Billy’s close shave

This story, about an escaping Welsh soldier named Billy, was originally published in the Italian paper Il Corriere.  It was brought to our attention by Luigi Verdicchia, who came across it while researching the story of PoWs in the Marche. It has been translated by John Simkins.

The testimony of Licinio Licini of Monte Vidon Corrado (Marche)

I was still a boy at the time of the Armistice. It was around that time that Billy turned up He had escaped, along with three others (all British), from the prisoner of war camp at Sforzacosta, by digging a hole under the gates.

Walking through the countryside, they reached Monte Vidon Corrado, where they were given shelter by the Ciccale family, not far from here. Word about their presence quickly got around the neighbourhood and many other families took turns to feed them.

One day, my mother got summoned by a farmer, Umberto Marzialetti, because one of the prisoners had fallen ill. My mother’s name was Brunilde Polidori. She was a teacher, and as an educated person, was considered capable of understanding what was wrong with him and how he might be cured. We took him to our house. My mother put him into my bed while I went to stay with my grandparents, “so that, if the Germans or Fascists come looking for him, we can say that it is you who is in the bed,” she told me.

The house was large but there were eight of us, comprising my family and that of my uncle. Billy and I quickly made friends:  we were like brothers. Billy spoke a little Italian and was always kind. Of course, we were anxious because we knew that some families had suffered violence at the hands of the Germans and Fascists for sheltering prisoners, but we were very careful:  Billy hardly ever left the house.

One day, my mother invited a young man, originally from Puglia, who was staying with friends of ours, because it was said he spoke English well. We didn’t know much about him. The young man came and talked with Billy, for some hours. A few days later, we heard that the young man was enlisted with the Fascists. My mother immediately began to fear the worst, thinking that he might denounce us.

One morning, while we were about to go out of our gate onto the road, to go to school, mother saw two German trucks approach. She said: “We’ll let them go past and then go.” Instead, as soon as the trucks got outside our house, they stopped, right by the gate, blocking our exit. Some soldiers immediately leapt down, surrounding the house. One of them seized my mother’s arm and told her in stilted, but emphatic, Italian: “Mother, you’ve got an Englishman in your house called Billy!”

It was early morning, Dad was in the cowshed and Billy was sleeping peacefully in my room. My mother was in shock, it was a terrible moment. The soldiers came up to my aunt and the officer told her that they wanted to search the house at once. My aunt took them onto the ground floor, which contained the cellar and other rooms. At that very moment my mother entered the house and began to call out quietly, “Billy, Billy”. “Yes, mum,” he replied. “Get up at once, the Germans are here,” she told him. Billy realised what was happening and moved quickly. We had a trap door in the tiles on the first floor that led to a store room and, with some difficulty, and considerably flustered, as one can imagine, Billy slipped into it. Mother, hearing the Germans talking at the bottom of the stairs, quickly put back the paving tiles and set about shifting a large chest in order to cover everything up. Luckily, after searching to no avail, they decided to leave. About an hour had gone by, but what an hour! Meanwhile, Billy had climbed out of the hiding place, bathed in sweat.

The months went by, the Allies arrived and Billy presented himself at the military headquarters at Fermo.  After he had been repatriated, he wrote to us. He was Welsh, from Newport, a Catholic. Thus began a close correspondence, moving on to telephone calls and also visits: he came to look us up several times. Still today he phones us and often writes, constantly telling us in Italian: “If I get to be as old as 80, I shall owe it to you.”

After the war, he often came to our house and we talked about the danger we had run, but my mother used to say: “We had to do it, that’s how life goes: some days we give, and other days we receive.”

The Marzialetti family named above also gave refuge to another prisoner of war, Albert Jones. To read his story in the section Escape Stories, headlined The revealing contents of a school exercise book, go to http://www.msmtrust.org.uk/escape-stories/the-revealing-contents-of-a-school-exercise-book/