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Authors: Brian Fleming

The Vatican Pimpernel

BOOK: The Vatican Pimpernel
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The Collins Press

Cast of Characters

The Rome Escape Organisation

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, the founder of the organisation.

John May, a member of the Council of Three.

Count Sarsfield Salazar, a member of the Council of Three.

Major Sam Derry, the senior British officer involved in the organisation from late November 1943.

The Helpers

The Irish: Delia Murphy, Blon Kiernan, Frs Buckley, Claffey, Treacy, Lenan, Madden, Roche, Tuomey, Forsythe and Brother Humilis.

The Maltese: Mrs Henrietta Chevalier, Brother Pace, Frs Galea, Borg and Gatt.

The British: Lts Simpson and Furman, Molly Stanley, Hugh Montgomery, Flt. Lt. Garrad-Cole and Major D'Arcy Mander.

The New Zealanders: Frs Sneddon and Flanagan.

The Czechoslovak: Private Joe Pollak.

The American: Monsignor Joseph McGeogh.

The Yugoslavs: Milko Scofic and Lt. Ristic Cedomir.

The Dutch: Fr Anselmo Musters.

The French: Jean de Blesson and François de Vial.

The Greeks: Evangelo Averoff and Theodoro Meletiou.

The Russian: Fr Borotheo Bezchctnoff.

The Italians: Renzo and Adrienne Lucidi, Princess Nini Pallavicini, Fr Giuseppe Clozner, Secundo Constantini, Giuseppe Gonzi, Sandro Cottich, Mimo Trapani, Fernando Giustini, Giovanni Cecarelli, the Pestalozza family, Prince Filippo Doria Pamphilj, Iride and Maria Imperoli, Prince Caracciolo and scores of others whose courageous support for the work of the organisation was crucial.

The Diplomats

Dr Thomas Kiernan, Irish Minister to the Holy See.

Michael MacWhite, Irish Minister to Italy.

Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British Minister to the Holy See.

Harold H. Tittmann, United States Chargé d'Affaires to the Holy See.

Ernst von Weizsaecker, German Ambassador to the Holy See.

The Vatican

Pope Pius XII, (Eugenio Pacelli, a native of Rome).

Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Secretary of State.

Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, Under Secretary for Ordinary Affairs (subsequently Pope Paul VI).

Monsignor Domenico Tardini, Under Secretary for Extraordinary Affairs.

The Allies

General Harold Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander.

Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, senior American officer.

The Nazis/Fascists

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, Head of the Gestapo in Rome.

Pietro Caruso, Fascist Chief of Police.

Pietro Koch, Chief of the Fascist Political Police Squad.

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Supreme German Army Commander in Italy.

The Observers

Mother Mary St Luke, an American nun living in Rome who published her diaries under the pseudonym, Jane Scrivener. Excerpts from her diary are referenced and dated in the text, for the convenience of the reader, as well as in the more conventional manner.

Michael MacWhite, an Irish diplomat living in Rome. Excerpts from his archive – including letters to the Department of Foreign Affairs, coded cablegrams and diary entries – are referenced and dated in the text, for the convenience of the reader, as well as in the more conventional manner.


On Monday 10 June 1940, the dictator Benito Mussolini announced to the Italian people that their country would enter the War on the following day as partners of Germany. Until then, the career of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a Kerryman working in the Vatican, had been relatively routine. Following ordination in 1925, he fulfilled various roles in the Church, before being appointed to a position at the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1936. However, his speedy rise through the ranks of the Vatican civil service is a clear indication that he was a man of some considerable ability. The events of the War years illustrate that, as well as being an able man, O'Flaherty possessed truly great qualities of leadership, ingenuity, compassion and courage, both physical and moral.

Early on in the War, O'Flaherty was merely an observer. As he remarked to a friend later, ‘When this War started I used to listen to broadcasts from both sides. All propaganda, of course, and both making the same terrible charges against the other. I frankly didn't know which side to believe – until they started rounding up the Jews in Rome. They treated them like beasts, making old men and respectable women get down on their knees and scrub the roads. You know the sort of thing that happened after that; it got worse and worse, and I knew then which side I had to believe.'

As he was well known in the city, many of those being hounded by the authorities began to seek his help. With assistance from many of his colleagues in religious life and local civilians, he began to hide and care for those on the run. Prominent among his most active helpers were a number of Irish people. The Italians surrendered in the summer of 1943 and many Allied prisoners escaped as their warders left their posts. The numbers seeking help began to increase and by that autumn he had placed over a thousand people in safety in Rome and the surrounding areas. Some British officers, who were escapees themselves, moved in to help him and his friends at that stage.

The Nazis became aware of his activities and actively set about trying to capture him with the result that a deadly game of hide-and-seek began. If captured, he would certainly have been tortured and killed. However, he continued his work, often walking the streets of Rome in various disguises. It was for this sort of activity that he earned the nickname ‘The Pimpernel of the Vatican'.

By the time of the Liberation of Rome in the summer of 1944, he and those whom he inspired had ensured the safety of more than 6,500 people, including 2,000 or so civilians.

For his outstanding contribution to the welfare of his fellow man, O'Flaherty was honoured by many governments, including the British (a CBE) and the Americans (a Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm). Yet, strangely, this truly remarkable man's story is not well known in his native Ireland. Sadly, no civil authority at any level has commemorated his extraordinary achievements. I hope that by writing this account the position will be rectified somewhat.

Brian Fleming

Rome 1941

The First World War was a bitter episode for the Italian people. Indeed the experiences which the Italians had during that war and its immediate aftermath explain, more or less completely, the course of Italian history for the next 25 years. From the time they joined the war until its end, the Italian armies were in battle on the Austrian front displaying great heroism without gaining a hugely significant amount of ground. However, tragically, they lost 600,000 of their men in a three-year period. Despite the fact that they were on the victorious side, Italy gained very little from the outcome of the war. France and Britain divided the main spoils between them and Italy's only significant gain was a small piece of what had formerly been Austria. In addition, in 1921 when the US and Britain agreed to fix treaty limits on the size of the fleet which the various Allied powers were to operate, Italy was forced to accept limitations which resulted in an entitlement to the same naval strength in the Mediterranean as the British Royal Navy. Clearly this was a direct insult to Italian national pride.

Throughout this period Italy was fairly unsettled. There was a clear disparity between what Italians felt they were entitled to after the war as members of the victorious Allied side, most particularly in light of the huge level of human sacrifice involved for them, and what had been assigned to them. Veterans and their families and others, mainly in the working and lower middle classes, were deeply dissatisfied with this situation. In addition, it was a time of recession and unemployment and the rise of extreme nationalism. Strikes and rumours of revolution were the order of the day. These unsettled conditions proved to be an ideal breeding ground for the rise of Fascism. In 1922 the King, Victor Emmanuel III, invited Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascist group, to form a government. Within four years, Mussolini had effectively become a dictator, outlawing all other political parties, undermining civil liberties and imposing a totalitarian regime. At the same time, he managed to gain popularity by propaganda, public works projects, and, most particularly, by creating the appearance of order.

In 1929 the Lateran Treaty was concluded between Mussolini's Government and the Papacy. In the eyes of the Italian people this gave Mussolini further status. Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty, that part of Rome which comprises the Vatican and St Peter's became an independent sovereign state governed by the Pope. In addition, the Treaty allowed for papal governance of extra-territorial properties belonging to the Catholic Church in various parts of the city, including the Basilicas of St John Lateran, St Paul and St Maria Maggiore, together with all the buildings connected with them. Other properties included the offices of the Propagation of the Faith and of the Holy Office near St Peter's and the papal residence at Castelgandolfo. This essentially gave these buildings the same status as a foreign embassy has nowadays. The entire extent of the Vatican City itself is 108 acres and it is wholly contained in Rome, making it the smallest state in the world. The usual population based in the Vatican is approximately 500. Besides Pope Pius XII, the other senior officials in the Vatican when the Second World War started were Cardinal Maglione, Secretary of State, and his two assistants, Monsignor Montini, Under Secretary for Ordinary Affairs (essentially internal Vatican/ Church matters) and Monsignor Tardini, Under Secretary for Extraordinary Affairs (essentially external issues). Monsignor Montini afterwards became Pope Paul VI.

Given the origins of the movement, it is not surprising that the Fascist Government adopted an expansionist foreign policy based on aggression. As early as 1919, at the foundation of the Fascist Movement, Mussolini was articulating the case that Italy needed more territory for her growing population. In 1935–6 the Italian army invaded and conquered Ethiopia and also in 1936 Italy sent troops to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Later that year Mussolini and Hitler established the Rome–Berlin Axis. In 1939 Italy took over Albania, and the two dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, concluded a military alliance known as the Pact of Steel. This agreement was signed on 22 May causing great concern to those within the Vatican who viewed any close relationship between Italy and Hitler as dangerous.

The war between Britain and France on the one hand, and Germany on the other, began on 3 September 1939. Serious efforts which were already under way in the US and Great Britain to keep Italy out of any war were immediately accelerated. The then American President, Roosevelt, was already acquainted with the Pope. Pope Pius XII, when he was a Cardinal, had visited the US in November 1936. At that stage there were no formal diplomatic links between the US and the Holy See, but Roosevelt sent the Ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, as a Special Envoy of the President to the Coronation Ceremony when the then Cardinal Pacelli became Pope in March 1939. This was the first time an American President had been represented at such an occasion. (As it happens, a future American President was there also, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy attended with his father.) President Roosevelt had concluded that, in the event of war, establishing some sort of working relationship with the Holy See might prove useful. The Vatican at that time had representatives in a total of 72 countries throughout the world from which it could gather significant information. In addition, 38 countries had official representation at the Holy See. The President decided to go ahead with establishing this link but it left him with a political problem. If he decided to send an official representative in the normal way, it would require a vote in the Houses of Congress to provide the necessary funds. It was doubtful that he would be successful in this because there was a strong feeling then current in the US of the need to separate church and state. In public relations terms, while the decision of the President would be popular with Catholic voters, it would alienate Protestants. As a way around this problem he decided to send a personal representative of himself as distinct from an envoy of the US Government. To obviate the need for funding, which could be provided only by a favourable vote in Congress, he needed to find a man who would require no payment. The President identified Myron Taylor as just such a man. At that stage, Taylor was President of the United States Steel Corporation. He was an Episcopalian and had a keen interest in the role of churches and churchmen in contributing to the moral order. He also had a knowledge of, and interest in, Italy and already owned property near Florence.

BOOK: The Vatican Pimpernel
9.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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