How to Avoid a Massacre

Today is the seventieth anniversary of D-day – the allied landing on the Normandy beaches which created a new front against the Axis and concluded WWII within one year. It is sad to realise that this could be the last large-scale commemoration of the event which saved us all from having to learn German, and secured democracy in Western Europe, since survivors of the momentous landings are now well into their nineties.

Italy had its own version of the D-day landings a year previously. Operation “Husky”, the allied invasion of Italy, was a similar large scale amphibious and airborne operation carried out in July 1943 and, in many ways, proved a test run for D-day. As part of the British eighth army under the command of Monty, my dad was part of operation Husky, which also involved the American seventh army under the command of General Omar Bradley.

In little over a month Sicily was in allied hands, Gerry had to evacuate to the Italian mainland, Mussolini was arrested by the King of Italy and an armistice was signed.

It’s a pity that things did not proceed at the same speedy pace afterwards; the allied armies (in my opinion) dithered long enough for Germany to send in Panzer divisions to stop the allied advance. A bloody civil war ensued in Italy when the “red-hot rake” moved slowly north, rather more slowly than originally foreseen since resources were now concentrated on the much more strategically important D-day landings front.

These facts were again brought home to me when this week I passed through the little and attractively sited village of Partigliano in Valdottavo on one of my scenic route to Lucca.

In the portico of the parish church was this plaque:

 06032014 044

The plaque summarises the following incident:

On 13 September 1944, the Germans spotted some lights on the tower of the church which they thought were partisans signalling to each other and attempting to attract the attention of US planes in the area. The Germans came and rounded up all local inhabitants from the village and the surrounding countryside and locked them in the church with the threat that, if the partisans did not own up, the villagers would be executed.

Fortunately, thanks to the intervention of local man professor Silvio Ferri, who spoke German and who bravely faced the German commander, another massacre was narrowly avoided.

Ferri managed to convince the German commander, Major Riechert, that the lights were actually caused by a bunch of kids who usually went to the bell-tower in the evening to smoke cigarettes and avoid parental censure.

What really clinched the escape from massacre was the fact that it seems that Major Riechert knew Ferri by reputation, as Ferri had been a student of Professor Wilamowitz, a renowned professor of ancient German philology under whom Riechert had also studied.

The intervention of professor Ferri was crucial, and today there are many partiglianini who owe their existence to his brave action.

Some more information on this remarkable man: Silvio Ferri was born in Lucca in 1890 and died in Pisa in 1978. He  became a noted Italian archaeologist. and was professor of classical archeology and art history at Pisa university until 1962.

Ferri conducted studies on monuments, inscriptions and the history of Roman art. He published an edition with critical commentary of Pliny the Elder’s book on the arts.and conducted digs in the Gargano bringing to light important finds.


(Silvio Ferri – a photo taken around 1930 in Southern Italy: courtesy of Rolando Ferri)

This story of amazing coincidences was the subject of a project by friend and primary school teacher, Annalisa and her class in Valdottavo. They worked hard to produce this delightful, beautifully illustrated and accurate book. It would be a good idea if more copies of it could be produced for the general public.



I wonder if after the war Ferri and Riechert ever met up again to have a drink and reminisce about that evening of 13th September 1944?






9 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Massacre

  1. Thank you for another fascinating account of life in Italy towards the end of the war.
    Silvio Ferri and everyone who knew him must have been very proud of his actions that night, and rightly so, as you must be as your Dad played his part in the war against the Germans. Brave men, one and all.

      • Dear Francis, thank you for your post on the Partigliano events of 1944. I’m Ferri’s grandson, so I’m grateful to you for telling the story. Just a small point: if the picture of the old man in a jacket and tie is meant to be my grandfather’s, well, it isn’t, but I can send you one from about the same period of the events you describe. best
        Rolando Ferri

  2. Dear Rolando

    thankyou for your comment. I’ should be very glad to have the correct photopgraph of your brave grandfather. I’m sorry I did not publish the correct one. It is a great pleasure to be in touch with you. Best regards. Francis

  3. Pingback: Clouds with Silver Linings | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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