On 3 September 1943 Allied forces landed in Calabria. Terms of Armistice and Surrender were being signed by the Italians in Sicily. When the agreement was made public five days later, the Germans occupied the rest of the country and soon installed the deposed dictator, Benito Mussolini, as head of a puppet Fascist republic.
I had relatives on either side of the front line. My British father was a soldier with the advancing 8th Army. My Italian mother and grandsparents lived in the village of Castell'Arquato, province of Piacenza, within the Fascist north.
The armistice was followed by mass breakouts from prison of war camps across Italy. Allied servicemen flooded into the countryside and threw themselves on the mercy of ordinary Italians. Civilians and members of the Resistance helped over seventeen thousands escapes cross the mountain trails to neutral Switzerland or through the enemy lines to Allied forces.
The Parma – Piacenza border was the scene of the greatest prisoner of war escape in Italy. At noon on 9 September over five hundred Allied servicemen marched out of camp 49 Fontanellato, just ahead of a German column sent to capture them. Amongst the brave Italians who helped the escapes were my mother and grandparents. At the end of the war, grandfather was awarded the 'Alexander Certificate.' It recognized the help the family had given to 20 British and South African soldiers, which enabled them to escape or evade capture by the enemy.
My father, Quartermaster Sergeant Kenneth Winston Tudor, Royal Signals, arrived in Piacenza with the liberating 8th Army in May 1945. He met my mother, Clara Dall'Arda, when she was working as translator for the Allied Military Governor. My parents were married in Swindon in 1948 and moved to my father's hometown of Newtown, Montgomeryshire, where I was born. I grow up with stories of war and escape. The window shutters of my grandparents' house in Castell'Arquato were still peppered with bullet holes. On 5 April 1945 the parties routed an enemy force sent to blow up the river bridge. The fighting had spread into the garden.
I decided to find out more. After meeting some of the comrades of the escapes my family had sheltered, I researched in Italy and at the UK National Archives. It was the logical next step to collate the precious information. And so in 2000 my book, British Prisoners of War in Italy: Paths to Freedom, was born. In the intervening years I have written six other books on escape and evasion, SOE, air supply and Resistance. A new edition of my first book was published in 2012.
I also became an early member of the AIFHS (number 44). I am proud of the Anglo-Italian heritage and have made good progress in recording my own family's history. The story is one of continuity and change, war and peace, migration and romance.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century my 3x great grandmother, Antonio Volponi, and his wife, Rosa Arata, followed the mountain trails from Liguria to Castell'Arquato and decided to settle. The route had been used to carry agricultural products between coast and plain for thousands of years.
One of the couple's sons, Giuseppe, married a Maria Bonvicini, the daughter of another family of merchants with origins in Liguria. The fourth of their five granddaughters, Giuseppina, was my grandmother.
In contrast, my grandmother's family were farm workers in the hamlet of Chiavenna Rocchetta, commune of Lugagnano. My great grandmother, Giovanni Dall'Arda, was murdered by persons unknown on his way home from market. His wife, Maria Solari, was left to bring up the family on her own. It is perhaps no surprise that one of the children, my grandfather Alfredo, would leave home and try to make a new life in Great Britain.
My grandsparents came to London in the early years of the last century. They were from neighboring villas in the province of Piacenza. My grandmother, Alfredo Dall'Arda, found employment as a leading man in silent films and then became a waiter. He met a young confectioner called Giuseppina Volponi in London's thriving 'Little Italy' community and on 16 March 1914 that they were married at Saint Peter's Italian Church in Clerkenwell.
Alfredo served in the Italian Army on the Austrian front during the First World War, returning to London once peace was restored. My mother, Clara Dall'Arda, was born on 29 August 1920 at the family home, 368, City Road.
Grandfather worked as a chef in several leading hotels in the capital, including the Ritz and the Savoy, and in 1928 opened his own restaurant at 4, Upper James Street, off Golden Square, W1. The business prospered and absorbed the premises of a French restaurant next door. Male diners were always given a large complimentary cigar. Ladies received a fresh red rose.
Three years later, Alfredo took the family back to Italy. They settled in my grandmother's home command of Castell'Arquato, in the foothills of the Apennines. My grandsparents purchased a villa with a nice garden on Via Guglielmo Marconi at the bottom of the village. Grandmother Giuseppina also inherited a share in a farm in the pretty vine-covered hills above Castell'Arquato. Life was good – until on 10 June 1940 Benito Mussolini took Italy into the Second World War on the German side.
When the Allies landed in the south in September 1943 they believed that the campaign would soon be over. However, determined German resistance, the geography of the country and the harsh weather combined to prevent an early victory. It would be a full 20 months before the north was liberated. People were reduced to self-help and improvement.
During the war, merchants from Liguria bought olive oil over the mountain tracks. It was changed in the village for wheat. By this time, even necessities were only available on the black market or for barter, as a result of the Allied naval blockade. The daily bread ration was just 150 grams. Supplies of precious grain were hidden from the Germans and Fascists in the attics of houses.
For many of the escaped prisoners of war, those same country trails would become paths to freedom.