Amidst the relentless bad news that generally drives newspaper items, there was a heart-warming story in the Telegraph last month which, if it doesn’t change the face of war, at least shows that some good can come from evil. A former Nazi storm-trooper, Heinrich Steinmeyer, was captured, aged 19, shortly after D-Day in August 1944, and was then sent to a POW camp at Cultybraggan, in Perthshire. He died in 2014, and left his life savings (nearly £400,000) to the Scottish village where he says he experienced “kindness and generosity.”
I was reminded of this story when reading The Road to Civitella 1944: the Captain, the Chaplain and the Massacre by Dee La Vardera (Fonthill £20). In June 1944, in one of those brutal episodes that accompany warfare, all the males over the age of 15 in this hilltop village in Tuscany were rounded up and executed by the retreating Germans and Fascists. This was in reprisal for three German officers who had recently been shot by partisans in Civitella.
In all, 117 males from Civitella and 58 from a neighbouring hamlet were shot and almost all the houses were destroyed. With the village water cistern polluted and a severe lack of food, the women and children who remained were destitute. There was no electricity or running water and 1500 people were made homeless.
In early July the village was liberated by the Allies. Captain John Morgan RASC, of the British 8th Army, along with Fr Clement O’Shea, a Passionist priest and the Catholic army chaplain, went well beyond the call of duty in their regular visits and solicitude for the bereft villagers. For months they regularly supplied water and food to the village, as well as clothes and shoes. In the severe winter of 1944 they brought blankets so that nobody died of cold.
I asked the author Dee La Vardera, a keen local historian who has previously written a book about a British POW in East Prussia, what had drawn her to this particular story. La Vardera told me that Captain Morgan’s son, Keith, who had done his own research on his father’s wartime activities and who had visited Civitella himself in 1997, to discover that the survivors of the massacre had never forgotten the kindness of Morgan and O’Shea, had contacted her.
She added, “I am married to an Italian who is also interested in his country’s history and with his help in translating and interpreting I thought this could be an exciting subject.” La Vardera was also interested in the person of O’Shea: “My father was an Anglican minister and a prison chaplain, who converted to Catholicism in his forties. He maintained a strong faith throughout his life which sustained him through the hard times.”
She tells me that she and her husband “visit Italy whenever we can but our visits to Civitella have been particularly special. The beauty and tranquillity of the hilltop village – in spite of its horrific past – affected us deeply. We were made very welcome and felt privileged that survivors, and people who had lost parents and grandparents in the massacre, felt able to talk to us.”
She concludes, “It was especially important to capture the oral testimonies of memories of Morgan and O’Shea’s time in Civitella before they were lost forever; there are no official records of their work.”Commenting on the role played by O’Shea, the Passionist Provincial, Fr John Kearns CP, to whom La Vardera has sent a copy of her book, reflected that even though “humanity fails terribly in the evil acts people commit [it] also shines magnificently in the unsung heroism of others. The message of the Passion, which would have formed the way Fr Clement viewed the situation, is to see the suffering Christ in the suffering of humanity.”