From the street fighting that heralded the German occupation to the Gestapo repression that followed, Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44 is the gripping story of the German occupation of Rome from the Italian armistice in September 1943 until the Allied liberation of the city on 5 June 1944. In today's blog post, author Victor Failmezger shares the experience of a POW, British lieutenant, John Furman, during the occupation.
Thousands of escaped Allied POWs in Italy received life-saving assistance and support from local people during 1943–1945. These Italians gave freely of their often meager resources, putting themselves at considerable risk, including risk of death. In and around the small Abruzzi town of Sulmona, there were as many as 100 ex-POWs to hide, feed and clothe. Most had escaped from a POW camp a few kilometers to the north of the town.
The experience of one British lieutenant, John Furman, will illustrate the vital help he received. Furman, a mustached junior officer, had been captured in North Africa. Because he had studied in pre-war Germany, he spoke excellent German. He was one of more than 70,000 Allied prisoners scattered in camps all across Italy.
On September 23, 1943, Furman arrived at the Sulmona camp. When he was trucked into the camp he saw German guards washing at a spring and water trough about 150 yards away from the main gate. Making a cursory inspection of the camp, he noted that there was little water for bathing and he requested permission for the prisoners to wash at the same trough. Remarkably the Germans gave permission for small groups, under close guard, to use the spring.
Several days later Furman saw a working party leave camp to fetch water. On the spur of the moment, he ran after them, assuring the German guard that he was part of the detail. Once out of camp he took advantage of a bend in the road and slipped through a gate in a hedge. He hid in the brush during that cold night. Wearing only shorts and a light shirt, Furman was thoroughly unprepared, but he had to take the chance.
The next day he moved toward the town while practicing his Italian sentence: “I am an English officer, prisoner of war, escaped from prison camp.” Furman spoke his line to two 14-year old boys who took him home and offered him shelter. In Sulmona he learned that there were other POWs, some of whom were recovering in a local hospital. Furman thought that these prisoners should be given the opportunity to escape. Convinced to help, the doctor at the Italian hospital and several women of the town smuggled in civilian clothes. One night nine POWs climbed down a rope of bed sheets and were taken in by the townspeople. The hospital escape infuriated the Germans but they lacked the manpower for a thorough search of the town.
The ex-POWs were free but by no means safe. Trying to live normally, Furman and some others attended a party. After an evening of much wine, the revelers went home but shortly later they heard a commotion down the street and shouts of “Come out!” (in German). The Germans were conducting a labor roundup. At first light, Furman was recaptured and he and others were taken to an enclosed compound.
Eventually they were moved to a work camp 20 miles south of Sulmona, close to the front lines. A German sergeant addressed them and warned the men not to escape. He threatened that for every man who escaped, ten would be shot.
Sanitation was almost non-existent and the latrine odor was everywhere. At dark the men were herded into huts where they slept on straw and without blankets. A stove in the center of the room provided insufficient heat. More prisoner laborers arrived throughout the evening.
Early the next morning, each man got a piece of bread, some margarine and a spoonful of jam. They were formed into working parties and issued picks and shovels. The work site was three kilometers away and there the men had to cut away a hill to form an anti-tank barrier. No one believed that the Germans would shoot ten men for each escapee. As laborers they were just too valuable a commodity.
Not all the guards were Nazi zealots. Two young Austrian soldiers told Furman they were draftees and wanted to return home. They agreed to help Furman and three others when they were on nighttime duty. Once free, Furman headed for the high mountains and after some rough days he stumbled into Sulmona.
It seems half the town was involved in helping the ex-POWs. Some forged documents for them: the town clerk supplied official blank forms, another provided the necessary rubber stamps and a photographer took the document photos.
As winter approached, more escapees were brought into the town. BBC broadcasts had urged escapees to head for the neutral Vatican City, so the ex-POWs wrote the Vatican for advice. These letters were taken to Rome and passed to the Vatican’s interned Allied diplomats. The Vatican reply said “don’t come to Rome,” enclosed some money to be shared among the ex-POWs, and asked for the names, ranks, units and next of kin of other escapees.
Noting that many of the men lacked adequate winter clothes and blankets, Furman met a wealthy Sulmona merchant with a large supply of Italian uniform articles and blankets. Furman obtained the clothing with his signature. Armed with a list of escapees, a Sulmona woman traveled to Rome and returned to the town with a large supply of pullovers, shirts and more cash.
Again, testing their luck, the ex-POWs attended a boisterous, wine-soaked birthday party. Suddenly from down the street they heard a loud banging. Harsh, guttural German commands rang out and the Sulmona-based German SS were on a house-to-house search. The Allied escapees scrambled into the attic and hid. The Germans searched the other houses in the street but found no one. Then the shouting stopped and the Germans ran down the street and marched away. The Gestapo had overlooked the one house where the escaped POWs hid!
Just before dawn the ex-POWs went to hide in a nearby church bell tower and agreed that they must make for Rome. At the railway station, there was a rare train due to leave that evening. Climbing aboard the train, the party was shocked to see a horde of German troops going to Rome on leave. On board, the conductor explained that upon arrival in Rome, the police would closely examine each passenger’s documents, and that the German City Commander had declared that any person entering Rome must have advanced written permission.
The train lurched and stopped so often that the trip of 120 miles lasted all night. At first light, three stops outside the city, the train screeched to a halt. Furman and the other ex-POWs left the train and waved goodbye to the other passengers. They had decided it was safer to enter the city via tram. Eventually they arrived in the city center and found a hotel. They were safe for now but they could not relax and immediately contacted Vatican representatives.
These escaped POWs who had been hiding in Sulmona were to become the leaders of the Rome Escape Line, which sheltered and saved more than 4,000 Allied soldiers from interment in Germany.
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