A letter in the museum’s collection has led to an emotional meeting in Italy for the grandson of an escaping Green Howard Prisoner of War, and the family of the local man who helped him 75 years ago.
Angus Henderson is retracing the route taken by Major George Girling when he walked out out Camp PG49 in Fontanellato on 9 September 1943, along with around 600 other POW, following the Italian Armistice the previous day.
Local people helped the escaping prisoners, who began the long walk south, attempting to evade German troops, and trying to meet up with the Allies.
Along with Lieutenant Colonel Gibbs – Queen’s 44 Division (who later wrote a book ‘The Appenine Way’), Rex Smith – Highland Division Artillery and Sergeant Turner, 50 Division Recce Battalion, George Girling walked for 53 days and covered around 1000km before meeting up with friendly forces in Isernia on 5 November 1943.
“As soon as Angus contacted us, we were intrigued by his plans to retrace the route by mountain bike,” explains Assistant Curator, Steve Erskine.
“Not only were we able to confirm a family story of how a local priest had provided George with a hat to wear by showing him the hat we have in our collection, we were also able to show him a postcard Signor Basilio Conflitti had sent to Major Girling’s wife confirming that he had given him a map and directions and confirming that he was in good health.”
75 years after that long walk began, Angus met Signor Conflitti’s grandchildren, including Fransesco, pictured left, with Angus.
Angus says that learning about the existence of the correspondence added another dimension to his planning for the trip. “It put in motion a series of events that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.
They were so emotional when I showed them the letter. An amazing day in Campoli Appenino – without the letter, we would have been none the wiser.”
Local people marked the anniversary of the Italian armistice with a variety of commemorations and celebrations, with Angus making sure he was there to join in.
Before travelling back to New Zealand, Angus visited us in the museum. We were delighted to meet him, hear first-hand about his grandfather and show him the fabled hat.
If you would like to find out more about Angus’ efforts to retrace his grandfather’s wartime footsteps, look for the ‘Appenine Adventure’ group on facebook.