DAVID READ tells the story of how an Italian family sheltered his father Dennis… and he reveals a fascinating connection with the founder of the Monte San Martino Trust
My father Dennis Read is ninety-three years old and lives a quiet life in North Somerset. In 1943, he was the radio operator on H.M submarine Saracen. Saracen often launched operatives on to the coasts of Corsica and Sardinia.
One such operative was Keith Killby, the founder of MSMT. My father was on the conning tower when Mr Killby and his party, who had been picked up in Algiers, were launched; Dennis’s job was to signal a safe landing.
Saracen was sunk on 14 August 1943 off Corsica, badly damaged by depth charges. The surviving crew, after some hours, were picked up and eventually they found themselves in the small PoW camp of Manziana, by Lago di Bracciano, north of Rome.
After the Armistice the crew fled, splitting up into groups of four. Early on the morning of 12 September 1943, my father descended a ravine alone, advising the others to move on if he had not returned within twelve hours. On his descent he encountered a German patrol and was forced to hide in a cave until nightfall. Emerging from the cave he met a goatherd called Eugenio Darrida and spent the next four months in his company, learning Italian and helping to look after the goats. This disguise proved invaluable on one occasion when, rounding a bend in the road, he met a large German patrol and was able to walk straight through it, carrying his hoe and muttering in Italian.
In January 1944, my father bade farewell to Eugenio and walked towards the Sabine Hills. Arriving in the small town of Selci, a farmer advised that a lady at Villa Vallerosa in Selci would help. My father knocked on the door of the imposing villa and met Signora Anna Maria Barreca. Anna Maria allowed my father to visit the villa frequently while mainly living in the hills above. He built a strong friendship with Signora Barreca, her husband – a retired colonel who led the local partisans – her son Ferruccio and her daughter Elena.
On one of his frequent attempts to reach the allies further south my father found himself caught in a rastrellamento (round-up) around a small town. He was frequently shot at but escaped and returned to Selci with a fever and suffering from exhaustion. Anna Maria nursed him back to health at the villa.
In early June 1944, my father made it to the allied lines. The next day he led an army truck up the drive of Villa Vallerosa to personally liberate the family on what was an extremely emotional day. He stayed on in Selci at the request of the allied military government for a couple of weeks to help with the administration, as by then he was fluent in Italian. He left for England at the end of the month.
For the next eighteen years my father corresponded with Anna Maria and Ferruccio, the last letter reaching him in Kenya in 1962, by which time Dennis had left the Navy and was serving with the British Army. Post-war Italy had been hard for Anna Maria, Colonel Barreca having died in late 1944. She was forced to sell off land and finally her beloved villa. She eventually moved to Sardinia with Ferruccio who became a professor of archaeology. We later learned that Anna Maria passed away in 1982 and Ferruccio shortly afterwards.
Fast forward to May 2010 and I am standing in the upstairs bedroom of the restored Villa Vallerosa in which Anna Maria Barreca nursed my father back to health sixty-six years earlier. I am not alone: with me are Riccardo and Alfredo, the grandchildren of Anna Maria, and their families. Riccardo now has all the letters his grandmother sent to my father.
And in another completing of a circle, in 2010, at the annual lunch of the Monte San Martino Trust, I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Killby, sixty-seven years after he left Saracen to row ashore on the Sardinian coast. Both these happenings – the reunion with the Barreca family and getting to know a man who was so long ago connected with my father’s adventures – have been both heart-warming and of great interest from the point of view of our family’s history.
My father was awarded the D.S.M for his services on Saracen but he never forgot the bravery of Eugenio Darrida and the Barreca family – and that of so many other Italian families who risked their lives to help those on the run in Italy.
David Read, March 2011