The Vatican played a leading role in protecting Allied prisoners of war who escaped from their camps during World War II. This is what emerges from a book devoted to the history of MI9, one of the branches of the British secret service.
In the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983), Bishop Hugh O’Flaherty - played by Gregory Peck - hides prisoners of war in the Vatican, despite the reluctance of the highest Church authorities, for fear of German reprisals.
While Bishop O’Flaherty is a very real figure, the role of the Holy See in assisting Allied soldiers is largely outweighed by the staging.
This is what Helen Fry shows in a book published on September 4, 2020, MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two.
The historian explains, with supporting documents, how the British Embassy to the Holy See coordinated efforts to rescue escaped prisoners of war in Italy, with the help of the highest Vatican officials.
Thus, when Albert Penny, a sailor of the Royal Navy, escaped from his prison camp, it was in Vatican City that he found asylum in 1942. He stayed there for more than two months, with free access to the Vatican Gardens, and was granted a private audience with Pope Pius XII.
“I waited for him in the throne room where he gave me his blessing. In very good English he told me he was very happy to be able to meet me and give me his blessing. He also gave me a rosary,” recalled the sailor whose testimony Helen Fry relates.
“Penny was not an isolated case,” continues the historian, “and when Rome was liberated on June 4, 1944, a dozen Allied soldiers were living in the city-state and dozens more were hiding in properties belonging to the Church.”
Helen Fry is convinced: the information she was able to gather for her book should lead to a reassessment of the pontificate of Pius XII, so as to end once and for all the black legend of a pope complacent towards the Nazi regime.