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Samuel Ironmonger Derry: Freemason and master escapee

The escape artist

Sam Derry was born in 1914 at the outbreak of a war that took the lives of 49,076 members of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Evading German capture then aiding the escape of thousands, Derry went on to become one of its finest soldiers. Tony Narroway reflects on a life rich in exploits

Samuel Ironmonger Derry was born in Newark, Nottinghamshire on 10 April 1914. Educated at the Magnus Grammar School, he embarked on his army career in 1936 at the age of twenty-two after receiving a Territorial Army Commission into the Royal Regiment of Artillery. In 1939 Derry married Nancy Hindley, leaving for France with the British Expeditionary Force two months later following the outbreak of war. 

Derry was posted to the Middle East in 1941 and in May of that year, at the height of the Iraqi rebellion, served as part of the Kingcol force during the relief of RAF Habbaniya and the entry of Baghdad. He was promoted to the rank of major after taking part in the Syrian campaign and transferred to 1st Field Regiment Royal Artillery, where he received an immediate Military Cross for his leadership and bravery. 

Derry was still serving in the Western Desert in 1942 when he was captured by the Germans in February. Despite being under rifle fire, he managed to escape by hurling himself into a ravine. Ironically, some five months later and eight hundred miles away, Major Derry was recaptured near El Alamein by the same German unit. Alas, this time there would be no quick escape as he was transported to Italy and interned with 1,200 officers at Chieti (Camp 21) for almost a year. 

Battle of wills

After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the camp was taken over by the Germans and Major Derry and others were put on a prison train for transportation to Germany. However, en route between Tivoli and Rome, Derry managed to escape for a second time when, in broad daylight, he evaded a German paratrooper guard and jumped off the moving train. Badly bruised, he headed for the hills and was taken in by an Italian family who gave him food and shelter. 

While hidden one hundred and twenty miles behind enemy lines, Sam discovered there were another fifty Allied prisoners living in conditions of extreme hardship in the nearby hills and immediately took over their welfare. With winter setting in, he decided that he must obtain help for them from the neutral Vatican in Rome, some fifteen miles away. Major Derry wrote a letter to the Vatican asking for money and clothing to ease the plight of his adopted men. The message was carried by a friendly priest who later returned with 3,000 lire and requested a receipt. Major Derry gladly obliged, duly signed it ‘S Derry, Major’, and promptly added a postscript asking for more.

The communications reached the ears of a Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who had toured prisoner of war (POW) camps during the early years of the conflict seeking news of prisoners who had been reported missing in action. 

If he found out that they were alive, he tried through Vatican Radio to reassure their families. 

When Italy changed sides in 1943, thousands of POWs were released but remained in grave danger of recapture when Germany forced occupation. Some, remembering O’Flaherty’s visits, managed to reach Rome to ask for his help. Instead of waiting for permission from his superiors, O’Flaherty promptly set up an underground movement to assist them, recruiting others to the cause including the British envoy to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, his butler John May, and sympathetic priests and nuns. 

Secret service

On hearing about the communications from Major Derry, O’Flaherty instantly liked their tone and as he and Sir D’Arcy were looking for someone to bring a little order to the growing number of escaped soldiers, decided that Derry should be brought into Rome. 

On 19 November 1943, with the Germans established in the district, Major Derry journeyed to Rome at great personal risk. He was smuggled into the Vatican for a meeting that was to result in the twenty-nine-year-old officer embarking on a secret mission in enemy-occupied territory. O’Flaherty and Sir D’Arcy requested that he stay in the city and assume control of the Rome Escape Line, which was helping Allied escapees but only operating in a small way at that time. By agreeing, Major Derry officially became a compatriot.

Under Derry’s leadership, the organisation grew, with his military mind bringing much-needed order. 

He started to list names and next-of-kin for the escaped POWs and to keep track of the money involved. Billets, food, clothes, supplies and funds were made available to ex-POWs in the Rome area and, through a network of agents, it was possible to offer almost the same facilities to the thousands of Allied escapees hiding in the country. 

Finding billets meant leaving the sanctuary of the Vatican and scurrying about Rome right under the nose of the enemy. When travelling on trams in the city, Derry would pretend to be asleep, merely grunting if an Italian or even a German soldier sitting next to him tried to make conversation, thus making sure that no one discovered that he neither spoke nor understood Italian. 

Major Derry eventually became head of a British escape group that grew out of, and worked alongside, O’Flaherty’s organisation. While O’Flaherty’s focus had always been humanitarian, the aim of the British group was to get men back into active service and, if possible, to gather intelligence on the enemy. 

The German authorities had become aware of the existence of the Rome Escape Line as early as January 1944, which meant that there had been a great danger of infiltration, yet by April 1944 a total of 3,975 Allied escaped POWs were under Derry’s care. Following the liberation of the city, Derry was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII who had been totally unaware that the young officer had been his ‘guest’ in the Vatican for many months. In recognition of his work with the Rome Escape Line, the now Lieutenant Colonel Sam Derry was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 

Following demobilisation in 1946, Derry returned home to Newark and devoted himself to business before embarking on what was to become a very full and active life of civic service. He was a prominent Freemason in Newark and was initiated into Corinthian Lodge, No. 5528, on 13 January 1949, remaining a member until his death on 3 December 1996. In June 1970 he was a founder member of Newark Lodge, No. 8332, only resigning on 30 March 1993. He was a Grand Officer in the Mark Degree, a member of Fleming Mark Lodge and Trent Mark Lodge, and received Provincial honours as well as achieving Past Provincial Senior Grand Warden in the Craft. 

A celebrated life

In 1963, Derry was surprised by Eamonn Andrews and his big red book outside the BBC Television Theatre when he became the subject on This is Your Life. He had been taken to London by his friend and fellow Freemason Bob Wilkinson, ostensibly to talk about making a film of Derry’s 1960 book, The Rome Escape Line, but in reality he was in for a very big surprise. His wife Nancy and their four sons Richard, William, James and Andrew along with daughter Claire had kept the making of the programme secret, sneaking down to London to take part in the filming. 

While a national television audience watched, old colleagues and former POWs came forward and spoke about the occupation of Rome and the escape organisation to which most of them owed their lives. As the tributes came to an end, a surprise guest was announced and O’Flaherty walked falteringly from the wings to embrace his old friend. Derry wouldn’t let him get away without first paying tribute in his turn, explaining to the watching audience: ‘Had it not been for this gallant gentleman, there would have been no Rome escape organisation.’ 

This was to be the last time the two friends would meet. Eight months later, O’Flaherty died peacefully at his home in County Kerry, Ireland. 

Shortly after Derry had died in 1996, his son Richard said, ‘He was a very shy man in the sense that he was not one to make a big thing of what he had done. When we were on This is Your Life, some of the things that came out were things that we never knew about.’