Sam Derry's great escape to Rome

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Escaping German capture many times, Sam Derry went on to aid the rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers from occupied Italy

Samuel Ironmonger Derry was born in Newark, Nottinghamshire on 10 April 1914. He embarked on his army career in 1936 at the age of 22. While serving in the Western Desert in 1942, he was captured by the Germans but managed to escape by hurling himself into a ravine. Ironically, some five months later and 800 miles away, Major Derry was recaptured near El Alamein by the same German unit. Alas, this time there would be no quick escape and he was transported to Italy to be interned with 1,200 officers at Chieti (Camp 21). 

After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the camp was taken over by the Germans, with Derry put on a prison train for transportation to Germany. However, en route between Tivoli and Rome, he managed to escape for a second time when, in broad daylight, he evaded a German paratrooper guard and jumped off the moving train. Badly bruised, he headed for the hills and was taken in by an Italian family.

While hidden 120 miles behind enemy lines, Derry discovered there were another 50 Allied prisoners living in conditions of extreme hardship, and so, with winter setting in, he decided to obtain help from the neutral Vatican in Rome, some 15 miles away.

REFUGE IN THE VATICAN

Derry wrote a letter to the Vatican asking for money and clothing to ease the plight of his adopted men. The communication reached the desk of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had toured prisoner of war (POW) camps during the early years of the conflict seeking news of prisoners who had been reported missing in action. If he found out that they were alive, he tried, through Vatican Radio, to reassure their families.

When Italy changed sides in 1943, thousands of POWs were released but remained in grave danger of recapture when Germany forced occupation. Some, remembering O’Flaherty’s visits, managed to reach Rome to ask for his help. Instead of waiting for permission from his superiors, O’Flaherty promptly set up an underground movement to assist them. Looking for someone to bring a little order to the growing number of escaped soldiers, the Monsignor decided that Derry should be brought into Rome.

On 19 November 1943, with the Germans established in the district, Derry journeyed to Rome at great personal risk. O’Flaherty requested that he stay in the city and assume control of the Rome Escape Line, which was helping Allied escapees but only operating in a small way at that time.

Under Derry’s leadership, the organisation grew, and the German authorities became aware of the existence of the Rome Escape Line as early as January 1944, which meant that there had been a great danger of infiltration. Yet by April 1944, a total of 3,975 escaped Allied POWs were under Derry’s care.

After the liberation of the city, Derry was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII, who had been totally unaware that the young officer had been his ‘guest’ in the Vatican for many months. In recognition of his work with the Rome Escape Line, the now Lieutenant Colonel Sam Derry was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Following demobilisation in 1946, Derry returned home to Newark. He was a prominent Freemason in Newark and was initiated into Corinthian Lodge, No. 5528, on 13 January 1949, remaining a member until his death on 3 December 1996. In June 1970, he was a founder member of Newark Lodge, No. 8332, resigning on 30 March 1993.

THIS IS YOUR LIFE

In 1963, Derry was surprised by Eamonn Andrews and his big red book outside the BBC Television Theatre, where he became the subject of This Is Your Life. While a national television audience watched, old colleagues and former POWs came forward and spoke about the occupation of Rome and the escape organisation to which most of them owed their lives.

As the tributes came to an end, a surprise guest was announced and O’Flaherty walked falteringly from the wings to embrace his old friend. This was to be the last time the two men would meet. Eight months later, O’Flaherty died peacefully at his home in County Kerry, Ireland.

Did you know?

Derry escaped from his German captors by leaping out of a moving prison train in broad daylight

Words: Tony Narroway

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