Remembering great Italian escape of 1943-44

Escaping with His Life

Tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war fled from camps in Italy following the announcement of the armistice that took Rome out of the war in September 1943.

Their story and the role played in it by Italians who provided them with food and shelter is being preserved in the work of the Monte San Martino Trust chaired by Sir Nick Young.

“So many of us alive today would not even have been born if it had not been for the bravery of those Italian families who helped our fathers and grandfathers escape ,” Sir Nick told This Week in the Italian Campaign Youtube programme.

Sir Nick’s father Major Leslie Young of the 2nd battalion of the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment and a veteran of the Battle for France in 1940 was captured in Tunisia in April 1943. He was initially incarcerated in a camp in Capua and transferred in June to Fontanellato in the Po valley.

On 9 September following the news of the armistice, he and 500 other officers marched out of the camp and began epic journeys to freedom. For Young, this involved trekking south through the Apennine Mountains to the Allied lines around Anzio where he arrived in February 1944. He sought help 48 times from Italian hamlets and farms and was given food and shelter on all but one occasion.

On 7 November, he and his companion Reg Gatenby, a captain from New Zealand, reached Corvaro, a village 60 miles north-east of Rome. Young fell ill and was given shelter by Bernardina and Peppino de Michelis in a small cottage three miles outside Corvaro.

This is where he met the Elfer family, Italian Jews comprising Antonio, a fur trader, his wife Elisa and their two children: Eugenio, a student at the University of Rome, and his younger sister Silvia. Following the occupation of Rome in September, the Elfers had fled to Avezzano, 15 miles to the south. Antonio and Elisa moved on to Corvaro while Eugenio, now active with the partisans, and Silvia relocated to San Stefano to the east.

Following the allied landings at Anzio on 22 January, Young and Gatenby decided to head there and were escorted by Eugenio and Silvia with her boyfriend, another Roman named Carlo Tervini. On 29 January, they set off in deep snow on a journey of almost 90 miles.

At dawn on 7 February 1944, Eugenio and Silvia were killed as they crossed no-man’s land near Latina to get into the Allied beachhead. Tervini was captured by the Germans and survived torture and prison.

“About two months after he had heard that his children were dead, Antonio Elfer…died of a heart attack,” Sir Nick Young said. “He was distraught at what had happened.”

After the war, Lisa had Siliva’s body moved from the American war cemetery in Nettuno to the Jewish section of Rome’s Verano cemetery where Antonio was buried. In 1947, Eugenio’s body was found near Latina and transferred to the cemetery. Lisa died age 105 in 1995 and is buried in the cemetery as well.

Major Young was repatriated to the UK but returned to combat in France in June 1944 in the 131 (Surrey) Infantry Brigade. He was wounded in August but returned to the front until the end of November when his depleted battalion was disbanded. Major Young returned to the UK and left the army and returned to work in his father’s business.

The Monte San Martino Trust was founded in 1989 and provides bursaries for young Italians from areas where escaped British prisoners of war were helped to come to the UK to learn English. I has also uploaded stories of the men who escaped and the Italians who helped them.

In a fresh project, the trust is financing the digitisation of digitisation and indexing 80,000 individual files detailing the help given by the Italians to Allied escapers gathered by the Allied Screening Commission.

You can see the full interview with Sir Nick Young here.


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