By SUSAN JACOBS*
New Zealander Jack Lang had a parting shot for the German guards: "There's no way you're going to get me through to Germany."
It was October, 1943. The guards had given him a beating for not moving quickly enough into the train taking him and several hundred Allied prisoners of war to another camp in Germany.
As the train pulled out of Udine, in the Friuli region of northern Italy, he and his close friend, Gisborne-born Frank Gardner, huddled together to plot their escape. A vent on the roof of the crowded cattle-truck provided an opportunity. Lang's shoulders supported Gardner as he levered himself through the narrow opening and leaped into the cold night. Then it was Lang's turn.
The train was travelling, he reckons, at about 60 km/h. He landed unharmed on the gravel alongside the railway track, within a few steps of a bridge support. Gardner was not so lucky. In the fall he broke his leg, but managed to crawl to a nearby farm house. Lang searched fruitlessly for his friend before setting out on his own. They were not to meet again until after the war.
Thus began Lang and Gardner's journeys, which led them separately through the protection networks of simple rural folk. They found shelter in haystacks, lofts, barns and ditches, and eventually travelled deep into the rugged Friulian mountains.
There they independently joined brigades of Italian partisans carrying out dangerous and under-resourced sabotage operations against the Germans.
When Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the organised resistance movement was born. Within months it had swollen from a ragtag of political dissidents and disaffected patriots to a people's movement with the active participation and support of thousands determined to expel the Germans and eliminate fascism.
In the chaotic aftermath, more than half of the 80,000 prisoners-of-war scattered in camps throughout Italy managed to escape, despite being instructed to stay put and await their imminent release by the Allies.
The majority of prisoners were recaptured by the Germans, who within days of the Armistice had poured more troops into central and northern Italy. The Allied advance up the peninsula was to take 20 months before Italy's liberation in May, 1945.
For 450 New Zealand escapers and others like them, the partisans and civilians of Italy were their pathway to a precarious safety. The generosity and courage of peasant families who risked their lives to shelter, feed and clothe unknown foreigners is legendary.
Yet relations with the partisans were more complex, comprising a mix of respectful cooperation and tension over conflicting aims.
The Resistance fought in the hills, mountains and plains, often without adequate arms and supplies, and was by no means unified.
Some groups were in contact with Italian and Allied organisations set up to help the POWs to escape. The presence of POWs in a band often meant that the Allies supplied extra resources and ammunition for the partisans.
For the POWs, their survival depended on the goodwill of the partisans, who sometimes expected them to fight to earn their protection.
Lang found himself with a band attached to the Garibaldi Brigade, by far the largest fighting force in the region. He says they were "generally anti-British to some extent."
Distinguished by a red kerchief at the neck, these fighters had close affiliations with Tito's Yugoslav partisans, and many of their leaders were communist-inspired and trained.
Lang wanted to maintain his independence but knew that he must cooperate with them. He would have expected the same in their circumstances.
Sometimes this meant going out on sabotage operations.
Lang recalls officially joining the Tolmino Brigade, a Garibaldi division at Caporetto, and being issued with a rifle and the partisan cap with the five-pointed insignia of the red star.
After trekking to Yugoslavia in the vain hope of finding an escape route set up by Allied Special Forces, Lang and his New Zealand friend, Bob Smith, returned to the mountains above the Italian village of Masaroli close to the Yugoslav border.
Here, with an American airman, they lived in a cave for months. Despite having a price on their heads, they were looked after by local villagers before the trio were finally recaptured.
A partisan raid on a German garrison resulted in a search of the mountains by a crack German squad who discovered the cave hideaway. Several villagers were shot in reprisal.
Auckland veteran Pat Moncur has only admiration and affection for the partisans he spent six months with in the mountains north of Sequals, north-west of Udine.
Moncur never knew their names, a tactic which ensured a measure of safety. If captured and tortured, the confession of names could lead to the death not only of the partisans, but also of their families.
"If there was an Italian I'd call him Bill," says Moncur.
He was not expected to join all the battles, but stood guard and assisted where possible. "It was great," he laughs. "I sat in the sun and watched the birds go by."
He took part in two raids, the first on a cheese factory where the objective was to supply the hungry locals with cheese before the Germans could get their hands on it. "They were absolutely astonished we were giving away all this cheese."
But Moncur says the operation "wasn't very brave." He now sees it as an arranged job, with no shots fired and sympathetic Italian guards who gave themselves up easily. The cheese was already stockpiled, ready for transport on the packhorses.
The second raid was an attack on a German convoy. The Yugoslavs failed to turn up to help and the Italians were outnumbered.
"They started blobbing us with mortars. We resisted until it got too hot."
Moncur and his companions scattered and regrouped at their pre-arranged hiding place in a cave, where they secured the entrance with a large rock. To their surprise and terror ("I lost all my dandruff"), a party of German soldiers stopped outside their cave and ate lunch, laughing and joking.
A trickle of liquid coming through a crack in the rock added to their consternation. It was a soldier relieving himself.
Arch Scott, imprisoned in a working camp near San Stino di Livenza in the plains north of the Veneto area, used his knowledge of the language to stay and help ex-prisoners in hiding escape south or into Switzerland. He was personally responsible for the evacuation of more than 100 escaped prisoners.
Under the name of Arturo Scotti, and with the assistance of a courageous priest and loyal locals, he lived in the town, a familiar and revered sight on his blue bicycle.
Scott liaised openly with local partisan groups and says there was reciprocal respect for their different tasks. He kept out of politics. "I did my job and they did theirs."
He was aware of the dangers. In his book of his experiences, Dark of the Moon, there is a grim reminder of the price of heroism. His friend, New Zealander Dave Russell, who was actively engaged with the partisans, was captured by the Germans but refused under torture to reveal any names. He was shot three days later.
Meanwhile, Gardner, now known as Franco, had become a legend in the town of Gemona, north of Udine. He liaised with the non-political Osoppo Brigade (its members wore green kerchiefs and included a number of priests in its ranks), and eventually formed a band of his own.
Gardner led some daring raids, blowing up roads, railway lines and bridges, and damaged a silk factory which made parachutes for the German Army. To crown it all, he eliminated a particularly vicious Italian Gestapo officer.
These heroic exploits are recounted in a book called The Signor Kiwi Saga, published 20 years after Gardner's death in 1972.
Gardner, tall and sandy-haired with freckles and not, according to Lang, a great linguist, managed to pass himself off as an Italian, even forming a friendship with a German soldier called Franz, much to the amusement of the locals.
On a blacker note, atrocities were committed on both sides. Summary justice was dealt to those suspected of being spies. Gardner was disgusted by one partisan group's execution of a woman and her daughter for this reason.
For the majority of Italians, the Resistance was much more than guerrilla warfare against an occupying power. It carried the hope of a state founded on democratic principles after the long fascist dictatorship.
And it was a tribute to their determination and military prowess that the major northern cities were in partisan hands by the time the Allied troops arrived to liberate them.
* Dr Susan Jacobs is a senior lecturer and research manager at Auckland Institute of Studies at St Helens, Auckland. She hopes to return to Italy for further research early next year with a view to publishing a book. Dr Jacobs' e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
By SUSAN JACOBS*