By Peter Lewis
Last updated at 7:38 PM on 7th April 2011
Leap of faith: Gregory Peck stars as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in The Scarlet and the Black, the Hollywood film about the Irish priest’s fight against the Nazis
The Vatican had a very bad war. Pope Pious XII has gone down in history as ‘Hitler’s Pope’, a man of deafening silences who made no public protests whatsoever at Nazi atrocities, especially Auschwitz – or even at the rounding up of Italian Jews.
Add to that the assistance some parts of the Vatican gave in the post-war chaos to Nazis on the run and the record looks damning.
So it is a surprise for most of us to learn of a Scarlet Pimpernel-esque Vatican priest who did all in his power to help escaped prisoners of war from the Allied forces survive by hiding them in and around German-occupied Rome.
He was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a tall (6ft 2ins) humourous-looking Irish man from Kerry. He had tousled hair that stood up like a brush’s bristles, eyes which twinkled through his thin-rimmed glasses and a fixed cherubic smile. Almost Father Ted material.
O’Flaherty made it his practice to stand on the steps of St Peter’s every evening, overlooking the great square in his black and red Monsignor’s robes, reading – or seeming to read – his breviary. People would come up to talk and keep him informed of escaped prisoners who needed hiding places.
Having served in the Vatican since the Twenties, he had contacts and friends in high places throughout Rome. Furthermore, the Vatican’s neutral territory included not only the rambling warren of St Peter’s but 150 other properties, monasteries, convents and religious houses scattered through the city. All possible hidey-holes.
O’Flaherty also had a valuable friend and neighbour in the British envoy to the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, who gave the Rome Escape Line enormous help with funds channelled from the Foreign Office and a loan raised from the Vatican bank.
The Escape Line’s first customer was a British sailor called Albert Penny who put on workman’s overalls and rode a bike through St Peter’s Square, round the fountains and into the garden of the Vatican.
It seems to have been that easy. The Swiss guards were no obstacle. The Vatican policeman who stopped Penny was a sympathiser who directed him to the British Ambassador’s flat, where Sir D’Arcy’s butler, John May, was one of the organisers of the Escape Line.
Hitler’s Pope: Pope Pius XII
He was the first not of hundreds but of thousands of escaped POWs of various nationalities who received the hospitality of Monsignor O’Flaherty and his circle.
By the time Rome was liberated there were nearly 4,000 escapees secretly billeted through the city, many of them in private houses of sympathisers. They cost some £10,000 a month to feed.