In May 1944, British Gunner Leslie Victor Wilkins and five other POWs who had escaped from a camp near Spoleto spent time in hiding among the foothills near Rossilia, Italy (a location which I have been unable to locate on maps).
In time the fugitives were discovered and the hut where they were hiding was raided in the night by a fascist-led group of German soldiers. One of the POWs, William Edwards, was killed—apparently in his sleep—by gunfire. Two others were wounded. Leslie Wilkins did not know what became of the wounded soldiers, but he and the two uninjured men were transferred to Germany.
On June 3, 1946, Leslie was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Birmingham City Police, apparently in cooperation with a Judge Advocate General’s war crimes investigation into the case.
An Italian, Giovanni Agliani, was accused in the killings. Giovanni’s wife wrote to a British woman, Betty di San Marzano, who had lived in Italy and knew the family, asking her for a statement in support of her husband’s character.
Leslie Wilkin’s statement and the correspondence regarding Giovanni Agliani are below.
I am grateful to British researcher Brian Sims for access to these files, which are in the British National Archives at Kew.
The Testimony of Leslie Victor Wilkins
In June 3, 1946, Leslie was interviewed by the to the Criminal Investigation Department of the Birmingham City Police, apparently in cooperation with the Judge Advocate General
BIRMINGHAM CITY POLICE.
Criminal Investigation Department.
IN THE MATTER OF GERMAN AND ITALIAN WAR CRIMES AND IN THE MATTER OF THE SHOOTING OF PTE. WILLIAM EDWARDS OF THE GREEN HOWARDS AT ROSILIA NEAR SPOLETO, ITALY, SOME TIME IN MAY OF 1944.
1. I, Leslie Victor Wilkins, Gunner No. 1793537 of the 9th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery, Spring Lane, Erdington, Birmingham, with permanent home address 27, Orchard Road, Walsworth, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, make oath and say at follows:-
2. I was made Prisoner of War by the Germans at Tobruk on the 22nd June, 1942. After my capture I was confined in various Prisoner of War Camps, and early in 1944 I was in a small working camp called “Manyana” (phonetic rendering) near Spoleto in Italy.
3. Strong rumours were afoot that the Italians were about to lay down their arms. Many of us decided that the Germans would probably try to move us into Germany. With three fellow prisoners I made my escape through the barbed wire. After leaving the precincts of the Camp we accidentally met two other Prisoners of war who had escaped. Our party of six consisted of Pte. William Edwards of the Green Howards – I believe his home address was 22, Duchess Street, Whitley Bay; Gunner Ernie BELLINGER of the 107/27 L.A.A., R.A., home address Rye Farm, Reading; a Gunner named “Blondie” ELWORTH or HAYWORTH attached to a Field Regiment; a Gunner whose Christian name was “Len” – I do not recollect his surname; a Gunner who was nick-named “Ginger” whose name I do not remember, but it was a common name such as “Smith”.
5. We wandered the countryside and were given food by kindly disposed Italian farmers. After a few weeks of this wandering we were directed by a friendly Italian to a hut in the foot-hills at Rossilia near Spoleto. We stayed there for about 2 months still receiving food from farmers in the neighbourhood.
6. Some time in May 1944, so far as I can remember, two Italian civilians warned us that a fascist had been searching the woods nearby during the day seeking for escaped prisoners of war. They also warned us that it would be dangerous to return to our hut. However, we did go back to the hut but I slept very lightly as I was disturbed at the thought of the warning we had received. At about 2 a.m. that night was awakened by the sound of voices approaching the hut. I shook the three of my comrades nearest to me and they awakened a fourth. EDWARDS remained fast asleep.
6. I cannot be sure whether one of the people outside shouted “Veniniqa presto” (Italian for “Come out quickly”) followed by a volley of shots through the door, or whether the volley came first followed by “Veniniqa presto”. In any case the shots were fired before we had time to respond. This volley must have killed EDWARDS for he never moved again. One of my comrades asked me to ask them to wait while he got some clothes on. I called “Apatari una manuten” and used another Italian phrase which I cannot recollect, meaning “Wait until we get our trousers on”. My request was greeted with a further volley of shots through the door and resulted in Len and Ginger sustaining wounds. Len was wounded twice in the chest and once in the head. Ginger had two wounds above the knee.
7. I then flung the door of the hut wide open and went out closely followed by my comrades with the exception, of course, of EDWARDS. When we got out I saw that our enemies consisted of an Italian in civilian clothes with ten German soldiers. The Italian was 45 to 50 years of age; 5’9” to 10”, Medium build; badly in need of a shave; typical Italian features; wearing a brown corduroy jacket and a velveteen hat of the Cossack type. I am afraid that I am unable to describe the Germans except that they were mostly young men. If I saw them I might be able to recognize them but my memory fails me so far as a description is concerned. I do not know who the Italian was but he was treated with great respect by the Germans.
8. To return to the moment when we quitted the hut – the Italian at once said “Perkay chingkrai amigos quee” which means, “Why are there only five of you”. He added something in Italian which I understood to mean “There should be six”. I said “Unu amigo molte la” meaning, “One of my comrades is dead in there”, at the same time I pointed to the hut. At this juncture one of the German soldiers walked to the door of the hut, pointing his rifle inside and fired a number of shots, presumably into the body of EDWARDS. After this, several of them went into the hut and searched it. After a few minutes they came out and we were shepherded into the hut. We got dressed and then one of the Germans, partly by signs and partly in broken English, ordered “”Blondie” Elworth and I to turn EDWARDS’ body face downwards, which we did. I noticed that there were numerous wounds in all parts of the body. I cannot be sure but I think the Germans searched his pockets.
9. Next we were ordered out of the hut and after we left it one of the Germans threw a hand-grenade through the doorway into the hut. When we were twenty yards away from the hut I heard the explosion but did not turn around. I am of the opinion that the grenade was used to cover up traces of what had happened to EDWARDS. We were taken to a farmhouse where we were ordered to bind the wounds of Len and Ginger. This we did by using a field dressing given us by one of the Germans and by using a clean sheet which the Germans ordered the Italian farmer’s wife to provide. Before leaving the farm the Germans set fire to two hayricks, probably as punishment because they no doubt suspected (quite correctly) that the farmer had been supplying us with food.
10. From the farm we were marched to the road which lay about two kilos from the hut in which we had been living. We were conveyed in Army trucks to Spoleto where I was lodged in the local gaol with my uninjured comrades, BELLINGER and “Blondie” ELWORTH. l would mention that on our arrival at Spoleto, the Italian walked off and left the Germans. I had the impression that the Italian lived locally. Len and Ginger were taken elsewhere but I do not know their destination.
11. The next day my two comrades and I were returned to a P.O.W. camp. Later we were transferred to Germany where we were separated. In conclusion I should like to point out that my knowledge of Italian is extremely limited and that the spelling of Italian words in this, my affidavit, is phonetic.
Taken and sworn before me this 3rd day of June, 1946, at the Victoria Law Courts, Corporation Street, in the City of Birmingham in the County of Warwickshire.
Justice of the Peace for the City aforesaid.
Official JAG Investigation Correspondence
Office of the:
Deputy Judge Advocate General
GHQ Central Mediterranean Forces
13 May 47
[A rubber stamp indicates the document was received by the Judge Advocate General on 22 May 1947.]
The Judge Advocate General,
6, Spring Gardens,
LONDON, s.w. 1.
Shooting of British P’s.O.W. [prisoners of war] at SPOLETO
Accused: AGIANI Giovanni.
Your MD/JAG/FS/42/111 dated 5 Jun 46.
I enclose herewith a letter received by the wife of the accused in this case.
2. Will you please arrange to have the sender interrogated on the matter and forward her statement to this office as soon as possible.
[A handwritten note on this document states, “Wrote CMF stating that report was forwarded on 8 May 47”.]
Letter from Betty di San Marzano to the wife of Giovanni Agliani
To-day I received your letter and I hasten to answer it. I regret very much to hear about the misfortune of your husband, especially because I know he does not merit it.
I remember very well the months passed at ROSELLI and the good which my family and I got from the whole village and especially from you and your husband. I know very well what he did for the British prisoners, giving them shelter and food and I am deeply touched to hear what has happened to him, as he also exposed himself to the risk of being discovered by the Fascists and Germans.
I am now preparing a statement and will try to get it signed by some authority so that it is of value. I will send it to you as soon as it is ready. Please be patient for a few days and keep your mind easy; I will act as soon as possible.
My best regards
(signed) Betty di San Marzano
Betty di San Marzano’s Statement in Defense of Giovanni Agliani
STATEMENT of the help given by GIOVANNI AGLIANI of ROSELLI di SPOLETO, (PERUGIA) ITALY, to British prisoners of War.
In September 1943, I, a British-born woman, was living with my four children at SPOLETO (PERUGIA) ITALY where I own a house.
Shortly after the Armistice between Italy and the Allies on September 8th 1943 warning was given me by friends that I was wanted by the Fascists, so I left the town hurriedly and secretly and went and hid in the mountains in a small village called ROSELLI. We were destitute and homeless but found amongst the population all the help and kindness we needed. Living in the surrounding woods were many British prisoners of war, escaped from the prison camp near Spoleto, and other camps towards Perugia. These men were also kept and fed by the poor people. We were in Roselli for two months and during that period I had occasion to know GIOVANNI AGLIANI who owned a house in the village. Every evening his small kitchen was full of P.O.Ws. whom he invited in to listen to the news from London, although at the time the severest penalty was inflicted for listening to foreign broadcasts, especially English. Often wine was passed round, and on many occasions, in my presence, men were given meals, or food to take away, although GIOVANNI AGLIANI knew that the penalty for harbouring and assisting prisoners was imprisonment or possibly shooting for himself and his family, therefore what he did was at great personal risk.
Many afternoons I had tea in his sitting room with P.O.Ws. two or three at a time, when he never failed to make us comfortable and provide us with what we needed and the fact of being able to sit quietly before a fire and listen to an English radio programme and be fed and treated with kindness was a tremendous thing for these P.O.Ws , who continually expected Fascist or German raids.