V Batallion Green Howards
After the Armistice, many groups of British prisoners, who had escaped from the nearby PG 115 Morgano, took refuge in the hills around Spoleto to avoid being recaptured and deported to Germany. William and six other companions were sheltered in the area and fed by the local population.
The small group remained for about three months in an abandoned hut, deep inside a forest in the Roselli area, a few kilometres from Spoleto. They thought the place secure because only a local could find it as it was isolated and in rough terrain.
Augusto Trappetti, who lived nearby, recalled that:
After the Armistice, I met many English prisoners who lived in this area. I knew about the six who lived in a small house in the woods atop a hill near my home. One of them I knew very well, as he often came to my house to take food for the other five. I always called him Guglielmo or Billi. […] He was about 26 years old, about 1.7 meters tall, medium build, blonde hair, brown eyes. He told me he was an infantryman and he was from London.
During the night of 20 January 1944, while William and his comrades were out looking for food in the nearby huts, they learned that the Fascists and the Germans were hunting escaped PoWs. However, they decided to ignore the danger, believing the news was «only chit-chat». In the dead of night, they were woken up by someone shouting in Italian and ordering them to go out of the hut. A volley of machinegun fire followed the order, tearing the door, with bullets ricocheting everywhere. The soldiers asked to give them the time to get dressed, but the enemy fired again, wounding two of them.
Artilleryman Kennet Howard, who later testified on the event, recalled that, once outside, they found a Fascist captain and a German NCO about five metres away from the hut, with German and Fascist soldiers:
The German NCO stepped up and searched us. Then he counted us and was surprised to find only five of us. He asked us where the other man was, proving he knew about our group. I looked around and noticed that William was missing and thought he was still in the hut. The German NCO ordered me to go to the door and call the other man; I did so and saw soldier Edwards lying on his stomach on the straw, but he did not answer me. At this point, the German, on the doorstep, aimed deliberately and emptied his machinegun on the body.
William’s companions had to dress while the German confiscated their belongings and threw a grenade in the hut, which partially caught fire. As they were carried away, they saw a civilian among the soldiers in the forest and understood that someone had sold them. The Germans paid 2,400 lire (roughly £650) for the six prisoners.
Right outside the woods, near Alberto’s house (who often fed them), they were loaded on a lorry and brought to Spoleto. The Germans, moreover, burned all the nearby haystacks before leaving. The artillerymen, Wilkins, Bellinger, and Howard were deported to Germany at Stalag 4b, Muhlberg.
The last time I saw Bill alive – as Augusto recalled it – was the evening of 19 January. Around midnight I discovered a big unit of German and Fascists doing a rastrellamento near my home. […] Soon after, about 15 of them departed in the woods where the six PoWs lived. After about 45 minutes, the squad returned with five English prisoners. I noticed two of them were wounded, one at the chest and the other at the feet. Billi was not among them. […] At the cars, a Fascist lieutenant told me there was the body of a prisoner in the hut in the forest and ordered me to bury it; he said that if I did not do it, he would kill my family and me.
With two companions, Augusto reached the hut to find William’s disfigured body and buried him nearby, with a cross to mark the grave.
In 1946, the war crime commission enquiry managed to identify those who worked as spies for the Germans, revealing the six PoWs’ hideout. However, no one was convicted. Moreover, the names of the German and Fascist murderers are still unknown. On 2 May 1945, William’s body was interred in the war cemetery of Assisi.
- Janet Kinrade Dethick, The Long Trail Home, Lulu.com, 2016 (trad. it., La lunga via del ritorno: i prigionieri alleati in Umbria (1943-44), Perugia, Morlacchi, 2018).
- TNA, WO 311/1239 “Shooting of Private William Edwards, Roselli, near Spoleto, Italy, January 1944”