The Rossano Freedom Trail (‘the Trail’), organised by Brian Lett QC, son of the late Major Gordon Lett, who led the international brigade of partisans during the war after his escape as a POW in 1943, took place between 1st and  6th July 2014. The Trail commemorates the lives lost and the sacrifices made, both by Italians and Allied soldiers, in the cause of freedom against the Fascist and Nazi aggression during WWII. The day before the walk began was spent remembering the bravery of four young SAS men, who were executed by the Germans in contravention of the Geneva Convention.

 reading-book

The group of 2014 Rossano Freedom Trail walkers and supporters attended a British Service of Remembrance at the monuments dedicated to SAS members Captain Patrick Dudgeon and Gunner Bernard Brunt at the Passo di Cisa and to SAS members Sergeant William Forster and Corporal James Shortall at Ponzano Magra. The monuments were erected close to the sites of execution and original burial sites.

crowd

The ceremonies were touching in their simplicity and sincerity and included the playing of The Last Post, Reveille and the British National Anthem.  As the son of one of the SAS Squad who parachuted into the Rossano Valley on Operation Galia, Rob Hann had been invited by the SAS Association to lay wreaths in memory of these brave men and all SAS killed on active service in Italy during WW II. Brian Lett and representatives of the Monte san Martino Trust also laid wreaths to commemorate the sacrifice made by these young men.

All four SAS were executed Hitler’s now infamous “Commando Order”, which dictated that any enemy caught engaged in commando raids were to be executed. Brian Lett’s endeavours in working with the local commune to erect the monuments, together with annual ceremonies at each of the sites, continues to frustrate Hitler’s attempt to erase these men’s existence. 

memorial-reefs

The Trail

The trail proper began just outside the picturesque City of Pontremoli which is situate at the confluence of two fast flowing rivers. We follow the Gordana River, to a small bridge where Brian told the story of how Lieutenant James Riccomini and his partisan guides bluffed their way past a whole troop of encamped enemy soldiers after Ricommini had injured his ankle. 

river

We paused at the village of Torrano, and then headed for the mountain where we climbed up to around 1,000 metres We stopped at Pradinalara for a picnic, before another brief but moving ceremony below the imposing monument overlooking the Rossano Valley. This monument pays tribute to the brave people of the Rossano Valley recognising their efforts on behalf of the allied soldiers and airmen (over 400) who were helped to safety along the escape-line.  On the reverse, is a touching tribute from the people to the British officer they took to their hearts during the conflict, Major Gordon Lett. 

tribute

We continue to ascend before walking around the ridge, which offers breath-taking views across the Rossano Valley and the Coloretta/Patigno Valley before descending about 200 metres to finish Day One of the Freedom Trail Walk at Brian Lett’s home at Chiesa di Rossano.

The morning of Day Two was dedicated to the opening of a new war memorial at Chiesa di Rossano. The monument commemorates then men of SAS Operation Galia, and the seven aircrew who died when their supply plane crashed in Zeri in December 1944. The new monument is located outside the old school house in Chiesa, which now belongs to Brian Lett and is the base for the Rossano Freedom Trail walks.

Over 100 people turned up for the inauguration of the monument which comprised a simple brick built tower with a large photograph of the Galia squad and the names of the seven aircrew who were killed in the plane crash. It was a very proud moment for me when the wrapping was taken off the monument to reveal the large classic photograph of the Galia squad which included, of course, my Dad. 

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On behalf of all the Galia families and the SAS Association I was invited to make a short speech. I said that my Father would have been truly amazed (and very probably a little embarrassed) to find his achievements and those of his comrades were still commemorated here all these years later. He would have wanted me to acknowledge the debt those men owed to those who didn’t survive such as the seven brave airmen who were also commemorated and the partisans, couriers and ordinary people of these mountains, some of whom paid the ultimate price. Sadly, the death of Captain Walker Brown in 2009, PcT John Matthews in June 2014 and PcT Ted Robinson in 2012 marked the passing, as far as I knew, of the last members of the Galia squadron. But what happened in these mountains all those years ago and the price that was paid for freedom by so many, thanks to this wonderful monument from the people of Zeri, will never be forgotten.

memorial-note

monument-inaugeration-3

Brian Lett represented his father’s Battaglione Internazionale and Rob Hannrepresented the SAS association and all the families of the Galia squad who could not make the inauguration ceremony. Fl Lt Gareth Hare, who has been involved in airdrop missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, represented the British Military Attaché, and Councillor Graham Chapman, the deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, represented the home town of the two British men who were killed in Italy and who were connected to the Galia Operation. Corporal William Oldershaw was a member of the aircrew killed in the crash and Lieutenant James Riccomini MBE, MC was killed in action on a subsequent SAS Operation ‘Tombola’.

After the ceremony and refreshments provided by the commune in the local bar, the walking party set out, accompanied by Fl Lt Gareth Hare. A stiff walk up the ridge, down the other side with a pause at the old bridge near Noce, and then a climb up to Due Santi through the woods on the old partisan trail. There followed several more days of trekking over the fabulous Italian mountains and drinking in the scenery and historic landmarks of the Galia battleground and escape route until we reached what was the SAS battle HQ and partisan stronghold of Sero, a heroic little mountain top outpost 

SERO – SAS Operation Galia Battle and Partisan HQ

 During SAS Operation Galia, Sero became the SAS battle HQ for attacks upon the Via Aurelia and other strategic enemy positions including the towns of Brugnata and Borghetto Di Vara where enemy troops were garrisoned in 1944/45. The village is situate at a height of 575 metres on a mountain promentary. I already knew from previous researches that my Father had almost been captured here when the village was encircled by the enemy during the Rastrellamento (then word used by the Italians to describe the search and destroy tactics of the SS) that followed the SAS attacks.

I also had some information about one of the more colourful characters in the village at the time namely Luigi (or Louis) ‘Pippo’ Sibaldi.  Pippo had worked in America for several years prior to the war and spoke English with a strong American accent. Even though he was in his mid-fifties at the time of Galia, Pippo was extremely fit and was an expert marksman. He was also known for his philanthropy and the only monument to Pippo in Sero currently is to his generosity prior to the war when he donated a house to his village.

luigi-siboldi

During my visit I decided to see if I could find out more about what happened on morning of the 21st January 1945 during the Nazi Rastrellamento and occupation of the village. I spoke to an elderly lady called Concetta Musso, who was peacefully reading a book in the village square. Her demeanor dramatically changed when she discovered my links to one of the Galia squad.

rob-and-concetta

She described how some of the SAS men had been tracked to the village due to their distinctive boot prints in the snow. The Germans attacked the village believing it (rightly as it happened) to be the HQ of the partisans and SAS. During the attack three members of the same family (Moggia) were shot dead including a one year old baby. The Chief of police was also shot dead and all were buried in the little church yard just outside of Sero. 

gravestones

She described how the villagers were lined up in the central square at the point of machine guns. Concetta became very tearful as she recounted how as a thirteen year old she thought she and her parents and siblings were all about to be massacred. She had every right to fear the worst as atrocities did take place across the region including one at nearby Vinca where over 170 innocents were killed - chronicled in my book SAS Operation Galia.

The heroic village priest pleaded with the occupying forces to spare the people and he offered up their meagre food supplies in exchange for the lives of his people. Miraculously, it worked and the villages were spared further bloodshed. A poignant quote in Italian from Dante’s Inferno now decorates the village centre as a tribute to the bravery of the priest.

Further on in the village I met Claudio Sibaldi, nephew of Pippo who filled in more details about what his illustrious uncle had got up to that day. He showed us where several SAS men had been trapped behind a wall when the Germans entered the village, their escaped blocked. Pippo seizing the initiative ran up the steps of the church tower in the village square with his bren gun and started firing at the invading troops. A firefight took place. In the confusion the SAS were able to make their escape. My Father was almost certainly among the SAS men trapped but for Pippo’s brave actions. Somehow Pippo managed to get down from the tower and make good his escape. 

rob-and-claudio

His adventures did not stop there. I was able to tell Claudio through Graham Chapman who speaks fluent Italian, how his Uncle became an auxiliary member of the SAS after he had helped the Galia squad to exfiltrate over the marble mountains of Cararra to reach the allied lines in February 1945. Pippo was so valuable to the SAS he was made an honorary member of the Squad under the Nome-de-Gare ‘Frank White’. Pippo then parachuted back into the mountains to take part in Operation Tombola in March 1945.

Pippo died in 1967 aged 72 but the leader of the Galia squad Captain  Bob Walker Brown gave the following obituary in the SAS Association’s newsletter Mars and Minerva:

"Here was an Italian patriot of truly great and noble spirit to which he added personal courage and the warmth of a generous personality. At the age of 50 his stamina, determination and bravery earned him the unstinted admiration of 3 squadron 2nd sas whose successful operations in 1944/45 were in no small measure due to his audacity and intimate knowledge of the unmapped approaches to German supply roads".  By all accounts Captain Bob Walker Brown did not give praise lightly!

Claudio showed me his most treasured possession – an SAS winged dagger jacket badge he had carefully preserved in a wallet for many years which his uncle had been given by the SAS in recognition of his services.  “Chi osa, vince” he said to me proudly - “who dares wins”. 

badge

galia-book

Please also see http://ciaolunigiana.com/rossano-freedom-trail-final-day/ where there is another blog of the walk.