Italian town confuses its liberators

For more than 50 years after World War II ended the people of the small Italian town of Tavarnelle, near Florence, believed they were liberated from the Nazi occupation by black American soldiers.

They were wrong, the soldiers who fought their way into the town in the summer of 1944, taking nearly 50 casualties, were New Zealand soldiers from the 28th Maori Battalion and it was not until Stefano Fusi, the former mayor of the small town, began researching the history of the liberation that the error was discovered.

A history of the town during the war and its liberation was published in Italy and an updated English version of the book, To The Gateways of Florence, is to be launched in New Zealand.

Until he began his research, the true story of the Maori soldiers had "been forgotten by local history" and risked being lost forever, Mr Fusi said.

Most people believed it was American troops and not New Zealanders who liberated Tavarnelle and most of the Chianti area and created the conditions for the liberation of Florence, he said.

Mr Fusi and his New Zealand wife, Jill Gabriel, who are in New Zealand for the launch of the book, said many of the conquering Maori soldiers who liberated the town did not make it home.

Mr Fusi speaks little English but through his wife said the Maori soldiers showed immense tenacity in battle, and compassion to the Italian people that was still warmly remembered.

The town recognised the Maori victory and sacrifice with a monument in the centre of the town inscribed with the names of the fallen soldiers and the townspeople who died during the struggle.

The book allowed New Zealanders to read an analysis by Italian historians of New Zealand's pivotal role in Tuscany. It also included contributions from leading New Zealand military historians - Christopher Pugsley, Monty Soutar and Jeffrey Plowman, Mr Fusi said.

Testimonies, diaries and letters of the New Zealand soldiers were matched by moving testimonies from the Italian civilians who lived through the battles that decided the war.

Publishers Peter Dowling and Alessandra Zecchini translated the work after attending commemorations in the Chianti region on Anzac Day which was also Italy's Liberation Day last year.