ELMS pays Tribute in Italy to Ken de Souza
By Ian de Souza
As the pilot pulled the throttle back, the engines roared, and the Jumbo charged down the tarmac of Cologne Airport, then lifted through the clouds into the clear sky, I remember thinking what a different feeling it must have been in the days when my Dad was flying Wellingtons. In my Dad’s days as a navigator, Ken would have been busy plotting his course, checking the altitude, passing messages to his Pilot Hal and constantly working till the aircraft reached its final destination. Wearing my Dad’s Caterpillar badge with the red eyes on my jacket lapel, reminded me that during the war Dad’s plane had caught fire over the desert and the order had been given: “Ok, chaps, Bale Out!.”
My Dad, having baled out, was faced with crossing the desert with no water. He was later captured and taken as a POW to a camp in Fermo in Italy. Following his escape a year later, he was hidden by a local farming family, the family Brugnoni, before eventually being rescued by the SAS. The Brugnonis were the people we were off to see and pay tribute to.
Two years previously, my Dad, Ken de Souza, had taken me to Italy and shown me the POW-Camp where he had spent a year; the farm house where he had been hidden for almost a year; and introduced me to so many lovely people in the area. His book “Escape from Ascoli” had then been translated into Italian and was presented on Italian Liberation Day 2006, (25th of April). Ken passed away in May 2007 so today I was taking this trip with my wife.
The 25th of April is Liberation Day in Italy and at the memorial ceremony in Monte Urano I was to lay a wreath on behalf of the ELMS. I had wanted to plant a tree in Monte Urano in remembrance of my Dad, but instead the town had decided to rename one of the lanes which go through the park to the river Tenna after Ken de Souza. Thirdly I was to meet several Veterans or Historians and to locate possible representatives for the ELMS in this area of Italy.
Our train ride took us through beautiful Italian countryside on one side the Apennines, on the other the coast, the beautiful landscape of green fields. At 21.30h the train stopped. On the station was a sign, “Porto San Georgio”. As we stood in the square outside the station of Porto San Georgio, suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder, arms were thrown around us. The man who was kissing me on both cheeks was Massimo Campofiloni. His Father, Armando, who was part of the Italian Partisan Resistance, had the task during WW2 of getting five British generals out of the area in his fishing boat. Massimo took us to our hotel about 10 km up the coast, on the way he stopped to show us the house where the five British generals had been hidden in the attic. The house had been owned by an important family in the area and was often visited by the Germans who had no inclination that the family had sympathy with the Italian Resistance.
Massimo told me that whilst the five British generals were hiding in the attic, the Germans had arrived and asked to stay for the night. The lady fortunately being a quick thinker, had said you are more than welcome but we are so tired, we were just going to bed, why don’t you put up your tent in the garden? So the night was spent with three German soldiers, sleeping under canvas in the garden whilst five British Generals were hiding upstairs. Soon after, Massimo’s father Armando got them to the coast into his fishing boat and away to freedom.
The next morning was an early start, we were picked up at 8.30 hrs to be in Monte Urano for 9.00 hrs for the church service prior to the memorial ceremony. Annalise Nebbia was, at the same time, driving down the coast from San Benedetto to Monte Urano with the ELMS wreath, which had only arrived the previous evening and was to be laid at the memorial. Whilst waiting, Massimo and I went to a coffee shop as I wanted him to check over the Italian version of the speech for the laying of the wreath. He looked at the speech, sipped his coffee, shook his head and said “No, that’s completely wrong”. Annalise meanwhile, had arrived at the town hall. Captain Nebbia, Annalise’s father, had got many of our allied troops out of Italy by sea. He had specialist knowledge of the coast line on the Adriatic. He had been given the mission of rescuing my father and my father’s pilot from the coast at Porto San Georgio. On the way he was also to rescue two Greeks from the coast at San Benedetto.
Because of the impending storm conditions he wanted to stop the mission, however the Greeks insisted on continuing. As the storm blew up and the ship started to break, the Greeks realized they had made the wrong decision. Those on board ship, not expecting to see another sun rise, were told to rub oil onto their bodies. Whilst this would not save their lives it may prolong them. The ship drifted aimlessly through the storm and the next morning those on board were miraculously still alive. One of the Greeks asked Captain Nebbia, ‘Do you know where we are?’ He replied, ‘Yes, we are still in San Benedetto’. My father, who was waiting on the coast at Porto San Georgio, had realized that in such a storm no boat could have survived and returned to his hiding at the Brugnoni farm house.
Annalise had translated my father’s book from English into Italian and speaks fluent English. At the town hall she was able to retranslate the speech for the laying of the ELMS wreath. Holding the ELMS wreath of Poppies, I was asked to line up next to the Mayor who was carrying a large wreath on behalf of the town. We were surrounded by various dignitaries and Veterans, the band played the first chorus and the signal was given to slowly march forward. The procession took us from the town hall down the narrow slope to the Memorial Statue overlooking the Adriatic. The Mayor laid the wreath on behalf of the people of Italy and next to it the ELMS wreath was laid. The speech which I had prepared on behalf of the ELMS was given in both English and Italian (the Italian version being read by Annalise Nebbia). A transcript of the English version of the speech appears below:
“This wreath is laid on behalf of the “Escape Lines Memorial Society”, an organisation in England which exists to keep alive the memories and also to help and to honour all of those who helped British troops in the last world war. Great Britain will always remember and today pays tribute to the Partisans and Contadini of Italy who helped so many of our servicemen.
Here, in the “Ascoli” region, Partisans and Contadini provided safe houses and organised freedom trails or routes to freedom. Many Contadini, who in those days had very little, shared what little they had. They hid, clothed, sheltered and fed British servicemen. In so doing risked their own lives; many, indeed, lost their lives. To these wonderful people and to their families, many of whom may be here today, we pay tribute! There is no greater love than that of a man, who laid down his life for his friends or for his fellow human beings.
In the morning, in the afternoon and at the going down of the sun, we will remember them.”
In the afternoon a ceremony had been planned by the town to rename a road after my father “Ken de Souza”. Near to the farm house where my father had been hidden is a large area which is now the park. A path which leads through the park down to the river Tenna, which my father would have no doubt often walked during his time in Italy was being renamed after him and as a tribute to the local Contadini and Partisans.
Monte Urano is a small working village with the population of about 8,000. As we arrived in the park it seemed that at least half of them were already here. The Mayor showed us to an area where something resembling an aircraft wing covered in a large curtain was waiting to be unveiled. As we approached a gathering of people were standing nearby and we were immediately welcomed with smiles, hugs, kisses, embraces as we met every generation of the Brugnoni family and many residents of the area who had known my father.
Annalise and Massimo were kept very busy translating. Caterina, who during my father’s stay in Italy had been a little girl who had often sat on his shoulder, was now a grandmother and she introduced us to her grandchildren who are still light enough to sit on my shoulder. Firstly the Mayor made a speech, followed by the Minister of Culture for the area. My speech, which had been translated into Italian, was read by Annalise. Caterina Brugnoni and I then pulled the cord which unveiled the plaque. A transcript of the speech in English follows.
“There are times in one’s life when a Dad is very proud of his son. This was an occasion where the son was so proud of his Dad. To be here was indeed a great honour. Something which I shall always cherish. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ken de Souza, who this road is named after, was my father. Over 60 years ago, he was a prisoner in the prisoner of war camp in Fermo. He escaped and was hidden by the family Brugnoni who had a farm house which are now the stables not very far away from this spot.
Families like the Brugnoni family are the backbone of Italy and are what makes Italy such a wonderful place to be. These were the local Contadini. They took in a perfect stranger and hid him, knowing that if they were caught they would have been shot. The Contadini didn’t have much, but what little they had, they shared. They treated my father, who in the beginning was a perfect stranger, as one of the family. To my father, they became family, even at aged 89 years of age, my father (known in the region as “Arturo”), would still talk about his “Italian Family”, about Stella, Caterina, Giovanni with great love and affection. My father, Ken de Souza (Arturo) would often walk in this area passing off as an Italian farmer. I am sure he would have taken countless walks along this road, which is today being named after him.
This road is not just a memory to my father, but also represents the backbone of Italy. The Partisans and the Contadini, ordinary people like you and me, who believed in Democracy, and Freedom, they showed tremendous caring and compassion for their fellow human being.
I am sure my father Ken (Arturo) in spirit will often walk this lane, possibly with Stella. I hope, all who walk this road today, or in the future, will appreciate what it is to live in Freedom, in Democracy, and above all to care for one’s fellow man. I always tried to understand why part of my father’s heart was always in Italy. I now understand and part of my heart stays here also.
Ian de Souza