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Walks in the Maiella Part 2, San Martino Freedom Trail

The view of Campo di Giove from the Freedom Trail
The view back to Campo di Giove from Guado di Coccia


627 people led by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, walked out of the main piazza in Sulmona on May 17th 2001 on a four day hike over the Maiella to the Sangro river to open the new Freedom Trail. Named after San Martino, who divided his cloak to help two shivering beggars, the trail honors the many forgotten Italians who helped the Allied POWs after the mass escapes of September 1943.

Ciampi himself as a 23 year old anti-fascist had made this same dangerous walk as the POWs in early 1944 in order to reach the Allied lines so it was fitting that he was present at the inauguration of the trail. Also present were several British army veterans in their 80s who had been prisoners in the Sulmona camp and they had returned to show their thanks and respect to the Italians who saved their lives during those dangerous months almost sixty years earlier.

A distant view of Sulmona, Abruzzo
Sulmona with the Rome to Pescara autostrada in the distance

After 2001 the walk became an annual event and since then there has been a much greater public awareness of the extent of help given to the POWs by ordinary Italian citizens, often the very poorest, and the degree to which they suffered the harshest consequences at the hands of the German occupiers.

Anversa degli Abruzzi with the Maiella massif in the distance above the Sulmona plain
Anversa degli Abruzzi with the Maiella massif in the distance above the Sulmona plain

The tragic story of Michele Del Greco, a simple shepherd in the small hamlet of Anversa degli Abruzzi who was executed and his house torched for helping over 100 POWs reach the Sangro river, was forgotten for decades before being brought to light by local historians and as a result he was remembered at a special meeting of the townspeople last December on the 80th anniversary of his execution.

Piazza Martiri dei Limmari in Pietransieri
Piazza Martiri dei Limmari in Pietransieri

His is just one of many examples and the final stage of this 4 day walk passed through the town of Pietransieri where on November 21st 1943 the entire population was machine-gunned in retribution for the assistance they had given to Allied escapers.

It is known as the Limmari massacre from the name of the nearby forest where the killings took place and the documents relating to this atrocity languished in the 'armadio della vergogna' in Rome along with countless other war crime documents until their discovery in 1994.

Map of the southern half of the Maiella
Fonte d'Amore is just above Sulmona on the left. Campo di Giove, Guado di Coccia and Monte Porrara are shown in the bottom center

These war crimes against civilians contributed to the spontaneous formation of local partigiani groups who then coalesced into the famous Maiella Brigade that, with the support and sponsorship of Major Lionel Wigram, was formally attached to the British 8th Army and fought alongside it from January 1944. Wigram was to die in battle only a month later leading his new Italian comrades in the battle for Pizzoferrato.

Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo
Pizzoferrato, close to the border with Molise

Made up of no more than 1,500 people at its peak, this Brigade was the only Italian resistance movement that continued to fight the Germans long after they had retreated from Abruzzo and in fact it was actively involved in the liberation of Marche, Emilia Romagna and Veneto.

However, it took another 25 years for the Maiella Brigade to win their internal battle with the Italian bureaucracy but finally in 1970 the war flag of the Maiella Brigade was laid with full military honors in the shrine of the flags museum in the Vittoriano in Rome where the flags of the dissolved units of the Italian armed forces are kept.

Several books were written after the war by escapees, notable among them was 'The Way Out' by Uys Krige, a South African poet, writer, polyglot and early outspoken critic of apartheid. Like most of his fellow POWs, Krige was captured in the African campaign of 1941 and he describes the chaos and confusion of the breakout from Camp 38 at the inappropriately named Fonte d'Amore three miles north of Sulmona.

Eremo di Sant'Onofrio al Morrone surrounded by the steep cliffs
The Morrone mountains where the POWs hid immediately after their escape, with the Eremo di Sant'Onofrio in the center

When the Italian guards disappeared on September 8th 1943, the date of Italy's surrender, about 2,000 of the 3,000 POWs simply walked out of the camp but had no idea where to go. Most of them hid nearby in the mountains above the camp in caves and old mineshafts but time was short because within a week the Germans had arrived in force, having anticipated and planned for Italy's capitulation. Very quickly about two thirds of the escapees were recaptured and for the rest a difficult few months lay ahead.

Krige himself, like many others, initially took refuge in the Morrone caves but as the Eremo di Sant'Onofrio monastery above was already occupied by Germans and had a perfect field of vision, he didn't linger long. Krige was by then a resourceful 33 year old linguist with experience of living in Europe so he quickly found help, initially with a sympathetic Italian nearby in Bagnatura and then he traveled with local shepherds in the direction of Campo di Giove where he discovered 200 other POWs already taking shelter there.

Monte Porrara, Abruzzo
Monte Porrara viewed from Guado di Coccia

The Germans had by now garrisoned the railway station at Palena as part of the Gustav Line preparations so Krige had no choice but to take a more difficult route. Even though the Freedom Trail crests at Guado di Coccia at over 5,000 feet on the route taken by many subsequent POWs, Krige had to climb even higher over Monte Porrara at 7,000 feet to avoid Palena on the descent.

For the next two months, relying on local help and traveling by night, his route took him through Ateleta on the Molise border then Capracotta, Agnone and finally Salcito where he passed the last retreating Germans and met up with Canadian troops on the Allied front lines.

Una stella sulla Majella sign on a rock on the Freedom trail near Campo di Giove
You pass this rock at the start of the trail from Campo di Giove

'A star on the Maiella' was the codeword broadcast by Radio London for the next 8 months whenever a POW reached the British Eighth Army, which by early 1944 had crossed the Sangro River and was operating out of headquarters in Casoli.

Another autobiographical writer, William Simpson, never actually set foot in Camp 78 because he jumped out of the truck bringing him there and landed on the other side of a high hedge which aided his escape. He eventually made it to Rome and his story is even more fascinating because it details an entire year in the Rome underground helping hundreds of Allied escapees thanks to a network of sympathetic Italians and a heroic Vatican monsignor.

Simpson returned to Italy a year after the war ended and on May 18, 1946, in the municipal hall of Sulmona, he articulated the debt that so many POWs owed to the Abruzzesi: "Sulmona was one of the few Italian centers that truly distinguished themselves in this work of solidarity and Christian charity: this nice town, which kindly hosted me both as a prisoner and a free man, I consider it my second homeland. Sulmona saved as many as seven thousand Allied prisoners from the German claws. We will hardly be able to forget it."

Winston Churchill also recognized the contribution of the Italian people and he made the following comment in his 'Memoirs of the Second World War' published in 1959: "at least 10,000 (out of about 80,000 POWs in Italy) with little knowledge of the language or geography of the country were guided to safety, thanks to the risks taken by members of the Italian Resistance and the simple people of the countryside"

The Trail

Detailed map of the Freedom Trail from Campo di Giove to Guado di Coccia, Abruzzo

The official Maiella Freedom Trail as described on the Carta Escursionistica is marked with the letters CSL-L and extends for a total of 17 miles. It is designed to be a 3 day hike with the middle section from Campo di Giove to Palena being the heart of the trail and the point at which it traverses the highest altitude and crosses the Gustav Line.

The view from Guado di Coccia, Abruzzo
One of many great views from Guado di Coccia

I decided to just walk half of the second stage from Campo di Giove up to the high point at Guado di Coccia, returning to Campo di Giove instead of continuing on to Palena. This makes for a round trip of 4.5 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation change, enough for a pleasant morning hike taking no more than 3 hours in total.

The Freedom Trail just below Guado di Coccia, Abruzzo

This is generally a well maintained trail that has great views back to Campo di Giove and Sulmona. It gets progressively steeper but is not too challenging until you approach the ski area at Guado di Coccia at which point there is a very steep section (above photo) that on the descent is safer using the path rather than the wide gravel road.

The description of Ettore de Corti's bravery at Guado di Coccia, Abruzzo

The story of Ettore De Corti, the first casualty of the Freedom Trail, is displayed on a board at Guado di Coccia (above photo). He was a 24 year old Italian military pilot from Udine in Friuli who immediately traveled south to Abruzzo to join the Allies after hearing of the Italian surrender on September 8th.

A month later while trying to cross the German lines with fellow partigiani they were shot at by an enemy patrol. Ettore engaged them with only a pistol giving his comrades time to escape, but he suffered a serious leg wound in the process leaving him unable to move. German reinforcements arrived a few hours later and executed him where he lay. He was posthumously decorated for valor.

Campo di Giove, Abruzzo
Campo di Giove


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