Author Archives: Dennis Hill

Niel Nye—A Clergyman’s Perspective

Niel Nye

Chaplain Niel Nye, Royal Air Force

Today is Easter Sunday, and I can’t think of a better day to add a post on Niel Nye, who was a chaplain in Camp 59, to this site.

On a deep, personal level, Niel felt Easter represented hope and renewal. As a Royal Air Force chaplain, it was that spirit that he sought to impart year-around to soldiers fighting in France and North Africa, and to the interned POWs of P.G. 59.

I’ve mentioned him on this site before.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from David Osborn, who wrote, “I was researching family history for a friend of mine (Christopher Nye) when I came across this page which amazingly contains a letter, handwritten by his father Niel Nye:

“Letter from P.G. 59 Chaplain ‘Niel’ Nye”

When David contacted me he had already shared the page with Chris, and he told me Chris “was absolutely delighted to read the letter, and he recognised his father’s handwriting instantly. He is extremely grateful to Ms. Stewart that she shared the letter with you—it is a priceless piece of his family history that he would otherwise never have known existed.”

David put me in touch with Chris, and Chris and I exchanged a number of emails:

“My dad was a remarkable man who had a remarkable war.” Chris wrote. “After he escaped from P.G. 59, he had an exciting four months travelling south to meet the American forces as they drove north. He had several near misses and I recall him telling me of his adventures when I was about six, sitting in a bath that became colder and colder (but I didn’t notice, as I was so wrapped up with his story!!). When he got back to the UK, his adventures continued: he was appointed chaplain to Bomber Command, then went across to Europe a few days after D-Day. He was one of the first British officers to relieve Belsen concentration camp and, after the German surrender, set up a leadership training college in Hamburg to help with the German reconstruction. When he finally returned to England, he was appointed as vicar in three different parishes (Clapham, Morden, and Maidstone), and then joined the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff as diocesan missionary. He was finally appointed as Archdeacon of Maidstone. He retired in the 1980s and died in 2003. His obituary in the London Times covered half a page!

“I will look out his biography which is hand typed (so I can’t easily send it electronically) and will post you a paper copy, if you like. It’s not brilliantly written (to quote your docs, he was never that academic!!) but it covers the basics of an interesting life.”

I was thrilled to receive the manuscript in the mail about a week later. It’s a fascinating, candid, frequently intimate account of his experiences—spiced throughout with rich humor. From his first memories of childhood in Bromley (in Greater London, England) to a very active retirement after leaving his position as Archdeacon of Maidstone, I was captivated by the tale!

Today I’m sharing the several chapters that cover Niel’s wartime years.

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P.G. 59 on Track to Become a National Monument

P.G. 59, during my visit to the camp in November 2010

I received exciting news yesterday from my friend Anne Bewicke-Copley, a Trustee of the Monte San Martino Trust in London. Senator Francesco Verducci, who represents the Marche Region in the Italian Senate recently put forth legislation to designate the site of former P.G. 59 POW camp in Servigliano a National Monument.

On Friday, March 5, the Senate Chamber passed the bill unanimously at its first reading. It now goes to the Chamber of Deputies for consideration. If the bill passes the chamber, as expected, it will advance to President Sergio Mattarella to be signed into law.

The following news item, written by John Simkins, was posted yesterday on the Monte San Martino Trust website:

The Italian Senate, parliament’s upper house, voted unanimously on March 4th 2021 for the former prisoner of war camp at Servigliano in the Marche to be made a national monument. The bill now passes to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, where it is expected to be approved and passed into law once it is signed by President Matarella.

The initiative is an important step in securing the future of PG 59 Servigliano, with its long, and in many respects, tragic history of holding prisoners. During the First World War the captives were Austrians; in the next conflict the inmates were captured Allied servicemen and Jews. It then became a refugee centre and is now known as Parco della Pace.

The bill was presented by a Marche Senator, Francesco Verducci, and supported by Liliana Segre, a Senator for Life.

Senator Verducci said: “The former prison camp of Servigliano is a symbol… part of a memory map that links countless cities throughout Europe. A map that must be traced and preserved, to hand over the memory of what has been. Memory needs places to live. A society that loses its memory remains blind, without identity and without a future.”

He added that the law was linked to the cultural and political battle to strengthen the study of history in schools. 

Supporters of the former camp have worked hard over the years to raise interest in preserving it, starting with the renovation of the former railway station, which is now the home of the Casa della Memoria. Marco Rotoni, the mayor of Servigliano, said that the Casa della Memoria’s committee, supported by the province of Fermo, intended to restore the former camp’s infirmary, for which a project had been presented to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. It was also planned to develop memory trails. “As a municipality we have already approved the allocation of some funds and we hope that, thanks to the help of both national and local institutions, all these works will be able to see the light in a short time,” said Mr Rotoni.

The former PoW camp, through which passed thousands of prisoners and which is one of the best known in Italy, is the base of an annual Freedom Trail organised by the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society and co-hosted by the Monte San Martino Trust. The Trust was founded by Keith Killby, who escaped from Servigliano and found refuge at the nearby village of Monte San Martino.

Watch Senator Verducci’s presentation of the bill to the Senate on YouTube. (To view closed captioning in English or another language, select your language preference under “auto-translate” in “settings.”)

The barracks, or “huts,” of P.G. 59, photographed by Tony Vacca during his visit to the camp in 1968


Interior view of the wall photographed by Tony Vacca in 1968


To see other photos of the Camp 59 taken by Tony Vacca, see “Twenty-five Years After the Escape.”

Travis Fowler—Nearly Home

Travis Fowler’s grave marker in Worth County, Georgia

Travis Luther Fowler was born November 21, 1919, in the small town of Sylvester, Georgia.

His father, Jefferson Davis Fowler, was born the year the U.S. Civil War ended. He turned 54 in the year Travis was born. Travis’s mother, Charlotte Maude Mallard Fowler, was 17 years younger and J. D.’s second wife. Travis had 15 siblings—four sisters and 11 brothers (four of them half-siblings).

Like most boys, Travis was given a grammar school education, and then was expected to earn a living and help support his family. He worked at a local mill that produced textiles, likely woven from Georgian cotton. He married Eva Whittington Fowler.

Travis enlisted in—or was drafted into—the U.S. Army in May 1942 at the age of 22.

He was assigned to the First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment (“Vanguards”). Travis would have little time for deployment preparation, as his battalion departed the New York Port of Embarkation on August 1, 1942, bound for southwest England. On October 22, it left England for the Operation Torch assault on North Africa.

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Shooting through—Stories of Campo 106 Escapees

cover of Shooting Through, by Katrina Kittel

Katrina Kittel’s book on the Campo 106 POWs’ escape stories

Shooting through: Campo 106 escaped POWs after the Italian Armistice, a remarkable book by Australian historian Katrina Kittel, was published late last year. I have been remiss in not obtaining a copy and giving it a mention here until now. It’s a first-class piece of scholarship and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Published by Echo Books, Shooting through is Katrina’s first book. It is available from a number of online sellers internationally, including Amazon.

Katrina Kittel lives in Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia.

Since 2011, she has researched the wider cohort of some 2,000 Australian POWs in Italy during the war, while giving a refined focus to about 50 Australians who escaped from Vercelli camps on the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.

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Purchasing Casa Monti

an old italian brick house

Casa Monti

Ian McCathy of Casa della Memoria, the association dedicated to preservation of the history of P.G. 59, is spearheading a crowdfunding initative for community purchase of a historic building, Casa Monti, in Servigliano:

gofundme.com/f/acquisto-casa-monti

According to gofundme.com, “the big house is used by various community groups and currently to temporarily house young people in difficulty and migrants, and which also houses the Servigliano English Library. There is no set time frame for this project but we hope to achieve the goal within 1 year from August 2020. The aim is to preserve the social use of the property where other community projects can be developed.”

“The house was the original base of Casa della Memoria before we had the museum in the old station,” Ian wrote to me, “but it’s now used by other associations.”

For families of Allied POWs who were sheltered by courageous local Italians after the P.G. 59 breakout, this an excellent opportunity to show gratitude. I encourage you to support this worthy endeavor, and I will look forward to seeing many British and American names on the donor list in months to come!

Francis “Frank” Ironside—A Hunt for the Past

a young soldier

Francis “Frank” James Ironside

“I wonder if you can help me,” Mary Tretton wrote to me today. “My father died many years ago and never talked about his years in the war. We had no idea he had been a prisoner of war until just prior to our mother’s death.

“At the time you listen, but don’t ask questions—just so many now are running around in my head.

“The only clue I had was many years ago we were discussing places to go on holiday, and I suggested Tunisia. He said, ‘Why would you what to go there, the bowels of the earth.’

“I thought at the time it was a strange thing for Dad to say, but I never asked why.”

We know that Francis “Frank” James Ironside was interned in P.G. 59. He was recorded as such in the Alphabetical List compiled during the war.

Mary wrote, “As far as I know, Dad enlisted—or he might have been conscripted—in 1941 (not sure about the actual dates) and joined the Royal Artillery (RA) as a gunner in an anti-tank regiment. He was deployed into North Africa under Eisenhower as part of Operation TORCH on 10 November 1942, just two days after the invasion was launched.

“This fighting in the desert was brutal and as an anti-tank gunner he would have been in the thick of it on the forward edge of the front line. From what I now know, I’m not surprised he didn’t talk about it much!

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A Haven in Smerillo

an old Italian woman carries a bundle of sticks on her head

Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo

This story has a remarkable heroine—Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo, who lived during the war in the Marche comune of Smerillo, roughly 10 miles from Servigliano. Days after the prison camp breakout from P.G. 59, she was approached by two ragged, hungry American soldiers.

Widowed just seven years earlier, Letizia was left alone to provide for and raise six children. Yet she did not hesitate to welcome the escapees into her home.

Marco Ercoli shared the story of his grandmother’s courage and humanity with me.

He wrote, “My grandmother, Letizia Del Gobbo, hosted in Smerillo two American prisoners escaped from Camp 59 in Servigliano. She remembered just their names: Michele, whose his parents were Italian emigrants, and Beo.

“They arrived in Smerillo on September 1943 and remained there until June 1944, when the U.S. Army moved into the Marche region.

“The family Del Gobbo in 1943 was made up of my grandmother Letizia, widowed in 1936, and three sons—Antonio, Giacomo, and Giuseppe—and three daughters—Maria, Chiarina, and Palma (my mother). Antonio had lost a leg in 1940, when he was 17, and they were very poor.

“Yet they had the strength to host—at great risk—the two Americans.

“Only Antonio, 96 years old, lives still in Smerillo. The others have all died.

“Two years ago, Ian McCarthy [of La Casa della Memoria] gave him a filmed interview.” Also, Pasquale Ricci, an Italian with an interest in the escape stories, has written about the Del Gobbo family in his book 9 Settembre 1943: Lo Sbando e La Fuga.

“I am writing a short story about the experience,” Marco said. “When I finish it, I will send you an English version. And I’ll send you photos of Antonio (called Ntontò) and my grandmother Letizia (“nonna Litì”).

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Seeking John Jarrett’s Italian Father

John Jarrett and siblings; John is on the right, with the crossover straps

Just last month, I posted an unusual story of a South African family who is seeking information about their Italian grandfather, who was a POW working at a local farm when he met their grandmother, Katarina Koopman. See “Searching for Italian POW Guerrino Bari.”

I was surprised to hear so soon afterward from Nicola Jarrett, who is also trying to learn about an Italian grandfather who was a POW during the war.

“My dad is the son of an Italian POW,” Nicola wrote. “It wasn’t until recently I realised that some POWs moved through camps. The camp where my grandma met the man in question was Normanhurst Court Camp 145, in East Sussex, UK. It was a mixed camp of Germans and Italians.

“As far as we know, he was either working on a farm in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, called Walter’s Farm Poppinghole Lane, or one close by. My aunt, now passed, could remember my grandma waiting in a field [for him] at the end of the lane.

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Salvatore Mirabello—In His Own Words

two cards with Italian addresses

The family of Nazareno Marani assisted Salvatore Mirabello and the men with whom he escaped from P.G. 59.
Pietro Marani was Nazareno’s father.


Nazareno Marani
Frazne [Frazione] Molino
Monte S. Martino
Pcia [Provincia] Macerata
Italia

Pietro Marani
Via Lama
Grottammare
Ascoli Piceno
Italy

“My grandfather, Salvatore Mirabello, was an American POW at Camp 59 from approximately January through September of 1943,” says Nikki Morello.

“We have some exciting pieces of history we’ve saved from his experiences, including his biography—spoken by him and handwritten by my grandmother.

“I’d be happy to share any information to continue the understanding and preservation of this piece of history. I am also struggling to find details on the family who kept him safe while he lived in Italy from September 1943 through the spring of 1944. I have been scouring the Internet and Ancestry.com but with misspellings and no living memories—my grandfather passed several years ago—I’m coming up blank. I would greatly appreciate any recommendations or assistance.”

I wrote to Nikki, “I take it your grandfather is the “Sam” Mirabello referred to in ‘Simmons’ Address Book—the Americans‘ and ‘A Southward Migration.'”

She replied, “‘Sam’ is most definitely him. I’m guessing he identified himself by saying he was Salvatore ‘Sam’ Mirabello and became ‘SS’—we’ve seen it on quite a few things throughout the years. His actual name was Salvatore Vittario Mirabello.’

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Searching for Italian POW Guerrino Bari

Left—Guerrino Bari’s son Thomas Fortuin at age nine or ten. Sandra says, “This is the only photo that we have from his childhood.” Right—Thomas on his wedding day.

Earlier this spring, Sandra Hoffman asked me for help in locating her grandfather’s family in Italy. 

“We are from Franschhoek in South Africa,” Sandra wrote. “My grandfather (my father’s father) was/is Guerrino Bari. He was a Prisoner of War in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“We know for a fact that he left the country after the war, and my grandmother had no communication with him after that. We are hoping for an image of our grandfather and maybe contact with surviving family members.”

I asked Sandra for more detail.

She continued, “I am a South African citizen, as was my grandmother. Guerrino Bari was one of the big group of prisoners that was sent to South Africa during WW2. He was sent to the town of Stellenbosch to work on a farm. It is in the Wine Country, and the Italian POWs used their knowledge and skills to build cellars and houses on the farms. 

“My grandmother lived/worked on the Koopmanskloof farm. 

“My father never knew his father. Grandma said that my grandfather took a photograph of his son before the group of Italian POWs were sent back to Italy. Grandma put my father up for adoption, and the new family changed his name and surname. We will never know if his father enquired or searched for him, due to the adoption.

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