THE GIRL IN RED
Born in Rome in 1925, her parents were liberal left-wingers who despised the rise of the Italian fascists and Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship. Rossana (or Rossa as she was always known – Italian for ‘red’) shared their beliefs.
She had an English nanny, so she became fluent in the language.
She studied Philosophy and History, and despite being quite political, she preferred to party.
She was an exceptional sportswoman, being skilled in horse riding, skiing, swimming and pistol shooting – all skills which would serve her well in the future.
She would ride on her bicycle to-and-from school. She wore a bright red cape – vermilion (“as red as red could be”) – made of the finest Casetino cloth, the best you could get in Italy. She loved the cape and it made her very well-known in the streets of Rome.
Rossa used to say, “Red in name, Red in dress, Red in politics”.
The Italian Resistance (partisans) wanted to recruit her but because of her age they formally asked her father’s permission. He told her, “Go, do your duty – and do it as best as you can.”
By 1943, despairing of Mussolini’s leadership, the Nazis had invaded Northern Italy, as far south as Rome. Being under Nazi occupation was worse than being under Mussolini’s Fascists.
Rossa was so well-known that she believed nobody would ever suspect her. Under her cape Rossa carried copies of the underground, communist newspaper L’Unita, which she delivered around the city. As a courier she also delivered money and messages.
Her resistance cell was full of young men and women and was organised by banker Raffaele Mattioli. His son, Giuliano, was one of the group. The women in the cell, including Rossa, caused the Nazis so much grief that they were known as the ‘Ragazza Terrible’ (the terrible girls of the Resistance). Rossa said, “We were just kids.”
Rossa fell in love with Giuliano, and they became engaged.
She believed she would never be caught but a local butcher who she worked with and delivered papers to, was caught, tortured and shot. He had revealed her name.
She ditched her beloved red cloak and her bike and went into hiding. She became the Gestapo’s ‘Most Wanted’ fugitive in Rome.
It was then that she was approached by the British, who were working their way up the Italian mainland with their American allies. She joined FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). She was still just 17. As a fluent English and French speaker, Rossa was then recruited to the SOE (Special Operations Executive).
She was trained at a secret base between Bari and Brindisi, before returning to Rome as a spy. Amongst her new skills, she was now a parachutist and a radio-operator. She also became a qualified secretary.
Her British code number in Italy was 007.
She was in charge of all radio communications with the British and organised all food and weapons drops. She was also responsible for recruitment, sending her charges off to the training camp and looking after them when they returned to Rome. She was also the key translator.
Rossa saw many friends captured, tortured and killed.
She was also in charge of weapon distribution. On one occasion she had to take a bus into the Italian countryside. She clutched her suitcase close to her lap as the bus bumped over the unmade roads. It was stuffed full of nitroglycerine.
Meanwhile, her fiancé Giuliano was being active too. He used the British codename of ‘Julian Mathews’ and led the Italian Resistance in Lombardy. He was renowned for his incredible escapades – raiding Nazi strongholds, parachute attacks and ski rescues.
When the war finished Rossa was paid £60 by the British and was told as of the 30th of June 1945, her services were no longer required.
She married Giuliano and they had two children, Luca and Rafaella. She always called herself ‘Mrs Mathews’.
Rossa became a highly respected television producer for RAI in the 1950s, and also made programmes for the BBC.
But the marriage didn’t last, and they got a divorce.
She threw herself into the arts and culture and created a left-wing theatre school. Many of the top young Italian actors graduated here, including Giuliano Ferarri.
She retired to Tuscany and a villa that she loved at Elmo di Sorano, where she lived for 20 years.
One evening, she was sitting with her neighbour, a retired British soldier named Bill Bewley (from Stranraer) and they were chatting over a glass of wine. She told Bill her story. He asked if he could record her reminisces.
She had never even told her own family what she had done in the war.
Bill then contacted the British Embassy and finally, in 2015, she was awarded three separate medals by the British. She was very pleased.
There was a big awards ceremony at the British Embassy in Rome. Rossa was embarrassed, calling it “A fuss about nothing”, but it was recorded in all the Italian press and she became a national hero. She was secretly delighted.
In an interview she said she loved young people but felt they should realise, “Politics and life are the same thing. I hate it when young people say they are not interested in politics. That is like saying ‘I am not interested in living my life”.
In 2019 she moved to Sicily to be close to her daughter and she died in Palermo.
Bill Bewley had remained friends with her. He called her, “A lovely woman.”
RAI announced her death – “Goodbye Rossana – a great Italian.”
RIP – Resistance = Italian Partisan