I insisted from the word go it had to be in Piazza Venezia and nowhere else. Otherwise, it would have been like plonking the Cenotaph in the middle of Shepherds Bush Common, explained Harry Shindler with a grin.
A veteran of the ill-fated Allied landings at Anzio during world war two, Shindler is now a victor again after a tough battle to have the final Allied liberation of Rome properly remembered bang in the heart of the city.
As I see it, the liberation was the most important event in the entire history of Rome. Ah! You look surprised. But look, whereas all the other monuments in Rome are dedicated to those who made Rome great, our monument is dedicated to those who made Rome free.
The monument is due to be unveiled on 4 June, the 62nd anniversary of the Allies entry into Rome and two days after the 60th anniversary of the referendum with which Italians voted for a republic. I havent seen the finished project myself yet, Shindler continued, but its to be a small broken column of marble representing the Nazi occupation of Rome I suppose surmounted by a high-relief in brass showing troops of the ten nations involved in the liberation with a Roman woman embracing one of the soldiers in gratitude.
But how did the idea first come to Shindler, today an ebullient 84-year-old? Well, theres already a thing there in Piazza Venezia but only I know about it. The Romans havent a clue where it is. Its on the ground on that grass island [across from Trajans Column], quite invisible.
Four years ago, I was at the 25 April celebrations for the liberation of all Italy and I said to myself: That thing is offensive, not only to all those lads killed in the liberation of Rome but to those Italians tortured at the Nazi interrogation centre in Via Tasso and to those partisans who put on a brave show at the Porta S. Paolo.
So I wrote to [mayor of Rome, Walter] Veltroni complaining the thing on the ground did not do justice to them all. Then silence. Nothing! So I got on to a friend of mine and he had a letter from me put on the front page of LUnit [the newspaper of the Democratici di Sinistra]. Veltroni replied the next day, confessing Id pricked his conscience. So we formed a big committee to push the idea, including the son of a Roman woman shot on the streets by the Nazis, an episode replayed in the [Roberto Rossellini] film Roma, Citt Aperta.
Shindler said the biggest obstacle then was a watchdog commission that looked after the preservation of Piazza Venezia. He explained to it that he and his friends were not about to open a McDonalds in the square, but the commission said it could not be touched until, that is, Veltroni ruled an exception would be made for the monument to the Allies. And so that was that! concluded Shindler.
Who was Shindler at Anzio? He chuckled. Well, you know the Italian for a private is un soldato semplice. Well, I tell my friends I was a soldato molto molto semplice. What did he think had really happened at Anzio, seeing that Winston Churchill once acknowledged he had planned to set a tiger on the beach at Anzio but had got a dead whale instead?
Churchill saw Anzio as a gambit to get to Rome at once and break a deadlock further south where the Allied advance up Italy from Sicily had badly stalled, Shindler said. But the beach head commander at Anzio, an American general called Lucas, wouldnt budge. He was very, very conservative and kept demanding more and more men and armour. He kept us on that beach for five long months from January to June 1944.
But much worse was to happen.
The British overall commander General Harold Alexander ordered his junior, the American commander General Mark Clark, to establish a blocking force at Val Montone south of Rome to cut off the entire German army to the south. Well, Clark refused. If I were a British NCO [non-commissioned officer] ordered to take that hill and I refused, Id be shot. Clark instead threatened to open fire on British and Commonwealth forces if they broke out of Anzio towards Rome. Why did he do it? Because he wanted to be the first into Rome with American forces. Thats egotism for you. The cost was huge. Not only would 350 Romans never have been massacred by the Germans at the Fosse Ardeatine but all those Germans who had escaped thanks to Clark were there waiting for us when we began pushing north after the liberation of Rome.
During that push, Shindler met his future wife, Ida, at Ascoli Piceno before returning to London to run a successful Britain-wide publicans association. He then took early retirement to join his three grandsons in Italy and became honorary secretary of the Rome branch of the British Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s. With Idas recent death, he moved to Porto dAscoli where the pair had bought a house.
Its been a long fight but we won and the monument will be there for all time, he said. Now all those British tourists will have something worthwhile to snap in Piazza Venezia instead of that horrible typewriter object.