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.
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 War’.
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.
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.
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 line.
Suddenly, 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.
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 ahead.
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.
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 headstone.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them
Escaping with his Life, from Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond is available to order now from Pen and Sword.