Ross, Michael

Summary of Michael Ross

Told by Michael’s son, David, this story tells of Michael’s escaping twice from Fontanellato, his marriage to the daughter of one of the Partisans, and gives details the network of Partisans operating in Italy in 1943. It highlights how their network was organised, how they worked with the allied Special Operations, and the risks the Partisans themselves faced. Many of the partisans who helped Michael were executed and even in 1947 Michael’s own father in law, Beppe Porcheddu, simply disappeared when in Rome.

The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.

[Digital page 1]

A summary of my father’s war memoire by Brigadier David Ross

On 9 September 1943 following the Italian Armistice, over 50,000 of the 80,000 Allied prisoners of war in 52 camps in Italy escaped.  The majority were recaptured by the Germans but over 17,000 managed to evade recapture and eventually re-joined Allied units.  Many, however, joined the Italian partisans and continued to attack the Germans and Fascists.  This is the story of a British Army officer Captain Michael Ross, my father, who escaped twice from a prisoner of war camp in Fontanellato near Parma. Ross wrote a book about his time in Italy titled ‘The British Partisan’[1]

His first escape was on 7 May 1943, only to be recaptured on the Swiss border and returned to Fontanellato.  On the second escape on 9 September 1943, Ross and a fellow officer George Bell, received considerable help from local Italians who gave them food, shelter and even clothes at great risk to themselves.  After several weeks Ross and Bell reached Liguria and the village of Baiardo with the intention of reaching Gibraltar via France and Spain.  Here they encountered Renato Brunati and this was to change the entire course of events for them. 

Brunati was the leader of a small group of partisans which included his companion, Lina Maiffret.  Brunati offered to help Ross and Bell escape by finding a fisherman who could take them to Corsica which had been liberated in October 1943.  Brunati had discussed the plan with a friend and fellow anti-fascist, Beppe Porcheddu.  Beppe and his family lived in ‘Villa Llo di Mare’, in Arziglia, east of Bordighera.  Beppe suggested that the two officers should hide in his villa until they departed.  Ross and Bell arrived at Beppe’s villa and were greeted by the whole family; his wife Rita, twin daughters Giovanna and Amalia and a son, Bitita.  After three days Brunati and Lina returned with the disappointing news that the fisherman had left the area.  Because of the risks to the Porcheddu family Ross and Bell decided to try to cross the French border and they left with the partisans for the mountains. 


After leaving Villa Llo di Mare, Brunati suggested that, due to increased German patrols in the area, they should all move to his villa ‘Casa Mattone’ which was close to Beppe’s villa.  ‘Casa Mattone’ still exists today in its distinctive red brick colour and a plaque on one of the walls records that the author, Giovanni Ruffini, wrote his famous book ‘Il Dottor Antonio’ whilst staying at the villa.  At midday on their first morning at ‘Casa Mattone’ there was a loud knock on the door.  Lina whispered “Carabinieri” to Ross and Bell who quickly made their escape from the villa to hide in a nearby railway tunnel.  After several hours and hearing nothing they went back to the villa.  It was deserted with no sign of Brunati or Lina; they had been arrested.  Beppe had also heard the news and had quickly arranged for two partisans, Vincenzo Gismondi and Federico Assandria, to take Ross and Bell to a safe house in the mountains.  Another escape to Corsica was then planned.  A boat was located, locked in a hut on a beach.  Ross and the others made their way to the beach.  The boat was launched and

[Digital page 2]

they rowed away from the shore but disaster struck as water started entering the boat through cracks in the dry warped wooden boards and it began to sink.  Fortunately they managed to reach the shore just before the boat went under.  They quickly dispersed and Ross and Bell went to Beppe’s villa to ask for his help once again.

Beppe took them in without hesitation and they remained with the family over that Christmas period of 1943.  They also heard the very happy news that Brunati and Lina had been released.  Ross was increasingly worried about the safety of Beppe and his family as they had now been there for three weeks.  Fortuitously, Brunati and Lina visited Beppe’s house so Ross and Bell were able to depart with them into the mountains.  Brunati and Lina then left the mountains and two days later Beppe met up with Ross and Bell to give them the alarming news that Brunati and Lina had been rearrested and were being interrogated.  With these arrests Ross, Bell and the partisans were now at great risk.  Beppe secretly proposed to Ross that they should return to his villa until they decided what to do next.  For security, no one was to know of this plan.  Ross and Bell were to remain at Villa Llo di Mare for 3 months.  A secret room behind a large wardrobe provided a hiding place for them when necessary as Beppe was always suspected for his involvement with the partisans. 

Shortly afterwards, the fascist police ordered Beppe to report for questioning in Imperia, the provincial capital.  During several hours of questioning, Beppe successfully refuted all the allegations put to him and as the fascists had no evidence Beppe was released.  On 15 August 1944 the US 7th Army landed in the south of France between Cannes and St Tropez.  A trusted friend of Beppe who worked in the local government offices alerted him that he had seen a secret list of people to be arrested and held as hostages by the Germans and the Fascists.  Beppe’s name was at the top of the list so there was no time to lose.  Ross and Bell immediately left for the mountains to try to re-join the partisans.  The villa was evacuated and the family split up to hide with different friends.  For Michael Ross, his departure was much more difficult as he realised that he had fallen in love with Giovanna.  Ross wondered if he would ever see the Porcheddu family again. 

Moving into the mountains Ross and Bell had to take evasive action several times to avoid German patrols but they were captured by suspicious partisans and taken to their hide-out.  The partisans were from the Garibaldi Brigade and their leader, Bruno, suspected that Ross and Bell were German spies.  Bruno told them that in the morning, if they did not explain fully where they had been, they would be shot.  They could not reveal the help given to them by Beppe and the Porcheddu family as it could have jeopardised the safety of the family.  In the morning another partisan arrived, Guiseppe Vittorio Guglielmo (Vitto) (1916-2002), commander of the Garibaldi Division and who had fought in the International Brigade in Spain.  Vitto came over to Ross and said that he had two Americans with him and the Americans would now be used to interrogate Ross and Bell to establish the truth. 

It was a two day trek to Vitto’s unit further up in the mountains.  On arrival they met the two Americans pilots who had parachuted from their plane after being shot down.  After only a few words the US pilots were able to reassure the partisans that Ross and Bell were indeed British officers.  It turned out that Vitto had additional help from a Special Operations Executive officer, Captain Robert Bentley, who was trying to arrange the delivery of arms to

[Digital page 3]

the partisans by rubber dinghies launched from a submarine.  It was planned for the weapons to be landed on a beach at Arma di Taggia, a few miles further east from Bordighera.  As part of the weapons delivery plan Ross and Bell, along with the two American pilots, would escape by boarding the submarine at the end of the operation.  The first attempt to do this failed as when the group neared the beach, flares suddenly illuminated the whole of the beach area and German coastal guns opened up firing out to sea.  They all managed to escape in the chaos.  A second attempt 10 days later also ended in similar failure.  Despite this Bentley, Ross Bell and the partisans were determined to try again.  On the third attempt Ross and the partisans were stopped by a partisan acting as a forward scout before they could get to their beach positions.  The Germans were lying in wait and the partisans concluded that an informer must have tipped them off.  An investigation was held and it concluded that one of the female partisans, Olga, must have betrayed them to the Germans.  She claimed to be Yugoslav and was used by the partisans to befriend Germans and gain information, however it was concluded that she must have been acting as a double agent.  She was shot. 

It was clear that Olga’s recent treachery had not been confined to the attempted arms delivery.  The next day the Germans started a major operation against the partisans.  They must have known exactly where the group was hiding as the huts they were using were suddenly attacked by the Germans.  A number of partisans, along with Ross and Bell, managed to escape but several partisans were killed and others captured only to be summarily executed.  Ross’ group quickly reorganised and moved to a new location.  There they discussed an alternative plan of escape by rowing to France which was now held by the Allies.  The danger, however, of an attack by the Germans was ever present.  On one fateful occasion the partisans, tired of moving, stayed in the same hut for a second night.  Ross and Bell, who had made it a rule not to spend more than one night in the same location, departed and said they would meet up again in the morning.  At dawn the silence was suddenly broken by the sound of explosions.  When all was quiet.  Ross and Bell then made their way carefully back to the hut and their worst fears were confirmed.  All the partisans were lying dead on the floor.  There was nothing they could do for them now and so they immediately left the area.  Ross had been impressed with the partisans whom he considered well-trained and very courageous. 

Ross and Bell decided they must press on with their plan to row to France.  Two boats were found for them by the partisans in the coastal town of Vallecrosia, located between Bordighera and Italian border town of Ventimiglia.  Ross, Bell, a free French pilot and 4 partisans set off in the boats but both were swamped in the heavy sea.  Despite nearly drowning during the first attempt, they tried again two days later.  On this second attempt the two boats were launched safely in darkness into calmer waters.  After nearly two and a half years of imprisonment, hiding and moving constantly in the mountains, helped by partisans and being hidden by Beppe, Ross and Bell had finally reached the safety of Monte Carlo. 

Of the partisans who stayed in Italy who had helped Ross and Bell, the story is very sad as several were captured and executed.  Renato Brunati, the first partisan they had met, who was also a good friend of Beppe, was arrested in 1944, taken to a prison in Genoa and

[Digital page 4]

together with other hostages, executed by firing squad.  Brunati’s companion, Lina Meifrett, was also arrested but thankfully was instead deported to Germany from where she subsequently escaped. 

Vincenzo, Elio and Federico, who had attempted to row to Corsica with Ross and Bell, all survived the war but on a hill overlooking the port of Bordighera is a memorial to the partisans who were executed or killed in action.  At the top of the list is Renato Brunati.  Beppe and the whole of the Porcheddu family were also incredibly lucky and survived the war.  Ross re-joined his regiment and a short time later the war ended in Europe.  He returned to Bordighera in 1946 and to a joyful reunion with the Porcheddu family and in particular with Giovanna whom he was to marry on 11 October 1946.  Her twin sister, Amalia was also to marry a British officer, Captain Philippe Garigue (1917-2008) in a double ceremony at ‘Villa, Llo di Mare’. 

In his book, ‘The British Partisan’, Ross was to acknowledge the very significant and brave contribution made by Beppe in support of the Allied cause and to the resistance against fascism.  Sadly, I never got to know my extraordinary grandfather, Beppe Porcheddu.  In December 1947, whilst organising an exhibition of his art in Rome he disappeared, never to be seen again.  Bordighera was to become a second home for my parents where they spent many happy years together.  My father died in 2012 and my mother in 2019.  Theirs was an extraordinary love story. 

David Ross

[1] Michael Ross, The British Partisan, (Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2019)

Connect with us via Facebook or email - [email protected]