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A rededication service for Private Lionel Brown, 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, and Privates Daniel Hollingsworth and Thomas White, 1st Battalion The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) took place this past week. The three, having escaped from Italian prisoner of war camps during WW2, were shot along with I.S.9 agent Mario Mottes, near the village of Montedinove, Italy.
Read an official Ministry of Defence news story about the event, “Bravery of 3 World War 2 soldiers shot for escaping from a POW camp finally recognised after nearly 75 years.”
Read also “Heros Honored” by The Sun.
On this site, read “War Crime—the Ponte Dragone Executions” and “Ponte Dragone Deaths—A Second Report” for the details on the Special Investigation Branch war crime investigation into the soldiers’ capture and execution.
A page from the Ponte Dragone Special Investigation Branch (SIB) file
On May 16, 1945, Sergeant W. Mottram filed a formal report on investigations into the Dragone Bridge execution of three British soldiers and an I.S.9 agent (see “War Crime—the Ponte Dragone Executions”).
Twenty-two days later, SIB Captain E. Lister issued a memo concerning the event that is more concise, but offers additional details and clarifications.
Lieutenants Fischer and Rommel were identified as officers of the Montalto Marche detachment of the “Brandenburgers,” the group implicated in the crime. Fischer was officer in charge, and Rommel was his second in command.
A possible close family connection of young Lieutenant Rommel to Erwin Rommel was clearly of interest to the investigators, as twice in the report the lieutenant was referenced as a nephew of the late field marshal.
Decades later, this connection is just as intriguing. In 2001, a day after the release of the secret war crime file for this incident, the Guardian did a story entitled “Rommel’s nephew linked to war crime.”
The River Aso between Petritoli and Ortezzano, in Fermo Province—a few miles downstream from Ponte Dragone, where three ex-prisoners of war and an Italian I.S.9 agent were executed in March 1944
In dark of night on March 10, 1944, three escaped British POWs and an I.S.9 agent involved in Ratline evacuations of POWs to Allied territory were executed on the Dragone Bridge. Ponte Dragone is three miles from the village of Montedinove. Earlier that day, the four men had been captured and interrogated by officers of the Montalto Marche branch of the German S.S. Brandenburg Regiment.
One year later, members of the Allied Forces’ Special Investigation Branch (SIB) conducted an investigation into the matter.
According to Italy: Imperial Prisoners of War Alphabetical List, Section 1, British Army, the POWs who were killed had been interned in two camps:
Gunner Lionel H. J. Brown (Parachute Regiment, Army Air Corps) had been interned in P.G. 70–Monteurano, near Fermo, Ascoli Piceno.
Private Daniel R. Hollingsworth (The Buffs, Royal East Kent Regiment) and Private Thomas White (also of The Buffs) had been interned in P.G. 53–Sforzacosta, Macerata.
These killings are referenced in the recent “Service in Italy for Three Soldiers” post on this site. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission announcement refers to the killings as having occurred at Ponte Del Diavolo. However, the official account references Ponte Dragone as the site of the killings.
A new memorial plaque
In the Italian village of Comunanza last Sunday, May 15, a plaque was installed to commemorate the killing of escaped Allied prisoners of war in 1944.
See “An Execution at Comunanza” on this site.
The men killed were English, American, and Scottish (Private Charles Gordon was from Gartochorn, Dunbartonshire, and Driver James Didcock was from Bridgend, Linlithgow—both in Scotland, although the official military inquiry into the case referred to them simply as “British soldiers.”
To the best of my knowledge, some of the dead to this day remain unidentified.
Attendants at the memorial ceremony
For other photos of the dedication, visit the La Casa della Memoria Facebook post regarding the ceremony.
This event was on the final day of the Freedom Trails 2016 walk (May 11–15)—sponsored by Monte San Martino Trust, WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society, and La Casa della Memoria di Servigliano.
The grave of Private William Edwards, Assisi War Cemetery
In May 1944, British Gunners Leslie Wilkins, Ernest Bellinger, and Kenneth Howarth; Private William Edwards; and two other POWs who had escaped from a camp near Spoleto hid together near the village of Roselli, Italy.
In time the fugitives were discovered and the hut where they were sleeping was raided in the night by a band of fascists and German soldiers. William Edwards, was killed during the attack, and two others were wounded.
On June 3, 1946, Leslie Wilkins was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Birmingham City Police, apparently in cooperation with a Judge Advocate General’s war crimes investigation into the case. That testimony was presented in an earlier post on this site, War Crimes—the Killing of William Edwards.
Late last week, I received a note from Janet Kinrade Dethick, a WW II researcher who lives in the Italian region of Umbria. She wrote, “I would like to update you on the research I have been doing on Private Edwards, who is buried in Assisi War Cemetery.
Exhibit G.4 in a report of the British military’s Special Investigation Branch inquiry into the execution of six servicemen at Comunanza, Italy, is captioned, “Photograph at Comunanza showing alleged scene of crime.”
Exhibit G.2 is captioned, “Photograph showing position of Communal Grave where six deceased were originally buried.”
This post contains a draft report of the British Special Investigation Branch (SIB) into the deaths of six Allied servicemen (four English and two American) in Comunanza on May 2, 1944.
The creation of the draft followed an extensive investigation by the SIB. It traces a likely scenario of events that preceded the killings, and speculates on who the soldiers were.
After the draft report is an October 1944 special report of the Graves Registration Unit (GRU). The six bodies were removed by the GRU from the vault where they had been buried and carefully examined in an attempt at identification.
More information on the Comunanza incident and the activities of the Brandenburg Division will follow on this site. Once again I am grateful to researcher Brian Sims for drawing my attention to these and other important documents from the British National Archives.
See also “The Brandenburgers—War Crimes Investigations.”
The Draft Report
H.Q., ‘A’ Group, 60 Section.
Special Investigation Branch,
c/o A.P.M’s Office, 61 Area,
Central Mediterranean Forces.
SUBJECT:- Alleged War Crime against six allied escaped prisoners of war at COMUNANZA on 2 May, 1944.
Two of the deceased believed to be:
(a) No.2935269, Pte. GORDON, Charles.
(b) No.T/3052152, Dvr. DIDCOCK, James.
The following letter from General H. R. Alexander to commanders and men of the German army is from the British National Archives.
Unfortunately, it is undated. However, as the last of the atrocities listed in it allegedly occurred on October 2, 1944, it is apparent the letter was written sometime after that date and before the end of the war in Europe.
My access to the document is courtesy of British researcher Brian Sims.
Here is the full text of the letter:
WARNING to German officers and men
By General Sir H. R. Alexander, Commander-in-Chief, Allied Armies in Italy.
1. Reports of atrocities – killings of hostages, mass reprisals against innocent civilians, torturings and the like – committed by German troops in Northern Italy are becoming daily more frequent.
2. I therefore call the attention to all German officers and men in Northern Italy, who otherwise might give or carry out orders to commit such atrocities, to the following:
3. The fact that in, for example, a certain village Italian patriots – whether or not wearing uniforms, arm-bands or other recognizable insignia – may have attacked German soldiers is not, according to the Jus Gentium or any other Legal or moral code, a justification for collective reprisals upon the population of the village, nor for the killing or persons without due legal trial and conviction.
An interesting report from the British National Archives documents investigations carried out in January 1948 by Captain C. Hillman and a second investigator referred to only as Mr. Suesserott.
The report contains recommendations for further action, including interviews that might lead to crucial new evidence and war crimes prosecutions.
Much of the Hillman/Suesserott report concerns the execution of four British and two American escaped prisoners of war in Comunanza, likely by members of the “Hettinger Group” of the Brandenberg Regiment.
The rest of the report lists seven instances of killings possibly attributable to the “Bansen Group” of the same regiment. These incidents include the killings of Sidney Seymour Smith, and Robert Alvey Newton and Martin Majeski.
My access to this investigations document is courtesy of researcher Brian Sims. I asked Brian about the “SEE” listing of these war crimes. He answered, “As with most series of UK files each department had their own particular set of references. These were later rationalised when gathered together in the WO series.”
Here is the full report:
The Investigations Report
Report on investigations carried out by Captain C. HILLMAN and Mr. SUESSEROTT covering the period from 8 Jan 48 till 29 Jan 48.
On 8 Jan 48 we proceeded from this H.Q. to investigate the deaths of Allied PoWs who were shot in Italy in May 1944. (SEE/88 and SEE/72). On 10 Jan 48 I contacted the British I.O. [Intelligence Officer] at MUNICH in an effort to get a certain REISCHEL, a former police officer in CARINTHIA who is wanted by the Austrian Authorities for various crimes committed by himself and his men against Austrian Partisans, arrested and extradited. This was met with some difficulty which was finally overcome by Mr. SUESSEROTT and the arrest of REISCHEL was effected approx. 14 days later by German Police acting on U.S. Mil. Govt. [Military Government] instructions. By way of MANNHEIM, FRANKFURT and HANNOVER I reached HAMBURG where I immediately started to make inquiries regarding the whereabouts of the former members of the BRANDENBURG Regt., such WEHLAN, LIEBHARD (or LIPPHART) and UNRAU. I was able to obtain particulars, of several persons whom I later interviewed. With the exception of WEHLAN and Hans ULRICH all persons were not identical with our traces and were set free after a short interrogation.
In May 1944, British Gunner Leslie Victor Wilkins and five other POWs who had escaped from a camp near Spoleto spent time in hiding among the foothills near Rossilia, Italy (a location which I have been unable to locate on maps).
In time the fugitives were discovered and the hut where they were hiding was raided in the night by a fascist-led group of German soldiers. One of the POWs, William Edwards, was killed—apparently in his sleep—by gunfire. Two others were wounded. Leslie Wilkins did not know what became of the wounded soldiers, but he and the two uninjured men were transferred to Germany.
On June 3, 1946, Leslie was interviewed by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Birmingham City Police, apparently in cooperation with a Judge Advocate General’s war crimes investigation into the case.
An Italian, Giovanni Agliani, was accused in the killings. Giovanni’s wife wrote to a British woman, Betty di San Marzano, who had lived in Italy and knew the family, asking her for a statement in support of her husband’s character.