About 20 intrepid walkers took part in the Freedom Trail to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Monte San Martino Trust that took place from September 8-12, 2009. The walk ran from Pontremoli via Rossano to Vernazza in the Cinque Terre, Liguria, and it raised the magnificent sum of approximately £8,500 in sponsorship. The walk was organised by Brian Gordon Lett, whose father commanded international partisans in the Rossano Valley. Read on, for his full report – and mission de-brief.
We gathered in Pontremoli on the afternoon of 8th September 2009, the 66th anniversary of the announcement of the Armistice of 1943. We did so in the knowledge that many of the old Allied nations, together with Italy, were again standing shoulder to shoulder in a war zone. The British, Canadians, Americans and Italians have all lost men in Afghanistan in recent months. Sadly, Italy was to lose another six within a few days of the end of the Freedom Trail.
Because sad family circumstances had necessitated the closing of the Golf Hotel, this year’s base camp in Pontremoli was the Ca’ del Moro Resort. On the first evening, an Armistice dinner was held at the Locanda Restaurant at the Ca’ del Moro.
Thirty-nine of us sat down to dinner, of which about half were Italian guests. The Monte San Martino Trust was represented by its Chairman, Sir Nicholas Young, and the Chairman of the Italian Committee, Sig. Antonio Millozzi. The British-Italian Society was represented by its President, Charles de Chassiron. The Mayor of Pontremoli was present, as were the famed partisan leader Magg. Gen. Dany Bucchioni O.B.E., Luciano Bracelli of the International Battalion of Rossano, Giovani Tognarelli, the “little general” who as a young teenage boy carried food and supplies to so many escapers, and members of various of the leading “helper” families. After an excellent meal and speeches, the company was entertained by a mandolin duet played by Bernard Collier, a veteran escaper from the Sulmona camp and an Italian friend.
On the 9th September, we drove in the morning to the monument at La Cisa erected by the Comune di Pontremoli and the Istituto Storico della Resistenza Apuana to the S.A.S. soldiers Patrick Dudgeon M.C. and Bernard Brunt who were murdered there by German firing squad on 1st October 1943. A ceremony was held, the last post was played, and a wreath laid.
In the evening, we travelled to Ponzano Magra, where the Comune di Santo Stefano di Magra had erected a monument to two other S.A.S. soldiers from the same operation, William Foster and James Shortall, who were murdered there by German firing squad on 21st September 1943. A similar ceremony was held and a wreath laid.
The Operation San Martino De-brief report follows. The term “stick” was used by the S.A.S to denote a small section of men.
Operation San Martino: De-brief report
On the morning of 10th September, “Operation San Martino” left Pontremoli on foot a little before 09.00 hours with the object of arriving at Chiesa di Rossano before 18.00 hours. This part of the Operation represented the flight of many Italians, and Allied escapers, from the Fascist and German occupied city to the safety of the mountains. The Rossano valley was the gathering point for hundreds of escapers, and partisans, between September 1943 and April 1945.
We recruited two local guides of sound reputation, Emmanuele Fenucci, the President of CAI Pontremoli, and his wife Maria Grazia. They had assisted in the escape of a number of previous parties.
The weather was fine, and not too hot.
For about an hour the party marched along the tarmac road through the outskirts of Pontremoli, and turned west along a lane that runs beside the river Gordana. Only after the party had crossed over the river via the bridge near Cavazzana did it start to gain height. The bridge had a particular historical importance, since it was the site of a particularly daring escape by two of the S.A.S. soldiers of Operation Galia, assisted by their Italian guide, “Falco” Montfiori.
After Cavazzana, the party climbed upwards into the mountains. At Torrano, we suffered our first and only casualty. This was Fred McGlade, who had been parachuted into the event at the last moment, and without the proper training. Happily, he fell not from enemy fire, but from sore feet and diminishing lung capacity. Capitano Bucchioni, of the support crew, was called up to perform the necessary emergency evacuation. As the main party progressed up the mountain, a detached stick of T. Macintyre, R. Macintyre and Tenente W. Pettit remained with the casualty and awaited his emergency evacuation. Once McGlade was in the safe hands of Capitano Bucchioni, the detached stick followed up the mountain in double time, to join the main Operation San Martino party, who by then had stopped for a picnic lunch. Here occurred the first miracle of the mountain. San Martino [or possible Sant’Emmanuele] performed the miracle, and a bottle of wine appeared.
Lunch over, the party continued upwards, until finally, at Pradinalara it reached the pass through the mountains that would lead to the safety of the Allied base in the valley of Rossano. Shortly before Pradinalara, one of our mules shed its load, and Tenente Pettit ran down the mountain [and back again] to retrieve it, as, after all, was his job.
The party picked up a local Rossanese guide, Tonino Deluchi, at Pradinalara, and made its way around the ridge of the valley, descending through the village of Piagna to Allied Mission HQ in the village of Chiesa di Rossano. The party arrived at 17.30 hours, after a journey of about eight and a half hours. At HQ, the party found the Mission Leader, Nick Young, and the others of the support group. The party was pleased to find that the casualty, Fred McGlade, had also safely reached the Mission base.
The party, together with the Head of Mission and the support party, returned by motor transport at 18.30 hours to the monument at Pradinalara. There, with a number of Italians present. A ceremony was held to commemorate the sacrifices made by the people of the valley of Rossano and its immediate surrounding area. A Scottish Italian contingent appeared, in the form of the Sartori family of Buzzo. “Jock” Sartori, as a young partisan, had fought with the Rossano International Battalion of partisans, and with Operation Galia. The Sartori’s were quickly recruited into Operation San Martino, and joined the party for a huge supper at the Bar Adolfo in Rossano. Members of the Menini and Deluchi family were also present at supper. Two members of the Florence contingent, Bernardo and Sally Blasi Foglietti also joined the party.
Afterwards, the Mission Leader and the support group retired from the Rossano Valley for the night. Operation San Martino bedded down in the old school in Chiesa. No sentries were posted, since the party were under the protection of the Rossanese. On this night, the party had bunk beds and mattresses to sleep on. The party now numbered twenty-three.
11th September 2009
Again, the day dawned fine but windy. After breakfast at the Bar Adolfo, the Operation San Martino party moved off for the Alta Via. This involved a descent to the bottom of the valley, followed by an ascent to the village of Bosco. The guide for the day was one Lett, who claimed to know the area well. Certain members of the party harboured doubts about this, and became more concerned when Lett was seen to be poring over an original parachutists silk map! However, the party successfully made the steep climb up through the woods towards the Alta Via. There was one tricky moment when the party were challenged by a unknown party of cattle, but they proved to be friendly, and the Operation San Martino party passed by without harm.
The party reached the Alta Via, and stopped for another picnic lunch. However, San Martino [and Sant’ Emmanuele] had deserted them, and there was no repeat of the miracle of the wine. Lett liased with his staffeta, Quinto Menini, and the party then proceeded along the Alta Via towards Monte Dragnone.
The party was feeling a little tired, but all achieved the steep climb up without excessive difficulty. At the summit of Monte Dragnone the party rested, and enjoyed the fine view. This included a number of raging forest fires, and there was concern expressed that Operation San Martino might soon become toast.
On the long descent, the party divided into two loose sticks, No.1 stick, who disappeared on ahead, and No 2 stick, under the command of Lett, who brought up the rear at a steady pace. No 1 stick pushed on directly to its objective for the day, which was the village of Sero. No 2 stick, which was a multi-national force, stopped for a beer [or two] in the village of Pieve, and followed it up with a relaxed approach to Sero. The sticks were re-united at Sero at about 17.30 hours, where they also found the Head of Mission, his wife Helen, and Capitano Bucchioni with the support party. The journey had taken between eight and nine hours. Capitano Bucchioni, helped by the injured McGlade and the partisan Millozzi, had braved the danger of the forest fires and carried mattresses to Sero from Rossano in order to give the Operation San Martino party something to sleep on.
At Sero, a ceremony was held at the village monument to those who died during the partisan war. Thereafter the atmosphere became festive, and Alberto Siboldi proved a benign and effective host at the Bar di Sero, where the Operation San Martino party was to sleep the night. An excellent meal was consumed, with the fires raging in the valleys below and to the north clearly in view from the terrace of the Bar. The party had sustained a number of minor injuries, but were fit to continue. Arrangements were made for local guides to assist in the morning.
At about 23.00hours, the Head of Mission, with the support party, withdrew. A reduced Operation San Martino party bedded down for the night. For this purpose, the party again divided into two sticks. One slept inside the bar on mattresses on the floor. The other, the “guard stick”, took their mattresses out into the neighbouring vineyard, so that they could keep watch throughout the night. There were the twin dangers of the village being overcome by the forest fires, or being subjected to an enemy attack from the neighbouring town of Borghetto. Unfortunately, all five of the guard party eventually fell asleep under the stars.
12th September 2009
The weather was again sunny and dry, but not too hot.
The Operation San Martino party rose at 06.30, in the hope of a departure at 0.7.00. However, breakfast arrived a little late, and was not substantial. Local guides from Mangia Trekking arrived at 07.00 hours, and a detachment of Levanto partisans paraded, who were to escort the Operation San Martino party to Levanto. These were under the overall command of one Michele, known in the area as “l’Avvoccato Vecchio”.
Unfortunately, the guides declined to take the old partisan/Operation Galia route, but chose instead a longer but much more scenic route to the north. This route did however take us the Operation San Martino party clear of the forest fire. The party eventually arrived in the village of Brugnato at 11.15 hours, and parted company with the local guides. The mayor of Brugnato, which is a village with a brave history, came to greet the party.
Here the Operation San Martino party met with the support party, and were rejoined by those who had not slept in Sero the night before. The party then left Brugnato at about 11.45, and faced a long climb in the heat of the day. The road across the River Vara and the Via Aurelia was hot and exposed, but the party successfully made the crossing without enemy interference. The party then climbed into the mountains, and rested for lunch at 13.00 hours. Another miracle of the mountain occurred, and two bottles of Prosecco appeared to wash down the party’s packed lunches [this time courtesy of Santa Dina]. The Levanto partisan contingent obviously led better lives than Operation San Martino party, because their miracle was larger and more liquid! However, they were to pay the price!
After lunch, the party pressed on up the mountain. The trail became narrower and more inaccessible. The Operation San Martino were in good form, although tiring. However, one of the lady Levantese partisans was rapidly tiring, and became nauseous. This caused a crisis, since the trail was now inaccessible to anything other than people and mules, and no motorised mules could be deployed. The majority of the Operation San Martino party advanced on foot to the crest of the mountains, and rested within sight of the sea. A small detachment of Levantese, re-inforced by Tenente Pettit, remained with the sick partisan. Eventually, she was carried up the mountain by a joint British-Italian in initiative. Tenente Pettit earned his keep [again], and regretted the grappa that he had consumed the night before.
Once the crisis had been dealt with, Tenente Pettit re-joined the Operation San Martino, and the party advanced with the surviving Levantese partisans down the long mountain track towards Levanto and the sea. That objective was achieved at approximately 17.45. The party liased with the Head of Mission, and were received by the Mayor and various officials of Levanto. The day’s journey took nine and three quarter hours.
The Operation San Martino party duly completed the total journey in twenty-six and a half hours.
Only one casualty was suffered, McGlade, and he was successfully ex-filtrated thanks to good work by Capitano Bucchioni, who is to be commended. McGlade is reported to be well.
De-brief report ends
On the evening of 12th, following speedily upon our arrival in Levanto, there was a ceremony at the memorial in the town square to the fallen of the partisan war. This was a far larger affair than the previous ceremonies had been, and the commune of Levanto was well represented. Magg. Gen. Dany Bucchioni attended, as did his son Giorgio, and a number of other veterans were present.
After the ceremony, there was an excellent farewell dinner at a local restaurant, at which the Mayor of Levanto, the Baronessa Giovana Massola, and Magg. Gen. Dany Bucchioni were the guests of honour.
After dinner, it transpired that the Support Crew manager was not very good at maths, and that there were not enough seats on the transport to get us all back to Pontremoli.
Levanto’s two taxis had long since packed up for the night.
The transport departed, leaving three men, Lett, McGlade and Hann, standing alone in the town square of Levanto.
When the transport arrived at the hotel in Pontremoli about an hour later, the passengers found Lett, McGlade and Hann waiting for them in the hotel garden.
There is some partisan magic still alive in the area!
Brian Gordon Lett
ROSSANO FREEDOM TRAIL 2007
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.
ROSSANO FREEDOM TRAIL 2006
By Brian Gordon Lett
The fourth annual San Martino Freedom Trail – Rossano took place between 29th July and 3rd August 2006. Its main purpose was, as always, commemorative, and its secondary purpose was to raise funds for the Monte San Martino Trust, for ELMS, and for the Rossano Voluntary Ambulance. My original planned trail for 2006 had been based on the Operation Galia and “Ferrovia” escape route lasting four days, and going from the Northern Tuscan valley of Rossano to Seravezza, crossing the Gothic Line. However, mainly because of weather conditions it is best to do that trail at the end of May, and for various reasons that was not possible this year.
Therefore I decided to try the other escape trail from Rossano for the first time, a two-day hike to the sea at Monterosso in the Cinque Terre, where the escapers had hoped to be picked up by an A Force vessel on three occasions in 1944. All attempts to escape were un-successful, since the A Force boats failed to make the necessary covert landing.The escape route is well documented by contemporaneous escapers’ manuscripts, and the walk had been successfully completed in May and July 1944. Thus the beginning of August seemed a good time to try it.
The event was spread over six days, and included two warm up stages to test out the walkers that we had with us before the two day slog to the sea. We had quite a lot going on by way of commemorative ceremonies and festive lunches, and fitted our warm up walking in around those events. That also meant that we could cater for non-walkers and veterans as well as our hard core.
One of the great features of this trail was the number of “original” Italians who joined in with us. Indeed, our guide for the first two hours of our final day was the extraordinary Lino Moggia, now aged eighty and amazingly fit, who was able whilst we walked with him to give us a blow by blow account of how he, my father, the S.A.S. and the partisans had used the trail to attack the enemy forces, frequently using mortars against the town, road and railway below. In passing, he demonstrated to us the correct way to throw grenades downhill in wooded country, which is rather different to that favoured by Hollywood! Another of the great features was that we truly represented an Allied force, since we comprised Canadians, South Africans, and New Zealanders as well as British. Sadly, we had no Americans with us this time, but hope to change that next year.
Saturday 29th July 2006
We met up at the Golf Hotel, Pontremoli for a relaxed lunch. Not everyone arrived today, but our party numbered eighteen, including myself and Omar Bucchioni, who was running the road transport for us this year [and did so extremely well].
One of our objectives was to commemorate the execution by German firing squad of two captured S.A.S. soldiers in 1943, at the La Cisa pass, about half an hour’s drive from Pontremoli. They were Captain Patrick Dudgeon M.C. and Gunner Bernard Brunt.
At about 5.30pm we travelled in a selection of vehicles to the monument at the La Cisa Pass. There we found waiting for us a small but distinguished group of Pontremolese veteran partisans. They included Laura Seghettini (a courageous lady partisan) and Luciano Bracelli, whom I knew from previous meetings, and through my father’s book, Luciano had fought as a young man with the Internatinal Battalion of Rossano, and had had his legs blown off after the war when trying to clear the anti-personnel mines from the fields around Pontremoli. He moved so easily on his artificial legs that it was difficult to believe that he had suffered such an awful disability when just a young man.
For once the sun was shining at the La Cisa pass and the view from the monument of the surrounding countryside was magnificent. It always moves me to hear the Last Post ring out in the midst of Italy, followed by the silence and then the Reveille and the National Anthem. After the ceremony, and following a visit to La Cisa where again we met the remarkable Signora Molinari, the widow of the restaurateur whose restaurant had been commandeered during the war by the Germans, and which had been the guardhouse where Patrick Dudgeon and Bernard Brunt spent their last night, we all sat down to eat the Restorante La Morella at La Cisa, with our Italian friends. Following a long and most enjoyable evening meal, we departed and made our way variously back to the Golf Hotel in Pontremoli or to the Centro in Rossano.
Sunday 30th July 2006
We set out on the first of our warm up walks from the Centro in Rossano at about 10.00am. It was already extremely hot. Our guide for the morning was Giovanni Tognarelli, “the little general”, who had been 15 at the end of the war, and had played a significant role with his father, the miller Luigi Tognarelli, in hiding escaped prisoners of war and helping the partisans. With Giovanni, we walked down to the bottom of the valley, and then along the river towards the old Tognarelli family mill. A recent landslide prevented us from reaching the mill, and therefore we had to turn back on ourselves for a while, before turning up towards Paretola, and eventually back to Chiesa di Rossano and the Centro.
The route Luigi chose took us about three and a half hours at a suitably leisurely Sunday morning pace. We followed it with another splendid meal, this time at the Bar Adolfo, in company with a number of the local partisan families. Our own two veterans, Jim Bourne and Mick Wagner had by now arrived and joined us for lunch.
When lunch eventually finished, we travelled by vehicle up to the monument at Pradanilara, which was put up after the war to commemorate the help given by the local people to more than 450 Allied personnel. From there, en route to Pontremoli, we stopped at Arzelato to visit the bell tower which had been the Observation Post for the S.A.S. and partisans when they were attacking the main road below. In the evening, we were joined by the British Consul in Florence, Moira MacFarlane, and were [surprisingly] all invited guests at a local Sports Book competition final in Pontremoli. The pretext was apparently that mountain walking is a sport, and that therefore we were a visiting multi-international sporting team!
Monday 31st July 2006
This was a more serious but still relatively gentle day. Our task was to march from the valley of Rossano over the mountain into the next valley, and to the villages of Coloretta and then Patigno, the HQ of the local comune. We were representing the Allied Special Mission [Mission Blundell Violet] in the Valley of Rossano, and the International Battalion of partisans who had been based there. At Patigno there was to be a short commemorative ceremony. The walk took us about three hours, including a diversion when we were briefly uncertain as to which roué to take. Again it was hot and thirsty work, and we were all grateful for a brief visit to a local watering hole in Coloretta before the final push to Patigno. For once we arrived more or less on time.
After the ceremony at the monument to the fallen partisans, most of us travelled by road up to the top of the highest of the local mountains to lunch at the local ski resort, Zum Zeri.There were two exceptions: our Canadian contingent Tom and Rosemarie MacIntyre walked up to lunch, with surprising speed. They arrived when we were, I think, only on the third course of six!After lunch, we enjoyed the cool mountain air, and some of our younger [!!] walkers tried out the adventure slide.
At about 6.00pm, we visited the monument, at the Passo del Rastrello nearby, to commemorate two of the partisans of the International Battalion, noms de guerre Riboncia and Chella, who had been captured and murdered in the rastrellamento of January 1945, brought about by the successful activities of the S.A.S Operation Galia.
Tuesday 1st August 2006
Today, the serious work began. Our task was to reach the village of Sero by six o’clock in the evening. We started early because it was hot, leaving the valley a little before 8 o’clock in the morning, to climb up onto the mountain ridge to the west. Antonio Deluchi was our guide, and he took us by a route that he had used many times as a lad, when courting the girls in the adjoining valley. It was a marvelous climb up through the chestnut forests until we reached near to the top of Monte Picchiara [c. 4,000 feet], and turned onto the Alta Via, the ancient road from France into Italy along which Napoleon once traveled with his armies. From there, we dropped down towards Monte Dragnone, where the International Battalion had wintered in the brutal conditions of January and February 1944.
We made good time, and arrived at the foot of Monte Dragnone at about 12 noon. We were fortunate with the weather, since it was overcast and quite cool, and at Monte Dragnone we even enjoyed a brief shower. We lunched there, and then climbed up to the summit. The view on a fine day is magnificent, but the price that we paid for the cooler weather was that the view when we arrived at the summit was non-existent! We therefore stayed only briefly at the top, before starting the long but gentle descent towards the village of Pieve.
We marched into Pieve in excellent time, not long after 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This was partly because of the cooler weather, but mainly because Antonio Deluchi had taken us by a much shorter and more efficient route than I had expected. We had to wait here for Rob Hann and his family to join us. Rob’s dad had been with the S.A.S of Operation Galia, and had been in Sero with my father at the most difficult and dangerous time in January 1945.
Rob and the Hann family arrived in Pieve a little before 3 o’clock, and we formed up a short while later for the march to Sero itself. I had carried with me in my backpack the flag of the International Battalion which I had inherited from my father, and we now unfurled it. Thus Rob marched into Sero in his father’s footsteps, albeit with a rather less ferocious group of companions than his father had had in January 1945. The youngest walkers were his own sons William and Joseph [aged 8 and 6].
Sero is a brave little village which had featured heavily in the actions of Operation Galia, since it was well placed for attacks on the Via Aurelia and the town of Brugnato which had contained a German garrison. Dropping motar bombs on Brugnato seemed almost to have been a hobby of the SAS. It was also the scene of fierce fighting during the rastrellamento of 20th January 1945. We were very fortunate in Sero to meet not only Lino Moggia, the young partisan as was, but also the capitano or commandante of the Sero partisans, Dino Paoletti, who himself had reached the grand old age of 25 at the end of the War. The relationship between Dino, the capitano, and Lino, the erstwhile young partisan, was amusing to observe. Despite Dino having reached the age of 80, Lino was quite clearly still regarded by Dino as a youngster!
After a ceremony when we laid our customary wreath at the strongly worded war memorial, about 40 of us sat down to a barbecue supper courtesy of the considerable efforts of Alberto Siboldi. Before our supper, we were all taken on a tour of the village by a combination of Dino, Lino and other local friends, and we were shown where the guns and ammunition had been hidden, where the house to house fighting had taken place, and where eventually my father and Rob’s father and the others had escaped into the fields.
They had achieved this, apparently, with the assistance of Lofty Rose, one of the tallest of the S.A.S., who had encountered two German soldiers and had literally grabbed one in each hand and cracked their heads together before dragging them with him as prisoners as the partisans and SAS evacuated the village. It was also explained to me that the reason why the Germans had been confident that there were British paratroops in the village of Sero was because they had seen the imprints of British hobnailed Army boots in the heavy snow that was lying on the mountains at that time. The British boot prints apparently varied significantly from those made by Italian or German boots.
In every way, it was a most enjoyable and interesting evening. Eventually, Rob and his family and those others who were returning to their regular accommodation left the village by road, and seven of us of the hardcore walking party settled down for the night on the floor of Alberto’s bar. Alberto was later to christen us: “The Magnificent Seven”. One of us [a Canadian again!] even decided to sleep outside on a bench, despite warnings of rain.
Wednesday August 2nd
This was due to be the longest and most difficult day. In the end, we were walking from 8.00am to 6.45pm, with only three short breaks. It was hot again, but happily most of our route as under tree cover. The day dawned bright, despite forecasts of rain. The walkers were up bright and early, and were joined by a number of others who had not slept in Sero, including Emmanuele and Maria Grazia Fenucci. Later in the day this was to have a significance, since Emmanuele is the President of the Club Alpini Italiano [the mountaineers club] in Pontremoli.
The day started, however, in a very old-fashioned way! I had read of my father’s difficulties on occasions with the relaxed Italian way of life even on the eve of battle. Our guide for the first section of the trail to the sea was to be Lino Moggia, but after a good party the night before, at 8 o’clock Lino was nowhere to be seen. We eventually walked around to his house to find him still fast asleep in bed. Another member of his family unceremoniously awoke him, and in due course he appeared with a substantial machete hanging from his belt, and off we went, a little late, down a remote and little-used partisan trail towards Brugnato.
Lino chatted continuously on the route down the mountain about the actions of the partisans and SAS against the German occupying forces. He showed us the position from which they had fired their mortars against the Via Aurelia and the town of Brugnato, and the gullies in which they had sheltered from the returning fire. At one point, jokingly in conversation with our other walkers, I launched a large fir cone which I had picked up over-arm into the bushes in the pretence that it was a grenade. Lino immediately corrected me – telling me in fact that in these mountains you would always throw or roll your grenade downhill under-arm, to it avoid hitting the trees overhead and bouncing back and exploding prematurely. He also disarmingly told us of how frightened he had been as a youngster in battle at various points on the path down which we were travelling.
We left Lino at Brugnato, crossed over the Via Aurelia and the river Vara and continued on the long march to the sea. I had understood that our next guide was due to meet us in the next village, and was a little concerned when we arrived there to be met by someone rather older than Lino Moggia, and in no way dressed for a long hike! He waved his arm in the direction of the next range of mountains, and then hopped into his car.
Luckily, we had a decent CAI walkers map. We started off, and every so often for the first ten or fifteen minutes our “guide” would turn up in his car and point at another small road or turning. Then he just disappeared.Emmanuele was miles away from his own patch, and but when we arrived at the next village, he took over as “Guide of the Day”, and, as it turned out, did an excellent job.The walk across the Via Aurelia and the River Vara had been unattractive, and along busy roads, but it had always been like that, and had posed a continual problem for S.A.S and escapers alike.
Now we began to climb up the next and final mountain range, away from the roads, and indeed from any villages. We began the climb at about 11.00 o’clock and we reached the top of the mountain range at about 4.15pm. We still had quite a long way to go, but at least we could soon see the sea in the distance. Unfortunately, we now had to do a stretch on the tarmac-ed road before achieving our objective. Historically, we were able to choose between three “liason points” on the coast, as each of the three attempts had involved different pick up points. We chose the seaside village of Monterosso.
We had about an hour and a half’s walk down to the old monastery which stands on the edge of the village. This is now a bar/restaurant where we were able to take a little welcome refreshment. From there, we followed the steep and ancient monks’ path down into the village itself.
The manuscripts of the escapers Henry Lowry Corry and Hugh Clifford speak of how they felt when they finally arrived at the sea – only in the event to have their hopes of evacuation frustrated, and to face the necessity of retreating fast up the steep terraces of vines down which they had only recently climbed. They felt near to exhaustion, and when a firefight broke out between the approaching A-Force boats and the garrisons onshore, they felt very conspicuous.
When we emerged finally from the mountain trail after 10½ hours of walking, and found ourselves in the pretty seaside resort of Monterosso surrounded by scantily-clad holiday-makers, we too felt conspicuous and out of place! Happily it was not necessary for us to climb back up the mountain – we simply admired the sea, acquired some nice cold beers and caught the train to Levanto. However the experience of arriving in Monterosso and feeling so out of place just gave us a hint as to how it must have felt for the escaped prisoners of war when they were on the run and trying to pass unnoticed through enemy-occupied towns and villages.
The little Cinque Terre train took us on the very short journey to Levanto, where we were met by Omar Bucchioni and other friends. Many years before, one of those who had tried to escape by sea from the Cinque Terre, Major Hugh Clifford, later Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, had not returned to Rossano after the failed attempt, but had made his way to Levanto, where he was sheltered by the Massola family in their villa in Levanto for a number of months.
We followed in Major Clifford’s footsteps and made our way to the Villa Caterina, still home to the Massola family. The Baronessa Givanna greeted us and received us into the splendid drawing room of the villa. She is the widow of Beppe Massola, who had been an active partisan and the son of the house in 1944 and 1945. Hugh Clifford had written of the secret room where the fugitives had hidden, and also of a cistern or outside water tank in the garden where in the most difficult times they had taken refuge.
Givanna was kind enough to show us the entrance to the secret room, concealed behind a family portrait in the wall of a bedroom, and also the cistern in the grounds in which the fugitives had hidden.
Our visit to the secrets of the Villa Caterina was followed by a most enjoyable meal in a local restaurant, after which we returned to Rossano. One of the nicest things about the evening meal was that it was a true reflection of the combination of people from all walks of life, and most of the nationalities, who had fought together in the battle for the liberation of Italy. We had Italians, British, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders, and it was impossible to tell the countesses from the contadini!
Thursday 3rd August
This was the last day of our event. The morning started with a ceremony at Ponsano Magra, in the Comune of Santo Stefano. There we commemorated the execution of two other members of Operation Speedwell, Warrant Sergeant Forster and Corporal Shortall. The monument had been put up by the Comune in April 2003, shortly before we had visited there for the first time.
We were met upon arrival there by a number of veteran partisans, including one who I had met before in 2003 but had not been able to find in succeeding years, Dimmo Baldessini. Dimmo had been An Allied courier, trained in Florence and dropped by parachute behind the lines on a number of occasions. After another moving ceremony, with the Last Post, Reveille and National Anthem ringing out across the countryside, I paused to chat with a number of those who were present including Dimmo. I recalled that Dimmo had spent an entertaining evening on our visit in April 2003 discussing his paratroop training with the two dozen-odd soldiers who were with us.
Chatting to him again now, he began to tell me about how he had jumped from a plane in April 1945, into the Rossano area, with twelve British parachutists, and had made, in his opinion, the best and softest of landings. It was not difficult to work out, that if Dimmo had dropped into Rossano with twelve British paratroopers in April, he must have jumped with Rob’s father, Stan Hann. I therefore invited Dimmo to join us for lunch at Villagrossa, and he accepted.
We travelled in our selection of vehicles to Villagrossa, where I was delighted to find Dany Bucchioni [the leader of the Brigata Val di Vara of partisans which had fought with Operation Galia and with my father] in the best of form and looking very well. We passed a most entertaining lunch with him and various members of his family, during which Rob Hann and Dimmo were able to talk at length, thanks to the services of Omar Bucchioni as interpreter. Dimmo explained again how he had had little proper parachute training in advance, and had simply landed in his parachute harness as normal. The SAS had been trained to release their harness before landing and to complete the drop holding onto the harness with both hands.
After lunch, we went with Dany to the castle at Calice al Cornoviglio, and he talked to us of the attack mounted on the castle in 1944 by the partisans. We then had a tour around the castle, including its cells and torture chamber. On the way back to Rossano we blew a tyre on the vehicle that we were using, and I discovered how long it takes and Englishman, a Canadian and a South African to change a tyre [answer: about 8 minutes!]At Rossano, we had our final evening meal, and a wreath was laid at the memorial in Chiesa di Rossano to commemorate the anniversary of the burning of the village as a part of the rastrellamento of 3rd August 1944.