This is a diary by John and Katie Simkins covering the events that took place during 7th/8th September, 2013, in Fontanellato, near Parma, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Armistice with Italy.
Fontanellato was always a strongly anti-Fascist town and its inhabitants felt well disposed towards the prisoners even while Italy was still at war with Britain. When the Armistice was signed, the Italian camp commandant, Col Eugenio Vicedomini, bravely opened the gates and let the prisoners escape. (When the Germans arrived and found the camp empty, they beat him up and sent him off to Germany. He returned in broken health and died soon after the war.)
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Armistice, Fontanellato’s deputy mayor, Francesco Trivelloni, a former Martino student in England, invited Trust members to join celebrations over the weekend of 7/8 September. Seventy Trust members took advantage of the invitation.
Saturday 7th Sept.
Lunch at Tenuta Rivalazzo
Together with three other Martino Trust members who have also done the Freedom Trail in the Tenna Valley, Marche – Nick and Helen Young, and Christine English – we drive for nearly six hours through the Marche and Emilia Romagna to reach a village near Fontanellato. Our excellent photographer, Ibrahim Malla, and his wife Silvia, also drive across. Most of our 70 Trust members have also arrived, and we have an excellent lunch on trestle tables at a charming agriturismo. Lunch seems to blend seamlessly into early evening, and a buffet hosted by the town itself.
There follows an utterly delightful concert of Verdi arias, in the small 18th century theatre. (Verdi was born 200 years ago nearby). There is nothing solemn about this opera, it is joyous and fun-filled. The brass quintet and three tenors (one Italian, one Korean and a handsome young Russian called Vladimir) have been kept waiting by our dinner but seem not in the least put out. The maestro introduces the arias in English, hamming it up. Tumultuous applause at the end, though the audience resist the offer from the MSMT chairman, when he thanks the performers, to give his repertoire of Abba songs.
Sunday 8th Sept.
This is a more formal day, and, for once, the sun isn’t shining. There is even a fine drizzle as we assemble in the courtyard of the former PG 49 prisoner of war camp. The building is now the Cardinal Ferrari neurological medical centre. We have speeches, the unveiling of a plaque and laying of wreaths. Among our number are two former PoWs, both now 93: Michael Lacey, himself a prisoner at Fontanellato, and Frank Unwin, who was interned at Laterina, in Tuscany. Lacey, in his own speech, recalls how the girls of the town used to walk past the prison gazing up at the young men. If the prisoners went into the yard at the front to see them, which was forbidden, the guards fired over their heads. One of these girls, Wanda, later became the wife of prisoner Eric Newby. Newby, the celebrated travel writer, relates how Wanda hid him, and how they fell in love, in Love and War in the Apennines.
After Lacey and Unwin have ceremonially opened the gates (see picture below), signalling the end of the formal part of proceedings, the townspeople come up to us with their own memories. Prominent among them is Ardua Ferrari, who has driven 300 km to be reunited with Lacey: her family hid him and friends after the escape. Ardua, aged seven at the time, remembers bringing him food, being told by her parents not to be seen doing so, On no account was she to tell anyone there were strangers about, as there were “cattiva gente” (bad people) hunting for PoWs, encouraged by the promise of a reward. But, says Ardua, she wasn’t frightened as her family told her she was only doing what was right.
People show artefacts from the camp. A prisoner’s exercise book, containing mechanical language, has been found in a house – the same house where an exercise book belonging to Lacey, in which he was learning Urdu, was found recently. Somebody brings a kit bag that was found in the prison after the escape – the PoWs had to leave their belongings behind. This was the property of Lt Col. C. Ardern, RA. Also, Giovanni Guasti, from the nearby village of Noceto, tells us how his family hid Robert Reid and two others between September 1943 and May 1944. When they finally left they arranged to get a coded radio message through to signal that they had reached safety but, as they were recaptured, this did not get transmitted. However, Reid – later Sir Robert Reid, who lived in Purley, Surrey – used to revisit the Guasti family after the war. After Reid died, contact was lost; the Guastis would like to renew it with his family.
At lunch, we eat on trestle tables at the back of the former camp, looking out on the fields where the 600 PoWs marched out, in ranks, when the Italian commandant opened the gates and let them go. Later, we attend a conference on the escape. There is a video link with Tom Carver, in Washington, whose father – himself a stepson of Field Marshal Montgomery, was a PoW at Fontanellato. Carver tells his father’s story in his book Where the hell have you been?, which has now been published in Italian.
Monday 9th Sept.
A fitting finale. Eight of us go to inspect the place where the 600 PoWs hid on their first night after the escape. It is a long, winding gully, in fields, about an hour’s walk from the camp. There they discussed in which direction to go, and with whom, or whether to stay put until the Allies arrived. As the Germans quickly moved into the town to fill the vacuum left by the Italians’ surrender, there was little time to lose if they were to strike out for safety. Only a small proportion of the approximately 80,000 Allied PoWs imprisoned in Italy succeeded in achieving that. But both those who succeeded, and many of those who attempted but failed, owed their lives who gave them refuge.
For a diary of the Freedom Trail in the Marche, organised jointly by MSMT and the Escape Lines Memorial Society, go to News/Freedom Trail in the Marche.