The Trust was delighted to welcome representatives of many generations and nationalities among the 69 guests at the annual Fontanellato/MSMT luncheon at the Royal Overseas Club on 3 November 2009.
Eight ex-PoWs in Italy formed the centrepiece of our celebrations. In addition to the sons and daughters of escapers, grandchildren were also present, carrying enthusiasm for the work of the Trust into the younger generations. Among the younger participants was Riccardo Antonel, an Italian student in London on a Trust bursary; his family helped the father of former trustee Steve Sims after his escape from captivity.
Among the guests were Minister Giovanni Brauzzi, representing the Italian Embassy as well as his home village in the Rossano area which was instrumental in helping escapers, and Lt. Col. Jeff Price, Assistant Military Attaché at the American Embassy. The assistance of our American Allies should not be forgotten when we are looking at the history of partisan activity and allied escapes in 1943.
Our guest speaker was Rob Hann, whose book, SAS Operation Gallia, tells the story of his father, Stanley Hann. Stanley was among the 33 SAS troops parachuted into the Rossano valley in an attempt to deceive enemy forces into believing that a full parachute brigade of 400 men had landed. Stanley’s widow, Mrs Lillian Hann, and Mrs Winnie Church, the widow of Jimmy Church, who was on the mission, were also present at the lunch.
Finally, Brian Lett spoke about the highly successful Freedom Trail undertaken in September 2009 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Trust (see pages 3 and 4). Photographs and a slide show gave us glimpses of the effort that put in by all the walkers, as well as the wonderful country through which they had walked, the moving ceremonies, and all the fun enjoyed along the way.
The Rev. Bill Bowder said Grace and Major Maurice Goddard proposed the Toast to the Italian people.
Below is an edited version of Rob Hann’s address.
“Like the vast majority of people present, I too am the son of an escaper who was aided by the Italian people. My dad, Stanley Hann, along with 27 or so other SAS troops, was parachuted into the Rossano valley, northern Italy, two days after Christmas 1944, in order to attack German lines of communications and work with Italian partisans in the area. The parachute drop, carried out in daylight, was intended to deceive the enemy into believing that a full brigade of 400 men had landed behind them.
After fighting a 9-week guerrilla war in the most atrocious conditions, with no winter camouflage but instead wearing khaki jump suits and hob-nailed boots, they escaped over the marble mountains of Carrara with the help of Italians.
My book, Operation Gallia (a fictionalised account written from the perspective of one of the parachutists) attempts to tell the story of the mission and includes the story of what happened to one of the unlucky SAS men who was among a group captured by the Fascists on New Year’s Day 1945.
This is the story of Jimmy Church, who told it to me the day after my own father’s funeral. I had known Jimmy all my life and knew nothing about Galia then. I listened in stunned silence.
He explained what he and my Dad had been up to all those years ago and how he had been captured and how, as a PoW, he was interrogated, put against a wall, blindfolded and asked this question repeatedly as the firing squad took aim: ‘How many, how many?’ – meaning how many paratroopers were there in the mountains. Jimmy said that he and his fellow SAS only gave one answer. ‘We told ‘em there are thousands of us… and thousands more to come!’
Mock executions became almost commonplace and after a while the bluff lost its edge although, as Jimmy said, you never knew for sure when it would be your turn. ‘The Poles, Russians and Czechs – they never came back.’
Today, for the first time, I have met Brian Lett [former Monte San Martino Trust chairman and leader of the Rossano Freedom Trail march in 2009], whose father Gordon was the leader of the International Brigade of Partisans in the Rossano Valley. Brian and I discovered our Dads shared a special bond, the pair being part of a small group who were surrounded and cut off in an isolated mountain village called Sero by the enemy forces scouring the mountains for the men of Galia and anyone who had helped them. They only survived by the skin of their teeth, taking prisoners as they made their escape.
I have had the great fortune to meet Ted Robinson, a Wireless Operator, 3rd Squadron, 2nd SAS and one of the Galia squad, who unfortunately was not able to be with us at the lunch today. It is fitting that his words are the final words in my book and today:
‘It has stirred many emotions to reminisce about events all those years ago. Companionship and friendships were forged between the SAS and the true partisans, which were essential to our survival.
“I would particularly like to thank the people of the villages of Rossano and Buzzo, and especially the two brave young women of Buzzo who brought cooked food – my first-ever proper minestrone – to our hideaway when the Alpini troops were hot on our heels, moving like strings of pearl through the snowy mountains.’
I would like to close by thanking the Trust and Brian Lett for all you have done for me. I am sure the Trust will continue its fine work for many years to come.”