Rome ‘Es­cape Line’ hero­ine dies aged 93

The Kerryman (North Kerry) - - NEWS - By STEPHEN FERNANE

ONE of the last re­main­ing links with Mon­signor Hugh O’Fla­herty’s re­mark­able ef­forts to se­cure the safe pas­sage of thou­sands of peo­ple across Rome’s ‘Es­cape Line’ dur­ing WWII has died at the age of 93 at her home in Alder­shot, Eng­land.

Gemma Sands (nee Che­va­lier) was just

17 when she played a vi­tal role in help­ing Mon­signor Hugh O’Fla­herty to smug­gle peo­ple past the Nazi au­thor­i­ties in oc­cu­pied Rome.

De­spite the grave and very real risk to her life, Gemma, her mother, and some of her seven sib­lings, helped keep Al­lied es­capees safe from the grasp of the Nazis dur­ing the tur­bu­lent era when Rome was closed off from the out­side world. Gemma was said to have been in­spired by the brav­ery of her wi­d­owed mother, Hen­ri­etta.

The con­nec­tion be­tween Gemma and Mon­signor O’Fla­herty lasted un­til af­ter the war when, hav­ing met English sol­dier Ken­neth Sands who was serv­ing with the post-war mil­i­tary ad­min­is­tra­tion in Rome, the cou­ple were mar­ried by the Mon­signor and sub­se­quently moved to Alder­shot in 1946.

Gemma was later awarded the Bri­tish Em­pire Medal and a cer­tifi­cate thank­ing her for all that she had done by Field Mar­shall Alexan­der, head of Al­lied forces in the Mediter­ranean.

“It is hard to imag­ine how much courage it took for a 17-year-old girl to do what she did in the Nazi-oc­cu­pied city of Rome, where es­capees and those that were help­ing them were be­ing mer­ci­lessly hunted down by the Gestapo,” said Jerry O’Grady, Chair of the Mon­signor Hugh O’Fla­herty Memo­rial So­ci­ety.

An emo­tional and his­toric event oc­curred in 2016 when, dur­ing a memo­rial so­ci­ety tour of Rome, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Che­va­lier, Derry and O’Fla­herty fam­i­lies gath­ered out­side the ‘Via Im­pe­ria’ apart­ment build­ing – the place where Hen­ri­etta Che­va­lier and her eight chil­dren lived and suc­cess­fully hid many Al­lied es­capees be­tween 1943 and 1944.

“On be­half of the Memo­rial So­ci­ety, I ex­tend my sin­cere and heart­felt con­do­lences to the Sands fam­ily and we com­mend the self­less deeds of Gemma which will never be for­got­ten,” Jerry said.

Gemma died peace­fully in the pres­ence of her fam­ily in Alder­shot on Oc­to­ber 1.

Gemma on her wed­ding day (pic­tured with flow­ers) with her hus­band Ken­neth. Mon­signor Hugh O’Fla­herty, who mar­ried them is pic­tured on the far left.

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