The voice that rang out on the hillside in the Italian countryside caused the small group of Allied soldiers to stop dead in their tracks. It was 1943, and the soldiers were POWs (prisoners of war) who had escaped German captivity. The voice, fortunately, belonged to a friendly resident of the town of Luco Ne Marsi. He was one among several locals from the central-eastern Italian town who wanted to help the escapees. Two locals who sheltered the POWs at great risk to their lives were Guiseppe Ivale and his wife Maria Iuvale. They plied the POWs with food and sheltered them in small huts dotting the vineyards on the mountains. Among the POWs was a young officer, Captain A.S. Naravane of the Indian Army’s 2nd field artillery regiment.

Naravane, who retired as Major General from the Indian Army in the 1970s, recounted this adventure in his 2004 autobiography A Soldier’s Life in War and Peace. He had been captured in the bloody battle of Bir Hachiem in North Africa and transported to a POW camp in Italy.

On July 8, 78 years later, Major General Naravane’s nephew, Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, made a trip of his own to Italy, visiting the historic town of Cassino, 80 km south of Luco Ne Marsi. Cassino was scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the Italian campaign in 1943. General Naravane and his wife Veena Naravane met with Filomena Fatato, the grand-daughter of the Iuvales. Fatato told the Naravanes of how her grandfather often and very fondly spoke of the Indian POWs and the bond and friendship they had.

The Army Chief was on the second leg of a four-day two-nation tour of the UK and Italy to further defence and strategic ties with the two countries. In Rome, he met with Italy’s Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Defence Staff before driving down to Cassino. Over 50,000 Indian soldiers fought in the Italian campaign that started with the Allied landings in Salerno in September 1943 and ended in April 1945 with the surrender of German forces in the peninsula.

General Naravane’s tour of the UK and Italy comes at a time when India is increasingly looking westwards to forge new partnerships to balance a belligerent China. India is now an active member of the Quadrilateral of democracies or the Quad—the US, Japan and Australia.

“Recently, Italy has also begun to signal its intention to enter the Indo-Pacific geography. It has done so by seeking to join India and Japan in a trilateral partnership,” says Professor Harsh V. Pant, Director of Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. “This initiative comes after years of Rome’s relative absence from geopolitical affairs of the region as it sought to concentrate more on the Atlantic and European dimensions while maintaining good, albeit well below potential, bilateral relations with India.”

Speaking at an India-Japan-Italy trilateral webinar organised last month, Riva Ganguly Das, Secretary (East) in the MEA, said the forum would provide a springboard for Indio-Italian cooperation. The G20 summit in Rome in October this year will be another opportunity for both countries to take the relationship forward. Symbolically, there was thus no better place to recall ties than one associated with the campaign that liberated Italy from the clutches of Nazi Germany.

General Naravane’s delegation was received by Enzo Salera, the mayor of Cassino, Barbara Di Rollo, president of the council and Generale Fambrini of the Italian Army. The Rector of the University of Cassino, Giovanni Betta, and students Dongre Yashasvi and Urmil Bambharoliya represented 235 Indian students studying at the university. The General presented mementos to the mayor, members of the city council and to local historian Pino Valente, who was instrumental in bringing up the monument, and to an Indian researcher living in Italy.

General Naravane also inaugurated a memorial dedicated to the soldiers of the Indian Army who fought in the battle of Cassino and placed a wreath at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. He thanked the city council for renaming a road in the town ‘Roorkee Road’, after a vital lifeline for the Allied war effort built under heavy enemy artillery fire. The road was named after the Indian city in Uttarakhand, the headquarters of the Bengal Engineers Group. Incidentally, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s World War 2 veteran father Major Gunanand Doval was a Bengal sapper—another small but not so insignificant detail in the bilateral relationship.