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This edited article about Monsignor O’Flaherty originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 904 published on 19 May 1979.
The German guards in the centre of Rome paid no special attention to the four men in priest’s robes who walked silently past them late one night in the autumn of 1943. Priests were a common sight in the city and no one bothered to challenge or question them.
But if the guards had done so, they would have discovered that only one of the four robed figures was a genuine cleric. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish priest and a high official in the Vatican. The three men with him were escaped British prisoners of war whom he was taking to a secret hiding-place.
Apprehensively the party moved through the darkened streets and made their way to a third-floor flat in the Via dell’Imperio. There they were greeted by one of O’Flaherty’s closest and bravest friends, Mrs Henrietta Chevalier, a mother of six children and a staunch opponent of Fascism.
She had placed three mattresses on the floor of her youngest daughter’s bedroom and the escapees thankfully threw themselves down to sleep.
Monsignor O’Flaherty was no ordinary priest. He had grown up during the Irish political troubles of the 1920s, and knew what it was to be persecuted – as he put it – “by men in foreign uniforms.”
He studied for the priesthood in Limerick, County Munster, and went on to a brilliant career in the Church. By the outbreak of the Second World War he was a well-known and powerful figure in the Vatican City and a particular friend of the British Ambassador in Rome, Sir D’Arcy Osborne.
In September, 1943, the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies and the Germans occupied Rome. SS troops marched through the city keeping a special eye out for any escaped prisoners – who simply walked out of captivity as their Italian guards deserted.
The priest and the ambassador were concerned about the situation and decided to come to the rescue of the stray British soldiers. Using Sir D’Arcy’s private funds they set up a string of “safe houses” where the prisoners could be concealed and then smuggled out of the capital.
As the getaway network got under way, O’Flaherty approached his first undercover agent – Mrs Chevalier, a Maltese widow. She agreed to use her flat as a hiding place and received the first two escapees that same month – a couple of French officers who were anxious to rejoin their units.
At night they – and the others who later joined them in the flat – were safe enough. During the day they mainly stayed indoors.
As word of the joint rescue act spread among the Nazi-hating Italians, so various members of the aristocracy offered much-needed money and support.
To house his extra charges Monsignor O’Flaherty came up with a typically bold and original idea. He rented an apartment in the Via Firenze, in the same block as the SS Headquarters.
“One must be audacious in these situations,” he told his colleagues. “The last place the Germans will think of looking for the men on the run is in one of their own buildings! We shall be as safe as houses.”
So, indeed, they would have been – but for one thing. It was inevitable that talk about the underground rescue operation would reach enemy ears. For months the German High Command heard whispers about a brainy and cunning priest . . . a group of rich and generous noblemen . . . men and women prepared to open their doors to the former prisoners.
At last, in March, 1944, the Germans decided to retaliate. The head of the SS in Rome was Colonel Herbert Kappler, and he was determined to put a stop to the activities of the “Pimpernel Priest”, as O’Flaherty was dubbed.
The network was too well disguised and widespread to be quickly or easily destroyed, but the colonel believed he knew the identity of the priest in charge, and he decided to have him killed.
As long as O’Flaherty remained inside the Vatican – the Pope’s palace in Rome – he could not be harmed. However, if he could be lured outside the palace boundaries then he would no longer be under the holy protection of Pope Pius XII.
So, early one morning that spring, Colonel Kappler and two plain-clothes Gestapo men drove to St Peter’s Cathedral, where they knew the monsignor would be at his devotions. They saw O’Flaherty entering the cathedral and, while Kappler stayed in the car, the two armed executioners hurried into the main part of the building.
They saw their intended victim standing near the steps of the altar, prayer-book in hand. Although he was on sacred premises, they prepared to draw their pistols and shoot him down. But before they could commit the murder six uniformed men pounced on them.
They were members of the famous Swiss Guard, the Vatican’s own “police force”. They seized the would-be killers and hustled them out of a side door and into a narrow alleyway. There they were set upon by some fiercely anti-German refugees from Yugoslavia.
Two hours later the Gestapo agents stumbled into their headquarters, their clothes almost ripped from their backs and their bodies and faces covered with blood and bruises.
Once again O’Flaherty had outwitted his opponents, and he continued to do so during the following year. A young Italian clerk called simply Giuseppe “X” worked in the SS headquarters, and he fed the priest with information about forthcoming German raids and counter measures against the rescue organisation.
In the space of only a few months, the monsignor master-minded the care and eventual escape of almost 4,000 ex-prisoners of war, of many nationalities.
As British and American troops fought their way nearer to Rome, so the men came out of hiding and boldly walked the streets. The Nazis were now shooting re-captured prisoners and the risk was immense.
O’Flaherty was forced to impose a curfew on them, and he did not relax it until the morning of Sunday, June 4, 1944, when the victorious Allied troops swept into the city. Standing on the steps of St Peter’s, he welcomed the liberators with tears in his eyes.
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