It’s not often that a historical novelist finds herself actually making contact with the people she is writing about, although the chances are obviously greater if her chosen period is still just within living memory. I have been fortunate enough to have two such encounters in the process of researching my books.
The first occurred when ‘Never Say Goodbye’ was about to be published. I had had a problem working out the end of the book. At the end of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, at Christmas 1944, I had left Steve’s fate a mystery. Frankie knew that she had gone to France as an agent but all contact with her had been lost. Now, when I came to write her own story I realised that France had been liberated the previous summer and all the agents who survived had returned home. So what had happened to Steve?
By chance, that summer my husband and I decided to holiday in north-eastern France, in the area known as the Franche Comte. In Besancon I discovered a museum dedicated to the Resistance and it occurred to me that that extreme north-eastern corner was the last to be reached by the liberating Allied forces. So that seemed the obvious place to send my heroine.
In the course of researching the stories of the real-life agents who had worked in that area I came across a man whose code name was Cesar. His real name was Harry Ree, and he had a remarkable story. He started the war as a conscientious objector but soon realised that he could not allow others to fight the battle for him. he volunteered for mine sweepers but, because he had lived and worked in north-eastern France and could pass as a native, he was soon recruited by the Special Operations Executive as an agent. Reading about his exploits, I came to feel a great respect and even affection for him and I could not resist putting him into the book – as those of you who have read ‘Never Say Goodbye’ will know. As publication day approached, however, I began to have cold feet. What if Harry were still alive? How would he feel about being used as a fictional character?
Through a contact I had made who had been a FANY and knew many of the people who had been involved with SOE I was put in touch with Harry’s wartime commanding officer, and from him I learned that Harry had died a few years previously but had been survived by a daughter. This news gave me a real frisson, because I had read that when Harry was parachuted into France his wife was expecting a baby. It was arranged that when the child was born a coded message would be broadcast by the BBC as part of the messages personelles which followed the bulletin in French every evening. In due course Harry heard the words Clemence ressemble a sa grandmere, which told him that he had a baby daughter. And I was now in touch with that daughter!
In due course, Janet attended a launch party for the book which was held in the Special Forces Club at a discreet address in Pimlico, and I was able to present her with a copy. Later, I had a letter from her brother in America, thanking me for bringing to life an episode in his father’s life about which he had never heard very much. I think it would have been typical of Harry not to talk about his heroic activities.
The second meeting occurred when I was researching the background to ‘Theatre of War’. the thrid book in the Follies series. Richard was going to work with the Italian partisans in an area called the Garfagnana, a valley which runs north from the town of Lucca, so that year we took our holiday in a house in Trassilico, a tiny village perched on top of a hill south of Castelnuovo. I asked our landlady’s daughter if she knew anything about the partisan activity that had occurred in that area during the war. She did not, but came back the next day to say that her mother had told her that their doctor;’s father had served with the partisans all through the war. He was still alive and very keen to make sure that subsequent generations had an accurate idea of what the partisans had done and why. He came up to the village and spent the best part of two hours giving me a detailed account of what happened. Here is his story:
It was in September 1943 that Silvano received his call-up papers. He was required to fight for the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini against the British and Americans. Silvano’s family, however, were all anti-fascist and his father had been forced to flee to America because of his opposition to Mussolini. Silvano had no intention of fighting for his family’s enemy. He had only one option – to join the partisans hiding out in the mountains above his home in the village of Trassilico, in the Garfagnana valley.
The group was led by a young man called Leandro Puccetti, a medical student and the son of a respected family. They were living in a mountain refuge, high up on the slopes of the mountain called Pania Secca, above the village of Alpe de Sant Antonio. They spied on the movement of German troops, stole weapons and carried out acts of sabotage.
Life was very hard. In order to get bread or other supplies they had to descend 3,000 feet to the village. Eventually they decided that they would have to move down to the village in order to survive the winter. The villagers were suspicious at first, because the authorities had told them that the partisans were bandits and would kill them and steal their food. When they saw that this was not true they accepted the partisans and shared their food with them. Even so, food supplies were very short. They lived on bread made from chestnut flour, with meat occasionally when they killed a sheep or a chicken. It is important to understand that the partisans never stole from their own people or killed civilians.
The local government in Trassilico, together with those in Vergemoli, Gallicano and Molazzana formed a committee for freedom and supported the partisans.
After Mussolini was deposed and the armistice was signed they were joined by an Englishman, Major George Oldham. He was an escaped prisoner of war. Unfortunately, he fell in love with Leandro’s girlfriend. They married and Major Oldham went to lead another group of partisans in Carregino. From then on relations between the two leaders were not good but the two groups came together after the first battle with the Germans.
This took place on July 1st, 1944 on the slopes of Mt. Pania. The fighting lasted for three hours and cost the lives of three partisans, but the Germans were forced to retreat.
On July 29th a large group of partisans in the neighbouring province of Emilia Romagna, numbering 3 or 4 thousand men , fought a great battle with the Germans. (The battle of Montefiorino?) The partisans lost 300 men and the remainder were scattered. 36 of them came to join Leandro’s band, one of whom was a woman. 30 of them stayed.
The group began to receive parachute drops of supplies from the British. They dropped a Sten gun and other armaments, warm clothes – and large quantities of tea. The tea was exchanged for bread with German civilian workers.
When the group from Emilia, who were better armed, joined up with Leandro’s group the Germans began to be afraid of them. One night in August 1944, a partisan sentry shot a German officer and killed him. In revenge the Germans killed the inhabitants of local villages. In Sant Anna di Stazzema they killed 583 men, women and children. This was one of the worst acts of reprisal carried out during the war. For a while, the partisans were unsure whether to give up or to stay and continue the struggle. Leandro was absent at the time, on a mission to another group, but when he returned the partisans took the decision to stay.
The battle with the Germans started at 2.30 a.m. on August 29th. The Germans attacked the partisan camp outside Alpe di Sant Antonio. The partisans resisted until midday but at that time they had to give up and those who remained escaped into the mountains. Only six men remained with Silvano and one of these died from his wounds during the night. Of the rest, only two were unwounded. Leandro had received a wound from a dum-dum bullet, which expands on impact so that the exit hole is very much bigger than the entry wound. This is a type of bullet forbidden under the Geneva convention. They took him to Sassi, a neighbouring village, and then, disguised as a woman in labour, they took him to the hospital in Castelnuovo. The doctors here were sympathetic but in spite of their efforts to save him Leandro died on Sept. 3rd.
At this point the partisans were ready to give up. Silvano went home to see his mother but she was unable to understand what he had been doing.
After a while the partisans decided to continue the fight. 40 of them went into the forest. The weather was good so for the whole of September they slept out in the open. One day a German convoy left Fornovolasco to go to Gallicano. The partisans attacked them and were victorious. Three Germans were killed and they took 14 prisoners. These men were hungry and the partisans had no food to spare, but they could not kill prisoners.
Luckily, by this time, the Allied Forces had reached the area and the partisans met a group of Brazilian soldiers. They handed over the prisoners to them and in return the Brazilians gave them food. (After the war Silvano visited Rio de Janeiro where he was treated as a hero and shown a museum which had a map of the Garfagnana area showing the battles he had fought in.) The partisans went with the Brazilians to occupy Calomini but then they were told to return to Trassilico. There they found American troops, who stayed to fight with them. In one battle they took a number of prisoners. Among them were 30 Mongolians who had been forced to join the German army and several Russians. The Mongolians chose to go with the Americans but the Russians stayed with the partisans. Some of them stayed in Vergemoli, married local girls and translated their names into Italian.
The Americans were very well supplied. They had food, coffee, cigarettes – even lavatory paper. The partisans were very dirty by this time and the Americans took them to the local agricultural college where they were able to bathe and get rid of the lice on their bodies. The Americans gave them clean clothes, cigarettes and chocolate.
In December 1944 an American group, together with some partisans and two English radio operators were based in Vergemoli. They were attacked by a force consisting of Germans and the Italian Alpini brigade, who had remained loyal to Mussolini. They came down from the hills and attacked the house where the partisans and Americans were living. The battle lasted 4 hours and ten Germans were killed, together with 2 Americans. At dawn, 30 of the Alpini approached the partisans. Silvano was on sentry duty. The Italians were armed and he did not know if they intended to attack. When he challenged them they threw down their weapons and the leader said, ‘Kill me, but not my men.’ Silvano told them that the partisans did not kill prisoners. They handed them over to the Americans.
After this battle several mules had been killed. The partisans took them for meat. The Americans did not want to eat mule but a cook from Emilia made a pasta sauce with the meat and the Americans enjoyed it.
At Christmas in 1944 there was the last great battle, involving all the partisans in the area. Major Oldham had left when the Americans arrived, so his group joined Silvano’s. They called themselves the Gruppo Valanga, which means ‘avalanche’, and were now recognised as Italian soldiers.
By this time Calomini was the only village still occupied by the Germans. Fornovolasco changed hands several times between the Germans and the partisans but Trassilico was free. It was a hard winter, with a great deal of snow.
By April the Germans had been pushed out of the Garfagnana but there were still small battles with a few who remained. Some of the partisans went into the mountains to spy on the fascists and find our where their arms were hidden. They told the allied troops and the Russians destroyed the arms deposits. This pleased the Americans.
In April 1945 some of the partisans went over the mountains and did not return for several days. The others thought that something must have happened to them but after three days they returned with prisoners. The partisans wanted to move out of Vergemoli but the Americans told them to stay. They left anyway and went to Sassi. Next day they received the official order to occupy Vagli Sotto. Here they were welcomed by the locals. From Vagli they went to Castelnuovo, where they found many houses had been destroyed by bombing.
After this the Americans told the partisans that they could go home if they wanted to. Some did but some chose to remain with the American forces. Silvano went with them to Parma and then to Piacenza and Regio Emilia. The partisans crossed the River Po on rafts and reached Milan 4 days before the Americans.
At the beginning of May they heard the official announcement that the war was over.
The Americans brought the partisans back as far as Abettone. Here they gave them 50 lire each and told them they could keep their guns. Silvano remembered that one of them had offered to buy his pistol, which he had taken from a German. He gave it to him for nothing, although he needed the money. The people were very poor and 50 lire was very little money.
After the war Silvano played the saxophone in a band, but he was not paid for this. Later he married and became a teacher. He has two sons. One is a doctor, the other a professor. He has three grandchildren.