My Dad and three brave Italians: Leslie Young

Nicholas Young, the Trust’s chairman, tells how, in 2010, 66 years after the event, he discovered the real circumstances of his father’s final dash for freedom.

I have known the story of how my father, Major Leslie Young, escaped from Fontanellato for 20 years or more: like so many of “the originals”, he said little about the adventures he had during his lifetime, so it fell to me to try and piece the story together after his death. He left me a small notebook, with a few faint pencil scribbles about life in the camp and on the run, and I have deciphered his dreadful handwriting sufficiently to be able to pass the story of his bravery, and that of the contadini who helped him, on to my own children. Inevitably, though, there are gaps in the story, events I don’t understand or can’t explain – and then I sit and wish he was still here, or that I had asked him when he was still alive.

One such mystery surrounded the final part of his escape. He was travelling with a chirpy New Zealander called Charlie Gatenby, as they waded through deep snowdrifts in the Apennines in January 1944 towards the Allied lines at Anzio. After holing up in a village called Corvaro for Christmas, they were desperate to complete the last stretch of the journey, but were clearly unsure which way to go and how to negotiate the German patrols and minefields.

Dad’s diary says only that they met up with two Italians, a brother and sister, and that together they decided to try and make it through. Later, I discovered (from Charlie’s daughter) that the sister was called Silvia Elfer, and that there had been a third Italian member of the party, Count Carlo Tervini, who claimed to be working as a British agent. They had a terrible time – in freezing rain and snow, a German machine gun post caught them as they crawled through a German minefield, and the count was hit and apparently killed. They crawled on and, as they reached the end of an American minefield, they were fired on again, and Silvia was hit in the throat. Somehow, Dad and Charlie (who was also hit) made themselves heard. The shooting stopped, and Silvia and Charlie were rushed to an American hospital unit – where tragically Silvia died.

Sixty-six years later, I’m sitting at my desk one Sunday afternoon, and I idly Google the name Silvia Elfer. In a couple of seconds, up comes a letter, written by an American called Don in [Virginia] 10 years ago to an Italian newspaper, asking for help in tracking down what happened to his brave cousins Silvia and Eugenio Elfer, who died in 1944 helping Allied soldiers escape. I banged off an email – back it came undelivered. I wrote to the address, asking if my letter could be passed on – and four days later Don himself wrote. Pictures followed, and family stories, accounts that showed me all too clearly how these two brave young Italians and their friend the count had put their lives on the line for an English soldier they had bumped into by chance a few days earlier.

Charlie Gatenby’s widow is still alive, so I sent the pictures to her and her daughter – and now there are three of us in three different continents piecing together the truth of what happened on that bleak night in Italy 66 years ago.

Silvia and Eugenio Elfer are buried in the Jewish section of the Verano Cemetery in Rome, their bodies recovered after the war by a grieving mother. The next stop on my personal voyage round my father will to be to visit them there: I owe them my own life too, after all.