The Rome Escape line  and  the Vatican


Several studies have shed light on the Escape-Line network through the Vatican during the last years of the war. These studies show clearly that collaboration between ecclesiastics and the Italian resistance was developed and successful.

The same studies reveal further details about a network that was active in Rome and the Vatican, supported and organized by various priests and clergy of different nationalities. 


The most well-known of them is the Irishman Mgr. Hugh O'Flaherty, who lived in the College of the Campo Santo Teutonico ( he worked with the help of John May, butler of Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British envoy to the Holy See).

He was also helped by the Austrian Mgr. Alois Hudal, Rector of the Teutonic Institute and the College of Santa Maria dell' Anima; the Swiss Father Pankratius Pfeiffer; a Salvatorian priest; and the Dutch priest Anselmus Musters O.E.S.A. {Ordo Fratrum Erimitarum Sancti Augustine}, who was arrested in 1944 on the steps of Santa Maria Maggiore. Although imprisoned and brutally tortured by the Gestapo in Via Tasso, he never betrayed The Rome Escape Line and its members.


These words were spoken by Doctor Johan Ickx on 17 February 2017 at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in Rome. Doctor Johan Ickx  is Director of the Historical Archive of the Secretariat of the State of the Holy See, Vatican City.


Although the Second World War broke out, Anton Musters was not aware of it in Rome.


The Italian army started the war in North Africa against Egypt and British Somaliland in 1940, but the advance to Egypt was halted by the British army. Germany came to help, allowing the Italian army to regain ground. During this war, British soldiers were captured by the Italian army and taken to prisoner of war camps in Italy.


All this took place far outside of Rome where life was then more or less normal. It was also in Rome where Anton Musters was ordained a priest on May 25, 1940, taking the priest's name Anselmus.

Even after he was ordained a priest, Anselmus continued his studies in theology and obtained his doctorate degree on June 18, 1942, with the title "Summa cum Laude", thereby becoming a Doctor of Theology.


Father Anselmus Musters left the Vatican and the city of Rome after his exam to enjoy a well-deserved summer vacation in the town of Montereale, located in the province of L'Aquila, ± 140 km east of Rome. Near Montereale in the hamlet of Poggio Cancelli was a prisoner of war camp, mainly with British soldiers from the battle in North Africa, from which prisoners regularly tried to escape. Also, many other escaped prisoners of war from camps in the north came along this route through the mountains, trying to reach the allied lines. It was here that Father Anselmus Musters began helping the escaped prisoners of war, feeding them, providing hiding places to sleep, and giving advice to continue their escape.


In the fall of 1942, Father Anselmus returned from Montereale to Rome. Here he immediately, with the help of good friends, continued to hide people who were in danger of being arrested by the regime.

From Christmas 1942, from a material point of view, it became a little easier for Father Anselmus Musters because he had met the Irish Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. This Hugh O'Flaherty led an organization from the Vatican (Campo Santo Teutonico, where he had his residence) with the aim of protecting as many refugees as possible from being captured again.


The Vatican maintained its neutrality in WW2 and therefore had access to the POW camps where allied soldiers were imprisoned. Hugh O'Flaherty was one of the priests who visited these camps and tried to provide as much support as possible to the prisoners. Soon, O`Flaherty secretly set up an organization that was named "Council of Three". This organization was led by O`Flaherty himself, by John May, who was the butler of the British envoy and by the Swiss count Sarsfield Salazar. They organized hiding addresses, money, new papers, clothing, food and escape routes on a large scale for the many hundreds of prisoners of war who had escaped from the camps. Jewish refugees were also housed by the priest and his associates in safe locations in the Vatican and Rome. These locations were monasteries and churches, but also apartments and houses of Italian families.


To be able to do this well, a reliable network was set up to which, among others, the English major Sam Derry belonged, who himself escaped as a prisoner of war. Also Father Anselmus Musters joined this network. Both, often at risk to their own lives, have played a very important role in this network.


Sam Derry became the most important person in the organization alongside Hugh O`Flaherty. It was also Derry who tried to guarantee the safety of his most important members in the organization. In this way he gave every member of the group a nickname, which had to be used immediately in every form of communication. O`Flaherty was given the nickname "Golf", Sam Derry the nickname "Patrick" and Father Anselmus Musters the nickname "Dutchpa".


It didn't take long before the German SS, Major Herbert Kappler in particular, got to know what Monsignor O`Flaherty was doing. But as long as he was inside the neutral Vatican, they couldn't arrest him.

The cat and mouse game between the organization of O`Flaherty and Herbert Kappler became more intense. This was mainly because the Allied Forcess marched in early July 1943 from southern Italy to the north. Shortly thereafter, on July 25 1943, Mussolini was deposed and Nazi Germany began to occupy northern Italy. It was September 10, 1943 when the Germans occupied Rome, and 2 days later Herbert Kappler was promoted to SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) of the Gestapo in Rome.

With the takeover of power, the Germans started the actual removal of Jews from Italy to concentration camps. This made it a lot harder for the organization of O'Flaherty because the Jewish refugee flow became much larger after the German takeover.

The Vatican had to be careful because it was not certain that the Germans would continue to respect neutrality. Several times they invaded papal churches and monasteries in Rome, endangering the many Jews hidden there.

Also, Herbert Kappler was eager to catch O'Flaherty, but despite the dangers, the Monsignor himself, thanks to tricks, dressing up, hiding places and spectacular escapes, always managed to outwit the Nazis.

All this ensured that the escape organization was more alert after September 10 than before, but it went on unabatedly and became more and more known as "The Rome Escape line".


In early March 1944, Father Anselmus received a warning from the Monsignor that he was being sought by the SS. Father Anselmus did not take the warning too hard and just continued with his work.

He did, however, manoeuvre a little more cautiously, making sure that he did not carry any names or addresses that could possibly be burdensome.

Although Father Anselmus had taken precautions, the SS managed to arrest him. In the afternoon of May 1, 1944, he first visited Carl Schwabe, a South African ex-prisoner of war. Carl Schwabe was hiding in Albergo Vulcania by the Rome Escape Line. Albergo Vulcania was located at Via Cavour number 117. Today Hotel Borromeo is located here.

Father Anselmus had to visit a some hiding places that afternoon. Arriving at the Santa Maria Maggiore he continued his way with tram line 16. Hideaway addresses along this tram line were, among others, located at Via Buonarroti and Via Appia Nuova. At about 6.30 pm, Father Anselmus headed back to the same hiding place, Via Cavour 117, because he wanted to accommodate two more refugees there.

He got off tram sixteen on the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore to continue the bus from there. On the way to the bus, he felt that he was followed. Was it imagination? Father Anselmus walked on but slowed down, finally stopped and turned. Then he no longer hesitated because the man behind him was an SS civilian agent. This officer came to Father Anselmus and asked him to show his papers.


Father Anselmus immediately realized the seriousness of the situation. He recognized this agent from a previous check in early March 1944. Then the agent had let him go because Father Anselmus had shown his identity card of the Vatican with which the agent did not know how to act. The tension cut Father Anselmus off because he felt that this time the officer would not let him escape. He had to distract the agent and tried to say that he was willing to show his papers, but he would like to be on the steps of the nearby church where it wasn't that busy. The officer understood the intention and asked him to go to the cafe on the corner of the square. However, Father Anselmus walked towards the church, after which the officer tried to push him the other way, threatening with his revolver.

Father Anselmus was not impressed by this because he was convinced that the officer would not dare to shoot a priest at such a busy square.

He just walked on and wanted only one thing, to reach the safety of the nearest church. This was the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica that belonged to the Vatican domain. If he could get inside that basilica, he would be safe because he was in the neutral territory of the Vatican.

When they had almost reached the steps of the basilica, the officer passed him and stood threateningly before him. 'Stop! Your papers! ", he shouted. Father Anselmus said that he would show it on the stairs of the church. He pushed the cop's arm away and stepped on the first step of the stairs to the basilica. The officer followed him with his gun in his hand.

Father Anselmus walked up the stairs undisturbed and reached the door of the basilica. When he opened the door, he felt a hard blow to his neck and fell half unconscious in a porch of the basilica. A guard of the "Palatine Guard" (military unit of the Vatican), who served in the basilica, saw what was happening and approached. The SS officer seemed to doubt for a moment what to do, looked furiously at the downed father Anselmus Musters, turned around and quickly went down the stairs again. The guard immediately took care of Father Anselmus lying on the ground and dragged the heavily bleeding Father further into the basilica. In the sacristy of the basilica he showed his Vatican papers to the commander of the "Palatine Guard".


Santa Maria Maggiore 1940

It was already around 8:00 PM and while Father Anselmus was being escorted to the guards' quarters, the commander of the "Palatine Guard" called Mgr. O`Flaherty. In the meantime, the SS agent went to get reinforcements, returned to the basilica and began encircling the entire building.

Not long afterwards a cardinal from the Vatican arrived who advised Father Anselmus to spend the night at least in the basilica, because nobody could do anything to him there.

Hardly fifteen minutes after the Cardinal's departure, the heavily armed SS men entered the building. The door of the guards' room was thrown open and the SS captain Kohle ordered Father Anselmus to come. "But this is extraterritorial property of the Vatican," Father Anselmus objected. "You do not have the right to rush in here and my superiors have told me to stay here." The SS Captain made a contemptuous gesture and snarled at him, "Your superiors, you certainly mean your English spy network".

The SS Captain furiously approached Father Anselmus and gave him a blow to the head with the butt-end of his machine gun. Two soldiers took the half unconscious priest under his arms and dragged him out of the basilica. At the bottom of the outside stairs, they put him on a truck, and drove away at high speed.


Moments later they arrived in Via Tasso, the Gestapo headquarters in Rome, known for its notorious prison and feared torture chambers.

Mgr. Hugh O'Flaherty                                                          College Campo Santo Teutonico

Vatican City map with location German College

Map with important places of The Rome Escape Line in Vatican City.

Source: The Scarlet and the Black

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