Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. I must tell you that when I received the invitation to speak at this conference I felt very flattered, and I immediately thought that I could have used a few pages of the booklet that I had written about the military adventures of my father, the brigadier General Todhunter. Then I realized that it would have been absolutely pretentious on my part, since I had laid out those pages just for my family, and I could not absolutely guarantee their accuracy for a wider and qualified audience.
Therefore, I will not conceal that I was about to pull back, but then the organizers reassured me that I was not supposed to do an intervention as an historian, rather a family testimony that could evoke a human bond arisen in those years and that still resists today, through the generations, seventy years after those events.
So I decided to start telling you when, for the first time, I managed to see the places where my father took refuge, with the help of the monks of Camaldoli, the local peasants and the partisan movement of Romagna.
Earlier this year (2004) I decided to have another shot at finding Seghettina. Without the slightest hope of getting a reply I wrote to “Signor Nanni” at the address where Torquato had lived when I corresponded with hirn 20 years ago on the off chance that some descendant of his might still live in the house. To my amazement Torquato himself – aged 87 – replied and in no time was making elaborate plans to help me achieve my ambition.
Seghettina is now in the middle of a forested national park, so much protected that entrance to it is forbidden without the express permission of the head ranger -Renzo Di Julio. Luckily Renzo is known to Torquato through a mutuai friend. And so quite early on the moming of July 11th we set off on our adventure.
We set off in a mini bus on the Santa Sofia to Poppi road and after about lO kilometres transferred to land rovers to follow a very rough track, which eventually fizzled out. And from there we walked. And that is the point – Seghettina is and always was inaccessible by any sort of road and was therefore ideai for hiding escaping prisoners of war. Our brigadier and General John were sent there by Don Leoni – one of the brothers at the Eremo – and described in my father’s photograph album as “our guide, philosopher and friend”.
He was a particular friend of Laurenzo Rossi, who had been in the Eremo with him, but was defrocked on account of his enthusiasm for the ladies. Laurenzo, who was a man of some property, had moved to farm at Seghettina, surrounded by countless children, so it was natural for Don Leoni to send them to hirn.
At 700 metres, Seghettina is a settlement of 4 houses now surrounded by the forest, but then obviously in much more open country. There is now a large man-made lake in the valley below and the largest house which is the only one left standing, is occupied as a holiday home by a charming family and a curious collection of other keen naturalists. These people made us very welcome and let us use their “dining” room for a feast which was emptied from the rucksacks of our party – endless Italian dishes and bottles of Torquato’s own delicious red wine, followed by pudding wine and two different types of Grappa. I made a short speech expressing my deep gratitude for the realisation of a long held ambition and severa! others replied with emotional reference to the common cause of liberty 60 years ago.
Two of the houses were a hundred metres or so further up the bill and on the wall of one of them a plaque had been placed: «During the fall of 1943, these houses of Seghettina welcomed a large group of senior officers of the British army escaped by the prisons. […]. The populations of the Apennines and the Romagna plain, even at the risk of their lives, were with courage and with love by their side to return them to freedom».
Even at the risk of their lives!
Well, I want to express here once again, also on behalf of my family, the immense gratitude for the fact that the Rossi family in Seghettina and many others before and after them (from father Checcacci to the Spazzoli brothers, from the commander Libero to the Nanni family, from Bruno Vailati to Sandrino of Strabatenza) endangered their lives to shelter my father and the other officers.
That day at Seghettina, my wife Caroline and I were very impressed to discover that our traveling companions felt the same level of gratitude to those officials and indeed to all the British people, because compared to their parents that basically defended their homes, they took up the arms in 1939 in defense of the freedom of countries that were thousand miles away from their homeland.
My father was able to return to England in May 1944. Sunday May 14 he was reunited in London with my mother and my sister, Susie, who had travelled up from Shropshire, where we lived in the war. I was 9 years old and at Heatherdown, which had been evacuated to Downton Hall, Ludlow.
Later that week Mr Warner the headmaster said after breakfast that there was to be a change in routine that day: Todhunter was to have his rest before rather than after lunch. And after lunch he said that Todhunter was to come with him to his study, where was standing a short, stocky man in uniform with red tabs and a moustache. “Todhunter” said Mr Warner, I suspect relishing the moment, “”I want to introduce you to your father”.
I suppose I might have recognised hirn from the photograph over my bed, but it was certainly a moving and memorable moment. I had last seen him when I was four and there is a photograph of hirn shaking hands with me and saying goodbye. Apparently he said to me “I foave you in charge of the family, Benjy”, which so much weighed on my mind that for years I was haunted by the same nightmare. So my mother said. I remember the nightmare: lying on my back in the middle of a ride in a big wood with an elephant approaching and its foot ju st about to come down on my face. So there!
With some time to go before the taxi retumed to take us home for the night, Warner suggested we should go for a walk down the back drive. No sooner were we outside than my father dived into a rhododendron bush for a pee. During the war of course there were no men in the family, so I was scandalised by this unexpected behaviour and distinctly remember thinking “I have only just found a father and they seem to have sent the wrong one!”
My father then wanted to war again, always in Italy. Despite himself, he was assigned to a desk job, in liberated italy. But he did not forget his rescuers. I wish to read some passages from a letter my father wrote to my mother on December 17th , 1944:
My own Darling,
I am afraid I have not written for a few days not because I am idle or because I have stopped loving you but because I have been up in the mountains seeing my friends.
I set off on Wed: with toys for 22 children about 1,000 cigarettes and some soap and razor blades. [At] S. Sofia […] I proposed to start walking would have meant another journey round of 200 miles. As a result I stayed the night at the monastery al Eremmo where I found Don Leone who did so much for us in Sept 1943 and he luckily offered to come and walk with me.
It was bitterly cold and snowed quite hard during the night but we started off next morning at 8 a.m. We tried all sorts of mountaineering feats with the jeep, but bridges down, roads blown and snow and mud finally beat us and at 11 o’clock we had to make up our minds to give up or walk. […].
The first hour was all uphill and on the top there was about 8 inches of snow, with fine snow, bit luckily not much, falling all the time. We then went down hill for another ½ hour to find two families: the Rossi’s with whom Pipol (?) and the Air Marshal and Rudolf lived in Sept and Oct of ’43 and Ubaldo (?) with whom John and General Dick lived at the same time. Their own houses and almost everything they possessed had been burnt by the Germans as a reprisal after a Partisan battle but luckily they were warned and cleared out in time. As a result they were living in even greater squalor than usual 1 ½ hours walk away from their farms.
Although the Rossi men and girls were away and only Granny and the children were at home there was a great welcome […] and we had lunch of bread and cheese and wine.
The toys were a great success, so were the cigarettes and soap and I saw my godson called Giuseppe after me […]. I took some photographs and we pushed on about 1.30. […].
After that an hour downhill took us to Maurigio’s mill where G.P. and Guy lived for a long time. I left Leone there and went on about 20 minutes to Sandrino’s house where I lived last Dec, Jan and Feb: they had just finished supper and when I walked in there was a gasp of surprise and then the whole family fell on me […]. Both arms were nearly torn off and everyone had to be kissed: I had never imagined such a welcome and they all said “We knew you would come back: you said you would and you have always kept your promises”. After a very talkative supper the toys were produced, rifles for the boys, small dolls for the girls except my sweet Maria for whom I had found a big one. I asked her if she remembered that I had promised to bring her something and she said “Yes a doll” so I told her to look in my pack: she pulled it out and unpacked it with her eyes getting bigger and bigger and when she finally found it she looked at it quite silently for about ½ a minute and said very solemnly “It isn’t really true it’s for me” so I said “Yes” and she just came like a whirlwind onto my lap gave me an enormous kiss and burst into floods of tears. […]. Next day I made a sort of triumphal progress […] Rio Salso where John and I lived in Nov 1943. By this time the news had got round that I had arrived and at every house we passed there were cheers and pressing invitations to eat and drink. […] I got back to Sandrino’s house at 6 o’clock where a vast supper had been prepared in honour of me and Leone. We had tortelli, which are made of dough and potatoes, rabbit, sausages, cheese, apples and nuts, a really outstanding ‘festa’ and afterwards crowds of people came to pay a call and talk. I counted 60 people in the kitchen at one time and they had come for miles. […]. The warmth of my welcome really did surprise me and the really long distances people walked just to shake hand and have a crack. One warrior walked 2 ½ hours each way to the village, found he had missed me when he got there and cheerfully walked another 2 hours each way just to say how glad he was that I had [there]. The photographs of you and the children had a howling success: yours was specially admired and it was agreed that you were a ‘bellissima donna’ and had worn wonderfully well for your age and four children! In case your head swells I must tell you that beauty is judged largely by weight in these parts and one old granny after gazing at you for some time said ‘What milk she must make !’
This is the private sphere, so to speak …
As a military, my father is known for having written with General Combe a report considered strategically very important, so that because of this on May 11th 1944 the two brigadiers were led directly to the Allied Army Headquarters in Italy, with urgency. They arrived in Caserta by General Alexander, who the following day sent them by plane with a temporary pass to Alexandria by General Jumbo Wilson, supreme commander of the Mediterranean Theater. I am as sure as I can be that they were flown home on Saturday May 13 where they were taken directly to Winston Churchill to be interviewed about the strength of the resistance in Northem Italy.
This is one of the few things that my father told me and he said that Churchill was sitting up in bed in a silk dressing gown with Chinese dragons all over it – a glass of brandy and a cigar in his hand. He had read the report and completely mastered it, cutting them short if they repeated what was in it and asking about endless details.
Whether this is accurate or not I now know from Christopher Woods that as the result of a subsequent war office conference, he – at this time responsible in London for the activities of SOE in Northem Italy: was instructed to have more agents and presumably equipment parachuted into Romagna to bolster the partisans, who were commanded by a man known as Libero. He told Michael Sissons that, as a result of this, Allied strategy was altered and the advance Northwards through Italy was undertaken with greater dispatch. I wonder if the dear old brigadier ever knew that as a result of his endeavours the conduct of the war was affected in this very small way.
Some years later, I think it must have been on my parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary, my mother most uncharacteristically suddenly raised her glass at dinner and said “Well, my darling, thirty years of happiness: which do you think were the best?” “Undoubtedly the war years” said my father without a moment’s thought. And my mother cried and we were all scandalized.
But, as I finished my second glass of grappa at Seghettina, I couldn’t help wondering whether, in comparison to being slouched over the wheel of a combine harvester grinding up and down the flat plains of Essex, there wasn’t something rather alluring about being in these magnificent mountains, adrenalin coursing through your veins, in the prime of life and incredibly fit, nerves taut with the sense of danger and excitement. And, more important, would not being with people, who were risking the lives of themselves and their families not only on your behalf but also on behalf of Liberty – not in some far flung European state, but in their own backyard – be more fulfilling than piling up a com mountain that nobody wants? I am now prepared to give the dear old brigadier the benefit of the doubt.
Michael Benjamin Todhunter
Monastero di Camaldoli, 15 novembre 2014