Monte Amaro is an intimidating mountain, even on a warm summer's day, and I felt the deep weariness of a long day of trekking creeping up on me as I got my first sight of the summit. This Italian mountain is just under 3km high, and dominates the local range in which it sits, a majestic peak coated in a pale shroud of snow and ice.
I was following in the footsteps of British prisoner of war Len Harley, who ascended the mountain in early 1944 in a desperate bid for liberty, having evaded capture for six months in the beautiful Peligna valley, far below where I was now standing. Len was being guided by a local man – known to him only as “Alberto” – and was part of a small group of escapees which included his best friend from the camp in which they had originally been incarcerated, Sgt Albert “Nick” Nicholls. The group had all met in the dead of night at a hut at the foot of the mountain and now – in the in pitch darkness, deep snow, and bitter cold – they were making a run for the Allied lines on the other side of the mountain.
For the previous six months they had been hidden, clothed, sheltered and fed by Italian civilians, many of whom paid a terrible price for doing so. One young woman in particular – Rosina Spinosa – had taken appalling risks on behalf of Len and his fellow escapees. For the rest of his life he would remember her kindness and courage, and indeed he returned to Italy several times after the war to find her, but to no avail.
Freedom Trails such as the one over Monte Amaro were present throughout occupied Europe, routes established by local people in the Second World War in order to get servicemen, agents and refugees out of danger and back to their home nations. I had been following four of the most dramatic and remarkable of these trails for a new Channel 4 series, and as the summit of Monte Amaro finally hoved into view, the enormity of the physical achievements of the escapees was becoming fully apparent.
When Len slipped away from his prison camp in September 1943, he was malnourished, pitifully ill-equipped, and dressed in ragged clothes. All he had was an unflagging desire to get home, and the knowledge that the German forces now entrenched in Italy would soon be in hot pursuit. I had followed Len’s route from the camp along the Morrone Mountains, finally arriving at the village of Pacentro where he had been sheltered by a local man called Fiore Fabilli. Len – today 98 years old but as defiant and proud now as he had been when he made his epic escape bid – remembers Fabio well.
"An absolutely fabulous character," he recalls ‘“I speak American” is what he said to us first – very proud of the fact that he’d lived in Pittsburgh before the war.”
Len and his mates were eventually forced to flee the village as his German pursuers grew ever closer, and soon found himself being sheltered by Rosina in a nearby farm. Seventy-five years later, speaking from his home in Kent, he still comes alive at her memory,
“An absolutely wonderful woman. So brave – she brought us food even when the Germans were close. It’s all because of her that we survived, all because of her.”
The route from the Sulmona Valley, via Pacentro, and eventually over the summit of Monte Amaro is staggeringly beautiful. Indeed, Pacentro recently won the award for the most beautiful village in Italy (and that's against some pretty stiff competition as you can imagine), but it is the fact that you walk in the footsteps of men such as Len that makes it truly come alive. At each stage you encounter the same local warmth and hospitality as he did – along the whole route I don’t think I ate a dinner that was less than four courses – and the journey comes to a fitting end by passing through a gorge so narrow it is known locally as “The Throat”. At the far end is the village of Fara San Martino, which was in Allied hands in 1944, and it was here that Len realised his monumental escape had finally come to an end.
‘I was a skinny little thing, you know” he notes today, looking justifiably proud. “I think basically my inner will-power kind of kept me going, and that has stood me in good stead all the rest of my life.’
And was Len ever reunited with Rosina? Well, all will be revealed in the new Channel Four series – suffice to say that it is best to watch that particular episode alone if you don’t like anyone to see you crying.
By Monty Halls
WWII’s Great Escapes: the Freedom Trails is on Channel 4 on Saturday at 8pm