The courage of an Irish Catholic priest in Rome helped save thousands of prisoners of war, partisans and Jews during the brutal Nazi occupation of Italy in 1943-44
“My friends, yesterday, on 4 June 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands! One up and two to go!” President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in a radio broadcast 75 years ago.
General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army had swept into the Italian capital unopposed, sparking scenes of jubilation among the citizens of the Eternal City. No one was happier to greet General Clark than an Irish priest working in the Roman Curia. Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty had risked life and liberty operating the “Rome Escape Line” clandestinely from his room in the Collegio Teutonico (German College), in the shadow of St Peter’s. Over the course of the war, and especially during the German occupation between autumn 1943 and June 1944, it provided refuge within Vatican City itself and in safehouses across Rome to Allied POWs, Italian anti-fascists and Jews. It was responsible for saving some 6,500 lives.
The priest, whom the British government honoured with a CBE in 1946 and who was also awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, was aided in his operation by a network of courageous co-workers including British Army Lieutenant Colonel Sam Derry. Having escaped from the Nazis in Italy, Derry was smuggled into Rome in a cart of potatoes, where he joined forces with Mgr O’Flaherty and became a lynchpin in the Rome Escape Line.