8. A Letter from Italy

Sig. Eraldo Manfroni [24]

The content of the Air Ministry's letter of 20th June 1945 was soon to be confirmed by an extraordinary letter dated 6th October from Sig. Eraldo Manfroni, who it transpired had been a teacher at Polverara. Examination of several documents indicates that he had been witness to the crash scene, had actively participated in the funeral and burial arrangements and had personally taken it upon himself to contact the families of the five dead airmen.

The original letter (7 pages, 7.32 MB) to Sgt Smith's parents can be viewed here.

The story of the letter and much of its content was subsequently published on page 5 of the Ilkley Gazette on the 23rd November 1945. An image of the article can be viewed (769KB) here.

Mr and Mrs W H Smith, of Pelton Cottage, Ben Rhydding, have received from Italy a remarkable letter telling the story of the fate of their son Sergeant Stephen F. Smith who was one of the five members of the crew of a British 'plane which crashed in November 1943, near Spezia, in Italy.

The letter occupied over six closely typewritten quarto pages. It is the work of Eraldo Manfroni , a teacher at Polverara and resident in Las Spezia. It would appear that a similar letter has been sent to two other families of members of the crew, and he asks to be supplied with the addresses of the remaining two families, so that he might send to them a similar memorial.

The writer explains at the outset that "human pity and gratefulness feelings guide him to send this memorial of the sacrifice of their relatives. There are many expressions of gratitude for the service rendered by the allies in the fight against Fascist tyranny, and a touching prayer which he conceives the dying might have made in their fall.

Crash in Thunderstorm

There follows a day-to-day account from November 24 1943 to November 30 1943 of what took place on the side of Monte Croce following the crashing of the 'plane. It was during a violent thunder storm that countrymen heard the sound of the 'plane and saw flashes of light. Through the storm, in pitch darkness they made their way to where the 'plane was blazing, but were unable to approach too near on account of the heat and the explosion of projectiles. Next morning the discovered it was an English 'plane, falling in the locality of Venturello about ten kilometres from Spezia, on the path going to Monte Croce.

Among the books and magazines was found a card addressed to Mrs W. H. Smith, Pelton Cottage, Manley Grove, Ben Rhydding, and next day was found a document which gave the names of the five men in the 'plane.  The German military authorities did not arrive until November 27, and the medical doctor, after seeing the bodies, declared that each of the five must have died immediately.

The Funeral

The letter tells, too, how a kindly German interpreter showed the writer photographs of Sergeant Smith, and the German Authorities said that every personal document would be sent to the International Red Cross. On November 29 the bodies were removed in coffins to Polverara, where on November 30, a service was held in the Church. The writer gives a carefully detailed account of the funeral service with women and boys continuously placing flowers on the coffins, of the burning of incense, and of the deep emotion aroused in the onlookers. The coffins were afterwards borne to the Polverara communal cemetery. Permission to photograph the transfer of the coffins was refused, and the writer tells of the impatience of the Nazi Fascist military representative waiting near the gate, impatient because of the homage being paid to the fallen.

A Moving Scene

In his faulting English there is given a very moving picture of the scene and of his thoughts while acting as a coffin bearer. "Between two lines of crowd defile the coffins," says the letter.  "In every glance, in every gesture, in every attitude, an expression of sadness is marked. I uphold the coffin from one side and I think - If my hand might have shaken the young aviator's hand when he was to liberate towards the blue sky, instead of this piece of wood; if my arms might have embraced the shining body of the hero while he was going towards the extreme sacrifice, instead of these wood slabs…. "I walked and upheld that sacred weight; I would defend it for a sense of pride that made me fervent, for a sense of sorrow which tormented myself."

He goes on to describe the internment, the German officer calling the name of each man, the Fascisti militia-men responding to each name with a volley of gun-fire, whilst the Germans saluted.

From a Wide Area

Hundreds of persons came from the Valley of Vara, and from Spezia, to the funeral, and the Fascist militia and the Germans expressed their appreciation of the ceremony and the great quantity of flowers offered to the fallen.

Finally there is given a detailed account of how the cemetery may be found should their families make a pilgrimage to the place.  He adds that soon after the falling of the 'plane, some countrymen, who afterwards enlisted with the partisans, took off from the 'plane, at a moment when the Carabineri were absent, three "mitrailleuses" in very good condition. They would be employed to achieve the same aims as had inspired the five English heroes.

It has recently (2013) been discovered, from documents provided by Elisabetta Manfroni, the daughter of Eraldo Manfroni, that letters were also sent to the families of two other crew members. Notes kept by Eraldo indicate that in addition to the address for Sgt Smith, he had also found addresses for Sgt Bowman and Sgt Betts.

The father of Sgt Betts wrote to Eraldo on 30th September 1945. An image of the letter [24] can be viewed here. The content is as follows:

Dear Mr Manfroni

First on behalf of my wife and myself I must deeply thank you for the kindness you have shown to us. Yours through Dennis was the first we actually knew what happened to our dear son and it ended the agony of nineteen months waiting and hoping. It has at least eased our minds that he never suffered and is at rest in a grave on top of the mountain. He loved hills and the open country and we think he will be content there.

He also loved Italian music and has several records of their beautiful singers and bands. We have not yet had the story and poetry, as Dennis wrote that he would bring them when he came on leave. I wrote to the other parents giving your address and they said they would write to your personally and thank you.

We are hoping some time next year when transport is a bit easier to visit the grave and hope then to meet you and thank you for the interest and help you have given us.

We do understand how unhappy your beloved country must feel and how your former leaders have let you down so badly but I am afraid nobody gains out of war and all peoples must be made to realise the futility of it.

Your action alone shows that peoples of different nations have the same feelings and could live in harmony the best that each nation can provide. Again thank you for all you have done

Yours sincerely, H Betts

Sgt Betts' father wrote a further letter [24] just a month later on 28th October 1945 and can be viewed here. Its content is as follows:

Dear Sir

I thank you for the story of the last flight made by my son and his consequent death. I do not know how to thank you for the trouble you have taken to compose the story, the expense and the kindness behind it all.

I'm afraid we in England have got used to the mutilated bodies of civilians and airmen. It was a relief to learn that they all died instantaneously and that they were buried decently. We feel very grateful for the expressions of sympathy by your local peoples and would like to convey our thanks to the vicar and officials of the church for the Christian spirit they displayed to the mortal remains of my son and his friends.

I have written to the people mentioned by you and they will be writing to you themselves. I suggest you delete that portion dealing with the pitiful sight of their bodies but state their deaths were instantaneous and the subsequent burial portion, which is really beautiful. We hope to visit your country as soon as possible and to thank you in person for your kindness.

Yours sincerely, H Betts

---ooo000ooo---

The reference to "Dennis" in the first letter is partially explained by another letter provided by Elisabetta Manfroni. This letter was written by Trooper Dennis Lovell and is dated December 1945. His army unit, Prince of Wales Own Royal Hussars, acted as part of the "Army of Occupation" in both Italy and Germany at the end of the war. It is presumed that he had met Eraldo Manfroni during duty in Italy and had agreed to help contact the families of the dead airmen. The letter [24] can be viewed here whilst its content is as follows:

Dear Manfroni, I hope this letter will find you and all your dear ones in good health.

As you will see from the above address, I am now stationed in Germany. I have recently been to England for a 28 day repose and I did of course meet and speak with Mrs Betts. And I was very pleased to be able to tell Mrs Betts all that I know about the happenings at Venturello. Also Mr Betts said that you have written and told him the graves are being cared for, thank you. Mrs Betts is very pleased to know her son is buried in a proper cemetery. Perhaps in a year or two's time, when you are able, you could take some photographs. I am sure we would all appreciate it very much. I must finish this letter now, I once again assure you we all, family and friends, think a very lot of you and thank you.

I am your sincere friend, Dennis Lovell

---ooo000ooo---

Two letters from the mother of Sgt Bowman have survived. The first has been written in Italian and appended with signature and address by his mother. The letter [24], the date of which is unclear, can be viewed here. The English text is as follows:

London 1?-19-45 (Possibly 19th January 1945)

Dear Mr. Eraldo,

I wish to thank you for your kind letter about my son and his friends. At the moment it's impossible for me to give any address of his friends as I don't know them, but I'll send you as soon as I receive them because I've written to the Ministry of Aviation to ask for the parent's addresses of the other aviators.

I thank you so much for the memorial you sent me either and for all the troubles you suffered due to my son.

I was disappointed to hear that my son has been moved from Polverara as I knew that he was (buried ) with his friends that's why I truly thank you for your kindness towards me. Here I've  found a friend who read your letter to me and he wrote this letter to you either so I can avoid to look for another interpreter. I wish to know if you found my son's identification tags or anything else that belonged to him, in order to find something to remind him.

I thank you so much

Best regards

A. Bowman (Mrs)

12 Pembroke Road

Walthamstow, E17

The second letter [24] is dated 6th August 1945 and can be viewed here. The content is as follows:

Dear Sir,

Having heard from Mr Betts, the father of Sgt Betts, whose aircraft was destroyed, I am thanking you for the care and consideration you have used regarding the loss of my son and others in a plane disaster, which no doubt you know more about than anyone.

I shall consider it a great favour if you will be good enough to inform me when my son was buried and I would like to know how the American Red Cross could let our Air Ministry know, after such a long time, to inform me of my son's death.

Is it possible for you to tell me if my son's disc or any other regimental or any of his belongings were found near him which can eventually prove that he was one of the party in the plane. I shall be grateful if in any way you can enlighten me, also thanking you for the utmost kindness and interest you have taken in the parents of these unfortunate lads. If you could tell me its not my son I would bless you always. As you are a Pastor, I can tell you that my son liked his chapel so well, and he was loved and esteemed by all, and was an Officer of the Boys Brigade.

I am yours very sincerely, a broken hearted mother, A Bowman

---ooo000ooo---

It is apparent that Eraldo was not content to only send letters to the three families for whom he had addresses. He also wrote to the Air Ministry in London asking for contact details of Sgt Barton and Sgt Hurnell. He received a letter [24] from the Casualty Branch dated 22nd January 1946 which can be viewed here. The content is as follows:

Dear Sir, I am directed to refer to your letter dated 13th December 1945, and thank you for communicating with the families of Sgt Betts, Sgt Bowman and Sgt Smith, and also for your kind offer to write to the next of kin of Sgt Barton and Sgt Hurnell.

I am to explain however that it is contrary to Air Ministry policy to reveal the addresses of next of kin of Royal Air Force personnel, but letters which need not be stamped, addressed to: Mrs S.A.Barton, the wife of S.A.Barton and H.E.Hurnell Esq, the father of Sgt P Hurnell will be redirected without delay if forwarded to this department in the enclosed envelope.

An associated letter [24] was subsequently written by the Casualty Branch dated 10th March 1946 which can be viewed here. Its content confirms receipt of letters as follows:

Sir, I am directed to thank you for your letter of 20th February, enclosing two letters, in memorial form one for Mrs SA Barton, wife of Sgt SA Barton and the other for Mr HE Hurnell the father of Sgt P Hurnell. These letters have been redirected as requested.

Sadly there are no indications that Eraldo's attempts to contact the families of Sgt Barton or Sgt Hurnell were successful.