British soldiers taken prisoners in north Africa and interned in a camp near Verona. They had escaped after 8th September and had been moving around the countryside, assisted by many “unknown” helpers. No names were divulged in those days. They had left their last hiding place only a few days earlier to avoid being caught by the Fascists or the Germans and had lost contact with their benefactors.
Their supplies were running short and they were considering a visit to the nearest town after investigating whether there was any danger of being caught. Two were English: Pat, from Plymouth, and Norman, from Hull; and two were New Zealanders, Richard and Lloyd, the latter part-Maori, from the North island.
I promised to assist them. I would return as soon as possible with fresh supplies, possibly the same evening after dark. We selected a password and parted.
My parents agreed it was our duty to help those men: they were people caught by events which had nothing to do with them personally and had mothers or wives to return to once the war was over. My older brother, Carlo, had not arrived home after 8th September and was still in south Italy. Maybe somebody was looking after him just as we intended to do with these four soldiers. Food was then scarce and controlled but we decided that we would help just the same.
That evening I returned fully loaded with supplies. When I called out the password, under the light of the moon on the snow I saw shadows running in all directions. I repeated my call and they all came back, albeit one by one and at intervals.
The evening was spent talking about our families and the war in front of the fire. It was about two o’clock when I set off home and that pattern was repeated for the rest of the month. After a couple of weeks I moved the escapees to a new site further away from town to avoid them becoming too conspicuous.
The routine was: leave home at around 8pm and return home after 3am. At least three hours were spent on a dangerous track between the open trenches of the first world war and the cliffs of the Valdassa.
Our relatives and neighbours were happy to contribute as much food as they could. The Germans did not have any friends in my town.
At the end of April 1944, the soldiers left the area together with a group of partisans to avoid the raids being carried out by the Fascists and the Germans. They left me a letter in which they stated their names, their addresses, their army particulars and what I had done for them, and recommended I should present it to the Allied authorities. put the letter in a small bottle, sealed it with wax and buried it under the stone step leading from the courtyard to our vegetable garden.
Since I was still a minor (I turned 17 four days after meeting Norman and his companions) I had no obligation to join the army and was free to move around. With caution, however, because the Germans knew that the partisans were using boys and girls as couriers.
Some time after the escapees’ departure, I heard a whisper that somebody intended to report my activities to the Germans. To avoid harassment of my family, I left home and joined the group of partisans that I had helped to set up a few months earlier and stayed with them until the end of the war.
The person in question never carried out his threat as he met an early fate while investigating the rumours about the English prisoners. He had had two Australian prisoners recaptured in November 1943 but this time luck was not on his side.
In September 1944, I met members of the English mission code-named “Fluvius”, who had been parachuted into the area in August to organise partisans for the final push programmed for September. Major John Wilkinson (Freccia ) was its head; the other English members were Lieutenant Christopher Woods (Colombo) and Corporal Douglas Archibald (Arci).
At the end of the war, I presented my letter to the American governor in Vicenza.
At the same time I wrote to my old friends and within a short time I received their reply: Norman, Pat and Richard had returned home, but Lloyd had been killed by the Germans in August 1944 while trying to get into Switzerland.
In October 1946, I received a letter from the English authorities requesting me to attend a meeting in the town hall of Asiago on 2nd December: an officer of the British army would issue a certificate and some money to the people who had helped British prisoners.
The captain who presided said the document we were receiving would be a safe conduct in case we decided to move to any country of the British Commonwealth. With the money I was able to resume my studies and gain admission to the University of Padua.
Virgilio’s memoir goes on to recount how, in 1956, he emigrated to Australia to join his girlfriend, Floriana. In Adelaide, he passed a test to work as a draughtsman at the office of the Architect-in-Chief but there were delays in confirming the appointment. His money running short, he managed to snatch a meeting with the Minister of Works.
Virgilio continues: “I decided to make use of the promise in Asiago and produced the document handed to me by the English captain. After a quick look, the minister stood up and saluted me militarily and then walked around the desk stretching his hand: he embraced me, showing clear signs of emotion. He soon recomposed himself and justified his emotion by saying that he had been a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese but that he had not found a Good Samaritan.”
Virgilio’s appointment was soon confirmed. He then married Floriana and together they have three children. He qualified as an architect, retiring in 1987. He and Floriana still live in Adelaide, though their daughter Cathy lives in Italy. Our thanks go to Cathy’s friend, Andrea Maiolla ,for bringing Virgilio’s story to our attention.
Virgilio concludes by writing: “Soon after my retirement I travelled to Italy. When I visited the site of the refuge of the four escapees the only things still visible were the pavement of the stable and the hearth of the old fireplace. All the stones of the old building had been used in the walls of a new holiday home built only a few metres away.”