Trails to Freedom: crossing the AlpsThursday, 22 August 2013
In the World War II, Italian partisans called them ‘sentieri della liberta’ or ‘the trails to freedom’, long forgotten medieval paths through the mountains that they had reopened to get Allied servicemen, mostly escaped POWs and downed pilots, out of Fascist Italy and into neutral Switzerland. In October 1943, four Australian soldiers took one of these trails, leaving Biella in the foothills of the Alps north of Turin, crossing the Swiss border at the Monte Moro Pass eight days later and dropping down to the village of Sass Fee, in a valley next to Zermatt. I will be doing the walk next week, following in the footsteps of the young Diggers as best I can.
For me, the story started twelve months ago when a family from Armidale in northern News South Wales asked me to organise a visit they wanted to make to Italy this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their father’s escape (he was one of the four soldiers mentioned above). Carl C was taken prisoner after the battle for Tobruk in North Africa on 8 April 1941 and sent to Italy to be interned. He spent eighteen months, along with around five thousand other Australian and New Zealand troops, in a makeshift camp near Udine, north of Venice and close to what was the then Yugoslav border. Conditions were very harsh and, despite concerns about helping the enemy cause, Carl joined a number of other soldiers who volunteered to work in the rice fields around Vercelli, between Milan and Turin, thinking it would improve his chances of survival. They arrived there on 11 April 1943.
On 8 September 1943, Mussolini fell from power, Italy switched sides and the Germans, who were present throughout Italy, changed from allies to enemies. The Germans moved quickly and ruthlessly to assert their control. There was little love lost between the two sides and, as the Germans approached the prison camp in Vercelli, the Italian guards released the Allied prisoners, open the gates and wished them good luck, telling them that Switzerland was ‘thata’ way. Carl and three of his mates headed north. They spoke no Italian, they had scant clothing and they had no food - they were, as local historian Dr Carlo Pagini of the Resistance Institute of Vercelli said, strangers in a strange land. However with the help of local partisans, who ran enormous risks to both themselves and their families (including an eighteen year old girl who lead them through the town of Biella, guiding them past a German patrol on the way) the young soldiers were able to find their way through the occupying forces on the plains and pick up the trails north into the mountains and arriving in Switzerland five days later.
Using Carl’s memoirs, Dr Pagini was able to identify more-or-less the route that they took and was even able to identify some of the partisans who helped them (unfortunately not the girl, although he was able to identify one officer who was later executed for a being a Fascist informant). From Biella a pilgrim trail climbs up to the sanctuary of Oropa and then down into the Cervo Valley. From here it climbs again, over another pass and into the Sesia Valley, before climbing once more to the Turlo Pass (2738 mts) and dropping down into Anzasca Valley, with Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Europe, looming above. Switzerland is on the other side of this range. The last stretch follows a paved medieval trail that zigzags steeply up from the valley to the Monte Moro Pass (2984 mts) and then over the Swiss border.
Of course I was fascinated by Carl’s story but became it more personal when I learned that my uncle, who was also taken prisoner in Tobruk, was among Carl’s cohort. Unfortunately he didn’t make it (he died when his ship he was torpedoed on the way across the Mediterranean) but, as Carl was a bushie from Moree in northern New South Wales and my uncle was a bushie from the Darling Downs, over the border in southern Queensland I like to think they might have known each other.
The walk next week will be infinitely easier than the walk that Carl and his mates did (the weather will be warmer, the trails are clearer, there are a series of lovely mountain huts where I’ll be able to eat and sleep each night and there are no enemy patrols, only friendly natives) but I’ll be walking it with them in mind and I also be walking it in memory of my uncle, John Fairfax Tancred, and my late father, who served in New Guinea and Borneo in WW II.