Smithfield trader who escaped from POW camp
Keith Killby, who was fed by Italian farmers putting their lives on the line, never forgot their kindness
12 October, 2018 — By Emily Finch
Keith Killby, who died last month at the age of 102, set up the Monte San Martino Trust to repay the goodwill he received from Italians after he escaped from the POW camp at Servigliano during the Second World War
AFTER escaping from an Italian prisoner of war camp, starving Keith Killby was saved by a young girl who risked her life to feed him, giving him his first taste of Italian home cooking.
The former Smithfield Market trader would devote the latter part of his life to paying back the Italian villagers who helped shield him during the Second World War.
Mr Killby, who passed away last month at the age of 102, was from a long line of butchers operating out of the ancient meat market, but found his career put on-hold by the war.
As a pacifist, he became a conscientious objector and didn’t want to carry any weapons. Instead, he became a valued member of the Field Ambulance Unit and later the SAS as a medical orderly. He was the only conscientious objector allowed to join the ranks of the SAS.
Mr Killby became a trained parachutist who took part in multiple operations across Africa and Europe.
He was captured in Sardinia while working with the Special Boat Squadron in May 1943 and was sent to the POW camp at Servigliano, near Monte San Martino, in eastern Italy.
A daring escape saw him and 30 Canadian prisoners flee through a hole in a brick wall into the Italian countryside with no clue of where to go.
Keith Killby was a valued member of the Field Ambulance Unit and later served in the SAS as a medical orderly
Desperate to get to allied lines, the former prisoners were helped by Italian farmers – or contadini – who often nursed, sheltered and fed them while putting their own lives on the line.
The first person to help Mr Killby was Maria Levi. She waded barefoot across a river to him with a pot of food on her head to feed him.
Suffering from malaria, he was recaptured and sent to a camp in Silesia, Poland, where he would remain until being liberated at the end of the war.
At the camps, Mr Killby was able to enjoy his passion for acting and performed in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as Eliza Doolittle. He gave lectures to his fellow prisoners and learnt Italian and German to aid his eventual escapes.
After the war, Mr Killby was unable to return to the meat market because of the government’s strict rationing rules. He became a delegate to the Congress of Europe which was headed by Winston Churchill and backed peace and federalism.
He came back to Smithfield in 1954 to run the family business and lived in Holborn during his trading career which lasted until 1989.
“He was an excellent boss, an absolute gentleman and I only ever heard him swear once,” said Mr Killby’s former employee, Tony Allemandy, 75.
“When he retired he told us he didn’t want a fuss or a party, he said he was going on holiday.”
But far from going on holiday, Mr Killby set up the Monte San Martino Trust, named after the region where he witnessed so much kindness from strangers. He wanted to give something back and the Trust, headquartered in his flat, has funded hundreds of bursaries for young Italians to study at language schools in England.
Mr Killby has also supported Italians who have found themselves in trouble in this country by offering them shelter and language assistance.
“He was, above all, a deeply practical person who believed in taking action to improve the world around him,” said Letitia Blake, secretary of the Trust, who met Mr Killby 14 years ago.
“Everything he did was rooted in his deeply held values of justice, fairness, generosity and kindness without a sliver of sentimentality. He had specified that he wanted his body to be donated for medical purposes after his death and his wishes have been carried out.”
Mr Killby also collected the accounts of other POWs who escaped into the Italian countryside and housed an extensive archive in his house at the time of his death.
He was awarded an OBE for services to Anglo-Italian relations in 2000 and was also made an honorary citizen of Monte San Martino.
James Keith Killby, who was born in Sydenham, south London, died at his home in Swiss Cottage on September 7.
He leaves behind Lesley and Malcolm Angus. The Monte San Martino is planning a celebration of his life.