Bill Bass escaped from Fontanellato camp in 1943 and took shelter in a village called Spiaggere near Bardi with the Franchi Family. This story is recounted by his daughter Fiona, as she returned to Spiaggere and found the house where her father had stayed. Bill Bass had also been helped by Sig Sidoli and his brother.
Fiona was able to meet descendants of the family who had helped her father. Bill had to give himself up to the Germans to protect his hosts and he spent the rest of the war in German POW camps.
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.
For a number of years I had been thinking of visiting Italy to try to find the village where my father, Bill Bass and his fellow officer Larry Holroyd, had been hidden for six weeks, having walked out of Fontanellato Prison of War camp on September 9th 1943, the day of the Italian Armistice.
My family had very little information about my father’s time there, but we had a few photographs taken when he returned to Italy in 1949 with my mother, and I remember as a child packing up Christmas parcels to send to “Luigi” and his family.
One of the photographs had the name Spiaggere on the back of it, and my mother had told me this was near Bardi. An invitation to holiday with friends in Italy gave me the opportunity to investigate further and in August 2012 my husband and I flew to Bologna, and drove to Fontanellato, just NW of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region.
The building that served as the Prison of War camp in Fontanellato had originally been built as an orphanage. Construction began in 1928 but progressed so slowly it was never actually used for that purpose and instead was opened for use as a POW camp for officers in the spring of 1943. It is an imposing structure, now known as Centro Cardinal Ferrari, a neurological rehabilitation hospital.
We were able to go into the reception area but the chapel was undergoing major building works so it was not possible to explore any further. It was a strange feeling to think of my father having been interned there. I remembered Eric Newby’s description of life in the prison from his book Love and War in the Apennines, particularly the section about not being able to look out of the windows of the bar without risking being shot at by the guards. He wrote ”These bullet- holes gave the place a raffish appearance, like a middle-western saloon built by some renegade gun-toting priest”. I was able to walk around the back of the building and saw the area where the prisoners exercised and played sport, now a rather dilapidated garden.
The next day we drove to Bardi. I had no information about the period between my father leaving Fontanellato, and his arriving at Spiaggere, just the experiences of Eric Newby and others in books such as Home by Christmas by Ian English, but he must have headed south out of the Po valley and almost certainly passed through Bardi.
Bardi is an attractive hill town, with an impressive medieval castle of the Landi family, built on an outcrop of jasper overlooking the Ceno valley. Whilst at the Tourist Office I saw the name Spiaggere on a large scale map of the region; a visit to the neighbouring Tabac equipped us with a map, together with a sketch map drawn by the very helpful owner and instructions on how to find the village.
We drove down the steep hill out of Bardi to the valley bottom and up the other side. Within half an hour of driving up the mountain, to my amazement, we reached a sign to Spiaggere. I could not believe it had been so easy!
By the turning there was a cemetery, and we had a quick look round, hoping we might find memorials to Luigi Franchi and his family. There were a number of Franchis, but no Luigi.
After another fifteen minutes’ drive up a very rough track through small fields and scrubby woodland we were in the tiny village. This consisted of about five dilapidated houses with farm buildings and I immediately recognised Luigi’s house and the village water trough from my photographs. There was a cacophony of sounds – dogs barking, chickens clucking, and guinea fowl squawking, but no one appeared. One of the houses showed further signs of occupation: a vegetable plot, some cats, and several enormous (thankfully, kennelled) dogs.
From there we climbed up the hill behind Luigi’s house to look at the other buildings. One was built against the hillside with a door at the upper end into the loft. Comparing this with a photograph of my father showing my mother where he had been hidden, we could see the lintel and stones above the door were the same. It was an extraordinary feeling standing in the same place, nearly seventy years later. I undid a piece of wire holding the door shut and it swung open to reveal an empty loft. It was incredibly exciting to have found the place where my father and Larry had been hidden. I searched the beams just in case my father had scratched his initials there, but found nothing.
We left a copy of the old photographs and a note explaining who I was and how to contact me by the dog and cat bowls outside the door of the occupied house. We then sat for a while looking at a view across the valley which, apart from some electricity cables, can’t have changed much since my father was there, before driving back down the mountain.
Almost at the valley bottom, I wondered if perhaps we should have visited the nearest village to Spiaggere. Maybe we might find someone we could talk to. We had a long drive ahead but decided we would regret not trying, so we drove back up the mountain, past the turning to Spiaggere, to the village of Lezzara.
By this time it was midday, extremely hot, and being siesta time there was no sign of life in the village, but just after we had turned around and begun to drive slowly out of the village, a child appeared.
I ran back and in halting Italian asked if her parents were in the house. “I am English” she replied. She fetched her mother and I explained that I was trying to find information about Spiaggere where my father had been hidden in the war.
“Well you have come to the right place”!
We were welcomed into their house and Maria told us her family were from Lezzara. She had married an Englishman, but they come back for holidays. It transpired that Maria’s father Signor Sidoli and his brother had been partisans in the area and their homes had been safe houses for POWs.
Domenico, Maria’s cousin, was immediately telephoned and soon he, and his wife Mirna, arrived in great excitement, carrying an album of wartime mementos of his father’s. Domenico had been a small child during the war but he had kept his father’s album and other wartime memorabilia. He had, after the war, worked in London for a few years, as had many from the Bardi area, so luckily spoke fluent English.
I started leafing slowly through the album, which was full of cards and photographs from people his father had met during the war. I turned another page and there was a familiar photograph of my own parents on their wedding day, and on the opposite page, one of my father and his best man, Larry, who had stayed together throughout the war.
This caused much excitement. A bottle of wine was opened, bread and cheese produced. Domenico looked at the photograph of my father and said “This man was at Spiaggere.”
He told me my father and Larry had stayed up at Spiaggere and, if the coast was clear, they would sometimes come down to Lezzara in the evening. He showed me the path down the mountain, still called “Il sentiero degli Inglesi”, and he showed me his house, virtually unchanged since the war, the table where my father and Larry would have had dinner, and the shelf where the radio had been as they listened to the BBC broadcasts.
My father and Larry were not among the lucky ones who got ‘home’. Larry injured his leg (probably, we learnt, from being shot at by one of the local fascists) so they had to give themselves up to the Germans so as not to endanger the lives of those who had sheltered them, and spent the remainder of the war in German POW camps.
Others had been hidden with Luigi’s family in Spiaggere, including another officer, Hugo Clifford, coincidentally the grandfather of a friend. We had seen on the water trough in Spiaggere a plaque bearing his name and commemorating his gift of an electric pump in 1960, and there were photographs and cards from him in the album.
Domenico could also identify some of the other people in my father’s photographs. Angelo Franchi, the uncle of Bruno, (who still farms and occasionally stays at Spiaggere in the ‘occupied house’) and Luigi’s granddaughter who Domenico thought lived in Milan.
Before we left Domenico showed us another piece of memorabilia in his shed, an American jeep that had been left behind, complete with bullet holes!
With much hugging and promises to keep in touch, we set off south for the rest of our holiday, overwhelmed by how much we had managed to find out in such a short space of time.
We have since visited the National Archives at Kew and found my father’s Liberation Questionnaire, together with a letter he wrote to the War Office telling them about the help he had been given by Luigi Franchi and Signor Sidoli.
I had achieved far more than I had imagined possible in a few days.