Girling’s escape network

Museum visitors have added an additional thread to the story of an escaping Green Howards Prisoner of War that we first brought you in 2018.

Read the story from September 2018, then find the update at the bottom.

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 privately published his memoirs of the time as ‘The Apenine Way’, a copy of which is in our collection), 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 note 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 some of Signor Conflitti’s grandchildren, including Fransesco, pictured left, with Angus. Angus says 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, without the letter, we would have been none the wiser.”

The Monte San Martino Trust 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. To find out more about Angus’ efforts to retrace his grandfather’s wartime footsteps, look for the ‘Appenine Adventure’ group on Facebook.

image of Conflitti's grandchildren Rom and AnnaFast forward four years to October 2022 when we receive a call from the grand daughter of the Italian school teacher, Basilio Conflitti, who had helped George Girling all those years ago…

During childhood visits to the village Anna and her brother, Rom, who are Francesco’s UK-based cousins, fondly remember the early morning wake-up calls where their grandfather would lead them up through the mountain paths and tracks he knew so well to see the sunrise. They wonder just how many escaping soldiers he had helped on their way during those confusing times following the Italian armistice.

We shared the fragile handwritten note their grandfather, himself a veteran of the First World War, sent to Girling’s wife. They proudly recall how, during the war, he alone had been trusted with the key to the village water tower, a place where residents had hidden away important commodities, like chocolate.

“It’s wonderful how the grandchildren of the two men in this story have separately found their way to us – sharing their own stories and feeling deeply connected to the events of 1943,” says Museum Director, Lynda Powell. “Without objects like the hat and the good news letter being saved and later entrusted to us, we would never know the human side of an individual’s escape, the impact of the help he received and the bonds that resulted from those fleeting but impactful interactions. Anna tells us that the Conflitti’s kept in touch with at least one other escaping prisoner; visiting his parents in London after the war. Village teenagers were also offered homestays with veteran’s families so they could improve their English.”

images of Basilio at various stages of lifeAnna and Rom donated images of Basilio to the museum collection, adding further to our understanding of the individuals involved and the seemingly circular nature of this particular story of escape, evasion, and the integrity and kindness of strangers at great risk to themselves.