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All Posts, Military History, Pen and Sword Books

Author Guest Post: Sir Nicholas Young

Today on the Blog we have a guest post from Sir Nicholas Young, author of Escaping with His Life.

My father never talked
about the War and, to be honest, I never really asked him.

But after he died,
suddenly, in 1986, I found amongst his papers a small notebook full
of pencilled scribbles which was, I realised, a diary that he had
kept in PoW camp in Italy, and for a period of months after, when he
was on the run from the Germans in the Apennine Mountains of Italy.

Leslie Young

The diary set me
thinking, and researching, and after many visits to the National
Archive, trips to the Library, and discussions with his former
comrades, I was able to produce a complete account of ‘Dad’s

Of all the stories I
unearthed, of Dunkirk, the Commandos, North Africa and the rest,
there is one that stands out for courage and self-sacrifice – the
story of Nino and Silvia Elfer, two Jewish partisans, a brother and
sister, who accompanied my father on the last stage of his journey
towards the beaches at Anzio, where Allied troops had just landed in
January 1944.

Nino (23) and Silvia
(19) had fled Rome with their parents, as soon as the Italian
Armistice was declared in September 1943, and German troops started
to flood the country. They found their way to the small village of
Corvaro, seventy miles or so east of Rome, where Nino joined a local
Partisan band, and started providing support and assistance to Allied
PoWs who were hiding there after escaping from Italian PoW camps –
amongst them, in December 1943, was my father Leslie and his fellow
escaper Charlie, a chipper New Zealander.

Charlie Gatenby

There was seven feet of
snow in the mountains that year, but Nino offered to guide the two
escapers to Anzio, as soon as there was a break in the weather. At
the end of January 1944, they decided it was time to go, and Nino,
accompanied by his young sister and her boyfriend Carlo, led the way
across the mountains to the coast. It was bitter cold, and there was
little shelter during the five day journey. At Norma, a grim fortress
of a village perched on a rock above the Pontine Marshes, just south
of Rome, they paused to plot their route across the Marsh to Anzio.

The prison camp at Fontanellato, near Parma, north Italy

Their prospects were
bleak. In the distance, ten miles away across no man’s land, were
the landing beaches, now occupied by Allied troops, desperately
attempting to secure their beachhead against a furious German
onslaught from troops dug in along a wide defensive arc, ranged in
front of the escapers at Norma. The marshes had been partially
flooded, to impede the attackers, and studded with minefields. The
Germans kept a constant barrage of shells raining down on the
beaches, which was returned with interest from the Allied invasion
fleet anchored offshore.

This was the landscape
that the escapers had to cross.

They set off at
nightfall on 5 February, crawling through ditches, heads down,
pausing every few yards to check their bearings and listen out for
German soldiers. They waded through icy flooded fields, and slithered
on hands and knees, clutching each other’s ankles, through the
minefields and barbed wire that marked the forward edge of the German

a rattle and clatter of shots rang out, from a German patrol. The two
Italians, out in front on a raised roadway, went down, whilst Leslie
and Charlie, with the girl Silvia, threw themselves into a ditch.
After what must have seemed like hours, they inched back onto the
road, to find Carlo bleeding heavily from numerous chest wounds and
unconscious and clearly dead or dying. Of Nino there was no sign.

Silvia was distraught,
determined to stay with her boyfriend’s body and find her brother,
but Leslie and Charlie would have none of it – to stay meant
capture and certain death. They had to go on, and try to reach the
Allied lines, and safety.

Pages from the diary

Weeping, they led her
forward, time already running short, with dawn approaching and most
of no man’s land still to cross, half running now when they could,
under the flash of the continued bombardment, and brief glimpses of
the moon between scudding clouds.

Eventually, with Anzio
almost in sight, they edged up a small rise to recce the ground

Another burst of
machine gun fire. Charlie stumbled into a ditch, hit in the arm.
Leslie screamed at the American patrol to stop firing and, when
eventually they did, looked behind him, to see Silvia on the ground
too, clutching her throat.

The American patrol
advanced cautiously towards them, Leslie with his hands held high,
standing still beside the wounded girl. After an age awaiting
instructions from a field commander, the three were loaded into an
Army Jeep and carried at last across the American lines.

Silvia died the next
day in the US field hospital on the beach at Anzio. My father
organised her burial, between rounds of shellfire.

The story would have
ended there, but for Silvia’s mother Elisa who, a year after the
War, and following the death of her husband upon hearing of the death
of his two beloved children, found her daughter’s body in the
American War Cemetery at Anzio, and brought it back for burial in the
Jewish Cemetery in Rome. It was a tiny newspaper cutting about the
ceremony, kept amongst my father’s papers, which gave me my first
clue about what happened.

The Elfer Grave, Verano Cemetery, Rome

A year after that,
Elisa read in a newspaper about a body found in a ditch near Anzio.
She telegrammed my father, for a description of the clothes Nino had
been wearing when he died. Armed with this information, she arranged
for the body to be exhumed, and was able to identify it as that of
her son.

All four now lie
together in the Jewish Cemetery in Rome, Elisa having joined her
husband and children nearly sixty years later, aged 105. I have been
able to establish contact with members of the family, in Virginia and
London, and have paid my respects and given thanks at their grave.

Every week, a young man
whose mother lies buried nearby, places a fresh white flower on their

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them

Nick Young

Escaping with his Life, from Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond is available to order now from Pen and Sword.