Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello
Many of the stories on this site concerning the protection of escaped POWs describe the brave actions of the contadini, the poor farmers of central Italy.
But people from other strata of Italian society were also involved in the rescue of escapees and evaders. Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello, the son of R. Ranieri Bourbon del Monte, Marquis of Sorbello, and of Romeyne Robert, an American, is one example of an aristocrat and scholar who lent his expertise and means to the cause of rescuing these stranded soldiers.
A document recommending an award for Uguccione, now in the British National Archives (provided by researcher Brian Sims), has this to say about Uguccione’s service:
“From early November, 1943 until June, 1944 this officer worked behind the lines organising the escape of Allied P/W and showed great personal courage and disregard of danger. On one occasion when the land escape route was disrupted due to enemy vigilance and activity he successfully arranged the evacuation by fishing boat of 27 P/Ws. He was constantly aware of the atrocities committed against P/W by the Germans and Fascists and did all in his power to alleviate the plight of these prisoners. Through the partisans he pursued the originators of these atrocities and saw to it that a number met a proper fate. His energy and extreme loyalty was an inspiration to the many Italian soldiers who worked alongside him.”
In 1945, Uguccione was decorated with a silver medal for valor—and, in 1949, a Ministry of Defense bronze medal—for his rescue and recovery involvement.
I am grateful to Uguccione’s son, Professor Ruggero Ranieri, for allowing me to share on this site the following paper about his father.
The role of Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello in the operations of the Ratline (Marche and Abruzzi)
1. Sources used
There are two main sources on the history of the Adriatic coast Ratline, which was active between December 1943 and June 1944. One consists of the documents of IS9 itself, which are kept at the NA in Kew Garden. The documentation is fairly vast, but there are two important files covering the key events: Major Fillingham’s report and the Newsletter of IS9 itself, printed every fortnight with news from the various battle fronts, or better from the various Field Section in which A-Force was divided.
The second source is the archive of Captain Stipa, who was in charge of the Ratline and is kept among the papers of the Commune of Offida (Ascoli Piceno). These papers contain very detailed reports on the day to day operation of the Ratline and a final report by Captain Stipa on its activities. I complemented this source with a long interview to Carla Stipa, the daughter of the Captain who was a witness the events of the Ratline. Who was Luigi Stipa? He was an Aeronautical engineer, employed by the Italian Ministry of Aviation, with the degree of Captain. By 1943 he had already tested and patented a monoplane which was built by the Caproni engineering firm. At the moment of the Armistice he was serving as captain in the military school at Orvieto. With the arrival of the Germans, he escaped with his family in a country house belonging to his wife, between Offida and Appignano, not far from Ascoli Piceno and it was there that he was first contacted by my father and then recruited by A-Force, ending up in command of the Ratline.
To better understand the role of Uguccione, my father, in the operation there are other valuable sources. One is his own written recollections, dating back to 1951. They are very short, however, and although carefully written only give a very basic account of his activities during this period.
Another important source is the diary of Countess Andreola Vinci Pallavicino, which have been recently published. Countess Andreola, just like Uguccione of mixed Italian-English speaking background. She had married a well established landowner, Zeno Vinci Gigliucci, who owned an estate and a large beautiful villa, by the name of Boccabianca, along the Adriatic coast, north of Cupra Marittima. Here the couple spent the war time years. The estate of Boccabianca included a number of farm houses, scattered across the hills and along the valley of the Menocchia. Since both Andreola and her husband were anti-fascists and Anglophiles they used some of these houses to host escaped POWs. Other houses, however, they were forced to hand over to billet fascist and German contingents. It was a tricky brinksmanship. Andreola, herself a cultivated artist, kept a diary in which she recorded the main events taking place at and near Boccabianca. This diary is in many ways comparable to the better know one by Iris Origo, at la Foce, near Chianciano in the province of Siena, which has become a classic.
Finally another interesting source are the Escape and Evasion reports of the POWs, brought back by IS9 through the lines. They are kept at the NA in London under the War Office files.
British identification for Captain Uguccione “Hugh” Ranieri di Sorbello
2. Uguccione’s biography: a very brief introduction
Who was Uguccione Ranieri, my father? He was born in 1906 in an aristocratic family in Umbria so at the time of our story he was 37 years old. His mother Romeyne Robert was American. He studied law in Rome and then went to the United States, where, between 1929 and 1936, he worked as an instructor of Italian literature at the University of Yale also taking part in the activities of the Italian-American community. He also began his career as a critic and a writer. He moved back to Rome and took a job in the Ministry of Culture in 1938, in charge of reporting on the foreign press. At this time, he began to question his youthful fascist ideas, and became more and more estranged from the regime. At the time of the armistice in 1943 he was serving as a lieutenant in the Italian Army, in Cento, in the province of Ferrara. He left the barracks and escaped south with the aim of joining the Allies in Southern Italy. On the way, he stopped at his friends Vinci in Boccabianca, and from there, together with a small party of people, including friends of jewish origin, fled south by boat, after having taken hold of a small craft in the harbour of S. Benedetto. The party reached the Tremiti islands and then the town of Termoli, which had just been liberated by the Allies. There he was recruited by IS9, after receiving permission from the Italian High Command.
3. The Termoli headquarters of IS9
IS9 was a joint Allied service, coming under the authority of MI9 in the British War Office in London. Its task was to deal with Escape and Evasion, (or E. and E.), servicemen who had been prisoners and escaped, or more broadly Allied individuals who found themselves behind German lines, but who had managed to avoid being recaptured. The largest number of these were British or Commonwealth soldiers who had been captured in Northern Africa and held in prison camps in Central and Northern Italy. At the time of the armistice there were about 80.000 POWs in the camps, of which more than half were sent to camps in Germany. Many of them escaped from the camps but were soon recaptured, but this still left large numbers who went under cover in various parts of the Italian countryside. Many of them were in the Marche and Abruzzi.
IS9, which in Italy was often referred to as A-Force, started its work in Italy after the armistice under the direction of Colonel Simonds, who mounted a rescue operation with teams of parachutist from British Special Forces, who by November had managed to bring back about 1000 prisoners. After that IS9 came under the command of Major Fillingham. It was cut down to a small operation, consisting of a few British officers and military personnel and it was organized in Field Sections, each with the task of infiltrating one part of enemy territory.
The headquarters of Field Section n. 5, which worked along the Adriatic coast, was set in Termoli and in mid November 1943 was entrusted to Captain A. Robb. Field Secton n.5 worked alongside the Boating Section which specialized in rescue missions by sea, while the rest of the work involved land based missions in enemy territory.
Here are some brief abstracts from the fortnightly newsletter issued by IS9 and distributed to its operatives.
On October 30 Lieut. Col. Simonds handed over control over his Termoli HQ to Major Fillingham who continued to operate small fishing craft on prearranged plans and on short term operations with small craft, the skippers of which had reached Termoli carrying ex P/Ws and had expressed their willingness to return for more. Such operations had paid good dividends and are continuing… [Newsletter n. 1—November 15, 1943]
IS9 was planning to recruit a number of Italian soldiers (“Forks”) to assist the operations of its sections.
The supply of these soldiers has been agreed by the Italian authorities and we are now in the throes of collecting, housing and administering them. It is hoped to get 3 officers and a number of N. C. Os among the party and all will be under Italian Army discipline and under general Command of a Captain who has been loaned to us by the Italian authorities [Newsletter n. 2—November 30, 1943]
Uguccione was first involved in rescuing Allied prisoners by boat. We have records of two missions. The first one took place in early November. Uguccione was landed on the coast between Cupramarittima and Pedaso and was then able to bring back a considerable party of prisoners, departing from S. Benedetto. In the second mission he was landed further north, at Porto S. Giorgio, on November 26. By this time, however, further rescue missions by boat had become too dangerous because of weather conditions and increased enemy surveillance. So Uguccione was ordered to prepare a Ratline. This is confirmed in Andreola Vinci’s diary, where on December 1 she writes: “Uguccione has been charged to form the so called Ratline on land, with guides to accompany POWs from one safe point to the next”.
Map reconstruction of a Ratline from Montalto delle Marche in the north to Guardiagrele in the south
4. Operation Ratberry—The Ratline
Establishing a Ratline meant essentially mapping an itinerary consisting of a number of safe houses, through which POWs could be escorted from enemy occupied territory across the front line, back to safety in the Allied camp. First plans were drawn up in November 1943, by the name of Operation Ratberry, but proved to be too ambitious and far reaching. A second attempt, on the other hand, was more successful, if geographically more limited.
Here is the official account of the setting up and first operations of the Ratline [Quotations are from Major Fillingham’s Report—The official history of Ratberry and of IS9, The National Archives (London) WO, 208/3250]:
It was decided that perhaps the first plan was too ambitious and penetrated to too great a depth. The new plan called for the infiltration by sea and land of six carefully chosen Italian agents, who were all born and bred in the area of operations. They were to concentrate at a known safe house at Monte Giorgio and from there move out to pre-selected points along a proposed ratline. As stated this line was much shorter than that proposed in the first plan and the general idea was to establish a passage through the line and later extend the influence of the ratline through the efforts of locally recruited guides. Our experience during the first unsuccessful operation had proved to us that such a line would not be made in a day. We had, however, the advantage of being able to avoid mistakes previously made and the report of Capt. Mc Gibbon Lewis proved of great assistance. A further advantage to this second plan was that the senior Italian organiser was not only familiar with the area, but owned several estates and properties which could be considered safe staging posts along the ratline. [Possibly this is a reference to Uguccione; although factually inaccurate, it does capture the idea the English officers might have had of him.]
The mission was successfully landed and during the following three weeks succeeded in establishing a safe line. The one disadvantage was that the headquarters of the line did not have W/T communications with 5 field section. Although an excellent system of communications was built up through a courier service running to and fro through the lines, it will readily be seen that this method of passing information across the line is not only slow but should a courier fall into the hands of the enemy, might prove most insecure. It was arranged, therefore, to infiltrate a wireless operator and set at the first available opportunity. January 16th produced the ratline’s initial success, when the surprisingly large part of 31 E and Es were passed through the lines. On interrogation each one of them spoke highly of the excellent organization which had enabled them to be safely guided down a line some 60-mile in length. Staging posts were being set up to receive the evaders at the end of each day’s journey, where the E and Es received a meal and a night’s sleep. The total journey down the line, including the final crossing, took 6 days on average but movement was naturally restricted when enemy forces presented an unnecessary danger.
Couriers frequently arrived with requests for stores to be dropped at various posts along the line and we were able to despatch these successfully. Without direct W/T communication the reception committees were obliged to stand by for long periods awaiting sustainable flying conditions but we were able to limit these periods to a minimum through the broadcasting on BBC news in Italian of pre-arranged phrases. For the remainder of the Winter period the ratline worked effectively and parties of P/W were passed through the lines almost daily. By the arrival of the spring, organisation along the line had been almost perfected, a wireless operation had been infiltrated and the scope of ‘Ratberry’ tremendously increased…
One concern of IS9 was the prominent role the Fascists were taking in recapturing P/Ws. The Germans, it was thought, could not spare the manpower for these operations. The Fascists adopted particular methods:
Not only do they include operating in civilian clothes whilst carrying arms, but adopting the guise of both helpers and escapees. A favourite method is to gain admittance into a peasants cottage in the pose of an escapee and being given help to murder the cottagers and burn down the property [Newsletter n. 8—December 12, 1943]
By the Spring the Ratline was proving a success.
Good news indeed from N.5 Section. The Rats have been on the air! Their first message could not be broken down as only the first half of the cipher was received. This means a great deal to plan ‘Ratberry’ as direct W/T communications mid-way down the rat line must increase the possibilities of success 100%. P/Ws returning down Ratberry during the last seven days numbered 38. A signal just received reports that three Majors are included in the last party of seven and earlier in the week a L Colonel came through. Good work 5 Section. [Newsletter n. 18—April 1, 1943]
IS9 was heavily dependent on the assistance of the peasants:
…We depend a good deal on the peasants and without their assistance our task would be very much more difficult. It may be well therefore to examine their present position. The majority still regard the war with impartiality and look upon it as an evil state which has interrupted their simple and industrious way of life. Too many of them, men in distress should be given a helping hand irrespective of their race or creed, but even to people possessing such simple and kind sentiments, there comes a time when they readjust their outlook and turn against the aggressor. Since the invasion of Italy by the Allies, the peasants have given our prisoners continual help, but the increased atrocities and acts of vandalism committed by the enemy against their families and property seems to have spurred them on to even greater efforts on behalf of the Allies.
Their lot is not an easy one, and now they have another problem which must also effect the prisoners still at large within enemy occupied Italy, and increase the peasants’ risk of compromise. Enemy propaganda is frantically trying to give the impression of the successful organisation of the Republican Army and of the enthusiasm prevailing in all ranks. Evasions of the call-up are the rule rather than the exception, and even after recruitment desertions are frequent. The deserter has two methods of escape, one to join the ranks of a patriot band or else seek hiding with a peasant family. Many adopt the latter course which means another mouth for the peasant to feed and cloth.
From our point of view we can only hope that the Italians unwilling to join the Fascist Army do not impose upon the peasant for shelter, but take the former course and join the patriot forces and assist to undermine the internal security of Nazi occupied territory.
The enemy is again publishing posters offering the reward of 1800 lire to anyone denouncing the presence of an Allied P/W and threatening the death penalty to anyone sheltering or hiding one… [Newsletter n. 23—May 6, 1944]
Of course, great risks were involved:
Every other day we learn of act of violence by the enemy, and the majority occur after one or another of the clandestine organisations twist his tail. The fact must be faced that the enemy is fully aware of many of the activities occurring behind his front line and react every now and again in sheer desperation. It is true, however, that due to the limited forces he has available he is unable to offer a sustained and concentrated resistance calculated to have a serious effect on the feasibility of such operations or, in any way to render them impossible. In order to stamp out subversive activities he would need to move many more divisions into Italy, than he can ever hope to spare. [Newsletter n. 24—15 May, 1944]
By June 1944 the Allies were advancing northwards overrunning enemy positions. Reports on the Ratline reflected this new situation:
N. 5 Field Section reports a further 12 ex P/ws from Ratberry but this, too, no doubt will soon be overrun by our forces. The W/T operator who is doing a grand job reports much movement to the North making the task of hiding the ex P/Ws more difficult.[ Newsletter n. 28—June 10, 1944]
The whole operation was being gradually scaled down, although not quite. F/L Humbleton was left in charge of winding down:
the Ratberryboys who have been overrun. One recent signal from the W/T set gave us the news that they had collected some 120 ex P/Ws and were keeping them in safe custody awaiting the arrival of our troops. [Newsletter n. 30—June 24, 1944]
At the end of July 1944 the IS9 newsletter focuses on the role of Uguccione:
A welcome visitor to this HQ recently was L. Hugh, our Italian keystone of the Ratline in the Marche-Abruzzi area from December 1943 to June 1944. This Ratline was responsible for bringing to safety over 400 P/ws and evaders and whilst being broken in places at various times, through arrest and murder of certain agents, was always repaired and functioned successfully until the whole of the line was overrun by our advancing troops. No praise is too high for the gallant helpers and for Hugh in particular for their splendid efforts on behalf of ex/ P.Ws. A special word of praise also is due to the W/T operator who, since being dropped in March rarely missed a ‘sked’ and sent over 50 messages. N. 5 Field Section, too, must be congratulated on maintaining, advising and helping their Ratline and in supplying new agents to repair the breaks… [Newsletter n. 32—July 8, 1944]
What do we know about Uguccione’s activities from other sources? Where was he during this period? And what did his work consist of? All available sources confirm that he was stationed throughout this period at the Villa Vinci in Boccabianca from where he made frequent forays both inland and south. His first task had been to set up the Ratline, establishing the itinerary, selecting the safe houses, contacting helpers and partisans along the way, assessing the risks. He did this in cooperation with Captain Stipa at whose house he was based for a large part of the month of December. After that he was relieved of this duty and was assigned a different mission i.e. keeping in touch with the HQs of the Field Section. In addition he was to gather information and round up a certain number of prisoners sending them down the Ratline. He cooperated with other agents in running a flanking operation to the Ratline, i.e. establishing communications, keeping contact with local partisans willing to help, and making sure that the whole operation was safely conducted. The next commanding officer on the Italian side of the Ratline, until March 1944, was Nanni Giovannetti; finally Captain Stipa himself was given full command.
Here is what Uguccione says about his involvement in the Ratline. First of all he puts the number of people rescued along the Ratline at 900. This is evidently a much higher figure that the official estimate and even of that by Major Stipa. I think that this higher estimate is probably to be put down to the fact that the Ratline was used also by a large number of Italian and other nationality refugees, who do not appear on the official allied count. For example on April 30 British sources mention the fact that 60 Yugoslav soldiers had benefited from the Ratline.
Uguccione then adds: “The Ratline became famous in the high Allied command and was taken as a model for operations in other areas”. Commenting on the actual operations, Uguccione does not claim that he was in charge of the organization. He points out that there were many losses, houses were burnt by the enemy and agents were captured and killed. He writes “I owe a lot to my radio/telegraph operator, Rossi, who travelled with me with me carrying his set in a sack across the mountains of the Marche and the Abruzzi, often sleeping outdoors, tireless and optimistic”. Another invaluable helper quoted by Uguccione was Ermanno Finocchi, whom he refers to as “my right hand man”.
Stipa’s testimony, confirms this state of affairs. The Stipa papers contain the lists of all the British prisoners who belonged to each party that was sent down the Ratline. They also account for the different helpers along the way, the practical problems incurred, from feeding the prisoners, providing medical assistance, accounting for possible Fascist or German spies. In a few occasions safe houses had be changed, because of enemy infiltration. A number of helpers were captured and killed. There were heroic examples, such as that of Emidio Azzari, a helper who had been in touch first with Hugh and then with Stipa, who was caught by the Germans and tortured. If he had spoken the whole Ratline would have been discovered. As a matter of fact he did not speak and the operation survived, while he was crippled for life as a result of the tortures received.
Stipa also mentions his relations with Uguccione. After a period of full cooperation, in the setting up of the Ratline, relations became more guarded. Stipa didn’t understand the role of Hugh, who occasionally appeared at his house at Appignano, with assignments that were not clear to him. Stipa, for example, writes that, on May 18, Hugh came to visit him and had reported that he was based in Villa Vinci and working in liaising with local partisan bands. The secret for keeping the operation viable was that no one officer in the field had the entire picture of the operation.
A final brief assessment of the Ratline is provided by Major Fillingham’s report when he writes:
Whilst not wishing to underestimate the successful efforts of this section, who produced a larger number of E and Es than any other of our land units, it is true to say that they had the easiest sector of the front to work on. In addition far more P/Ws were located in the Marche and Abruzzi than in any other area.
The names of the key people involved in the Ratline are inscribed on a commemorative stone in the garden of the Stipa House near Appignano. Twenty collaborators to the network are mentioned. There were four Italian soldiers killed while on duty. A number of civilians were killed, plus many more captured and wounded.
The British army had a policy of not handing out decoration to non-British nationals, other than the standard Certificate of Merit. A few Italian decorations were handed out to some of the key figures involved. My father Uguccione was decorated with a Silver and then a Bronze medal in 1946, while Captain Stipa had to wait for his medal until 1978! Research on most of the helpers still needs to be done. I have found a picture of Andrea Scattini who was captured by the fascists and then executed on March 8, 1944 while visiting his young wife and child in Force, just north of Ascoli Piceno.
Scritti scelti di Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello: 1960–1969, a cura di Elena Dundovich e Ruggero Ranieri, Firenze, Olschki, 2004.
Roger Absalom, L’alleanza inattesa: mondo contadino e prigionieri alleati in fuga in Italia (1943–1945), Bologna, Pendragon, 2011.
Giorgio Evangelisti, Luigi Stipa: un sogno lungo una vita, Firenze, Olimpia, 2004.
Giuseppe Millozzi, Prigionieri alleati: cattura, detenzione e fuga nelle Marche: 1941–1944, Perugia, Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello Foundation, 2007.
Alessandro Perini, I diari di Babka 1943–1944: aristocrazia antifascista e missioni segrete, 2007.
Ruggero Ranieri, “Missioni alleate dell’A-Force: Marche e Abruzzi (Settembre’43–Luglio’44)”, in Convegno Micro Macro Storia. Memoria storica, idrogeologica e ambientale del territorio. I discendenti di Giorgio di Prenta detti Salvadori tra le due sponde dell’Adriatico. 5 Settembre 2009, s.d. , pp. 151–171.
Ruggero Ranieri, “Prigionieri alleati in Italia centrale: nuove piste di documentazione”, in Bolotti Silvia e Rossi Tommaso (a cura di), La guerra sull’Appennino umbro-marchigiano 1940–1945. Fonti e prospettive di ricerca. Atti del convegno, Fabriano 6 ottobre 2011, pp. 109–116.
Major Fillingham’s Report—The official history of Ratberry and of IS9, The National Archives (London) WO, 208/3250
IS9 Newsletter in The National Archives (London) WO, 208/3250