04 Sep

A report of the British Graves Registration unit (no 12/ GRU/TAL/ 2024) reports that on 23 November 1945 four unknown Britons were buried at plots 1D5/6/7/8 at the British Cemetery in Milan (then known as the British Empire Cemetery Milan). The report states that four men were previously buried in a communal grave at the Civil Cemetery in Turin along with seven identified RAF men. Apparently, the men were buried with little or no clothing and other means of identification.  Extensive British investigations detailed in WO310/80 were unable to establish the identities of the men, so they remain buried as unknown soldiers. One avenue of investigation was that the soldiers were four men reported by witnesses as having been taken away by the Germans in the small town of Volpiano (near Turin). Although this enquiry proved to be a dead end, the British case file throws an interesting light on a story of revenge and murder in Volpiano. 

On 21st September 1943, people walking along the Corso Giulio Cesare across the Ferdinando di Savoia bridge over the River Stura in Turin noticed the macabre sight of four bodies floating in the river, they called the town police and eventually the local fire brigade managed to retrieve the bodies with grapples. Two Carabinieri officers examined the bodies and found they had been bound with wire and weighted down with batteries. All the men had significant gunshot wounds. The doctor who examined the bodies at the scene declared that the men were between 20 and 30 and had all been dead for around 36 hours. The Carabinieri reported that since the men had English language tattoos and were found with British tobacco tins, they were assumed to have escaped from a nearby prison camp at Madonna di Campagna. The bodies were then transferred to the legal- Medical institute of Turin , which was at the time at the Politecnico in Valentino Park. There they were examined by Carlo Audino, an employee of the Turin registrar of deaths. Audino testified that the bodies bore the marks of bullet wounds in the head and chest and that fixed to the feet of three of the men were wire and large pieces of cement while the fourth had been weighted with wire and a large battery. Audino further stated that around the necks of one or two of the bodies were what appeared to be identity discs bearing English letters and figures. (These ID Tags seem to have subsequently disappeared). No written identification documents were found, and it is not known what later happened to the supposed identity tags. The Medical Examiner confirmed that each of the men had been shot several times and they had probably been in the water for four or five days. The undertaker examining the bodies testified when he found them, they were in khaki-coloured trousers, the remains of the clothing was civilian apart from the pullovers they were wearing which appeared to be military. One of the custodians of the mortuary made a contradictory statement that the two of the men were wearing grey Italian military trousers while the remainder wore grey woollen pullovers. The Police took photos of the bodies, which were later used to try and establish the identities. The medical report described the bodies as follows: 

Body “A” Around 30 years old, height 175 centimetres sturdy build grey eyes and chestnut coloured hair with tattoo of a young woman with a hat and stick on the right leg 

Body “B” around 25 years old 181 centimetres sturdy physique fair hair chestnut colour eyes

 Body “C”  around 30 years old, 177 cm.  red haired, blue eyes. He had many tattoos on the right arm;  a coat of arms between 2 English flags under which was written “True love” on the right forearm 2 Hawks crossed with an arrow with  under which there was written there were two hands clasped and the name Edna on the left forearm with “True love mother”

 Body D Corpulent body around179cm -about 25-30 years of age- chestnut coloured wavy hair and bright brown eyes. Gold ring on third finger of right hand 

The four men were buried as unknown in the General Cemetery of Turin in via Catania. 

A British investigation began on 8 June 1945 when two Italians went to the offices of the British Field Security Service (FSS) in Turin, saying that they wanted to report a war crime. The two men Benito Militello and Firmino Castellani, testified that they knew of the arrest of five “English” prisoners in the Café Cernaia in Volpiano, near Turin. ( the Italian versions always refer to inglesi -  without distinguishing, so I kept that form) The two men alleged that Maschio family, who had run the Café   had informed the German HQ of the soldier’s presence, receiving a reward of Lire 1800 each.  According to Militello and Castellani, the Maschio family later regretted this and that the three sons joined up with the partisans in the mountains, where one brother Umberto was the commander of the Spartaco II detachment.  Militello and Castellani alleged that the brothers had recently shot a Romanian Lieutenant and a Polish Sergeant who had been with the partisans and who were looking to be repatriated. The joint statement ends by saying “this also exasperated the people in Volpiano who wanted somebody to get interested in this question to stop the murders”. 

Sergeant F C Arnold of 64 Section of the Special Investigations Branch of the Corps of Military Police was sent off to investigate and on 25 June 1945, he took witness statements in Volpiano about the events in September 1943. He interviewed Umberto Maschio. Maschio started out by setting out his credentials as having helped the British, saying that after the armistice on 8 September, he had arranged three escaped English soldiers to be hidden at various farms in the Volpiano area, where they had stayed for between six and seven months. Maschio said that he had accompanied eight British soldiers to Alpette, near Pont Canavese, a town to the North of Turin in the foothills of the mountains. Shortly after a rastrellamento in the mountains had caused Maschio to lose contact with the escapees. He later found that they had linked up with the partisans. Maschio then turned to the question of the “English” in Volpiano, saying that they had arrived in the family bar- but had been almost immediately arrested by the Carabinieri. Although, the Maschio family had taken the prisoners food , they had ben unable to secure their release. Maschio said that it was rumoured that one of the prisoners had escaped and the other four had been taken to German camps. 

Arnold also interviewed Umberto’s brother Pierino, but he had been serving with the Italian Army in La Spezia and after being arrested for a while after the Armistice had not got home until sometime after the English disappeared. Arnold interviewed the Maresciallo of the Carabinieri in Volpiano, but he had only been there since March 1945. He told Arnold that the Fascists had destroyed the records and that his predecessor Maresciallo Zabarella had gone into the mountains to join the partisans and had never returned. In August 1945, Arnold submitted a report in which it was clear that little progress was possible; the Carabinieri were unable to supply any new information and meanwhile one of the key witnesses Firmino Castellani had been found murdered and Militello had disappeared. Worse the Italians had arrested two of Maschio brothers on suspicion of murder and kidnapping. 

In February 1946, the case was reopened , this time by CSM P Bainbridge of 78 SIB. Bainbridge went to Volpiano and took some fresh witness statements . Bainbridge interviewed  Bruno Pomponio who had been the only other patron in the bar Cernaia , during the supposed events in September 1943. He remembered being in the bar at 1630 one afternoon, he was not sure of the exact day. He said he entered the bar and saw five men in civilian clothing. A few minutes later the Carabinieri arrived an he left the café. At around 1900 , he saw the same Englishmen being put into a vehicle outside the Carabinieri station. He remembered that one of the English was ginger haired with freckles. He was shown the Turin mortuary phots and thought he recognised, Victim B. This might have been fairly credible, since he was being shown a black & white photo and was presumably unaware that the Medical Examiner’s report said that Victim B was red haired. 

Bainbridge also interviewed the third Maschio brother Ernesto who attested that on 15 November (presumably a transcription error for September) 1943 he saw five men in civilian clothing entering his father’s café Volpiano. The men handed his mother a piece of paper with his father’s name, Francesco Maschio. They spoke in a foreign language, and he was unable to make himself understood, so he assumed they were POWs. Ernesto then went to the Carabinieri Station to speak the Maresciallo Luigi Zabarella, who was a friend of his. Zabarella advised Ernesto to put the POWs in contact with his cousin Francesco Maschio. (Perhaps the had been looking for him rather than his father of the same name) .By the time Ernesto got back to the cafe, some other Carabinieri had arrived accompanied by a Lieutenant- they were not local officers and Ernesto did not recognise them. He believed that the officer came from Chivasso.  The prisoners were marched away hands on heads. Anna Maschio, mother of the Maschio brothers was interviewed and corroborated Ernesto’s version of events (not surprisingly).  

The British then located and interviewed, Carabinieri Lieutenant Augusto Straulino. In 1943 he had been a Lieutenant at the Carabinieri HQ in Chivasso, responsible for several stations including Volpiano.  He recalled that on 15 September 1943, he had been on an inspection visit Volpiano and was at the Carabinieri barracks when he saw five British prisoners. He was told by the Maresciallo (presumably Zabarella) that they had been picked up a a Café in Volpiano. According to his version of events, Straulino advised a senior officer Captain Sorrentino that the prisoners were being detained there and then went of to continue his inspection elsewhere. Straulino recalled that he had seen the prisoners a few days later at the Carabinieri station in Chivasso, He was told by a German that they had been transferred to camps in Germany. A couple of months later, Straulino made another statement where he made it perfectly clear that he was never in the Café at Volpiano. (presumably to emphasise he was not the Carabinieri Lieutenant mentioned in Ernesto’s account who had made the arrests). 

Meanwhile, Benito Militello (who had gone missing after Firmino Castellani’s disappearance ) had turned up again, so the British interviewed him too. After having stressed his partisan credentials, he recounted that he had been working for Professor Thonel , who was employed by the 315 Section of the British Field Security Service in Turin( broadly speaking the FSS was engaged in searching for war criminals and intelligence gathering) . In this context Militello had been approached by Firmino Castellani with the story about the killing of four British Prisoners. Militello had allegedly then been coerced by “threat of losing his employment” to co-sign Castellani’s accusation (the implication being that Professor Thonel as his employer was behind that). Militello does mention Castellani’s grievance against the Maschio family for being imprisoned for 12 days after the end of the war.   

By the time CSM Bainbridge started his enquiries, Firmino Castellani was dead  so Banbridge took a statement from is brother Evarista instead. It was largely just hearsay evidence based on the original story that in September 1944 he was a partisan together with his brother. His brother had told them about the arrests that of the English POW’s in Volpiano someone told him that the Maschio brothers had denounced the English prisoners for the reward money. He also testified that his brother had reported this matter to the British HQ in Turin. He added that Firmino was subsequently murdered by persons unknown on 13th of June 1945. In fact, it turned out that Firmino was killed by one of the Maschio brothers. According to Italian court documents translated and supplied to the British, on 13th June 1945 Umberto Maschio kidnapped Firmino Castellani, murdered him and concealed  the body. The motive was apparently to “eliminate a witness to the fact he had turned over five English POWS to the Germans.”   On the evening of the 13 June in 1945 Castellani was seen getting off a tram near his  house in via Campanello 8 , Turin and being taken and forced into a car. Other witnesses also testified to seeing Castellani in the company off Maschio and identified the car. Castellani’s body was subsequently found in a shallow grave in the community of Lamadore killed by five shots from a revolver. 

The Italian court was asked to consider whether Umberto Maschio should benefit from a political amnesty. it considered that both he and his brother Piero were pre-eminent heroes amongst the partisans and that they had “sustained ferocious reprisals by the Nazi fascists”. Castellani even though he had soldiered with the partisans was classed as” not to be a reliable person” he was  suspected of having connections with the Nazi fascists and his mistress Ines Alvaretti had been executed by the partisan. Castellani had been summoned before the partisans and released on his own word, It was following this  that he reported Maschio to the British. The Court ruled that Castellani had betrayed their partisans cause and had been executed for that and consequently that Maschio could benefit from the amnesty in respective all the crimes he was alleged to have committed. He was released on 19th of June 1947. 

 The British pursued a lead that the “fifth” British soldier has escaped the Germans and joined up with a British mission operating in Piemonte. The mission apparently consisted of a Major, Sergeant Major and a signaller operating at Brusasco.  In the end a memo from an anonymous major in the ISLD on 22 May 1946, confirmed that a British mission was operating in the Brusasco area in March 1945. Brusasco is a municipality to the East of Turin, not far from Chivasso, Volpiano and Settimo Torinese.  ISLD (Inter Services Liaison Department) was an innocuous name used by the British intelligence services SIS/MI6 for communications). The British mission was described as being as a group from Force 133 consisting of Major Max Salvadori, Captain Keaney (Keany) , Captain Agave (an Italian) and Sergeant Pickering . Force 133 was a subsidiary HQ of the British Special Operations (SOE) which was based in Bari and responsible for operations in occupied Northern Italy. SOE had been formally dissolved in January 1946 and some of its operations merged into SIS/MI6 which was presumably the reason for the secretive reply. According to the memo, on 3 March 1945, Captain Keaney (Keany) had sent a message to London that Lieutenant Basil Temple Jr of 310 Bomb Group, 379 Squadron was alive and well and living with the partisans.   379 Bombardment Squadron was an American Unit, so one assumes that Basil Temple Jr was a downed American flier. John Keany was killed in an engagement with SS Troops on 8 March 1945 (he is also buried in the Milan Cemetery. 

By the time the SIB made their enquiries, Max Salvadori was in the United States, so they did not interview him. The Army traced Sergeant W.A Pickering to his home in Manchester and interviewed him. He remembered that they had met some escaped POWS , but he could not remember their names and did not recall the murder of any POWs being mentioned. There is no record that the SIB followed up on the Basil Temple Jr lead. In the end, the alleged war crime at Volpiano, seems to have been a “Red Herring” on which the British spent a lot of time an effort investigating, looking for witnesses and writing long repots to no avail. If there ever were any British POW’s in Volpiano it is quite possible that the men having been delivered into the custody of the Germans were simply sent to German POW camps and survived the war. This was the fate of the British POWs who obeyed orders to stay in Italian POW camps after the Armistice on 8 September 1943. The inference is that Militello and Castellani, might have cooked up the story about the Maschio rothers and the PWs for some personal vendetta or to curry favour with the occupying British. Either way, it seems that there was a feud going on between the Maschio family and Castellani, which culminated in the murder of Firmino Castellani. 

The identity of the deceased remained a mystery until further information was received about four Englishman who had been killed at Settimo Torinese. During an interview in March 1946 a villager from Settimo, Antonio Lione testified that he had heard from an eyewitness, who had seen four Englishmen being shot on the banks of the River Po by local Italian fascists.  Their bodies were subsequently thrown into the river.  That eyewitness had subsequently been shot by Fascists and was no longer available for interview. The date of the alleged shooting is not recorded. The river Po meets to Stura, a few km downstream, so it would have been possible for the bodies thrown into the Po, to travel downstream and then up the Stura the Stura Bridge in Turin. In the end the British chose not to pursue the Volpiano disappearances, judging most of the witnesses to be either unreliable or dead ! and that little progress might be anticipate. In summary: 

  • Firmino Castellani, a former partisan who has fallen out with felloe former partisans, the Maschio family comes forward to the British with the story of the executed prisoners
  • Benito Militello supports this accusation, despite no apparent connections with Castellani- apparently persuaded by Professor Thonel, who  happened  to be his employer
  • Professor Thonel is suspected by the British of forgery and subsequently vanishes, perhaps suggesting he was a man of dubious ethics or had some vested interest in giving he British the news they wanted about their missing soldiers and win some favour with them
  • Firmino Castellani is kidnapped and murdered by the Maschio brothers
  • The Maschio brothers are arrested by the Italians for Castellani’s murder
  • The whole Maschio family tells the same story about five POWs in the bard being taken by the Carabinieri. The only other eyewitness from the bar, Pomponio tells an almost identical story.
  • Carabinieri Lieutenant Straulino confirms some of these facts, and admits he was in Volpiano but denies having been the Lieutenant in the bar who carried out the arrests.
  • His superior Captain Sorrentino denies having any knowledge of the situation
  • Nobody can identify the German units are officers who were in Chivasso
  • Maresciallo Zabarella from Volpiano has unfortunately died in Mauthausen
  • Al the station records have been destroyed
  • The mysterious fifth prisoner who escaped and who supposedly joined up with the partisans is never found. No partisans could be traced who recall him and Sergeant Pickering of the British Chariton mission has no recollection og such an individual
  • Apart from Pomponio’s recollection of a ginger haired man – nobody is able to positively identify the POWS as being those found dead in the River Stura

 It seems unlikely that the bodies would ever be identified. There are over 3,000 British & Commonwealth soldiers listed on the Cassino Memorial as missing in Italy with no known graves . The British investigations did uncover four possible individuals. The men had been POWS at Campo PG112 in Turin. Although there is substantial documentation regarding many POW Camps in Italy, thee is hardly anything on Campo PG112. It seems to have been located in the area of Madonna di Campagna, which is an area of Turin, not far from the Stura River, there are also seem to have been some outlying work camps in the same area. If the Prisoners had walked out of the camp following the Armistice between Italy and the Allies on 8 September and were heading north towards the mountains and Switzerland, quite conceivably they might have passed through Settimo Milanese. The original reports  assessed the time of death as being some 36 hours before the bodies were found in the river, extended to four to five days after the proper medical examination. Suggesting they had been killed between the 16th and  19th September. Apparently, the rate of decomposition in cold fresh water is considerably slower than in the air- so their deaths may have been earlier. It also is apparently a phenomenon that bodies submerged in water tend to float to the surface after 10 to 14 days, because of the internal action of gasses. Not very pleasant, but seemingly even well weighted bodies might surface in the end.   If the men had escaped from camps on the 8 September either they made pretty slow progress to Settimo Torinese which is only a few km away. . Possibly they were sheltered by Italians on the way, which given the great record of the Piemontese in sheltering escaped Allied prisoners must be a possibility. Or they were killed very quickly after leaving the camp. The British identified four missing soldiers who had been at Campo PG112 and who remained unaccounted for: 

Private Thomas Harvey of the Durham Light infantry – 4802188 – aged24 

Private Leslie Alfred Higgins- 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment AAC 892353- aged 23 

Private Frederick William Brookes, 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment AAC- 5044457 

Private Wilfred Faram, 1st Battalion, South Staffs Regiment 5048692, aged 25 

Privates Harvey, Higgins and Brookes have no known graves and are commemorated at the CWGC Cassino Memorial, Private Faram is commemorated at the Alamein Memorial in Egypt The Durham Light Infantry and the South Staffs had both served in the Western Desert, possibly Harvey and Faram were captured there. Both Parachute Battalions were with the 1st Parachute Brigade in North Africa. The 2nd Battalion dropped at Depienne on 29 November 1942, their objective was Oudna, nine miles from Tunis, they achieved this, but unexpectedly heavy German resistance prevented the link up with the advancing 1st Army and the 2nd Para Battalion was isolated 56 miles behind enemy lines. Attacked by German air and armour, they conducted a fighting withdrawal to regain the Allied lines, losing 16 officers and 250 men en route. During the next five months to April 1943 the battalion fought through the winter as line infantry. The 1st Battalion's  first mission was to capture and hold Beja, an important road junction on the Souk el Khemis Plain. The jump made from American Dakota aircraft ahead of the 1st Army onto open ground at Souk el Arba was successful. For the rest of the campaign the battalion also operated as line infantry. Quite probably Higgins and Brooks were captured in that campaign. 

There is, of course, no positive evidence that these are the four men buried in Milan- just the circumstantial evidence that they seem to be in the age range identified by the Italians and to have been in that broad geographic area. The wide mix of military clothing which they were wearing suggested that maybe they had been issued with new clothing received via the Red Cross, which was fairly common at the time. Other than that there is not much to go on. 

It is of course unlikely that the men lying in those four graves in Milan will ever be identified, but if this short article has given anybody any thoughts, do please get in touch.




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