Category Archives: Italian Helpers

Antonio Zagnoli, The Airmen’s Guide

“This photo was taken at Poggio di Casola on September 26, 1941. From left, standing, are Ireneo (brother of my grandpa), my grandma Felicita, and my grandpa Sante; from left, sitting, are cousin Vittorio, my aunt Ada, my uncle Umberto, and my father Antonio” —Marco Zagnoli

Marco Zagnoli recently wrote to me from Italy about his family’s support for Allied airmen in 1943–44. 

“My father told me that he—at the age of sixteen—helped British airmen who were evaders or escaped from prison camps to pass the lines and reach the Allied troops,” Marco said.

“Also, my grandfather provided help, hiding the airmen at our family farm called Poggio di Casola, Castel di Casio village, near Porretta Terme (Bologna). 

“On the British military maps of the area—to which my father could get a look—our farm was marked as ‘a family that helps British troops,’ or something similar.” 

Aerial view of Poggio di Casola, 1933

The airmen, Marco explained, turned up individually at the farm over time. 

“My father guided airmen more than ten times—maybe twelve.

“After hiding each British soldier and refreshing him, in the early morning (3.00 AM), my father led him into the chestnut woods, reaching and staying on the ridge of the mountains in order to avoid German soldiers. They passed on the ridge over Suviana Lake, Badi, Taviano, and continued south towards Pistoia.

“As a meal they only had a loaf of bread and at times a slice of cheese.

“Once on the hills surrounding Pistoia, my father left the airman and went back to Poggio by way of the chestnut woods. 

“My father didn’t know the way the airman had to go in order to cross the front line and reach the Allies, but I think the airman knew the next place to go in Tuscany.”

The mountains Antonio lead the airmen though were in the northern sector of the Apennines (Appennino settentrionale), specifically the Tuscan-Emilian subchain. 

On this contemporary map, Marco has indicated in green the route his father took in guiding the airmen to the hills above Pistoia. Poggio di Casola is noted by a circle near the top of the map.

Detail of the area between Pistoia and Bologna on a silk RAF pilot’s “escape map”

It occurred to me that the map the airmen were carrying might be a silk RAF pilot’s map, or “escape map.”

During the war, Allied paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines in Italy on special missions and to make contact with the Italian resistenza. On the ground, the men were on their own. A map of the area, printed on silk, was standard issue for these men. It showed local features, such as roads, rivers, and villages. 

My friend Kirsty McBeth had recently purchased one of these vintage maps at auction. She kindly photographed a section of the map for me that includes Pistoia and Bologna— and the area between, where Poggio di Casola was located. Although the map provides a great deal of information, it’s not detailed enough to show individual farms, so the nature of the “military map” Antonio caught a glimpse of remains a mystery.

Antonio Zagnoli, circa 1942–43

I asked Marco if he was confident the soldiers were airmen.

“Yes, absolutely,” he answered. “Also, my uncle confirmed it.

“Each airman came by himself, not with other airmen, in different periods. 

“Each soldier told the members of my family that he knew that to reach the Allied lines he had to ask for help, food, and hiding at a farm in Gaggio Montano (left bank of the Reno river) and then cross the river and ask for help, food, hiding at our farm (right bank of the Reno river), and then to be guided by a member of my family through the mountains to the Pistoia district. 

“Our family doesn’t know how the airmen knew that at our farm—and at the farm in Gaggio Montano—they were sure to be helped and not betrayed. As a matter of fact, some of the neighboring farms (Prati, Torraccia) at that time were owned by fascists. 

“The airmen all knew that my family was Christian and against fascists and Nazis. It was indicated on the maps, my father told me.”

Marco said no one in his family knew which one of the farms in Gaggio Montano provided assistance to the airmen. The airmen didn’t share that information with the family.

“The front line was constantly in the move,” Marco explained. “On their way north, the Allies set Pistoia free on September 8, 1944; Florence a week before; Arezzo on August 16th; Ancona on July 18th; and Perugia on June 20th.”

I asked Marco why he thought the airmen chose to travel south to cross the lines, rather than to make their way to Switzerland, the route chosen by many escapees in northern Italy. 

He replied, “I have to point out that in 1943–45 the bridges over Po river (that divides in two parts the Padana plain (i.e. the main part of northern Italy) were either destroyed after bombing or strictly controlled by the Nazis. So if an Allied soldier found himself on the right bank of Po river, it was not possible—or was very, very dangerous—for him to cross the Po, reach the Alps, and then try to cross the border to get into Switzerland.

“The Padana plain didn’t offer many hiding places because it was—and still is—a flat land of fields with few woods. Moreover, the cities and towns were strongly controlled by Nazis and fascists.

“The option to go south was dangerous, but a soldier could find his way through woods and mountains, keeping away from towns and crowded places.

“Longer, but safer.

“And going south made it possible to cross over to land controlled by the Allied army, like your father did.”

Marco pointed out that a third option, staying put, was also dangerous for the airmen, as they ran a risk of being betrayed.

“The journeys would have taken place in the period starting August 1943 and ending in September 1944,” Marco said. 

“I am sure of it, because:

“A. Before August 1943, my father and grandpa were in Milano. My grandpa was a railway worker and also a farmer/landowner of a tiny farm, and they suffered July’s aerial bombardments of Milan. They only went to Poggio in August, when the aerial bombardment was reduced. The rest of my family had yet to move.

“B. The Nazis occupied Porretta Terme in August or September 1943, and retreated in September 1944, after harsh fighting on the mountains north of Gaggio Montano and Riola, which faces Porretta Terme.

“C. On September 26, 1944, the Allied troops of the Sixth South African Armored Division conquered Passo della Collina (which means ‘the Hill’s Pass’) that links Bologna district with Pistoia district. Then, on October 10, 1944, the XI Battalion of the U.S. First Infantry Division set Porretta Terme free.

“From fall 1944 through spring 1945, five Sherman tanks were based on our hill and the soldiers lived with our family. 

“All the members of my family have since referred to the period passed with the U.S. soldiers with a sense of gratefulness to the Americans who brought with themselves freedom, food, coffee, and cigarettes.

“My father died on February 1982. The only members of my family who were living during the war and are still living are my uncle (the youngest brother of my father) Umberto (born 1932), who was a boy during the war, and my second cousin Vittorio (born 1926).”

Recent view of Poggio, 2013

“I am in possession of a certificate of gratitude, signed by Field-Marshal H. R. Alexander, awarded to my father,” Marco continued.

“I had seen this certificate before, but unfortunately I had looked only at the back”—where the document has an Italian translation. “It was not completed, so I thought it was of no importance.

“I said to myself, ‘Why didn’t my father get this certification? Very strange.’ 

“Then last year, in putting old paperwork in order, I had a lucky strike and looked at the front.” 

On the English-language side of the certificate is penned in stylish calligraphy the name “Zagnoli Antonio di Sante.”

“So I then started researching the story behind this certificate,” Marco said, “until a search on the internet led me to your site.”

“I suppose that the certificates—issued to a select group of Italians who had risked their lives to protect escaped British POWs and evaders—were issued after a preparatory phase, as the sequential number suggests.” 

Antonio’s Alexander certificate
The back of the Alexander certificate

This certificate is awarded to Zagnoli Antonio di Sante as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.

H.R. Alexander
Field-Marshall,
Supreme Allied Commander,
Mediterranean Theatre
1939–1945

“My father at the age of 30, taken in Galliate (Novara district, a town between Milan and Turin, south of Lago Maggiore). The reason of the picture taken in Galliate, is that in my family many have itchy feet, so after WW2 my father worked and lived in Galliate, not far from Switzerland. Nevertheless, he kept strong ties to his roots.” —Marco Zagnoli

A Reflection on Heroism and Humility

Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti

“There is a certificate of gratitude hanging in my grandmother’s house in London that was awarded to my great-grandfather, Antonio Cavaciuti,” Sophia Boeri wrote to me last month. 

“I recently began to enquire about the history of this certificate to my family. My grandfather passed away before I was born and so I was never able to ask him directly about the certificate. My family don’t know too much about the story behind it—all that they’ve been able to tell me is that my great-grandfather helped to protect British soldiers during World War II and that his actions were deemed to be very courageous, especially considering that he had nine young children. 

“I began to search for more information on the internet and came across your website, so was hoping that you will be able to provide me with more information about the actions of people like my great-grandfather.”

I told Sophia I would like to share their great-grandparents’ story and asked if she would send me a few photos.

Sophia wrote again a couple of weeks later. “Sorry about the delay in responding to you,” she said. “It took a while to sort through many boxes of family photos!

“I have attached a picture of my great-grandfather’s Alexander certificate, a photo of Antonio and Domenica, a clearer photo of Antonio and a photo of all their children together.

“I have managed to find out the following so far: Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti lived in the village of Rusteghini, which is in the municipality of Morfasso and the province of Piacenza in Italy, with their nine children. They lived a very humble life working on their farm.

“Apparently, they sheltered British soldiers in their stable.

“I would like to be able to find out more about what they did to help these soldiers and who the soldiers were that they protected.”

The children of Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti

Sophia identified Antonio and Domenica’s children as (left to right in the picture above) Rita, Giovanni, Giuseppina, Teresa, Andrea, Maria, Rachele, Giovanna, and Ugo. 

“Unfortunately, Ugo passed away when he was just 10 years old,” she said. 

“Of the remaining children, only Giovanna and Rachele remained in Italy—the rest became economic migrants as they moved to Paris and London. My grandfather was Giovanni—he originally left Italy to move to Paris with his sisters Rita, Giuseppina, and Maria, and his brother Andrea. He then decided to move to London, where he joined his sister Teresa. 

“After Antonio passed away, the decision was made to give the certificate to the only son remaining, my grandfather Giovanni, which is how the certificate made its way to London.”  

Antonio Cavaciuti

The certificate is creased from being folded, as if carried in someone’s pocket at one time. It was ultimately framed and displayed, however the story of the family’s heroism has faded over time—the details forgotten.

The wartime episode is a testament to the Cavaciutis’ humility—when the escapers wandered onto their property, Antonio and Domenica acted on a principal of deeply-felt humanity. Sheltering the men was likely a natural, spontaneous impulse.

Nazi retribution for helping escapees was swift and severe. They were risking their lives—and the lives of their children. I have no doubt they realized this.

The Alexander certificate attests to their heroism. It is a document Antonio and Domenica’s descendants can rightly be proud of.

The Alexander certificate

This certificate is awarded to Cavaciuti Antonio as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.

H.R. Alexander
Field-Marshall,
Supreme Allied Commander,
Mediterranean Theatre
1939–1945

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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Recognition of Bastiano Crescenzi

Sebastiano “Bastiano” Crescenzi

I received an email this week from Maurizio Roscetti, who lives with his wife, Valentina Crescenzi, near the village of Canneto Sabino, between the city of Rome and Rieti.

Maurizio wrote, “I am in possession of a certificate of gratitude signed by Field-Marshall H. R. Alexander, awarded to my wife’s great-grandfather, Crescenzi Sebastiano, called by all ‘Bastiano.’

“I’m a lover of history and I would like to deepen my understanding of the history of this certificate. I was completely unaware of the story behind the certificate until a search on the Internet led me to your site.”

Bastiano lived in Canneto. He was a soldier in the First World War, Maurizio explained. Born in 1885, he was 59 years old in 1943–44. Franco Crescenzi, Bastiano’s son (Valentina’s grandfather), was too young to serve in the Italian army during the Second World War, and Bastiano was too old to fight.

Maurizio wrote, “My father-in-law, Sebastiano—given the same name as his grandfather—said that Bastiano saved a group of English soldiers from an ambush prepared by German soldiers near the city of Fara in Sabina. The English soldiers would certainly have died, if he had not warned them!”

Today, a reminder of the war exists nearby. “Near Canneto there is a street called “the street of the English” (strada degli Inglesi),” Maurizio wrote, “because, during the Second World War, after the liberation of Rome, the Allied forces in order to continue the liberation of North Italy, built a new street where before there was a little muletrack—the English Army had many tanks that needed to pass from there!”

The “Alexander certificates,” signed by Field Marshal Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy, were issued to Italians who had risked their lives to protect escaped British POWs and evaders (soldiers evading capture in enemy territory) during German occupation of their county.

Bastiano’s Alexander certificate reads:

This certificate is awarded to Crescenzi Bastiano as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.

H.R. Alexander
Field-Marshall,
Supreme Allied Commander,
Mediterranean Theatre
1939–1945

Young Partisan William Scalabroni

William Scalabroni in 1942. Mattia De Santis says, “One year later he would be a partisan in this place.”

Mattia De Santis from Ascoli Piceno, Italy, wrote to me two weeks ago, “I’m the nephew of two partisans that were in Ascoli between September and October 1943.

“My grandfather, William Scalabroni [also a partisan], told a very short story on video about himself and his comrades who helped two Italian officers and also a group of POWs from Servigliano to reach the road going south during the German attack on Colle San Marco.”

The video can be accessed through Storia Marche 900, a website devoted to the history of the liberation movement in the Marche.

“Maybe you would find the story interesting, even if it’s just a little reference,” Mattia wrote. “It is in Italian, but I can help to translate it.

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Domenico Mancini—A Key Italian Assister

The letter shown here and an accompanying list of Allied servicemen referred to in the letter are among many documents from the British National Archives that Brian Sims shared with me during our brief two-year friendship at the end of his life.

According to this communication, 51 ex-POWs were assisted by Domenico Mancini of “Monte Falcone” (presumably Montefalcone Appennino in the province of Fermo, in the Italian Marche).

There are two versions of the list, the first a carbon copy and the second a typed copy with some discrepancies and errors. Fortunately, it contains many service numbers that are useful in confirming some of the men’s identities.

The letter makes mention of the murder of prisoners at Comunanza (see “An Execution at Comunanza.”)

Here is the text of the letter, followed by the list of names:

SECRET
Ref: No.
SIB60/A-Gp/WC/45/9a.

H.Q., ‘A’ Group, 60 Section,
Special Investigation Branch,
c/o A.P.M’s Office, 61 Area,
Central Mediterranean Forces.

SUBJECT :- Ex-Prisoners of War.

To :-
D.A.P.M.
60 Section, S.I.B.

1. Herewith a list of 51 ex-prisoners of war mostly members of the United States Army. The names may come in useful at some later date as the list was commenced on 2nd October, 1943. MANCINI, now residing at MONTE FALCONE (Italy, 1:200,000. Sheet 14. MR. X(B)5687), lived for over 20 years in America. Some of the names on the original document, which was obtained by Sergeant HOWARTH and BURGESS., are difficult to decipher and other possible interpretations have been included. I am retaining the original as it may be required as an exhibit in file 9A.

2. Reference Progress Report No. 2. on file 9A, paragraph 3, LOUIS LYCKA’s personal number would appear to be 38028716 from the enclosed list (No. 10), and possibly the American authorities can trace him from this and let us have some information regarding his activities.

Check of the other names may reveal some relevant information as it is believed that the British ex-prisoners in this case were exhumed and transferred to another cemetery in August 1944, and that the bodies of the Americans at COMUNANZA have been searched by American personnel. If this is correct the respective Second Echelons may have the names of these people.

D. A. THORN. Lieut.
60 Section, S.I.B.

29 Mar ’45.

Copy to :- File.

DAT/GBG.

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Onore al Merito—Search for a Long-Lost Film

I would like to draw readers’ attention to an interesting article that appeared last week on The Text Message Blog, on online publication of the U.S. National Archives.

“‘Let’s Make a Movie:’ The Allied Screening Commission (Italy) and the documentary Onore al Merito (To Whom Honor is Due), 1946″ was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

The story is intriguing. As early as April 1944, an idea was proposed for a film to recognize and honor the scores of Italians who helped Allied evaders and escapees from prisoner-of-war camps. The film concept quickly drew interest and support, and the work came to fruition in the summer of 1946, a joint effort of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy) and the British Embassy in Rome.

Entitled Onore al Merito (To Whom Honor is Due), the film was about 25 minutes in length. Both Italian and English language versions were produced.

The Italian version of the film premiered in the village of Camarda, Italy, where much of the film was shot. It was later shown both formally and privately in Rome. It’s doubtful the film was ever shown in the United Kingdom.

Greg Bradsher writes in his post that neither the U.S. nor British National Archives possesses a copy of the film.

“Perhaps a reader knows where a copy might reside,” he writes. “My guess is that it will be in Italy.”

If any readers of this post have knowledge of the film, please contact me at hilld@iu.edu. I will gladly pass along any information.

Mario Mottes

I.S.9 agent Mario Raoul Mottes

Belgian-born Mario Mottes served as a parachutist and radio operator agent for Allied I.S.9 operations. His task was to locate escaped Allied POWs in enemy-occupied Italy and guide them across the lines—a mission known as Ratline evacuation.

However, on March 10, 1944, while performing his duty, he was arrested by the Germans and executed with three escaped Allied prisoners of war.

The two photos of Mario Mottes in this post were given to my colleague Luigi Donfrancesco by Dr. Lino Beber, a retired physician and historian from Pergine Valsugana (in the province of Trento, Northern Italy), the hometown of Mario Mottes’ mother, Pia Paoli.

The photos were provided to Lino by the the daughters of Mario’s cousin Gina Paoli, daughter of a brother of Mario’s mother. Today Gina Paoli is nearly 100 years old.

Mario Mottes with his cousin Gina Paoli at Lake Caldonazzo, near Pergine Valsugana, Italy.

For more on Mario Mottes, see “War Crime—the Ponte Dragone Executions,” “Ponte Dragone Deaths—A Second Report,” and “Honor Recommended for Mario Mottes.”

Service at Ancona War Cemetery

A rededication service for Private Lionel Brown, 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, and Privates Daniel Hollingsworth and Thomas White, 1st Battalion The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) took place this past week. The three, having escaped from Italian prisoner of war camps during WW2, were shot along with I.S.9 agent Mario Mottes, near the village of Montedinove, Italy.

Read an official Ministry of Defence news story about the event, “Bravery of 3 World War 2 soldiers shot for escaping from a POW camp finally recognised after nearly 75 years.”

Read also “Heros Honored” by The Sun.

On this site, read “War Crime—the Ponte Dragone Executions” and “Ponte Dragone Deaths—A Second Report” for the details on the Special Investigation Branch war crime investigation into the soldiers’ capture and execution.

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Ponte Dragone Deaths—A Second Report

A page from the Ponte Dragone Special Investigation Branch (SIB) file

On May 16, 1945, Sergeant W. Mottram filed a formal report on investigations into the Dragone Bridge execution of three British soldiers and an I.S.9 agent (see “War Crime—the Ponte Dragone Executions”).

Twenty-two days later, SIB Captain E. Lister issued a memo concerning the event that is more concise, but offers additional details and clarifications.

Lieutenants Fischer and Rommel were identified as officers of the Montalto Marche detachment of the “Brandenburgers,” the group implicated in the crime. Fischer was officer in charge, and Rommel was his second in command.

A possible close family connection of young Lieutenant Rommel to Erwin Rommel was clearly of interest to the investigators, as twice in the report the lieutenant was referenced as a nephew of the late field marshal.

Decades later, this connection is just as intriguing. In 2001, a day after the release of the secret war crime file for this incident, the Guardian did a story entitled “Rommel’s nephew linked to war crime.”

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