Memorial to Rome Escape Line’s Sam Derry


Recently my friend Brian Sims sent me an article that was published last year in the Newark Advertiser, which serves the UK’s Newark-on-Trent area.

The article describes a local interest in the establishment of a lasting memorial to Newark-born Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Derry, who, with Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty, ran the escaped-POW rescue effort known as the Rome Escape Line out of the Vatican.

The Rome Escape Line rescue efforts were run independently of the I.S.9 rescue efforts, which were mainly conducted along the Adriatic coastline of Italy and east of the Apeninnine Mountains.

The following paragraph from the official I.S.9 history (see “I.S.9 History—Operations in Italy, Part 3“) in the British National Archives, confirms the minimal contact that existed between these two organizations:

“By far the most interesting outcome of our entry into ROME was gaining contact with the Escape Organization which had existed during the German occupation under the direction of Major S.I. DERRY (now Lt-Col. S.I. DERRY, DSO, MC, GS01, G-2 (P/W), AFHQ). This particular organization was easily the largest non-I.S.9 unit engaged in the care and maintenance and possible escape of E & Es. Although we were well aware of the existence of this organization, and had made successful attempts to gain contact during the German occupation, it was unfortunate that we were unable to encourage a closer connection in the early days. We sent an Italian officer courier into ROME and he returned with a reasonably accurate description of the situation, and had personally contacted Father O’FLAHERTY of the Vatican. We sent him back almost immediately, in an attempt to connect ourselves more closely with Major DERRY. Unfortunately, our courier was unable to obtain an interview with Major DERRY and was very naturally treated with suspicion. It was not until the final entry into the city and our contact with Major DERRY that we both realised the pity in that real contact was not established between I.S.9 and the Rome Escape Organization during the German occupation.”

Although the Newark Advertiser article mentions various possibilities for the memorial, Brian more recently told me the actual memorial will be a large painted portrait of Sam Derry, to be hung in the Newark Town Hall.

A dedication ceremony is being planned for this fall.

I am sharing the Newark Advertiser article here with kind permission of Dan Churcher, News Editor and author of the article.

Time to honor a true hero

April 25, 2013

By Dan Churcher

THE Advertiser today leads calls to honour Newark’s most-decorated war hero, Lieutenant-colonel Sam Derry.

Colonel Derry helped save the lives of 5,000 Allied Servicemen in the second world war through the Rome Escape Line, which he operated from the Vatican with an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

There is a community garden dedicated to Monsignor O’Flaherty in Ireland and a statue to be unveiled later this year, but Colonel Derry is better remembered there and in Italy than in his home town where there is a plaque in the parish church.

This year marks significant anniversaries in the Derry story.

It is 70 years since he entered Rome, hidden under cabbages in a cart, and met Monsignor O’Flaherty.

It is also 50 years since he was the subject of This Is Your Life on the BBC.

His family hope that if the people of Newark decide a lasting memorial is appropriate, it could be created by April 10, 2014, on what would have been his 100th birthday.

The Advertiser is asking readers what they feel would be a fitting tribute to the man who saved so many lives.

Early suggestions include a statue or bust and a display of his medals alongside a portrait in Newark Town Hall.

The MP for Newark, Mr Patrick Mercer, said a permanent memorial to Colonel Derry had been overdue since his death in 1996.

“I would hope that in calling for a memorial we knock on an open door,” said Mr Mercer.

“A public memorial is the only thing that is appropriate for the greatest soldier Newark has produced since King Charles’ nephew Prince Rupert in the civil war.”

The chairman of the Royal British Legion in Nottinghamshire, Mr Andy Gregory, said while the legion could not help financially, he was keen to support the idea.

“It is something I am sure the local branches would like to be involved in,” he said.

“Colonel Derry is a hero and a significant historical figure.

“I don’t think, however, too many people would know that he came from Newark and that is a regret.

“We do so much to remember the acts of the fallen that sometimes the deeds of the survivors are overlooked.”

Colonel Derry’s son William, of London Road, Newark, says the family would contribute financially.

Mr Derry said, “We put it in the hands of the people of Newark to decide whether a permanent memorial is fitting.

“There is certainly a move toward creating one and for that alone we are grateful.

“Father was an ordinary man working for the family plumbing business before the war, and did extraordinary things during the war.

“He organised the escape of thousands of people under the noses of the Gestapo.

“By my own mathematics, if each of those people he saved had the 2.4 children they say is the norm, 200,000 are alive today that otherwise wouldn’t have been.”

Mr Derry’s grandson, Mr Dan Derry, also of Newark, said: “My grandfather was a very humble man and quite happy to be out of the limelight.

“That said, he did some fantastic things in Italy. It is an inspirational story.

“It is not a familiar war story, but a story of hope, courage and achievement.

“My grandfather was rewarded with the Military Cross for bravery in tank battles but when asked what his greatest achievement was, would say saving 5,000 people from being tortured and shot.

“But if he talked about it it would be in terms of what others achieved.

“He refused at OBE for that reason and came home to Newark where he was always happiest.”

Extraordinary life of an ordinary man

SAM DERRY had already earned a Military Cross, the second highest military honour behind the Victoria Cross, in the deserts of North Africa before his exploits in Rome.

He was born in Newark on April 10, 1914, and attended the Magnus Grammar School from 1922-31.

After school he joined the family firm of R. I. Derry and Son, heating engineers.

He rowed for Newark, captained Newark Rugby Club and became a county player.

He was commissioned into the Territorial Army in 1926, joining 60th North Midland Field Brigade at Lincoln.

Mobilised in 1939, and promoted to captain, he served with the British Expeditionary Force in France until May 1940, escaping in the Dunkirk evacuation.

He was moved to the Western Desert in June, 1941, and promoted to major.

He was awarded the Military Cross in December, 1941, after his gun battery was attacked by 28 German tanks. They destroyed seven of those tanks and scattered the rest.

This was after he had driven through the battle in a tractor for more ammunition. The tractor was hit.

Sam Derry was taken prisoner by the Germans in February, 1942.

He escaped by making a dash for it and hurling himself over a precipice under rifle fire. He walked back over the desert to British lines.

He was recaptured by the same German unit in July, 1942 when overtaken during a rearguard action.

He was transported to Italy where he commanded the escape organisation in the country’s biggest officer prisoner camp.

In 1943 he organised an escape in which five tunnels broke ground simultaneously and 46 prisoners escaped.

He made his own escape by leaping from a speeding train carrying him to Germany.

He entered the neutral Vatican disguised as a clerk, and set up and commanded, under the noses of the Gestapo, the Rome Escape Line that kept 5,000 Allied escapees out of enemy hands until the liberation of Rome in June, 1944.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work saving men who otherwise would probably have been tortured for information about the Rome Escape Line and shot.


MR WILLIAM DERRY with the This Is Your Life book dedicated to his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Derry.

Fifty years ago, dozens of ex-prisoners of war surged on to the stage at the end of the This Is Your Life programme hosted by Eamonn Andrews to shake hands with the man who helped them.

For most it was their first meeting with Sam Derry.

“I wouldn’t have had an easy moment for the rest of the war if I’d known what he was up to,” said his wife, Nancy, who surprised him on the programme with his children Richard, William, twins James and Andrew and daughter Claire.

Colonel Derry wrote a book entitled The Rome Escape Line that was later adapted into a film, The Scarlet and The Black, starring Gregory Peck.

Cheil’s comments—Lasting memorial

The exploits of Newark’s most decorated second world war hero, Lt-col Sam Derry, are remarkable. What is equally remarkable is the fact that there is very little to commemorate his incredible bravery.

Colonel Derry worked with a priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, to set up the Rome Escape Line.

Operating out of the Vatican, under the noses of the Gestapo, they helped thousands of Allied Servicemen evade capture.

A memorial garden and soon-to-be unveiled statue in his native Ireland provide significant permanent memorials to Monsignor O’Flaherty.

While there is a plaque dedicated to Colonel Derry in Newark Parish Church, this year, 70 years after he entered Rome, seems like the appropriate time to provide something more.

The idea of a lasting memorial is supported by the Derry family, but they want the people of the Newark area to decide if it is appropriate and what form it should take.

The Advertiser believes a memorial is long overdue to a man whose extraordinary story deserves to remain in the public eye for generations to come. The opportunity is now there to achieve just that.


THE false identity card used by Sam Derry to foil the Germans as he helped save lives through the Rome Escape Line. It gives his name as Dubliner Patrick Derry.

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