The Gordon Lett Foundation Chaiman's Speech on the Award to Dora Pieruccini

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome.

We are gathered here today to remember the outstanding courage of Dora Pieruccini, of Deccio di Brancoli, and to honour her memory.

Medal presentationThe Medal Ceremony for Dora Pieruccini, 12 December 2016

Dora was a good, decent woman, who would have liked to live her life in peace. World War Two prevented that. After 8 September 1943, patriot Italian forces fought with the Allies against the Germans of Adolf Hitler and the Fascists of Benito Mussolini. Behind the German/Fascist lines a partisan war was fought. A partisan’s life was a dangerous one - he or she might die in battle, and if captured by the enemy, would almost always be executed. Those who helped the partisans would also probably be shot, and their houses would be burned.

The other dangerous activity was helping escaped Allied prisoners of war. When the Armistice was announced on 8 September 1943, many thousands of Allied prisoners escaped from their prisoner of war camps. Most made their way into the mountains. My father was one of them. Without the help that they received from the ordinary Italian people, the escaped prisoners would never have survived. The penalty, if caught, for helping an escaped prisoner was death. More than 250 Italians, both men and women, were murdered because they had helped escaping Allied prisoners.

Dora Pieruccini, known by many grateful Allied escapers as the “Mother of Prisoners of War”, was born in 1914, the third child of what was to become a large farming family in the village of Deccio di Brancoli, high in the mountains above the Serchio river in the comune of Lucca. Dora also had three brothers, the eldest of whom, Nello, died of pneumonia in 1941, in the absence of decent medicines. Her other two brothers were deported by the Germans following the Armistice in September 1943. The sisters remaining at home were Dora herself, Maria, Paola, Leda, Beatricia and Genni. The eldest, Albertina, had been working in Rome, but eventually also returned home. The family had always been anti-Fascist, although Dora and her siblings had had Fascism endlessly thrust down their throats at school. After the Armistice on 8 September 1943, escaped Allied prisoners of war began to arrive in the mountains around Deccio, seeking refuge from pursuing Fascists and Germans. Dora, who was 29 and unmarried, took charge of the considerable efforts that the Pieruccini family made to help the escaped prisoners, sheltering some in their house, and finding huts for others to sleep in in the safety of the woods, where she and her sisters would bring them food. The various groups who passed through wanted to escape through to Allied lines, but many failed in their attempts. On 13 January 1944, a group of five escaped prisoners who had been sheltered by the Pieruccinis were attacked and wounded by Fascist “squadristi”. They managed to escape and returned to the Peruccinis’ house. Dora arranged for treatment from a friendly doctor, and kept the injured escapers under the family’s wing, nursing them until they had recovered. One of them, known to the Pieruccinis only as Leonardo, had lost the sight of an eye. All this, of course, was done at enormous risk to Dora herself and others of her family. The Fascists and Germans were quite happy to shoot women as well as men if they helped escapers.

From time to time, the Germans came into the mountains searching for escapers and partisans. Once, two German soldiers entered the Pieruccini house whilst escaped prisoners were hiding in her absent brothers’ bedroom upstairs. Dora and her sisters kept their nerve, and the Germans left without having discovered the escapers. A number of times, Dora herself was arrested and taken to Lucca for questioning, but each time she gave nothing away, and was eventually released. She carried on her work, caring for the Allied escapers. As the Allied advance crept closer, Dora demonstrated her courage and strength of character in a rather different way. Finding armed German soldiers about to steal the family’s last cow, she leapt to the cow’s defence and confronted them despite the machine guns that they carried. Eventually, it was the Germans who backed down, and moved off, leaving the cow behind. The area was finally over-run by the Allies in September 1944.

In June 1944, two of the Pieruccini’s longer term guests, Sergeant Alfred Humphries and Sergeant Jimmy Handley, both of whom had been wounded by the Fascists, had fully recovered, and they moved on towards the front line. They left behind a letter, listing the sisters Dora, Paola, Maria, Leda, Beatricia, Argene [Genni] and Albertina, together with their parents, and saying:

“We, the undersigned, write this letter of thanks, to try and express our gratitude for all the above mentioned family for all they have done for us and numerous other prisoners of war after our escape from the concentration camp on 8th September. We would like all to know that after being wounded by Fascists, five of us prisoners of war were given food, refuge and medical treatment in the house of the family, During the winter time, when our home was a capana [a shelter for animal fodder], this family always had an open door to prisoners of war regardless of the fct that the daughter of this family, Dora Pieruccini, had been taken several times to Lucca for cross-examination by Fascists. To this lady we have given the name: “The Mother of Prisoners of War”, and a host of thanks from us all” Corporal Tom Redhead, Military Medal, also wrote, saying: “These people have willingly helped and risked all.” He had been another long term resident with the Pieruccini family.

For her enduring and outstanding courage, Dora Pieruccini was recommended and approved for the award on the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.

When the war for the liberation of Italy from the Germans and Fascists had been won, the Allies set up a body called the Allied Screening Commission. It worked until November 1947 to identify those Italians who had helped the Allied cause, and had sheltered escaping prisoners and evaders. It paid compensation to many thousands of Italians for the help that they had given, including to the families of those who had been killed. It awarded Alexander Certificates of commendation and thanks to many who had helped.

What is little known is that it also awarded a number of medals to Italians, including the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. These awards were approved by the Generals concerned, and were recorded in a register of awards, together with the citation for each man and woman who had won a medal. However, the medals were never presented to the Italians who had won them, the register of medals disappeared into millions of pages of wartime archives, and matters ended there. International politics became very difficult after the war had ended. The British Government changed and Winston Churchill, who had led Britain to victory was no longer the British Prime Minister. Here also in Italy, politics were confused and difficult. Despite the protests of the British Generals, a political decision was taken in the United Kingdom, in February 1948, not to proceed with the presentation of the medals. However, the records of those awarded medals for their heroism, and the reasons for those awards, remained and remain in existence.

The register remained lost and generally unknown for many years. Happily, and finally, the register of medals was found buried in the National Archives in Washington, USA in October 2014. I have studied and copied it, and the names of those who were awarded medals by the Allied Screening Commission are now known. Thus despite the fact that a political decision meant that the medals were never bestowed on the winners, their courage is on record and should not be forgotten. Today, we remember and honour the courage of Dora Pieruccini, and the family that supported her. Dora is no longer alive, and so today we present a replica of the King’s Medal to her family.

Dora’s outstanding courage was acknowledged and recorded by the Allied Screening Commission and the award to her was approved by General Alexander, and at the highest military level.

Before I have the great pleasure of presenting the medal to the sisters and family of Dora Pieruccini, I should make three things clear.

Firstly, these medals were awarded by King George VI for help given to British and American servicemen, by sheltering them, protecting them and guiding them to safety. Courageous Italian partisans who fought with Italian partisan bands, of whom there were very many thousands, were honoured by the Italian government not the British.

Secondly, these awards often represented the courage of more than one person. Very often a whole family would help to shelter Allied fugitives, but it would be the head of the family who would be recognised on behalf of the family. That was certainly the case with the family and sisters of Dora Pieruccini. Furthermore, the heroism of the people of this zone was great and widespread, and there are many heroes and heroines who will not be mentioned today.

Thirdly, these medals were extremely difficult to win. I quote the words of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo de Burgh, who was the Head of the Allied Screening Commission: “…I am very loath, unless I am absolutely certain that the man has been very outstanding in his work and has been in danger, to give him an outstanding decoration.” The King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom is an outstanding decoration. Of the very many thousands of Italians who helped the Allied cause [and a minimum figure for helpers would be 70,000], only about 160, drawn from the whole of Italy, won medals for their courage. Thus the conduct and courage of Dora Pieruccini was judged to be truly exceptional.

medal presentationThe Chairman embraces Beatricia Pieruccini at the medal ceremony on 12 December 2016