The world

Photo by John Vulliamy (Reproduced with kind permission)

Paolo and Constanza's story takes place in Florence, Italy, in 1944. Since the fall of the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, in 1943, the country has been occupied by Hitler's Nazi German forces. Many Italians hate the Nazi regime and are desperate for freedom. As our story begins, freedom fighters, known as the Partisans, are working alongside the Allies (British, American, Canadian, Australian, Indian and South African troops) to liberate Italy from German occupation.

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Timeline of events leading up to the Second World War and beyond… 

Oct 1922            King Victor Emmanuel of Italy invites Benito Mussolini to form a
                         government. (In 1925 Mussolini takes the title of Il Duce.) 

Sept 1939           Germany invades Poland.

Sept 1939           Britain and France declare war on Germany.
May 1940            Winston Churchill becomes the British prime minister.

June 1940           Italy declares war on Great Britain and France. 

June 1941           Hitler invades Russia.

Dec 1941            Japan attacks Pearl Harbour and the United States enters the war.

July 1943            Mussolini is overthrown.

Sept 1943           German army begins occupation of Italy.

August 1944        Florence is liberated.

April 1945           Mussolini is captured by the Partisans.

A note from Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes taking a break
from the heat in Florence

Photo by John Vulliamy
(Reproduced with kind permission)

My latest adventure is set in Florence, Italy, during the Second World War. It is my first novel and also the first book I have ever attempted without doing my own illustrations. Luckily for me, it is now possible for young readers to access evocative visual background on the Internet. I hope you enjoy reading the book and learn a lot about this remarkable period of history by looking at this site. 

My first visit to Florence was shortly after the Second World War. Although Florence had miraculously been spared the devastation that had been visited on many European cities during the war, there was a lot of poverty and food was still scarce for those who could not afford to buy it on the black market. So when many years later I came to write Hero on a Bicycle, it was easy for me to imagine what the Italian people went through during the war when Hitler’s Nazi army was fighting the Allies on Italian soil after Italy’s own strutting dictator, Benito Mussolini, had so miserably let them down. 

The Nazi occupation of Florence was ended at last in the summer of 1944, as the advancing British and Canadian forces pushed the German troops northwards. To hamper the German retreat, all the bridges across the River Arno, except the ancient Ponte Vecchio, were blown up. The Vecchio Bridge survived because it was judged too frail and narrow to accommodate army tanks and trucks. Army Bailey bridges temporarily replaced the other bridges and there was one close to where I was living in a little room near the Piazza Goldoni.Tourists had begun to trickle back to Florence, even though the streets still bore the mark of military occupation. For instance, notices on walls warned, “This street is forbidden to Allied servicemen.” 

On Sunday mornings, the ex-Partisans used to gather in the Piazza Goldoni. They had been the anti-Fascist freedom fighters during the war, and still sported their red bandanas around their necks to show their Communist allegiance. Although they no longer carried rifles, they still sang their old marching songs, like "Bella Ciao" and "Avanti Populo", while brandishing clenched fists. 

They were recalling the time when they had roamed the hills around Florence, blowing up bridges and railway lines and helping escaped Allied prisoners of war to rejoin their units. Any Partisans caught by the dreaded German secret police, the Gestapo, were tortured and executed. When, in 1944, the British and Canadian troops at last entered Florence, the Partisans came out of hiding and joined the bitter fighting as, street by street, the city was liberated. (Watch footage of Allied Forces and Italian Partisans liberating the city of Florence.) After it was over, the Partisans meted out pitiless revenge upon anyone who had collaborated with the Fascists.

Watch the video below to hear the Partisans singing "Bella Ciao".

Oh, Partisan, carry me away,
Oh goodbye, beautiful, goodbye, beautiful, goodbye, beautiful! Bye! Bye! 

Oh, Partisan, carry me away,
Because I feel death approaching  
And if I die as a Partisan  
(And if I die on the mountain) 
Oh, goodbye, beautiful, goodbye, beautiful, goodbye, beautiful! Bye! Bye!
          And if I die as a Partisan 
          (And if I die on the mountain), Then you must bury me... 
Cover artwork © 2012 Michael Crampton. Website text © 2012 Shirley Hughes and Walker Books. All rights reserved.
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