A Tale of the Liberation of Rome

The WW2 Memorials at All Saints' church.

On 31st October 1922, with the entrance of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists into Rome, Italy began its nonstop journey into chaos, death, destruction and desolation that culminated into a rejection of its historical alliances, a dangerous love relationship with a new friend, and a war between families, culminating in shame and derision. A journey which began with resentment towards the undelivered promises from the Great War. What seemed like a bright future for a new Italian Renaissance, soon turned into violence, lack of freedom, both physical and verbal, statewide racial discrimination, political murder, and finally in 1940, a war fought by a people who always preferred to create beauty as opposed to creating death, and finally a civil war. The Resistance and the Fascists, traitors and friends, families divided, and overall death, death and death. Italy and its reputation became a mockery of itself. This all became reality when the war was clearly lost by 1943. The violence, the horror, the shame.

Benito Mussolini meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1943.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, Rome was still a popular destination for the Brits, and the Tridente, around the Spanish Steps, was still very much Rome’s English Quarter. Our church of All Saints’ wasn’t yet too old in the 1930s, with its steeple having only been completed in 1937. Our chaplain was a distinguished Lonsdale Ragg, a lover of culture together with his wife. His assistant was a beloved American, Harry De Nancrede, who had been at All Saints’ since the days of the English Chapel, he was a great philanthropist - he gave us the lovely Venetian sanctuary lamps hanging over the high altar. We were faring quite well at the time. Undoubtedly, little was known about the disaster that was to unfold. It was an extremely hopeful time; Mussolini managed to charm everyone out enough to allow them not to see the slow death of a then almost newborn democracy. The 1920s had been roaring, the 1930s continued on that line - Mussolini came to All Saints’ to attend a memorial service for the death of King George V in 1936. The Diocesan Gazzette had various entries over how ridiculous the political drama of the time was, nothing would have come out of it. People were simply enjoying their lives, they were very much hopeful. Mussolini was much loved in Britain. The popular film Tea with Mussolini shows us just that, Lady Hester, portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith, is charmed by Mussolini and is led to believe he is a great and trustworthy new Roman emperor - the actual person who inspired her character has a memorial plaque in our church, Lady Sibyl Graham, wife of British Ambassador, Ronald William Graham. Canon Ragg’s ministry also saw the beginning of an extraordinary one-woman enterprise in aid of church funds (whose role was then passed to our own Jane Castrucci): the marmalade making of Mrs Pazzi-Axworthy. During those years she managed to produce over three tons of it. Those proceedings went entirely into the church’s fund.

The erection of All Saints' spire in 1937.

The beginning of the Second World War threatened the very existence of All Saints’ church. The congregation had been left without sacraments or pastoral care in their mother language. The emergency took a while to bite, the final services were entered without any comment by the chaplain, the Rev Ariel Harkness, on 2nd June 1940, the Second Sunday after Trinity. 10 came to Holy Communion, and 21 to a later celebration, while Mattins was attended by 60.

All Saints' eviction notice from the Italian Government.

Following those services, a crowd is said to have formed up outside our church to sneer at the churchgoers, only to be confronted by three staunch British women, all over sixty years old, and married to Italians, among whom were Signore Pazzi-Axworthy and Fiorentino. They all proceeded to the door on the main street, and sang “God Save the King”, while making their way home in the surprised silence which followed. The following morning, the authorities would make a formal closure of the building, the church had already received a warning from the city council. After a baptism, they hid all the sanctuary lamps, ornaments and fittings inside the altar. When the officials did come, the same women cried at them in dismay, the church had been broken into during the night and everything had been stolen. Nothing of value had been spared, they also explained that the chaplain had left Rome and took with him the only key to the safe! During the four years of closure the church had been kept immaculate by the Italian sexton.

The English Quarter in 1940.

Italy was not ready, not willing and not ready to fight nor win a war. The people had been brainwashed by what looked like a bright new future in fancy dress - the illusion did not last and by the time everyone realised it was all too late. By 1943, the war was lost, the Nazis occupied Italy and what was left of the Fascist government moved up north in what became known as the Repubblica di Salò, a Nazi puppet state. Rome was declared an open city. However, things were beginning to change, between July and September 1943, the Allies conquered Southern Italy, the Nazis began retreating, while slaughtering entire villages, destroying countless artworks, and extending their antisemitic genocide to the Italian peninsula. Rome was their most priced asset, in Nazi Rome all the Jews that were found were sent to Auschwitz. Any German life was worth twelve Italian lives. The Roman Resistance, although numerous did not have it easy - hundreds were slaughtered in the Fosse Ardeatine massacre. The Allied liberation of Rome began on 11th May 1944, as Operation Diadem was launched - the British 8th Army (which included also forces from other dominions in the empire) and the American 5th Army broke the Gustav Line.

Allied Soldiers during the campaign for the Liberation of Italy.

It was a beautiful sunny and rather hot early summer day in Rome, that 4th June 1944, when the Allies finally marched into the Eternal City. President Roosevelt declared that with the fall of Rome, the first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. The fear was over, at last. There, where people died, were now children and grandmothers enjoying their photoshoots with the long waited conquering heroes, while enjoying their American chocolate and chewing gums after years of hunger. My own grandmother lived through those years, she lived centrally but managed to never go hungry because they had a farm in southern Lazio - she remembers the Germans, the bombing raids, but especially those lovely Allied soldiers giving her candies. I would pay good money to live through what must have been one of the most exciting moments in history. An actual victory over evil - freedom at last. The smell of liberty must have been so sweet.

Allied troops at the Piazza Venezia following the Liberation of Rome.

During those days, All Saints’ church reopened, almost four years after the closure, being unlocked on Friday 9th June 1944. A senior chaplain to the armed forces, the Revd D.H.P. Priest took charge for over a year, and All Saints’ became a Garrison church. The entry of the Allies into the Eternal City is recorded in one of the two major memorials in the back of the church - the wording mentions the service of thanksgiving offered for the liberation of Rome. The orders of service from those early Remembrance Services survive - the hymns sung included “O God Our Help of Ages Past” and the Psalm 46 was set to the known tune “Luther” in Anglican Chant. The Revd Priest played the organ and preached, the BBC recorded the service. For some time, the registers show how the church was used both by large congregations of infantry, parachutists and others, from the Commonwealth forces, and also by military chaplains meetings for Quiet Days and to celebrate weekday Holy Communion. It is moving to think that a church which gave a place of honor to an Axis dictator, now was celebrating the heroes that freed the country, that man who brought an entire nation into a war his people never wanted. I nostri amici inglesi sono ritornati.

One of the orders of service used at All Saints' at one of the many thanksgiving services following the war.

The following year, on 25th April 1945, Liberation Day was declared. Three days earlier, dictator Benito Mussolini had been killed by the Resistance. The war was over. Life was normal again. Our grandparents never lost hope, may this Liberation Day during these Pandemic times remind us that we have been through a lot worse. All shall be well. Today is a day of remembrance, we give thanks for those allied soldiers and partisans who gave their life for a better future. Let us be thankful for our freedom and for the sacrifice of those who provided it.

Detail of the Liberation of Rome memorial at All Saints' Church.


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