It’s 1943 and young Leo tries to protect his disabled sister Ruby as the Nazis invade Italy. After his mother is arrested, he turns to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty to save them. But he is no ordinary priest. Known as ‘The Pimpernel of the Vatican’, the Monsignor is the legendary organizer of the Rome Escape Line. Soon Leo is helping out with this secret network dedicated to saving the lives of escaped prisoners of war, partisans and Jews. But as the sinister Nazi leader Kappler closes in on the network, can Leo and his sister stay out of his evil clutches?
In this extract from Chapter 9, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and 12 year old Leo visit one of the hideouts for Prisoners-of-War in the East of the City. It is in a tiny apartment on Via Imperia where a remarkable widow codename “Mrs. M” lives with her large family of six children and a grandmother.
Mrs. M was in fact a real person, Henrietta Chevalier originally from Malta who was a lynchpin of the Monsignor’s Rome Escape Line. Not only did she hide escaped prisoners, but she also organized much of the food distributed throughout the city for hidden prisoners through a network of black market contacts. The whole family helped in the enterprise, daily risking their lives during the Nazi occupation of the city.
* * * * * *
The Monsignor rapped on the door. A series of three knocks, then two sharp raps. A pre-arranged signal.
The door opened a crack. A dark head and two big eyes peekedout. It was a young girl.
“Ah Monsignor, my mother is expecting you.” She spoke
in English with the trace of an accent.
“How are you, Mary?” he said with a grin. “Tell Mrs. M
I’ve brought a friend.”
Inside, the flat was tiny. We were in a little parlour and a
record was playing on the gramophone. The song was
English – something about blue birds and white cliffs.
On the other side, I glimpsed a kitchen with three girls
seated around the table. There was also a wizened old lady
rocking on a chair crooning to herself. She gave me a
A small dark woman with a smiling face came out,
pearls around her neck.
“Ah, it is just you!” she shouted in English above the
noise of the record.
She threw her arms around the tall Monsignor, reaching
somewhere around his chest she was so small. Then she
pinched my cheek and kissed me on the top of the head.
“Gemma, you can turn it off now!” she shouted. She turned
to the Monsignor. “It disguises any noises they make if they
have to escape! But I keep telling her to play Italian songs!”
“Maybe you should play something from Malta to
completely throw them!” joked the Monsignor. Then he
explained to me that Mrs. M was originally from the tiny
island in the Mediterranean near Sicily, which was a British
colony – and that was why her English was so good.
Gemma, a pretty girl with a lively smile, came out of the
kitchen and took the record off. The other girls around the
The wizened old grandmother ambushed first Hugh and
then me in an embrace. Then she grabbed my hand and
kissed it, and shot back into the kitchen before I had a
chance to react.
Beyond was a balcony. To my surprise, three other men
came into the kitchen! But no one was alarmed. They were
wearing the ill-assorted clothing of those on the run, so they
must have been partisans or escaped prisoners.
I followed the Monsignor and Mrs. M to a side bedroom.
She smiled and threw back the covers. Five men were
hidden under the heavy blankets, fully clothed.
“Cor, Monsignor, you didn’t half give us the shivers!”
said a tall skinny man in English, leaping out of bed.
So there were eight people hidden in this tiny apartment!
All of them escaped British prisoners of war. I chatted to
two of them, called Pip and Tug, two lively sailors in the
“The worst thing is being cooped up, Pip said. “But it’s
fun here with Mrs. M. She’s like a mum to us. And the old
grandmother bakes bread like you wouldn’t believe!”
Tug winked. “And her daughters ain’t ’alf good dancers.”
Hugh told Mrs. M about the curtain-twitch opposite.
“I think Fascists have moved into that house,” she said.
“It is very possible we are being monitored.”
“You will need to be even more careful,” Hugh said. “I
will move some of the men on.”
“Ah, my boys,” Mrs. M said, “I love them all. They light
up our life and God will provide.”
“We’ll give him a helping hand.” Hugh handed her an
Mrs. M. smiled as she opened it and saw that it was full
of money. “The Nazis have come three times and each time
they see me and my six children and old mother. They never believe we can all fit!”
As we left, one of the POW’s put the English record on
again. They told me it was Vera Lynn singing a song called
“The White Cliffs of Dover”.
Mrs. M’s daughter Gemma started dancing with him.
Round and round they whirled, closer and closer. I thought they would fall through the floor.
Patricia Murphy is the bestselling author of The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary and Dan’s Diary – the War of Independence 1920-22 published by Poolbeg.
She has also written the prize-winning “The Chingles” trilogy of children’s Celtic fantasy novels. Patricia is also an award winning Producer/Director of documentaries including Children of Helen House, the BBC series on a children’s hospice and Born to Be Different Channel 4’s flagship series following children born with disabilities. Many of her groundbreaking programmes are about children’s rights and topics such as growing up in care, crime and the criminal justice system. She has also made a number of history programmes including Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson for Channel 4 and has produced and directed films for the Open University.
Patricia grew up in Dublin and is a graduate in English and History from Trinity College Dublin and of Journalism at Dublin City University. She now lives in Oxford with her husband and young daughter.
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