By Brian Gordon Lett
This was an event for walkers of all abilities, comprising a number of commemorative ceremonies, two warm up walking days, and then the escape route to the sea [Operation Essorbee].
In the summer of 1944, A Force [the organisation set up to extract escaped prisoners of war from Occupied Italy] planned to lift off as many ex-prisoners as possible from a quiet part of the coast line at the Cinque Terre north of La Spezia. A small Allied craft was to approach the appointed pick up point at dead of night, and, upon the receipt of the appointed signal, to collect some twenty or thirty men for evacuation. The coast of the Cinque Terre was heavily garrisoned, and it was always an ambitious plan, which depended entirely upon secrecy.
The operation was attempted twice. Each time, the escapers walked from Rossano, and arrived at the appointed spot only for the Royal Navy craft to be spotted by the shore batteries, and to be driven away by heavy defensive fire. The would-be escapers had to retreat as rapidly as they could back up the mountainside.
The assembly point for those who were to be evacuated was the valley of Rossano, my father’s base. From there, it was a two day hike to the coast, over the two mountain ranges that separate Rossano from the sea. The route finished with a sharp climb down to the sea, via perilously steep and narrow vineyard terraces. It was only safe to move in the dark.
Saturday 28th July 2007
We assembled for lunch at the Golf Hotel in Pontremoli, and at about 17.00 we drove up to the La Cisa pass for a short ceremony to commemorate two young members of 2 S.A.S. Operation Speedwell, who had been captured by German forces and illegally executed there by firing squad in 1943. Captain Patrick Dudgeon M.C. had been 23 years of age, his companion Gunner Bernard Brunt had been 21.
We were joined at the ceremony by a number of Italian veterans of the war of Liberation, and indeed it had been they who had erected the monument there, once I had identified the spot in 2004. An MSMT wreath was laid.
After the ceremony, we visited the tiny village of La Cisa, and met with Signora Molinari, who as the very young wife of the local restaurant owner had seen the two young soldiers after their capture in September 1943. We then adjourned to supper at a local restaurant, where the food was excellent, but the service exceedingly slow!
Sunday 29th July 2007
This was the first warm up day, designed to test the abilities of our novice walkers. The original idea was that we should start with a five hour walk from Arzelato to Rossano, via the old Tognarelli mill beneath Castoglio in the valley of Rossano, where much of the “action” had taken place in 1944 and 1945. However, the weather was extremely hot, and our guide, Giovanni Tognarelli, suggested that we swop around Days 1 and 2, in order that we could benefit from a few hours in the cool of the bottom of the Rossano valley. Thus we started with a rather harder [albeit cooler] walking day than intended.
We began with a visit to [and for the braver ones of our party a climb up] the bell tower of the small church at Arzelato. This tower is a magnificent lookout point for traffic along the main road in the Magra valley, and it was used extensively by Bob Walker Brown’s 2 S.A.S. Operation Galia in December/January 1944/5, and by the partisans. Amongst those who climbed to the top on 29th July 2007 were two sons, two grandsons and a granddaughter of those who had used it 60 odd years before.
We were given coffee by Marcello, one of the original Arzellato partisans, at his house beneath the bell tower. This was followed by a short ceremony at the village memorial. A MSMT wreath was laid.
We then returned by road to the valley of Rossano, and set out on our day’s walk, which was to take us to the long deserted village of Casa Gaggioli. This village had stood at the southern end of the valley for hundreds of years, having originally been established by a bandit called Gaggioli as his safe haven. It was to Casa Gaggioli that my father and a number of the S.A.S. of Operation Galia had first returned after the retreat from Arzelato in January 1945, at a time when the Germans had poured thousands of troops into the mountains in an attempt to crush all partisan and S.A.S. activity behind their front line.
The village had comprised a number of substantial three storey houses, but all had been abandoned in the 1950′s, when main services and decent roads had first come to the main part of the valley.
Starting at a little after 11.00am, we walked down from the village of Chiesa di Rossano to the river which runs along the deepest part of the valley, crossing over the Ponte Vecchia bridge as we did so. This is one of the oldest paths through the valley, and the Ponte Vecchia is said to date from Roman times. Sadly, the trail is much deteriorated, and the going was often difficult.
We paused for a late lunch in the cool of the shade beside the Canale di Bosco, a tributary of the main river which emerges from the mountain not far from where we stopped. The water was delightfully cool, and drinkable. Giovanni Tognarelli had grown up in the mill nearby, and clearly knew the best spot to pause and eat. There was evidence all around us of what once had been a small productive farm. Some fruit trees still survived, but the little fields themselves had long been re-claimed by the ever encroaching forest.
After lunch, we headed up the side of the valley to Casa Gaggioli, the deserted village. Givanni knew a short route, but we discovered that the “mountain had moved” and that that path was long gone. The alternative was longer and at times very difficult. Clearly, Casa Gaggioli attracts few or no visitors these days. The path that we took was badly deteriorated in parts, and for our novices proved a testing beginning to their walking in these mountains. However, with care and courage, all of us managed to reach Casa Gaggioli.
The village itself has been abandoned for about fifty years, but much remains of the three story houses that had formed its centre. The animals customarily lived on the ground floor, and their owners on the two floors above.
After exploring, or resting, for a while, our group made its way back down the overgrown and crumbling path to the bottom of the valley again. By the time we were down, it was approaching 5.00pm, and many of us were tired. There were two options, one to walk up to the nearby village of Bosco di Rossano, which boasted a tarmaced road, and to wait for road transport, the other to re-trace the trail that we had taken earlier from Chiesa to Canale di Bosco, a fast walk of about an hour. Our group divided, and it became something of a race, for the walkers at least. Sadly, in the event shanks’ pony lost out to modern machines by about ten minutes.
To complete the day, we took road transport up to Pradanilara, on the edge of the valley, and laid a wreath at the monument there erected in memory of the help given by the local population to over 400 Allied personnel during the War.
In the evening, we were all hosted to a family barbecue by the Deluchi family, on the terrace of their house in Chiesa.
Monday 30 July
Having changed the days around, this was the day when we walked the “retreat from Arzelato”, starting at about 8.30 from the village below the church tower that we had visited the day before. This was a less difficult [and shorter] route, and from the relative height of Arzelatto, we made our way through the ancient chestnut forests west towards Chiesa di Rossano.
Our guide was again Giovanni Tognarelli, who led us down a myriad of paths to the very bottom of the valley, and to his family’s mill below Castoglio. The mill was built some time in the middle ages, and had worked tirelessly until the coming of electricity to the valley after the war, when it ceased to be economical. It had been fed by a stream diverted along an overhead gully.
Because of its position, the mill had been a much used hideout for partisans and escaped P.O.W’s alike, and Givani himself, as a fourteen and fifteen year old boy, had played a major part in what went on. We could not have hoped for a better guide.
After spending some time at the mill, we started our climb up into the valley, skirting around the bottom of the promontory on which Costoglio stands, and marching up the old mule trail into the village of Chiesa itself.
We arrived in Chiesa in time for a light lunch at the Bar Adolfo, and were joined there by two more walkers, Moira McFarlane, the British Consul in Florence, and a friend of hers.
After lunch, those of us in search of further exercise walked down into the bottom of the valley again, and along the river to S.Columbara, where the river emerges ice cold from the mountainside, and plunges some 50 foot down into the river bed below. Once, it was a favoured local beauty spot and bathing place much used by the locals. Today, it retains a rugged beauty, but is little visited.
We eventually returned to Chiesa for supper, and for a relatively early night, before the real walking started tomorrow.
Tuesday 31st July
We aimed to start at 8.00, before it got too hot, and we were only a little late. From Chiesa, we walked down through the village of Paretola, and then Valle, before beginning our climb up Monte Picchiara, the first of the mountains that we had to cross on our way to the sea. The escapers of Operation Essorbee had come this way twice, once in May, when it was not so hot, and again in July, when it was.
As we climbed up Monte Picchiara, we paused and diverted for a while, in order to visit the “Cave of the Wolves”, or what remained of it. This ancient cave had provided the first British soldiers to take refuge in the valley with shelter and they had made it their base for a while, until driven out by the winter weather, as the locals had predicted. My father had spent his thirty-third birthday there in November 1943.
The Deluchis and I had found the site the previous September. However, although local folklore says that this was the location of the cave, the mountain again has moved, and the cave is now mainly blocked. I remain unconvinced by the topography that this is the right place.
After our visit, we climbed up to the top of the mountain, and onto the old Roman road, the Alta Via, that runs all the way from France, and was used by Napoleon’s troops to invade Italy. We had not made very good time, and it was about midday. Lina Deluchi met us with some refreshment, which we gratefully consumed before plunging down the other side of the mountain range towards our next obstacle, Monte Dragnone.
Monte Dragnone is an extraordinary massive outcrop of rock. We approached it from its steep side, and the decision was made to climb it before we stopped for our packed lunch.
On its top perches The Sanctuary, a chapel and a priest’s house. In the bitter winter of January and February 1944, the British led International Battalion of Partisans from Rossano used the deserted buildings of The Sanctuary as their home. They were unable to move around or light fires by day in case they were spotted by the surrounding German and Fascist forces, and lived therefore by night, sleeping as much as possible during the daytime. They were supplied by the local Italians with food and fuel.
Today, the Sanctuary has returned to its intended use, and the Festival of the Madonna takes place there every year on the 8th September. Our route up the steep side of the mountain took us up the pilgrims’ path, with the twelve stages of the cross.
We all made it, some faster than others. The view from the top, on a beautiful day such as it was, is breathtaking. Lina had kindly obtained the key to the Sanctuary, so we were able to visit the beautiful chapel after eating our packed lunches.
After lunch we faced a long slippery descent down the gentler side of Monte Dragnone until eventually we reached the village of Pieve. There we paused to refresh ourselves before the final short push to Sero, where we were to spend the night.
We eventually arrived in Sero a little after five o’clock, to be greeted by Alberto Siboldi, who was to be our host for the night. We laid an MSMT wreath at the memorial to the partisans from the village who had died in the War of Liberation, and after speeches had been made, we were given a tour of the village by our hosts. They pointed out where the partisans and S.A.S. had hidden during the rastrallamento of 20th January 1945, and explained how they had fought their way out of the village when the Germans had surrounded it. Our tour included a visit to a wine cellar owned by one of the Siboldi family, where the owner liberally insisted that we sample his wine.
In the evening, Alberto Siboldi laid on a barbecue supper at his Bar, and having dined well, our hardcore party then bedded down on the floor of the bar for the night.
Wednesday 1st August
We had planned to leave Sero at 8.00am, but encountered a problem. Some of our number had retreated by road transport to Pontremoli and Rossano the night before, and now failed to return! Omar Bucchioni, our Transport Manager, had left his lights on overnight, and awoke to a flat battery. Thus, those coming from Pontremoli were indefinitely delayed. Christina, who had returned to Rossano, was dropped off by her dad at 8.00, but it was about 8.30 before we finally got going. Omar and the walkers from Pontremoli were to meet us at Brugnato, about two hours walk below Sero.
Another casualty was our guide for the day. I had been promised one, but, as last year, he didn’t show up!
Thus, only six of us set out from Sero, and I inherited the role of “machete man”, hacking the way through the undergrowth that was trying wipe out the old partisan trail to Brugnato. At the top of the trail, there is a fine new sign erected by the local trekking association, Mangia Trekking, declaring that the trail leads down to Brugnto. There is a similar sign at the other end. However, clearly no work had been done for many years on the trail itself, which became proved to be possibly the most difficult part of our four day trek. A note for next year is: “Don’t wear shorts!”
It was slow going, but we finally emerged in Brugnato at about 10.30, bloodied and bruised, to find Omar and the other walkers waiting for us. Sadly [but sensibly?], our two youngest walkers had had enough for the day, and opted for a lift to the beach at Levanto. However, we were re-inforced by four fresh pairs of legs, including Emmanuele and Maria Grazia Fenucci, the President of the Club Alpini Italiano of Pontremoli and his wife.
As last year, Emmanuele now became our guide, and armed with a good CAI map, we were determined to find a better and shorter route across the next range of mountains to the sea.
The stage from Brugnato, via Borghetto, to Corneto is not attractive. It is necessary to cross over the main road [the Via Aurelia] and the river, and then to climb up a winding tarmac road into the mountains. This was always a difficult task for the partisans and S.A.S., and was not an enjoyable one for us. It was a hot, dusty march of a little over an hour, all on tarmac roads.
Allowing for a pause for refreshment in Borghetto, we reached the mountain village of Corneto at about 12.00noon.
Last year we had taken a long route across the final mountain range, arriving above the Cinque Terre too late to reach Vernazza. This time we did better, taking the southerly of the two trails from Corneto. Once we had battled our way along an overgrown path by the river, we joined the old mule trail up the mountain through the forest, and had a scenic climb up to the ridge. After a short stop for lunch, we crossed the ridge at about 3.30pm, and found ourselves looking down on the sea. We followed the tarmac road down to the Monastery at Suviore, and then marched south over the cliffs to Vernazza. This last stage, lasting about two and a half hours, was easily the most beautiful that we had done, as we climbed down the winding cliff path, with all of the Cinque Terre laid out before us beside the deep blue of the Mediterranean. The descent to Vernazza was steep, but a lot easier on the path than it was for the escapers of Operation Essorbee,
We reached Vernazza at about 6.30.
When one of the escaped prisoners, Major Hugh Clifford, had reached Vernazza in July 1944, and had found his escape frustrated, he had not returned to Rossano, but had found his way to Levanto, a little further up the coast, where he had been taken in and hidden for a number of months by the Massola family in their home at the Villa Caterina.
Therefore, from Vernazza we caught the train up to Levanto, a journey of no more than fifteen minutes, and visited the Massola family at their beautiful home. We were shown the entrance to the secret room above the family chapel where Clifford was hidden, and also the cisterna in the grounds where he was concealed during searches of the house itself by the enemy. Giovanna, the gracious Baronessa Massola [who had been engaged to the son of the house during the war] was our hostess, and later joined us for dinner in Levanto before we returned by road to Rossano.
Thursday 2nd August
The walking was now done, but we travelled by road in the morning to Ponzano Magra, near to the coast road, to pay our respects at the monument there to William Forster and James Shortall, two other members of S.A.S.Operation Speedwell who, like Dudgeon and Brunt, had been captured and executed by firing squad. The monument had been put up for us in 2003 by the local Comune, and a number of local dignitaries attended the short ceremony. A MSMT wreath was laid.
Afterwards, we took up a kind invitation to lunch with Danny Bucchioni, the veteran partisan leader of the Brigata Val di Vara, at a restaurant owned by the family of one of his partisans at Villagrossa, and later were given a private tour around the magnificent medieval castle of Calice.
Our final supper, for those who could still eat more, was back at the Golf Hotel in Pontremoli.
My thanks go to our many Italian hosts and helpers, without whom an event such as this would not be possible. Also, I am indebted to our “Road Manager” Omar Bucchioni, an ex-Trust student, for his help again this year.
This year’s Monte San Martino Freedom Trail – Rossano will take place between 2nd and 7th September. Please support this event, which is now in its seventh year, and which is very much appreciated by the local Italians. It will be an event for veterans and walkers of all abilities, and will finish, like last year, in the beautiful seaside village of Vernazza.